Updated: Jun 7
Have you felt like your improvisation was lacking? Or have you felt that when you play your scales it feels like painting by numbers?
Rhythmic phrasing is the secret sauce to create interesting motifs to change your riffs and solos into something that catches the ear.
Often when we first start getting used to scales we practice them up, down and inside out getting used to the particular patterns on the fretboard.
Which is essential for learning how to navigate scales and their shapes on the fretboard, but often this over practice of playing scales in this fashion leaves a lot of the musicality out of the scales being used. Let’s say we take the most common scale within the guitar world, the A minor pentatonic. Playing it on its own up and down in order can be very stale.
But what if we added
rhythmic phrasing with it?
Playing With Simple Subdivisions
"The key part of this exercise is to keep it the same without losing that sense of time feel"
The first step to understanding decent rhythmic phrasing is to get used to adding different rhythmic groupings and subdivisions to your playing.
We do this by keeping it simple by adding only one rhythmic subdivision across the scale you have chosen, in this instance we are sticking with the A minor pentatonic scale. We start going through each of the basic rhythmic subdivisions:
Quarter notes (1 per beat) 8th notes (2 per beat)
16th notes (4 per beat)
8th note triplets (3 over 2 eighths)
16th notes triplets (3 over 2 16ths)
Play around just in one of these subdivisions to get a feel for them.
Once this feel or Timefeel is understood, (by that I mean you can fully internalise how each of those rhythms feel) start mixing and matching like in the example below of just two of those rhythmic subdivisions.
It also doesn’t have to be the example below, (Example 1) you can make a choice for yourself as to what you want to work on.
The key part of this exercise is to keep it the same without losing that sense of time feel.
For this example, I will be mixing 8th note subdivisions with 8th note triplets: Example 1: 8th notes and 8th Triplets:
Moving Onto More Advanced Subdivisions
"Getting used to this groove can be as easy as saying hippopotamus"
When you can feel the differences between each subdivision; then it’s time to get a bit more advanced and add rhythmic groupings by forcing more notes into one beat.
Instead of the usual subdivisions of quarter notes, eights and 16ths, we are now going to be pushing 5 notes over 1 beat making a quintuplet, which means playing 5, 16th notes over 1 quarter note.
Getting used to this groove can be as easy as saying hippopotamus or 1 2 3 4 5. Another thing that really helps is accenting the first beat of the tuplets to feel the downbeat.
As outlined in Example 2 below.
Example 2: Quintuplets:
Combining Complex Subdivisions Together
You can of course do other Groupings or tuplets of notes like for instance sextuplets (6 notes over 1 beat), or septuplets (7 notes over one beat) and other combinations thereof.
Here is an example mixing two types of tuplets together with quintuplets and sextuplets. Example 3: Quintuplets and Sextuplets:
Applying Complex Rhythms With Simple Ones
As I said earlier in this article getting used to these new ways of subdividing and grouping is invaluable to understanding how to squeeze and stretch time to fit your purposes.
So here is an example of combining the simple subdivisions and different complex groupings together. Example 4: Combining Complex Rhythms with Simple Rhythms:
Expanding Your Rhythmic Vocabulary
"Achieving this level of mastery is daunting at first but it doesn’t have to be. You too can achieve this with some interesting exercises called limitation exercises."
What tends to happen when you start practicing in this way, is that your rhythmic vocabulary starts to widen and you tend to get a feel for when you can squeeze in more notes into, or over beats.
This is useful and it's similar to how a drummer learns their rudiments with their sticks, but it’s not really using the full potential of being musical.
To be musical with this information you need to understand that it’s about expressing what’s on your mind rhythmically at any given moment.
Achieving this level of mastery is daunting at first but it doesn’t have to be. You too can achieve this with some interesting exercises called limitation exercises.
What Are Limitation Exercises?
A Limitation Exercise is when you take one concept and limit yourself to that concept as an exercise in creativity. A good limitation exercise is to come up with a rhythm, and to practice speaking it out loud, to essentially vocalise the rhythm you want to play on your instrument.
A lot of cultures and musical genres do this to help emphasize rhythmic patterns and emboldening their connection to their own inner body clock making themselves more aware to their surrounding musical environment.
So How Do We Start These Limitation Exercises?
1. The first step is to think of a rhythm then clap that same rhythmic pattern. Try a pattern that isn't too complex and something that is easy to repeat. The idea being that you get closer to your intended rhythm, similar to the short phrases I have provided in Examples 5A – 5C.
2. The second step is to limit it to one scale and sometimes areas of the neck but in this instance we are limiting just the scale choice to the A minor pentatonic.
3. The Third step is to vocalise that rhythmic pattern you thought of and match it to what you are doing on your instrument. This reinforces that we are doing it to make it sound exactly how we hear it in our head.
Example 5: Clapping + Using One Rhythm Limitation Exercise:
With Examples 5A to 5C above, the intention is to take these simplistic rhythmic patterns, vocalise them and spend 5 minutes with the patterns within the scale of your choice to get used to phrasing in this fashion. The more this is practiced, the more this becomes second nature and you can start adding more simple phrases to the chain of phrasing you have in mind.
This time if we clap and speak out two rhythmic phrases from the Examples 5 A–C.
After enough practice we can start to hear some contrasting musicality between the two rhythmic patterns and it will become easier to generate your own patterns.
Remember to keep the two patterns you chose the same and do it for a good 5 minutes each time so that these patterns feels normal.
Combining Three Different Rhythmic Patterns
Finally we can move to choosing three phrases, one after the other from the examples provided in Example 5 A – D. Doing so improves your time feel and helps stretch out your confidence with rhythmic patterns.
After a while of practicing this limitation exercise, it starts to sound more authentic to what YOU want to say on your guitar rather than sounding mechanical and formulaic. This method of practicing is about drawing out your potential and voice so that we can hear what you have to say and getting the connection between what you are thinking about on guitar closer to what you want to play on the guitar. I hope this has been a good primer into how to get started and develop your own sense of time feel and your own sense of rhythmic phrasing. Good luck and I hope you see results!