Q: I have been trying to learn how to play the Dobro for 2 years now, boy is it hard. I know my frets and chords but I am having trouble with rhythm. I can’t seem to get it. If you can help that would be great. -Linda
A: Back when I was in elementary school, we would play this game to help us learn how to pronounce words. My teacher told us that each word was made up of syllables, and some syllables are emphasized more than others. So she taught us to clap on each syllable, and on ones that were emphasized, to clap a little louder.
For example, with the word concentration, it looked something like this (with the emphasis in bold):
con– cen – tra -tion
Little did I know this game would help me become a better musician later in life.
What do I mean by this? Well, many beginners learn rhythm by counting beats using 1 & 2 & 3 & 4 &, then practicing certain strum patterns with “down – up – downs” on the beats. While this is great since it teaches the time signature and flow of the song, rhythm is still a “feel” thing tied directly to the mood of a song. So rigid predictable strumming sounds… well… rigid and predictable.
Now remembering that grade school clapping thing, I found an exercise to help me learn strumming. To try it yourself, do this… take a song you like, play a recording of it about two to three times in a row, and clap on the beat during the song. (Once you get comfortable with the main beat, clap on the eighth notes too, so clap on 1 & 2 & 3 & 4 &.) Now while clapping, pay attention to the singer and notice which syllables or words they emphasize. More often than not, you’ll notice that there is a certain pattern of beats in the song that are emphasized above the others. So on those emphasized beats, clap a bit louder. Once your comfortable with that, try reducing the overall volume of your claps in softer parts of the song, then increasing your volume on more driving parts. By putting the song on repeat a few times, you’ll program that pattern in your head a little better.
Next, pick up your guitar with pick in hand, and while muting the strings with your left hand, practice strumming that same pattern with your right, (reversed for leftys of course.) The point here isn’t to practice chord changes and keys, it’s to work on getting the rhythm down. What you’ll find in time is on quieter or unaccented strums, you may only hit one or two strings, while on driving and accented beats, you may be hit a full chord. Work on this exercise during your practice time, and you may find your rhythm improving quickly. (The next step would be to practice strumming the chords and changes for that song with a metronome to help you keep time.)
Becoming a good rhythm player involves many little things that only come with practice. Ask a great rhythm player what “strum pattern” they use, and they’ll probably tell you they’re not sure since it’s more of a feel thing. In time, you’ll learn to “feel” the rhythms in songs, and you’ll find that playing becomes much more enjoyable.
Good luck Linda!