Author: Campbell, Bruce

It's All About the Rhythm..

When I played rock and roll, I was a primarily a lead guitar player. I had an amp that stacked so high, I could hardly reach the knobs, and I could pull them strings all over the place and make that axe wail. I was fleet fingered, and I had luxuriously long hair. In other words, everything was in place to take me to the top.

But something was missing. I had nights when I was really on, and others when I couldn’t seem to get out of my own way. I did notice that when the bass and drums and rhythm guitar was tight, I sounded better.

“Oh”, I reasoned. “It must be their fault when I don’t sound so good.”

I was wrong – the ethereal part that came and went was my sense of rhythm, and once I realized that, I improved as a musician by leaps and bounds.

Rhythm permeates our very lives. Whenever we do something, if we can find a rhythm, that task becomes elegant and takes less conscious effort. The gandy-dancers that built the railroads would swing their picks and axes in a cadence that helped coordinate the group effort. In baseball (why does bluegrass always comes back to baseball?) they talk about a pitcher getting in rhythm. When a pitcher is in rhythm, he’s able to use that meter to consistently utilize a complex series of muscle motions to deliver the ballon target. When a picture loses that rhythm (and it can be hard to maintain, and difficult to find once lost), his mechanics gets screwed up and he tries to guide the ball in an unnatural series of motions, often with catastrophic results.

Nature has rhythms, too – the most obvious of which are the seasons and recurring cycles of day and night. If those get disrupted, by a long winter, or a solar eclipse, all of us creatures are out of sorts.. We depend on that consistency, and it’s weird when it’s not there.

When first taking music lessons, I used a metronome, and it was vitally important, because as a beginning musician, I tended to play the easy parts fast and the harder parts slow. I have heard many a musician attempt this in a jam, and what happens? The whole thing starts to fall apart. The rhythm is king, folks. If you don’t listen to it, the result is just a pile of notes, and it’s not musical sounding.

It can be pretty subtle. I remember hearing one up-and-coming band play at a festival, and they seemed to have all the pieces together. They were practiced, presented themselves well, and were adroit at their instruments and vocals. And it sounded good, but it didn’t sound as good as it should. A guy sitting next to me saw the look on my face and said, “You know why they don’t sound professional? Their rhythm isn’t tight – the meter’s not quite constant.” And sure enough, he was exactly right.

So, this fascinates me. Since I became a bona-fide rhythm section guy, I am obsessed with ensuring that the rhythm stays constant, and when I pull that off (which isn’t all the time – I’m deeply flawed), it creates a “pocket” and the band members sense it, and drop right in. All of a sudden, everyone’s a virtuoso – the leads are crisper, the vocal phrasing (leads and harmonies) is on the money. It frees you up – once you find the rhythm, and inhabit it, all that’s left is to play or sing the right notes…

But that’s another story…

Posted:  5/2/2012

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