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How to figure out the rhythm of a song?

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Here's a question that every newbie comes across at some point : how can I figure out the rhythm of a song if it's not mentioned on the tab. Unfortunately, this is not an easy thing to do, but this tutorial should provide you some good knowledge so you can handle that.

Basics required for this lesson : None
Practice this lesson : None

On the Internet, most of the songs come as chord grids with lyrics, and they usually lack any rhythm information. Therefore, the majority of newbies end up facing this emptiness and wondering « what rhythm pattern am I supposed to play ! » Well, unfortunately, there is no 100% sure magic answer that will enable you to easily find out about the rhythm pattern. Of course, you can ask your question on our forum, but you can also handle it alone. And today's tutorial aims at helping you find rhythm patterns for you to play on the songs you're practising even if – and mostly if – you're a newbie. Sure it's not as easy as asking a question and getting a straight answer, but it will allow you to become independent, and with a bit of practise you will no longer have to think about it.

In order to get it all straight, we will split the tutorial in three parts :

  • we will start by mentioning a few guidelines about rhythm patterns, some very important things that you need to understand, as it will help you find rhythm patterns
  • we will then see which elements you should take into account so you don't screw up on the rhythm, and so you don't ruin your song
  • finally we will review the few elements we have set up on Tabs4acoustic to help you get through this

A few guidelines

This tutorial aims at helping you find some rhythm patterns to play on your favourite songs. To make that happen, you need to understand some very important things about ryhthm patterns beforehand.

The original rhythm

First of all, if you want to re-create the original rhythm as it's played on the LP, you don't have that many options :

  • you can buy the official songbook that's available in stores, and which will tell you exactly what is played on the CD
  • you train your ear and your ability to spot rhythm patterns, and you practice playing the rhythm you just heard

Regarding the first solution, it's not very complicated, you just need money to buy the songbooks and time to learn how to decipher rhythmical writing. For the second solution, however, it's going to be way more complicated. It requires a lot of experience to be able to hear a rhythm pattern and immediately re-create it as is.

Therefore, we are going to learn some tricks for newbies, to make their life easier. You will often find tabs online, in the form of chord grids and lyrics, but without any mention about any rhythm pattern that could match the song. This is why we are going to learn how to figure out on our own some rhythm patterns that match.

"Good" and "bad" rhythm patterns

In order to do so, there's one thing that's really important to understand : when you play a song there is no such thing as one rhythm being correct and the others being wrong. There are often tons of different possible patterns, and they will all sound great.

Interpretation

For a good reason : rhythm is one of the elements that allows us to change the interpretation of a song. If you want to find out more about interpretation, I elaborate on this in the first part of the tutorial on how to play nice strumming patterns.

If you listen to a song that has guitar in it, you will notice that, most of the time, the rhythm evolves throughout the song. The rhythm pattern used in the first verse will often differ from the one used in the third verse. This is precisely due to interpretation, to the fact that the musician who's playing, feels like slightly changing the interpretation of some parts of the song. And this is even more obvious when you listen to live versions : in most cases, the rhythm patterns will be different.

So you really need to understand this point : when you play a song, there isn't one rhythm pattern that should be followed to the note, but rather many possible patterns among which you can choose from, according to your mood.

Stay away from original rhythm patterns

On top of that, it's usually counter-productive for beginners to try and re-create the original rhythm. First, because it's time-consuming to figure out what the original rhythm pattern is, and it may not be worth the time spent on that. And also - and mostly – because you are not playing in the same conditions as those who recorded the album.

Mind the context

If you listen to bands such as The Beatles, you will often find many instruments within a song : two electric guitars, one bass guitar, drums, a piano, lead vocals, background vocals, and sometimes even more instruments. In such a context, guitar parts must have very simple, very basic rhythm patterns to make room for the other instruments. Therefore, if you try to re-create the rhythm played on one of the guitars, you will probably end up with a dull, boring rhythm pattern that is meaningless when it's not surrounded with all the instruments. In this kind of situation, it's better to search for another rhythm pattern that's a little more complex, which will sound great when you play just as a single guitar.

Make it simple

On the contrary, there will also be songs in which the rhythm patterns are too complex for you, and you can't play them yet. In this kind of situation, it's better to start simplifying the rhythm patterns, to pick a pattern that you already know and play the song, rather than wasting a lot of time trying to re-create a rhythm pattern that is beyond your reach.

