4 – Messing with Rhythm

Breaking the Rules No. 1

Up until now, you should have been playing about with basic chords and scales, and counting beats steadily.  One, two, three, four, one, two, three, four.  Even a beginner can make some pleasant and convincingly musical sounds with that.

Remember though, you can break any or all of the rules of music, they just help stop it turning into random mush.  And even then, anyone who’s listened to a waterfall or a river can say sometimes random mush is beautiful music.  So there.

The first thing we’ll do is turn off the metronome…

Natural Rhythm

People don’t talk to each other in beats of 1, 2, 3, 4.  We don’t experience much of that mechanical rhythm unless we do it deliberately or it comes from something we’re doing, like banging in a nail, or walking quickly.

People do naturally talk in a rhythm though, but it comes from the words we’re saying.  This is the basis for poetry.  da DUM da DUM dada DUM.  We put emphasis on certain parts of a word, and it naturally falls into rhythms.  When we shout, it has a rhythm of it’s own.  When we call to each other across the beach, we use certain rhythms.  When we walk and talk with somebody, our voices jam with our feet.  All this rhythm, just naturally happening.

Beat Poetry

Try some phrases.  A well known rhythmic phrase is “shave and a haircut, two quid“.  Try it out.  Play it on the piano keyboard, maybe something in A minor.  It’s in tons of tunes you’ll recognise. Repeat the rhythm phrase and add slight differences as you go.

Now make up some others of your own.  This is also a good way to find tunes to lyrics you’ve made.  Play the rhythms of a couple of ordinary, honest sentences, like “are we nearly there yet?”, or “I’m hungry, when’s dinner?”.  Turn them into simple rhythms, like “Da dada da DAH DAH”, or da “DAH DAH-da DAH-da”.

Ok.  So pick a scale, slam on some chords, rinse, and repeat.  Repeat the sentence over and over, making your tune to that rhythm.  Feel free to add little extra notes in the gaps once the groove gets going.

What you may find, (or not, it doesn’t matter at this point!) is there’s a three or four beat rhythm going on underneath it all, and only in your head.  You can add these notes in, and suddenly you can follow the metronome again.

Jazz and blues are all about natural rhythms like these, but even classical music performances aren’t conducted by metronomes.  It takes the use of natural rhythms we all have an instinct for to play music with feeling.

So feel free to give any rhythmic phrase of words a bash.  Or even nonsense words like “Fiddle-dee-dee” or “Scooby-doo-bop”


The word shuffle just means an altered one, two, three, four.  It kind of follows the rules above, it’s natural and rhythmic.  Here’s what I mean:-

Say the “one” and “three” a bit loooonger.  Ooone, two, threee, four.  You can do this to any four beat tune and it’ll instantly start sounding bluesy.  So “twiiiiiin-kle-twiiiiiin-kle-liiiiii-ttle-staaaar”…  That’s the most common kind of shuffle, and although it’s pretty much up to you how long the “one” and “three” go, if you stretch it just right, you can turn a four-beat tune into a three-beat tune.  “twin-in-kle, twin-in-kle, lit-it-le star (boom-boom!)”

You can also shuffle on a three beat tune.  “Oooone, two, three, ooooone, two, three” and if you chose to, you could turn it into a four beat tune and funk it up a little.  You can also mix it up a bit.  “Oooone, two, three, one, twooooo, three…” and so on.

Weird Rhythms

“Golden Brown” by the Stranglers goes 1, 2, 3, 1, 2, 3, 1, 2, 3, 1, 2, 3, 4, for the instrumental bit.

Nick Drake’s “Riverman” goes 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10.

Kasabian’s “Fire” goes from extremely shuffled blues in the verse to solid four-beat rock in the chorus.

If that’s too much to get your head around, try simply breaking a normal eight beats into five and three.  “One, two, three, four, five, one, two, three”, and so on.

Complicated Meter

Most songs fall neatly into counts of 3 or 4.  Even shuffled blues tends to naturaly slip from a four-beat to a three-beat.

Sometimes you’ll find you want to try another kind of count.  Personally I think multiples of 5 are difficult.  Others, like 9 or 13 can be broken down.

Don’t be afraid to count strange rhythms, like 1, 2, 1, 2, 1, 2, 3, or try out seven-beats.

To Finish

There is a time and place for a metronome.  It’s good to alternate between solid, mechanical rhythm and natural phrase-based or shuffled beats.  Good rhythm instruments are drums (obviously), piano, guitar, harmonica, and jaw harp.  Learning one of these instruments will always help with getting a feel for it, but if nothing’s to hand, tap your feet.  Make rhythm an important part of who you are, walking, talking and all the rest and your music will thank you.


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