Spring has sprung (BOING! Sorry – had to be done..) and as the sun starts to peek shyly from behind the clouds, guitar players of all shapes and sizes are yawning, stretching and gradually shaking themselves awake from their winter hibernation.
It's around this time of year that my younglings who started back in the autumn are now starting to get on top of the fundamentals of strumming chords, songs and so on, and as such this is the time when we start to try and hone the rhythmic sensibilities. And there's no better way of doing this than breaking out the Bob Marley CD's and tackling a bit of reggae.
Why reggae? Fair question – it's not an obvious style of music to throw at beginner guitar players. Simply put, for guitar players reggae is all about the “and” - the up- or off- beat. Learning to feel the off beat is a crucial skill, something that many guitar players bypass, because.. well, because reggae may not have any obvious connection to the type of music they want to play. If you're into rock, or metal, or blues... what does reggae have to do with any of that?
Simple. EVERYTHING uses the off beat – look at any rock rhythm part. How often do you hear something that is just solely on the downbeat? Pretty much all music uses rhythms that mix up the down and up beats, so being able to use the up beat is critical to mastering rhythm. A perfect example is the Kings Of Leon mega-hit, “Sex On Fire” - the verse rhythm part is all on the off beat. Switch it around and play it on the downbeat – as so many young bands are wont to do – and it just doesn't work. All the life and the energy is gone. AC/DC are another fantastic example of this – songs like “Highway To Hell” or “You Shook Me All Night Long” have great catchy rhythm parts that involve heavy use of the off beat. If you're going to play this sort of stuff and play it properly, spending some time focusing on just the off beat is essential.
I first realised this a few years ago with a student who was struggling to play Megadeth's classic “Symphony Of Destruction” - for those of you unfamiliar with the track, it's a relatively sparse rhythm part, but makes heavy use of (you guessed it) the off beat. This student could play the powerchords and riff without a problem, but could not get the timing. So I uttered the immortal line “trust me, I'm a guitar teacher” and off we went to learn “No Woman No Cry”. By the following week he was nailing the Megadeth riff, all timing problems solved.
So regardless of the style you want to play, it benefits all guitar players to immerse themselves in reggae for at least a little while – let's be honest, being a guitarist means playing rhythm at least 75% of the time, so it pays to be able to do it well. And to be honest, once you get into it, reggae is enormous fun to play- being able to sit in that off beat groove and feel the whole band “bounce” along is really quite addictive. So try it – this month, pick yourself a bunch of reggae classics and go for it. There's a huge amount to be learnt in terms of rhythm, chord voicings – all material that you can transfer across into what ever style you play.