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Rhythm Injuries -- Call in the Red Cross
By Paul Babelay - 11/10/2009 - 04:26 PM EST

If you need help with musical rhythm - Who you gonna' call?

Just consider us your 9-1-1 Rhythm Responders. With these time-honored solutions, we will have your rhythms resurrected in no time.

Here is a list of questions & problems that I hear regularly.

Rhythm Injury #1: "All my songs have started sounding the same. I keep using the same basic rhythms." This answer may seem dumb or even impossible for some of you. But don't dismiss it too quickly. Stop writing with your instrument in your hands. You're writing is going to be limited by what you can play. Put it down... sit quietly, and let the ideas develop without your technique leading you around. Make yourself think differently, and when you pick up your axe, try your new ideas.

Rhythm Injury #2: "My band has trouble playing along with me on my songs". (The studio version of this problem is similar). The problem is overplaying.  When you play by yourself, you are the drums, bass, guitars & everything rolled into one. It's great that you can do that, but you need a crash course in orchestration. The bass player can't compete with your bass lines. The drummer will play all that "wacka-wacka" rhythm you're playing on his high hats & cymbals... and you can lose the slap on 2 & 4, a snare drum does it better. Simplify...Stop working so hard... Delegate...Share the parts with the rest of the team. It's OK. Your one-man-band rhythms just need to be pulled apart and scaled back. Let the other members play some of those notes.

Rhythm Injury #3: "I don't know how to play/write different styles". Unless you grew up in a household with different genres of music around you, it's easy to have limited tastes and exposure. Just like food! Initially, I don't suggest the typical, "go out & buy lots of different styles of music...etc." I believe emotional energy is what you should pay attention to. Listen to TV shows, commercials and movie soundtracks. What gives Tension? Romantic setting? Humor? Competition? Patriotism? Pay close attention to the rhythms involved. When you make connections between emotional needs and music that expresses those emotions, you'll begin to see certain styles used for certain situations. Your context for learning different styles...should be the emotion expressed, not licks. For example, everybody can play a "bluesey" lick... but playing the Blues is a lifetime of learning. Don't sell it short. All musical genres require time & commitment to play & write authentically. Get the emotion... the "WHY" of the music first. Then the "HOW" (the mechanics, theory & licks) will come.

Rhythm Injury #4: "I don't know how to change rhythms from Verse to Chorus". There are no rules here. Only what works. But an easy concept to grasp is contrast. A lyric that is very busy/choppy (short notes) in the verses, can open up (smooth out, long notes) in the chorus. The guitar part can be sparse in the verses, and get more rhythmic & driving in the chorus. Notice that the guitar and the lead vocal will be doing exactly the opposite. One is busy while the other is sparse. This allows each one to have it's own Rhythm Room. (That's kinda like elbow room.) It works!

Rhythm Injury #5: "I hear these cool beats and licks in the major artists' songs, but I can't seem to write my own." Truth is, you're often hearing the result of a top-notch Producer, a great Recording & Mastering Engineer... not to mention great Players, Singers and Vintage Instruments...it should sound great! They all bring their technical & creative gifts to the project. But lucky for us, it still starts with a great song. When you get the tune as good as you can, little signature licks, riffs and patterns will begin to surface. They're probably already there, you just have to "flush them out". Find a unique way to say/play something, then improvise with it, stutter it, repeat it... or play just half of it. Elongate (stretch) a vowel sound out longer than normal, and double it on your guitar. See if you're doing little grunts, or phrasings that you can pull out and shine the light on a little. Showcase you doing it your way. Your Vibe... If you'll do your part, good musicians can take it up another notch. When you're ready, a capable Producer can take it up again to another level you can't reach yourself. Just do your part.

Rhythm Injury #6: "It just doesn't feel right." The problem may be as simple as the wrong tempo. You'd be amazed how the wrong tempo can kill a groove, even if it's a great song. It may be a deeper problem - in the Rhythmic make-up of the song. Every song needs it's own signature groove. If it doesn't have that, there's a problem. It may be the wrong basic feel (8ths, 16ths, triplets) perhaps, or wrong stylistic choice for the lyric (i.e. should have been a relaxed 12/8 blues feel, instead of a straight country beat). There is no better teacher than recording it yourself... & walk away. Come back in a few days with fresh perspective and listen. Usually, your instincts can hear the problems. One thing is for sure. If the tune is still struggling, there is no point trying to record it in a bigger & better studio... or take it out live. You'll just get immunized to its weaknesses. 

Rhythm Injury #7: "My style sounds dated. Can you teach me some new rhythms?" How badly do you want it? A banana tree doesn't grow apples... and it's gonna' be hard for you to lose your vintage stripes. I've worked with songwriters in their early 20's that had very dated styles. Their listening was limited to older brothers' music, or parents that thought the only "real" music was 60's Rock, Englebert Humperdink, or Glen Miller. Nothing wrong with that, but jumping into the 21st century may be more involved than you think. If you're determined to change, you've got to hear how things are presented these days. Contemporary lyrics "get you there" faster, and the form has to allow that.  Intros can no longer be 30 seconds long and the 7-minute version is best for stage... not the studio. Your drum grooves may sound a little dated too. Rhythms have been computerized and "fixed in the mix."  R&B ain't what it used to be. Rap changed everything... the rhythms have got to be hot. I'm not trying to get you to chase the latest trend...I promise I'm not. But today's listeners have infant-sized attention spans and expect great sounding production.  From Country to Grunge, if it's on the charts, the rhythm is smokin'. I guarantee it. These are things you have to address if you want that "newer" sound.

Rhythm Injury #8: "I don't have good rhythm." Truthfully... you may not! Won't lie to ya. And while music schools won't admit it, you can't fix it. I will never be a math whiz, doctor, lawyer or a star quarterback. All the tutors, lessons and effort in the world won't change that. I can still enjoy the benefits of what those people can do... and I can even play football for fun. (None of the others will I attempt for fun). Know your own limitations, and learn to work within them realistically. There is always a way!

Rhythm Injury #9: "I don't know how to explain to the drummer what I want on my songs". Hmmm...drummers....well I can tell you... Drummers are very complex people, usually genius (typically off-the-chart IQs), but very humble, understanding and willing to accommodate you in any way possible. :-) 

Rhythm Injury #10: "Should you go out with the drummer?" Yes, I know it's tempting because most drummers are also extremely handsome and sexy. (It's true, ask my wife!) But I wouldn't advise it. :-) Check the laws in your state. Some restrictions may apply...

There you have it, a solid list of potential rhythm potholes and how to navigate them for your musical & emotional success. Most of them are spot-on. (The last two may be a bit biased, I am a drummer).

The Bottom Line... Does it feel good? Is the song working? If so, most likely, the rhythm is nailed down. Record it, Listen to it, come back to it and listen again. Experiment until it does. You'll know it when you get there.




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