Play your own personal covers

You have to understand that when people cover a song, whether on Youtube or during a concert or else, 99% of the time they don't try to re-create the original song note by note. They will interprete the song according to how they feel like it, and this usually implies changing the rhythm pattern. If you aim at playing covers on the guitar, you'd better get used to interpreting the songs in your own style right now, and feeling free to change the rhythm patterns to adapt them to how you feel like or the context in which you're playing. The sooner you learn how to handle that, the sooner you will be playing covers worth listening to.

Watch out: don't do anything and everything

So basically, I just said that many things can be done rhythmically when playing a song. However, one cannot do anything and everything. A few parameters must be taken into account (the number of beats per measure, among other things) in order to find the correct rhythm patterns, and we'll go through all that in the second part.

Wrap up

To wrap up this first part, I just want to mention that all that we just went through, and all that we'll go through in the next parts, is not valid at all times. Some music styles (such as rock and metal) are VERY focused on the rhythm, and if you modify the rhythm, you will not only change the interpretation but you'll also change the riff itself and it will no longer be recognizable. So all that I just explained is mostly valid for folk/pop-like styles, and in a broader perspective for any style that has a guitar base– usually played by an acoustic guitar – with chord grids. Once you have a note-by-note written riff, and not just a chord progression, then rhythm becomes way more important.

Finding rhythm patterns

It's not always easy to know which rhythm pattern may or may not match a song, as exceptions are common. Unfortunately, what we're going to learn now will not be valid in all contexts.

Yet, we're still going to try and learn together how to find rhythm patterns on our own for the songs that you wish to play.

Explore!

The first aspect to mention is : feel free to try things spontaneously. Take whatever rhythm pattern you stumble across and give it a try. If you think that it sounds great, keep it, if you think it sounds bad, discard it. By doing this exploration effort over and over again, you will end up knowing almost instinctively what ryhthm pattern works on a song.

As there is no rule to define which rhythm pattern goes on with which song, experience is the key to this matter. Develop it through experimentation, this is the best thing to do, even if you're a newbie.

Counting beats and measures

One of the key elements to take into account to create a great rhythm pattern is how many beats you're playing each chord for. When you play a chord grid, each chord will be played for a certain and specific number of beats.

The number of beats for each chord is linked to the number of beats there will be in each measure. In most cases, your measures will last for four beats. And a chord will often correspond to a whole measure, or two, or sometimes to a half-measure. It is rare to come across chords that don't stick to the measure structure.

It is very important to know the number of beats each chord is going to last for, and how many measures they will correspond to. If not, you will have a hard time setting up a rhythm pattern.

How can I figure it out ?

On Tabs4acoustic we specify the time signature, i.e the number of beats per measure, on each tab. Look under the title and you will find a mention such as « 4/4 ». It may vary, it may be « 3/4 » or even « 6/8 ». Without going into details, just know that the first number indicates the number of beats per measure.

This will be a good starting point for you to figure out how many beats your chords will last for, as in most cases, they will last for a whole measure.

If this isn't the case, the easiest method consists in listening to the original song, and counting the number of beats in order to spot the chord changes. It's a bit tricky in the beginning, but this is an essential skill to acquire as a guitar player. Listen to the original, count the beats, and spot the number of beats before each chord change.

And once we know that ?

If you managed to find out the number of beats there is for each chord, the rest is quite simple. The purpose of this game is to find a rhythm pattern that will last for the right number of beats. If you have one chord that lasts for a measure, you will have to find a rhythm pattern that lasts for four beats.

And where should I find them ?

Well, you'll have to look for them. You'll find some pretty easily on the internet, on Youtube, or simply on Tabs4acoustic, in the strumming pattern section of the riff library. There, you will find a series of rhythm patterns, with the score, with upstrokes and downstrokes indications, and with an mp3 file so you can listen to the rhythm pattern.

You choose a random rhythm pattern and you play it on your chord. This won't be the original rhythm pattern (unless you're lucky), it may not be in the same style as the original, but at least it will remain consistent. You will have the right number of beats to play your chord on, and this is what matters most.

And what about the next chords ?

Once you have played your rhythm pattern on your first chord, you are now going to move on to the next chord. At that point, you have two options : you may play the same pattern as the one you played on the previous chord, or you can change. This will totally depend on the context. In some instances, it iwll be better to keep on playing the same pattern on all chords. And in other instances, it will be better to play a complex mix of patterns.

As I said earlier here, experiment, try things, listen and write down what you enjoy most !

And when the chord doesn't last for a measure ?

I can happen that chords don't last for for a measure, but rather for two measures, or for a half-measure. As you can guess, this is when things get slightly complicated :

  • if you are playing a chord for two measures, you can use the same rhythm pattern twice, or you can change to a new pattern
  • if you are playing a chord for a half-measure, you'll have to play it on half of a pattern and then play the next chord on another half of a pattern (both patterns being identical or different).

