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How to Use Rhythm to Improve Your Solos

Chuck Anderson

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Chuck Anderson addresses one of the most common complaints jazz guitar players have about their playing…Why do their solos sound the “same”?

This “sameness” can be caused by many things. It could be the overuse of the same scales or arpeggios. It could be the overuse of the same “riffs” or fingerings.

One of the most neglected areas of variety in solos is rhythm. Everyone knows that you should vary your rhythm when you improvise but players are rarely aware of what rhythms they are using. It comes so naturally that they just don’t take the time to realize what rhythms they are playing and then, what rhythms they’re not playing.

I feel that this difficulty is caused by viewing rhythm as a mathematical concept. Although guitar players may not be aware of it, on some level, they’re thinking of rhythm as fractions. Dotted quarters get 1 and 1/2 beats, 8th notes get a 1/2 beat etc, etc.

How do you organize rhythm to use in your solos?

From the book “Modular Phonetic Rhythm”, “The difficulty in the study of rhythm has always been its abstract nature – and its mathematical approach. Rhythm has traditionally been taught as a function of math, particularly fractions. Though accurate, this approach has missed one of the most fundamental facts of rhythm. Rhythm is a sonic language and is, as such, phonetic not mathematical in nature. The average student exposed to the math orientation of rhythm has rarely absorbed the essence of rhythm. He or she rarely becomes proficient at sight-reading rhythm. This often remains a lifetime barrier to the developing musician.”

Though rhythm can be explained in mathematical terms, this approach does not give you a practical command of the sounds of the rhythms. Rhythm is a series of sounds! How can these sounds be organized? 

The approach taken in this book is based on the concept of Modular Phonetics. Modular refers to the interchangeability of rhythm syllables and Phonetics refers to the sound of the rhythm syllables. Phonics has always been the key to sound in language. Without phonics, we could not pronounce words. We could not hear the sound of the words. 

Without Modular Phonetics, we can not hear the sound of rhythm.

Contrary to popular opinion, being good at math does not guarantee or even indicate the potential for musical proficiency. My observations over the last 55 years have supported the theory that musical tendencies are often the outgrowth of communication skills, such as language. Music engineers often show high aptitude in math but musicians do not necessarily share this aptitude. 

There is a strong correlation between the ability to spell and strong fundamentals in phonics. Phonetic skills allow us to “sound out” words, even words that we’ve never seen before! We understand the principle of sound as it applies to phonetic combinations. The “sight” of the letter combination triggers a reflexive “sound” reaction. If rhythm could be broken down into a system of phonetic units similar to the syllables of language, then rhythm would become an easily recognized and applied aural language.”

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