Post your playing posers and technical teasers to: Theory Godmother, Guitar Techniques, 30 Monmouth Street, Bath, BA1 2BW; or email me at email@example.com - every wish is your Godmother’s command!
Rhythm Blues Dear Theory Godmother
Recently I’ve been trying my hand at learning to read music. I can identify the notes on the page, but the thing that trips me up is reading rhythm. I sometimes have to stop and work out even the simplest rhythm in my head. It occurred to me that I’m probably not alone so I wonder if you have any tips that could speed the process up.
Alan To begin with, any work you undertake regarding rhythm means that owning a metronome is all but mandatory, as it’s essential you have something ticking away, keeping the pulse of the music going while you tackle the divisions and subdivisions of the beat.
That said, I’ve found one thing helps more than anything else and that is finding transcriptions that you know well as a listener. Then, sit down with the score, the CD and a pencil. Listen to the music and try to follow it all the way through, tapping out the basic rhythm with the pencil. That’s step one. The next thing to do is to go through the score looking for rhythmic notation that looks strange or scary and circle it with the pencil. Then, listen again, paying special attention to the parts you’ve marked. Hearing difficult looking rhythms played back to you in a familiar context is a great way of moving forward; doing this on a regular basis can provide an unbelievable amount of help. It helps if the music also has lyrics because it’s easier to remember a rhythm if you can associate it with words - think of the nursery rhyme that contains the lyrics ‘one-a-penny two-apenny, hot cross buns’; you’d remember the words even if the written rhythm didn’t make sense to you initially (Ex 1).
Another thing is to transcribe some simple rhythms yourself. Begin with nursery rhymes, folk tunes, anything that has a straightforward sounding rhythm to it. Ex 2 should give you the idea. Keep coming back to these and - think of them like learning your times tables at school because these small components of rhythm will occur elsewhere and when they do, you’ll recognise them.
Meanwhile, if you find that you’ve got a few blind spots - that is rhythmic clusters that continuously trip you up - try to think of a tune where that particular rhythm occurs naturally. For instance, I found one student couldn’t remember what simple dotted notes sounded like and so I told him that one crops up in the second bar of our national anthem and wrote it out for him (Ex 3). From that point on, he remembered it without a problem.
The great thing about all these tips is that you can do all of them without a guitar in your hands and entirely separate from the job of locating pitch. It’s pure rhythm and when it’s looked at in isolation like this, your progress is usually accelerated.
Memory Upgrade Dear Theory Godmother
My problem is that I seem to spend ages learning a song or a fingerstyle piece and then, if I leave it for a little while in order to move on to something else, I either forget it completely or it’s full of mistakes because I’ve forgotten entire sections. How pro players manage to learn a couple of hours of material and play it perfectly every time they do a gig, I’m at a loss to understand. At this rate I’ll never be able to build up even a modest repertoire and I wondered if you had any tips on memorisation that will help me get over this awkward situation?
Russell Everybody has memory problems to some degree, Russell. One name guitarist told me that the first couple of days of rehearsal before a tour, comprise everyone trying to recall material they’d played loads of times.
To begin with, do you keep the pieces you’ve learned in your daily routine? If not, that could be the root of the problem. We all have to keep our repertoire fresh, and constant revision is the only way as something you’ve just learnt, can’t work its way into your memory without repetition. A wise teacher once told me that it can take only a week or so to learn the mechanics of a piece - chords, fingerings and so on - but a further three months to learn how to perform it. Part of that process is embedding it into the memory.
So take heart that this is a wellknown syndrome; keep the pieces you’re learning in your practice routine and that way, you’ll end up with a repertoire of polished tunes!
Better still, get together with friends and actually play the songs you’re learning. This is the fastest way of all, of committing them to memory. It’s way more enjoyable, too!