As long as you respect the right number of beats per chord, it will work.

In a nutshell

So basically, the purpose of this game is to decipher a chord grid to figure out how many measures (or beats) each chord must be played for, and set up rhythm patterns that match the right number of beats for each chord. It's as complicated as it gets. It is a bit tedious in the beginning, but once you gain some experience, it's a very quick process.

Remember that there are some exceptions, which I can't elaborate here. So, if you apply everything I just said, and yet it sounds weird, or some beats are missing, or else, then it means that whether you made a mistake or you're encountering an exception in which all that I just explained to you is not valid there. Don't bother with that for now, this is way more complicated to deal with, so forget about it until you master simple rhythm patterns.

Get some help from Tabs4acoustic

On Tabs4acoustic we set up several solutions that will help you practise your first songs if you're a newbie. If you're a bit disturbed by everything that I've explained in the first parts, if it all seems a bit overwhelming to you, then I am going to introduce you to some tools that will come in handy. But remember that it's all about personal work, and that no one else but you can take care of that.

Time signature

I already mentioned that in the previous part, but you'll find the time signature on each one of our tabs. This will be of great help to you when it comes to figuring out the right number of beats to play a chord for, and therefore the corresponding rhythm patterns.

The strumming pattern section from the riff library

I already mentioned that as well in the previous part, but we offer a series of rhythm patterns, of varying complexities, in different styles, that you can use on tabs from our website or elsewhere.

So feel free to try them on the songs you want, mix patterns, in a word, experiment, as I keep on repeating.

Rhythm patterns on tabs

We have a series of tabs, we have a series of rhythm patterns, so it would be quite ridiculous not to connect the two of them. This process is still under way, so all of the tabs don't have rhythm mentioned yet, but we're adding that little by little.

These are not the only options !

So, on each tab we will mention one or more rhythm patterns that fit the song. But be aware that this is provided for information purposes only. It will not always correspond to the original version (refer to part one to find out why), these are no the only possible rhythm patterns to be used, and you absolutely don't have to use those rhythm patterns. These are just patterns that sound great on the song.

This is just a basic indication, an example fo what you may play if you don't feel like or you don't have the time to search for your own rhythm patterns.

Rhythm pattern presentation

On each tab you will find a « strumming pattern » section that will include various ryhthm patterns for the song, with more or less information depending on the songs. For the easiest ones, only one rhythm pattern will be displayed. For the more complex ones, several rhythm patterns will be displayed and structured according to the different parts of the song : the rhythm pattern played on the verse will not necessarily be the same as the one played on the chorus.

Reading instructions

In order to have a simple display, we decided to « code » the rhythm pattern writing in a way that we expect to be simple but thorough. Nevertheless, the more knowledgeable you will be about rhythm the better you'll understand rhythm writing, and the better you'll understand what I am going to explain. So, please have a look at our rhythm and rhythm pattern tutorials to improve on that.

A typical rhythm pattern will look like this :

DuduDuDU

To make it simple, we are going to write down all the strokes that can be played in a measure. During a classical 4-beat measure, wih an eighth-note rhythm pattern, we will then have eight strokes, four downstrokes and four upstrokes. The letter « D » will correspond to a downstroke, and the letter « U » will correspond to an upstroke. We will ue capital letters for strokes actually played, and lower case letters for strokes in the air.

We will add two more letters to the mix, X :

DuXuDuDU

It will replace a down or an up stroke, and it stands for a dead note.

We will also come across some S :

DuSuDuDU

It will also replace a D or a U and it will correspond to a rest, when strings are muted.

This way it's possible to write almost any 8-to-16-character rhythm pattern (according to the number of strokes in the measure). After practising a bit, you'll be able to decipher them and spot them immediately.

What about the riff library?

As you go through the tabs, you will come across some rhythm patterns that are not in the riff library yet, and some that are already in there. For those who are available, you will not only see the coded pattern, but the letter chain will also be a link that will lead you directly to the page corresponding to the pattern. On that page, you will find the rhythm pattern written as a tab, together with an mp3 file so you can listen to it. Will you need anything else ?

But this is not enough !

No doubt that this is some good stuff, it's great having rhythm patterns directly available from the tab, but it's not enough. Remember that you need to figure out how many beats or measures you need to play your chord for, in order to know which rhythm pattern to play, and how many times you should play it. Your task is to sort this out, so you can fully know the structure of the song.

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