52. The Value Of Reading Rhythm


One might ask, “If  the Beatles didn’t write music, why are we reading it, even if it’s only rhythm?” Is it because we are not the Beatles? Not really. Many brilliant musicians have had no formal training, but many more would have struggled to progress much without it.

Most of what I teach to beginning guitarists was learned mostly on my own in the first few years of playing. Anyone who grew up with a lot of music around is undeniably at an advantage. Fortunately, I shared a love of music with my mother, a big jazz fan who infected me with her enthusiasm and kept a large collection of records playing throughout my formative years.

Although I did not play an instrument as a young boy, I was interested in the drums, and had been playing along with records, beating on magazines and furniture, then real drums for a brief time. When I did get a guitar, those developing rhythmic skills gave me a sense of quick progress, even as a beginner. The better rhythm you have, the more you will enjoy the early stages of playing the guitar.

When it comes to rhythm, the one thing my students usually have in common, regardless of age, is lack of guidance. Consider the following:


“Musical development continues beyond the age of 7 or so only in an environment that provides some sort of tutelage.” Howard Gardner, The Arts and Human Development, 1997.


It is probable that I had good rhythmic sense by age 7. However, many of my students do as well, although they often don’t realize it. When it comes to rhythm, anything we bring with us from childhood when picking up an instrument is extremely helpful.

Many amateur teachers are self-taught. Some are the opposite of classical method-only teachers. Some are very good players. But as teachers they are often giving only half the package.

Here is what I mean: They may want you to bring music to the first lesson, watch and copy. Some will use open tunings to give the feeling of playing right away. This usually means tuning the guitar to the notes of a chord. It can feel pretty good to the beginner.


      So does the successful completion of a page of connect-the-dots to a child, which is wonderful, as long as we are not confusing it with learning to draw!


I believe in putting sugar in the medicine, but not that much. Playing chords in open tuning is fun. Get a chord for free, much like an autoharp. Flatten the left index finger, move it up and down the neck, get the same chord high and low—easy! I don’t like it.

Learning not just rhythm, but the notes on the fretboard in standard tuning, the chords we are going to use, scales–we can’t do any of that in open tuning. Open tuning is great later, when we have covered some ground. And while it’s true I teach rhythm practice with”non-chords” (the left hand damping the strings), it’s very temporary.

I can’t graft rhythm onto anyone, but anything I can do to help inspire is what counts. I have always loved music so much that it fueled my desire completely. It’s hard to say how much difference it would have made if I knew at 18 or 20 what I know today.  I regret nothing, and I love to give what I can. My goal is to teach what I never had—the best things to know first. By reading rhythm in standard notation, we can categorize what we learn, so we are not relying on the ear and video alone to help us.

© 2012 Jim Greenfield