Why Timing Is NOT What You Think

Rhythm and Timing

Timing is not what you think. Real timing is of course being able to play along with a regular pulse, but also the choice of whether to push or pull the beat.



Beat placement

So there are three choices you have:



Pushed means in front of the pulse, so you’re waiting for the pulse and then a few milliseconds after, you play the note. It’s just a millisecond or two, but it will make the whole piece sound rushed or slightly faster than the metronome mark – it’s a small change but changes the whole feel of the music.



The opposite of pushed, pulled is playing just before the beat. This makes the whole song sound slower – again it’s just a couple of milliseconds – but the impact is HUGE!


On Top

This says what it means; you’re right on the pulse. If you use a metronome, when you play on top you, the metronome disappears – no matter how loud of soft you play.



How to pick your beat placement

Usually you’ll pick one of the three and stick with it. Some examples:


In 1950s Chicago blues, you can often find drummers playing behind (pulling) the beat. Whereas playing ahead of (pushing) or on top of the beat, in contrast, happens sometimes in Latin music such as salsa. The Police (band) played everything pretty much on top of the beat.


Some singer-songwriters push and pull the song around depending on what section there at and the emotion they are trying to convey – although this adds to the song and it could be argued that this is what makes the song, its highly likely that this is untended but just happened, plus it sounds great!



Most guitarist play in front – yes we like to push the beat and push it hard!



How to stop pushing the beat?

If you want to stop pushing, then put in the work! It’s worth practicing playing on top of and behind beat. So how do we learn how to move our guitar playing in relation to the pulse?


Exercise 1

If you start your metronome at 40BPM, just listen to the click, try to internalise it.


Exercise 2

Clap on top of the pulse and try to get it directly in time so that the click disappears. Just focus on where the next click is not on life, the SMS you’ve just got or the light you’ve forgotten to turn off. Try this for 5 minutes straight – you might want a timer of some sort in order to keep track of this. After the 5 minutes have past, have a break!


Exercise 3

Now, having tried to clap on top of the beat, try slowing down your clapping.  So that you’re clapping feels lazy in comparison to the click. This is playing behind the beat – in action.  Remember you want to feel a little lazy, but controlled. Stop and start again if it seems like you’re too slow. Again try this for 5 minutes, then take a break.


Exercise 4

Go back and try on top again – this time for another 5 minutes. Really focus on getting it right, every time. When the 5 minutes are up, reward yourself with a short break.


Exercise 5

Now, having tried to clap on top of the beat, try speeding up, so you’re pushing the beat.  You want you’re clapping to feel slightly faster than the click. Remember to stay in control and ahead of the beat. Try this exercise for 5 minutes and then take a short break.


Exercise 6

Now try this: 8 bars on top, 8 bars pulling, 8 bars on top, 8 bars pushing and then to finish 8 bars on top. We’ll stick with the clapping for this exercise.


Exercise 7

If you’ve got this far, take a break – have a beer or a cola. Most of all give yourself a pat on the back. You’ve done great so far!


Exercise 8

Now, pick up that guitar and try Exercise 1 to 7, using a single note chord – something like an A note on the 7th fret on the D string (remember to use the free fingers to mute the others). You can either focus on the single string or playing all 6. You could use that as two sets of exercises – double the practice – double the fun!


Exercise 9

Now, try Exercise 1 to 7, using a simple chord – something like an E chord or a E type bare chord – like G on starting on the 3rd fret.


Exercise 10

If you’ve got this far, take a break – have a beer or a cola. Most of all give yourself a pat on the back.



So there you have it, if you have followed the exercises and worked on it for a few weeks, you will have a better concept of how you can move the beat around and the different feelings it can create.

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