The Rhythm Reading Challenge For Guitarists

Rhythm Reading is a skill many guitarists believe they do not need.  I beg to differ!

Pretend for a moment that you’ve just written a song and your best friend wants to know how to strum it…the way you strummed it.  OK!  Your best friend has been strumming some tunes for a while but is deeply entrenched in the notion that there is ONE STRUMMING PATTERN for a song – including your song.  After all, the first question your friend asked you is “Hey, Steve!  What’s the strum pattern for your tune?“.

How Guitarists learn Rhythm: Mediocre at Best

You have three possible ways to communicate your strumming (and for now we’ll assume your strumming skills are top notch):

1. You could simply demonstrate it and see whether your friend can mimic it.  But remember that your strumming skills are backed by a lot of experience so chances are that you are not going to strum the whole song the same way – there is no ONE strum pattern for your song (and rarely so for any song).  Can you start to see how complex this all might become for your friend …and very fast??  Maybe your friend can not easily mimic how you strum…NOW WHAT?  This is really a Monkey See Monkey Do rhythm strategy.

2. You could represent the strumming according to how the strumming hand moves – typically using drawings of arrows representing both downward strums and upward strums.  The catch here is that the arrows typically represent only the moments you actually HIT the strings.  Developing a sense of musical context within which those arrows work is often missing in this tactic.  So while your friend could MOVE their strum hand according to the arrow directions, the musical relationship between those arrows is lost on your friend and often not explicitly communicated.  For example, how the strumming hand moves when your friend doesn’t hit the strings (does the hand move or not?).  Students often stall their strumming hand when their ears perceive a GAP in the strumming sound. An awareness of musical context would help here but then you have to backtrack a bit to better inform your friend about “musical awareness” potentially making your friend start to feel way overwhelmed.  If your friend could just FEEL the strumming…great!  But if your friend CAN’T FEEL the strumming…Oh well???  This strategy  lacks a Rhythmic Musical Context.

Let’s review what’s happening in this complex scenario so far.

Your friend wants to strum your song but mimicking doesn’t seem to work.  Drawing strumming arrows gets it a little better but you have to add more information about how music works making your friend feel way overwhelmed.

And even if your friend ends up being able to strum your song, he or she typically only knows how to strum to YOUR song.  The next song will require yet another round of mimicking or arrow drawing or BOTH.  The process can get very messy very quickly.

Learn to Read Rhythm: The Proven Approach.

3. You could rely on a written CODE that has been in use for hundreds of years…at least.  Of course we’ll have to assume that your friend can actually read this code (a good thing right?).  Then all you have to do is give your friend that written code (Rhythm notation) and say “There you go Eric!  Hope you enjoy it!”.

This is not unlike handing your friend your favorite book of fiction and simply saying “enjoy it!”.  Of course we have to assume your friend can read.  But what if your friend actually can’t read…then what? I expect you’d be very, very concerned and would strive to help your friend learn to read knowing it would make his life much easier and enjoyable.

I do suppose there is a fourth option which would include some combination of all the above.  It’s good to be flexible and versatile.

And while there is really no clear distinction between visual, auditory (Listening), kinesthetic (Strumming Hand Awareness) and tactile (Touch) learning in strumming (i.e. they’re all happening at the same time and in various degrees):

Some students prefer demonstration but this can limit an understanding of the greater musical context. They can play the strum pattern but are lost when they sense some other pattern is in play during a different section of the song so they need another demonstration…and so on!

Some students prefer strumming arrows which can cause the same problem above but also does not tend to reveal the underlying pulse of the song.  They can actually learn to move the strum hand with accurate (rehearsed) motor skills but are slave to the strumming arrows without an internal sense of pulse and a creative spark.

Some students prefer to learn how to read music/rhythm simply because nothing about how music works gets lost…it’s all coded for.  At one glance you comprehend timing, pulse, rhythm, melody, pitch, harmony, dynamics…you name it.  It’s complete.  But its “completeness” comes at a cost – rhythm reading is a separate (but related) skill from actually playing the guitar.  As such many players don’t want to invest the time to learn to read.  In the rock band The Foo Fighters, the only member who can read music is the keyboard player (and that’s actually not surprising as most if not all keyboard players have had experience reading music/rhythm as a natural part of their music education).

The Rhythm Reading Myth

Also, in GUITARLANDIA so many famous guitarists have (honestly or dishonestly) claimed that the guitar skills they developed did not require rhythm reading skills and so this sentiment gets passed down to us and we (mere mortals) think “Well if they didn’t know how to read…then why should I?”  This perspective is a PANDORA’s box of controversy stirred up in a maelstrom of fleeting truth and vague myths.

In other words, there is usually more going on (or did go on) that enabled some guitarists to make sense of how to play guitar.

What was true for them in their guitaring experience does not necessarily translate to your ability to do the same…sorry to burst your bubble!

Maybe you have the “X” factor and “blessing” to strum/play guitar from conception!  In which case you can do what you want.

For the rest of us, we’re going to need as many tools as possible to help make strumming more natural than the “Here’s the strum pattern for that song” perspective.  Reading rhythm notation simply does the job more efficiently.

Rhythm Reading Masters (worked for them!!)

Check out Steve Via’s latest exploit (one of the most virtuosic players currently on the planet with the “X” factor).  Of course he’s doing way more than strumming but pay more attention to the bigger picture…rhythm.  Caution- Steve is a performer and likes to show that quality off but he’s also a very soft spoken, thoughtful and spiritual person despite that dragon/Hydra of a guitar thing he’s playing. 

Just so you know, Steve hates tablature, reads music like reading a book and actually writes orchestral symphonies…just for fun.  Not bad for a so called ROCK GOD!

Whether you like his music or not, it’s good to know he’s here promoting strong learning skills for all guitarists.

Al Di Meola is another “X” factor guy to check out whose “rhythm sense” is impeccable. When he says tapping your foot is MORE important than what your fingers are doing…you should listen:

My Thoughts…

I will say this:

Nobody got better at strumming a guitar BECAUSE they didn’t read rhythm.

At the end of the day I’m not saying you should learn to read music (you know…all the dots), but I feel you should be able to read rhythm.  Written rhythm exercises will simply expose you to many more strumming skills than you would come up with on your own.

All along the way, the purpose of it all is to eventually FEEL RHYTHM and strum according to that feel.

Nothing is ever lost by knowing MORE about how to do something. 

It’s true for rhythm reading too.


>>If you want to learn how strumming really works, I invite you to checkout the STRUM HUB MEMBERSHIP.  We dive DEEP into the skills you actually need… side-stepping nothing.  WARNING:  If you are tired of all your songs sounding the same (Blame memorized strum patterns) and you want to strum more creatively and freely, then the STRUM HUB might just be what you know you need…you are at high risk of getting to be a better guitarist.