Posted by Adam Levy
Excerpted from the January 2018 issue of Acoustic Guitar
When it comes to playing rhythm guitar, it’s easy to fall into a rut. Guitarists tend to find comfort zones, then lean on the same strumming or picking patterns—song after song, gig after gig. If you’re feeling similarly stuck, this lesson may pry you loose and keep you feeling rhythmically fresh for a long time to come, using just one simple concept: rhythmic displacement.
Here’s the idea: A measure of 4/4 comprises eight eighth notes. As such, most players will naturally emphasize groupings of two or four eighth notes. That’s fine, but it doesn’t give the music much swagger or sway. To liven things up, you can divide each measure as 3-3-2 (three eighths, three eighths, two eighths) instead.
In this lesson you’ll learn these displacements, all based on a I–V–vi–iii (C–G–Am–Em) progression in the key of C major. The concepts will work across a range of styles, so be sure to extend them to your favorite chord progressions and songs.
Spruce Up Your Strumming
Example 1a employs the asymmetrical 3-3-2 pattern. (The > mark above certain notes indicates a dynamic accent. Give these notes a little more emphasis.) Using basic open chords or barre chords, play Ex. 1a a few times, unaccented at first, then play it with the accents. Can you feel the difference? Be sure to use downstrokes for beats 1, 2, 3, and 4. Use upstrokes for the beats between.
Now, to make things even more interesting, you can displace the 3-3-2 pattern by one eighth, so it begins on the and of beat 1—as shown in Example 1b. Run through Ex. 1b a few times, then play Ex. 1a again. As you’ll notice, these two examples feel remarkably different despite being made up of the same basic material. In Examples 1c–1h, the emphases are further displaced, by one eighth at a time. (After eight permutations you’re back where you started.)
You can, of course, apply this rhythmic strategy to fingerpicking as well. In Example 2a, the 3-3-2 pattern begins on beat 1. It begins on the and of one in Example 2b. As in our first group of examples, there are eight possible variations in total. Work out the remaining six on your own. Fingerpick all of the examples with your thumb on the down-stemmed notes and your index, middle, and ring fingers on the up-stemmed ones.
Some 3-3-2 variations inherently feature accents on the and of beat 4. In these cases, there’s an opportunity to tie the final eighth note across the bar line, as shown in Example 2c (essentially Ex. 2b with ties). Example 2d is the tied version of Ex. 1b. Ties may also be applied to strumming patterns that have accents on the and of beat 4—namely, Examples 1b, 1e, and 1h. Try these with ties.
Examples 2a and 2b utilize the same common fingerpicking pattern, which is briefly represented in Example 3a. Five other 3-3-2 picking patterns can be made from the same notes, as Examples 3b–3f illustrate. Though there are no accents written here, you should apply all eight accent variations to each of these picking patterns.
By now, you should be starting to see that you can generate a kaleidoscopic variety of rhythms by varying your picking pattern and/or your accent pattern. With so many possibilities at your fingertips, you may be wondering how to figure out which pattern is best for a given song—or a particular section of a song. Giving this some serious thought is essential. Such sensibilities are what separate the good players from the great. The answer will usually be revealed by singing the melody while experimenting with different variations. The best pattern will be the one that helps urge the melody forward without rhythmic interference or distraction.
Excerpted from a lesson by Adam Levy in the January 2018 issue of Acoustic Guitar: