If you believe you have no natural rhythm, you’re wrong.
Rhythm is actually as natural as breathing, or a heartbeat. We use the term “pulse” in music for a reason! Your pulse might be faster or slower depending on the situation you’re in, but if it’s irregular you know there’s a problem. We walk in time too, mostly. (Try walking OUT of time, you’re likely to look like this).
The fact is, rhythm is everywhere in nature, including your body. So learning to apply it in music might come more naturally to some than to others, but everyone does in fact have “natural rhythm”.
When we talk about keeping time in music, we’re really talking about coordination.
There can be a difference between perceiving steady time and being able to articulate it. To really develop a musical command of rhythm, you also need to be able to play with it: to count, group, and subdivide time in a variety of ways.
When I was in my first year of music school, all the students were required to take a class called “musicianship”. The textbook was called Elementary Training for Musicians, but it seemed to be far above elementary:
(In fairness, this is from page 100, but still….)
However, looking back at it now the way the book is organized is brilliantly simple, and provides a solid approach to building musical coordination. Each chapter is divided into three sections: action in time (rhythm), action in space (melody), and coordinated action (both together). The “action in time” section begins with a simple instruction to tap a steady pulse. Over the course of subsequent exercises, that pulse is organized into recurring counts to create meter.
Meter is just counting!
Meter, as the name suggests, is simply organizing your steady pulse (beat) into measured groups. If a song is said to be “in 4” then the groups are four counts long, but there’s no separation or pause between them. The beat is continuous, and the count is a cycle:
1 2 3 4 1 2 3 4 etc…
Meter and time signature
The term “time signature” also refers to meter, but goes one step further and articulates what to call the rhythmic value being counted. In most cases these will be quarter notes, but can also be eighths or (less commonly) half or sixteenth notes. This doesn’t change the steady beat, or even tell you definitively how fast to go (tempo, measured in beats per minute or bpm). The difference between 3/4 and 6/8 time, for example, is more a matter of style, feel, and accent than fast or slow. The distinction matters, but it’s important for you to learn to pick up these kinds of details by listening rather than by counting and thinking. For our purposes, all that matters right now is that you can keep a steady beat while counting to two, three, four, or six over and over.
Add a slight accent to each “one” as you count. There’s a good chance you might do this naturally, since our bodies like cycles. The first count of the cycle is called the downbeat, and you might feel a definite sense of landing or arrival each time it comes around.
Let’s differentiate further. This time, count to two repeatedly and put the accent on the second beat. This is called the backbeat. Now experiment with changing the accent back and forth from downbeat to backbeat. You’ll notice that this changes the feeling of the beat:
Downbeat accent: 1 2 1 2
Backbeat accent: 1 2 1 2
Most songs will accent one more than the other, and the “feel” of a downbeat-heavy song will be very different from a backbeat-heavy song. You will always hear and feel both beats, but the sense of momentum and forward motion is determined by where that accent falls.
Subdivisions and strumming
Of course, most songs do more than bounce back and forth between two beats. The pulse can be divided up into twos, threes, fours, or even further, and notes can be played on any of the subdivisions. Any rhythm you might ever play or sing will line up with a set of pulses and subdivisions that can be “measured” in time as if you were using a ruler.
Applying this idea to the guitar, we can use pick strokes as our unit of “measurement”. Repeated down-up strums might be counted as “1 and 2 and” or as “1 e & a 2 e & a”, articulating eighth notes and sixteenth notes respectively:
From here, you can work out most rhythms by simply alternating between down and up strokes and either striking the strings or not. For example, notice this pattern of down and up strums:
The quarter note pulse is played with downstrokes, while the subdivided eighth notes are filled in with upstrokes in between. If it helps, you can count every subdivision but only strum on the ones where a note appears:
1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and 1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and
Each italicized “and” is a swing of the arm without striking the strings. If you find this tricky to coordinate, try swinging the arm back and forth and counting out loud: “1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and”. Notice how the down swing reinforces the sense of arrival on the downbeats, while the up swing on “and” creates a sense of lift. Viewed this way, it makes sense why these are called upbeats.
Ideas to apply
If you’d like some more practice with applying this idea, download this exercise and apply the strum formulas. It’s important that you think in terms of rhythm and feel, though, not just timing. Try using this sequence:
1. Play a steady beat with repeated downstrokes.
2. Count to four repeatedly to establish the meter.
3. Pay attention to the upstrokes and count the “ands”.
4. Using the steady down-up-down-up as your “ruler”, find how the rhythm lines up with the counts of four. Remember that a single quarter note is played with a downstroke, while pairs of eighth notes are played down-up.
5. Experiment with the feel by emphasizing downbeats (1 and 3) or backbeats (2 and 4). You can also try emphasizing other beats for even more options.
These are relatively simple rhythms and there’s a lot more to explore. But if you can begin to connect the related ideas of steady pulse, meter, and subdivision to the feeling of moving the arm back and forth, your coordination, timing, and confidence in strumming will absolutely get stronger.
For more on strumming accents and rhythm, check out this video lesson from the archives: