Diary of a Bad Guitar Player: Feeling vs Counting

I have been thinking about rhythm a great deal this week after writing about “locking-in” last week. Rhythm is so essential to music- play it poorly and you will sound terrible, play it well and even simple things shine. But while rhythm is an essential concept, it is not a simple one. Playing with great rhythm doesn’t just mean being precisely on time with a metronome’s beat. Great players will push and pull the beat but never lose it or sound off. Small changes in emphasis go a long way to giving the beat it’s power.

One thing that I have noticed in my playing is that I tend toward two extremes in rhythm. I will either feel the beat or count the beat. When I am feeling the beat, I am usually playing along to a recording or playing with the Yousician program and the full band is there to tell me where the beat is. I might be able to count it some as I am going along but I am not there counting each beat. My foot is tapping and I might be playing in time perfectly (or just murdering the time, depending on how well I know the part I am playing) but my mind is not focused on counting each beat.

This is nothing like the way I play when I am practicing new songs or concepts. Then, I have the metronome on and I am counting every beat, even every note, in my head without exception. In this scenario, I am usually the only one playing or maybe I am playing to a backing track I laid down, but I am not supported by a full accompaniment of sounds playing in time.

Both of these relationships to the beat are important but, for me, at this point, they are very distinct and very different. When I am counting the beat carefully and precisely, I am forcing all of my playing, pushing the sound to exactly their correct place in the beat and, if I am off, I am usually rushing notes or catch up or falling apart completely and needing to start over. When I am feeling the beat, I am playing looser and if I am off, I will either just hang back to catch the rhythm again or I will so lost that I will be unable to find the beat correctly, ear-cringing will follow.

What I want to do now is find a way to do both in both scenarios. In those times when I am playing along to recordings, I want to push myself to keep count and be more directly conscious of the exact time. In playing alone or practicing, I want to ease back from needing each note to have its place in time voiced in my head and feel the beat I am creating without depending so much on that kind of over-counting. I think playing with the metronome, leaving out beats, and playing other games like that with it will help, but ultimately, great time is probably just something that you have to develop by constantly playing and counting and feeling the beat.