Author: Daniel, Bert

Got Rhythm?

Rhythm. I sure wish I had it. When I hear the old Gershwin Brothers standard "I Got Rhythm", it makes me want to cry. Ethel Merman may not have had the greatest voice ever, but when she sang "I got music. I got rhythm", it was jumpy. Same for Judy Garland of course, who sang it with a beautiful voice. Alas, when I'm in the shower, George and Ira's song probably sounds more like " I got music. I got rhy…i…thm". (Let's not talk about the voice, that's another column).

Bluegrass music absolutely requires all the musicians to have good timing. I guess all music really does, but in particular Bluegrass music is sharply defined by those machine gun banjo rolls, back-beat mandolin chops, pushing bass lines, etc. If the players and singers aren't right on that driving Bluegrass beat, it just doesn't work right.

Rhythm is a very funny thing, and an elusive thing. Supreme Court Justice, Potter Stewart was once asked to define pornography. He replied: "I know it when I see it". With rhythm, you know it when you hear it, but it's hard to describe what it actually is.

I own an electronic metronome. I can assure you that, as long as I keep the batteries fresh, my metronome keeps "perfect" rhythm; that is to say metronomic rhythm. I think it's a great idea to practice with a metronome so you can make your rhythm more regular, but would anybody want to listen to music generated entirely from a metronome's rhythm? For some pieces it would be the best rhythm perhaps, but Bluegrass Music, (what I really mean is Bluegrass, Old Time, and Gospel Music) uses a palette of "perfect", but not necessarily metronomic, rhythms that are best suited to the piece being played.

Take swing rhythm for example. It's not strictly mathematical at all is it? You have to feel it. In performance it's not at all what what a composer would write on the page. The eighth notes can be somewhere between eighth notes and triplets. One definition I've heard is that if it makes you want to dance, it's the right rhythm.

Various performers might play the same tune a little different rhythmically, and that subtle difference in rhythm can be a very big part of their overall interpretation. When I hear a standard fiddle tune played with a unique rhythmic interpretation, I can understand why some traditional music players prefer not to read sheet music at all. When you're forced to listen really carefully to each new tune and use only your memory and internal rhythm to guide you, it may come out better when you actually try to play it, who knows? Maybe the first eighth note is 65/512 and the next is 63/512, instead of simpler proportions. Only the good musicians get the ratio exactly right and can actually execute it properly. Most music lovers can hear that difference but not every music lover can actually do it!

Last night I went to a jam and I had to lead a few pieces. On one piece in particular, I noticed that, although the tune was a good choice for the group, my poor rhythm was holding back the music. The tune was unfamiliar to a few of the jammers, so maybe I was concentrating too much on getting the notes right so those other players could follow along. But in my effort to get everybody playing the right notes, I missed the rhythmic flow and you could tell. It disturbed me so much that i didn't get the notes right either, even though I'd played the tune hundreds of times. Among some very good musicians, I made an unforgivable musical misjudgement. Everybody has trouble following bad rhythm, but if you miss a few notes good players can always fill in the gaps.

Eventually you have to learn your lesson, as I did again last night. A lot of times the solution is to just play fewer notes and make sure they're the right notes and in the right rhythm. For most pickers, the right hand is the one that produces all the sound and it's by definition the most important. (Left handed pickers, pull offs and hammer ons are the only exceptions that I know of).

So let's all tune up and then concentrate on really feeling the rhythm. Whether you're singing or picking or dancing or just tapping your foot, the room needs to feel your musical juices. We can play at least some of the notes that our musical idols play AND, if we have good timing, it might sound almost as good!

Who could ask for anything more?
Posted:  9/12/2010

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