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Justin Sandercoe of justin­gui­ lends GT his in­sight as one of the world’s most suc­cess­ful gui­tar teach­ers. This month: It’s all about rhythm?

Guitar Techniques - - CONTENTS - Get more info and links to re­lated lessons on all Justin’s GT ar­ti­cles at www.justin­gui­­mag

How is it that the great blues masters can say so much with so few notes? How can BB King tear out my heart with just four or five? I can play those same notes, maybe even get cre­ative with them and use them in the right place and the right way - but have nowhere near the same im­pact. Most peo­ple will likely agree that it’s the feel, but what is that that makes a great and ef­fec­tive ‘feel’? I think it’s great food for thought.


I’m pretty con­fi­dent that most in­ter­me­di­ate play­ers can ‘play the notes’ in the BB King Blues box or Mi­nor Pen­ta­tonic scale. It’s not hard. Most peo­ple re­alise (some sooner than oth­ers!) that the scales are just al­pha­bets and they need words to com­mu­ni­cate, so they learn licks. But a hand­ful of licks does not a BB make!

Most peo­ple need to start with the notes, be­cause with­out get­ting the notes right, it’s hard to de­velop the rest. But get­ting the notes right re­ally is just the first step.


The vol­ume of in­di­vid­ual notes is a very strong ex­pres­sive de­vice that all good mu­si­cians can and should use. Ex­press­ing a ten­der feel­ing with a gen­tle pick, or anger through an ag­gres­sive ‘thwack’ should be fairly ob­vi­ous, though of­ten lost when peo­ple are still thinking too much about notes. Less ob­vi­ous but just as im­por­tant is the vol­ume of notes within each phrase; which notes are ac­cented, which ones are ghosted and the range of vol­umes used.

So af­ter get­ting the notes right, I think the next stop on the ex­pres­sion train should be dy­nam­ics and ex­plor­ing the im­pact of dy­nam­ics. It’s a very hard thing to learn any other way than lis­ten­ing and im­i­tat­ing – which is the way it’s been done from the be­gin­ning, so don’t be afraid of it.

Mi­cro tonal­i­ties

What I’m re­fer­ring to here is the way many great mu­si­cians ma­nip­u­late pitch in a sub­tle (or not so sub­tle) way to help ex­press them­selves. Be it the use of vi­brato, string bend­ing or the use of things like the com­mon blues quar­ter-tone bend on the m3rd – they can have a very pow­er­ful emo­tive ef­fect. Many of th­ese tech­niques would not be im­me­di­ately ob­vi­ous to some­one not mu­si­cally trained but re­mov­ing them of­ten dras­ti­cally ‘flat­tens’ mu­sic (hear some­one play a blues solo from a tab rather than lis­ten­ing to the orig­i­nal record­ing!).

Some of th­ese de­vices re­quire the study of tech­nique, the me­chan­ics of per­for­mance and repet­i­tive prac­tice of th­ese tech­niques un­til they be­come in­stinc­tive. If you have to think about stuff like this while play­ing it’s un­likely that you will get truly ‘in the zone’. Make sure your string bends are in tune (as­sum­ing you want them to be) and that vi­brato is con­fi­dent and feels nat­u­ral (even if you had to work on it).


The more time I spend study­ing mu­sic the more I be­lieve that it’s the rhythm that re­ally makes the big­gest im­pact on how we feel about mu­sic, and is there­fore the most po­tent in­gre­di­ent in a per­for­mance. The sub­tle na­ture of rhythm is quite fas­ci­nat­ing. A math­e­mat­i­cally perfect beat doesn’t feel good to most peo­ple – there is some­thing that needs to con­nect with our hu­man­ity. The rhythms of the blues are most fas­ci­nat­ing to me be­cause they can be so free – try ac­cu­rately writ­ing down a slow blues solo and you’ll soon know what I mean (you’ll get the same idea from look­ing at a tran­scrip­tion but it won’t be as painful).


How is it that some peo­ple seem to nat­u­rally have a great feel while oth­ers don’t? I’ve seen peo­ple with a very un­com­fort­able feel grow into su­per mu­si­cians by work­ing on it, so I’m cer­tain that it’s pos­si­ble to de­velop it. Though how it hap­pens nat­u­rally re­mains a mys­tery.

Even in my early teens I could ‘feel’ some­thing deep in mu­sic that con­nected some­where in my sub­con­scious. I spent most of my for­ma­tive years tran­scrib­ing and play­ing along with songs I liked, and I’m sure that’s one way to de­velop that kind of con­nec­tion.

But I’ve still spent a good deal of time try­ing to learn about feels, par­tic­u­larly try­ing to work on my jazz ‘time feel’ – some­thing I know I need to do. I had a fas­ci­nat­ing con­ver­sa­tion with leg­endary jazz teacher Les Wise about it and he strongly sug­gested that it can be learned by pick­ing so­los that you re­ally con­nect with the feel of, and then play­ing along with them un­til you could not dis­tin­guish your play­ing from the orig­i­nal. I’ve been ex­plor­ing this and agree that with some ex­per­i­ment­ing you’ll find a vol­ume where if your time is bang on then you don’t hear the orig­i­nal part but if you’re late or early you will. Try it with a four or eight-bar sec­tion and see what hap­pens. It’s at the very least a fas­ci­nat­ing ex­per­i­ment; at most it may change how you prac­tise.

I found the above par­tic­u­larly ef­fec­tive for learn­ing blues too – and while notes, dy­nam­ics and mi­cro-tonal­i­ties are im­por­tant for sure, I think the study of the rhythm is the most ef­fec­tive and ben­e­fi­cial ex­er­cise you can do, and the in­tense lis­ten­ing re­quired will mean you pick up in­for­ma­tion about dy­nam­ics (and more) with­out even try­ing.

Like most of th­ese things, un­til you try it and see the pos­i­tive ben­e­fits for your­self it won’t re­ally make sense – so go grab your gui­tar and see how you feel about work­ing on your feel!

Just says great rhythm is a huge part of great feel

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