I see this question posted on message boards a lot (Harmony-Central is one of my favorites), not to mention from students. They learn some chords, a few Green Day or Beatles songs and start creating their own tunes, quickly realizing all their own ideas sound the same. Perhaps they jam with a drummer or try out for a band and realize they can’t lock in to save their lives. So the healthy question arises, “How do I come up with better rhythms?” You have the obvious answers: Practice, experiment, get a teacher. But you want something more concrete to put you in the right direction, no? I’ve got a few simple ideas for ya…
1. Learn rhythm notation. Quarter notes, eighth notes, sixteenths…it’s math, it’s work, but there’s a goldmine of ideas to be found in studying rhythm. Spending five minutes a day studying rhythm allows the concepts to morph from math to music without you realizing the transition. Enough time goes by and suddenly you’re busting out some fantastic groove that just happens…you don’t know how it got there–but you do because you did your homework.
Where to find rhythms to study? Typing “rhythm” online will likely give you much to explore, but I also like singing books and drum methods. They start with simple patterns based on, say, quarter notes, then move up to sections on sixteenths and so on. College level sight-singing books are useful for this and they help with the sight reading too. I’ve got a book from Musician’s Institute (Hal Leonard) called Sightsinging that is really great for this. It has sections on rhythms for you to practice by clapping, but I use them for chord progressions.
2. Practice to an actual BEAT! If you can’t feel a beat when you play then you’re just going off without a leash, which might be cool down the road, but you want to come up with new grooves, right? Then put on the leash! A metronome is the purest form of the beat, which some would argue is best to practice to. Two cool metronome websites: www.metronomeoneline.com and www.webmetronome.com. I also like practicing to actual drum tracks, such as those found in a drum machine or software with drum loops. Boss has all those cool Dr. Rhythm machines and the like. Mac users can throw together some cool loops with Garageband, which is packaged all those Apple Loops, not to mention all the expansion packs available. I use a program called Stylus RMX, which has over seven gigs of samples.
3. Study a genre outside of your favorite. If you play lots of blues you’re going to find yourself doing a lot of eighth-note shuffle patterns. Likewise, if you play metal you’re probably obsessed with 16th-note patterns played really fast. How cool would it be if those two players got together and gave each other lessons? Offhand I recall Dimebag Darrell playing like this, monster shred followed by blues-influenced string bends and stuff. I found a great book a few years back on African guitar styles. There’s guitar in Africa? You bet there is–COOL grooves that pulled me outside my usual thought patterns.
4. Buy my guitar poster! Yes, a shameless product pitch, but it’s designed to tackle these rhythm issues, explaining the basics and teaching some advanced chords & theory equal to at least several months of lessons.
Don’t forget these concepts apply to lead playing as well. A great melody tends to have a simple rhythm. Can you whistle a metal two-handed tapping solo? Cool as it is, it’s probably not very melodic. Can you whistle the beginning riff of Hendrix’s “Purple Haze”? Check out the simplicity of that rhythm, all eighth-notes, half-notes & stuff.
You ain’t going to get these chops without a little sweat. 😉