This post is to announce a new course in the GuitarOS series:
Reading Rhythms One
[If you’d like to skip all my usual ranting and raving and go straight to the signup page, you can find it here.]
“Although I’m a lead guitarist, I’d say that a good 95 percent of my time on stage is spent playing rhythm.” -Kirk Hammett
“Obviously you have to have rhythm. If you have rhythm, then you can play anything you need.” – Eddie Van Halen
“If you don’t have rhythm, you might as well take up needlepoint or something.” – Prince
“You can’t go to the store and buy a good ear and rhythm.” – Les Paul
Rhythm is essential. The foundation of everything musical.
You can’t go out and buy it. You have to develop it.
And it’s hard.
The best players I know are all obsessed with time and feel––they’ll have hour-long discussions about dimensions of rhythm that are so subtle most people don’t even know they exist.
Playing with good time is one of the things that badass musicians look for most in other players.
If you don’t have your time together, don’t expect your phone to ring.
“Ok, ok,” you say. “I get it. Rhythm is important. But what’s this BS about reading? Lots of great players didn’t read.”
You’re right. Many great players didn’t read. And if you were Duane Allman or EVH, I’d defer to you on this.
But you’re not. I’m not. We’re not.
We need tools to improve our lot so we can harness a fraction of the brilliance of the people who were great despite the things they couldn’t do.
Reading rhythmic notation is one of those tools.
Reading Improves Your Time
Like most guitarists, I didn’t learn the instrument in any formal sort of way. It was completely ad hoc: a choose-your-own-adventure hot mess of bluster, hearsay, misconceptions, and gaping voids in my understanding.
I certainly didn’t focus on reading music.
So it kind of took me by surprise that learning the language of rhythmic notation had such a dramatic effect on my playing.
Suddenly things that had previously seemed fine were obviously, glaringly wrong.
Speaking the language of rhythm not only showed me where it was wrong, it showed me why it was wrong and how to fix it.
Understanding rhythmic notation wasn’t just my check engine light, but my code reader & repair manual too.
And understand: I wasn’t even good at reading rhythms.
Even if you never need to read music in your musical life, the benefits of learning to read––even poorly––are so outsized that you’d be a fool to put it off one minute longer.
Language Is A Tool: It Solves Problems
Just like elsewhere in the GuitarOS series, this is a case of having a language to describe the problem you’re trying to solve.
You might be able to solve the problem without the tool, but if the tool is available to you, you should use it.
Language is just such a tool.
Rhythmic notation is part of the language of your craft.
Learning it will help you solve problems you don’t know you have.
Every Other Craft Has Its Language
And no self-respecting craftsman would brazenly blow off knowing the language of their craft.
If you want to cook yourself some delicious short ribs, you can look up a recipe.
But if you don’t know how big of a cut a dice is,
if you don’t know how hot medium heat is,
if you don’t know what it means to sweat onions,
if you don’t know what sear means,
if you don’t know which pot is the dutch oven,
if boil, simmer, reduce, braise, and broil aren’t in your vocabulary…
…how good do you expect your short ribs to turn out?
Will they be edible? Probably.
But couldn’t you aim just a little higher than edible?
Is listenable the adjective you’d like to hear used to describe your guitar playing?
Learning the language gives your brain a convenient way to sort, store, and make sense of all this information.
Putting off learning the language is a laziness backfire: in the long run, it’s so much easier to learn it than it is to avoid it.
So how do you learn it?
Fuck Mel Bay
And Hal Leonard* too. Those method books have their place, but I feel like we’ve been done a disservice by them.
Picking your way through a bunch of antiquated folk melodies is a shitty way to learn to read music.
For starters, it’s boring. And moreover, it fails to point out what’s truly and actually useful about learning to read––it fails to connect the theoretical concepts to the concrete things you’re excited about.
“Reading Music” Isn’t One Skill, It’s Several
Knowing the name of a note on your fretboard is a separate-but-complimentary skill from knowing the name of a note on the staff.
Understanding what a specific rhythm is, what it sounds like, and how it fits into the larger picture is a separate-but-complimentary skill from knowing what that rhythm looks like on the page.
Siloing these separate-but-complimentary skills is an easier, faster, and more thorough way to learn them.
There are a couple of reasons why I’m big on “siloing” rhythmic notation––that is, teaching it separately from melodic notation.
The first reason is that it’s a helluva lot easier.
Anytime we want to learn something complex, it’s smarter and more efficient to take the time to disassemble the component parts, master them, and then reassemble them.
This is true of music, it’s true of learning the proper form for weightlifting, and it’s true of teaching the elderly how to use Twitter.
The second reason I’m big on siloing rhythmic notation is a secret that few people are willing (or able) to tell you:
The majority of music that guitarists get asked to read is rhythm section playing.
In other words––in the working guitarist’s world––for every time you see four bars of something gnarly and panic-inducing like this…
You see pages and pages of stuff that’s no more intimidating than this:
So again, even if you never get to be very good at, learning to read is hugely beneficial.
It’s a big fat low-hanging fruit waiting for you to pluck it.
GuitarOS students are already going to get this course. If you’re signed up, you don’t have to do a thing.
If you’re not already signed up, but you’re ready to level-up your musical life by updating your “operating system,” check out Practical Theory.
(Again, if you’re already signed up for GuitarOS, just hang tight––this is coming your way soon.)
See you soon,
*Greg Koch, co-author of the HL method books, is a jaw-droppingly badass guitarist, a funny and clever writer, and one of the nicest humans you’re likely to meet. Sorry Greg. I’ll buy you some Portillos next time you come down to Chicago.
If you’re going to read your way through MB or HL, here’s how to do it right.
- Give a trusted friend $100.
- Tell her that, if you don’t finish the method book in one week, she should donate the money to a politician or group you despise.
- Get to work.