When I first arrived at music school with a half dozen Grand Canyon holes in my musical knowledge, I was taken aback by the endless stream of extended chords haunting the space above every line of staff paper. The b13 chords intimidated me. The sus chords straight-up mocked me (What in God’s name am I supposed to play over a D7sus? I can’t even confidently solo over a two chord diatonic progression…)
For several years following this rude awakening to just how juvenile was my command of music theory, I believed that the secret to being a better musician lay in the fancy scales and harmonic structures of the jazz legends so revered in the practice rooms of every music school campus. I was primarily a rock player and had no intention of fundamentally changing that, but if only I could figure out what the heck Charlie Parker was up to, and if I could only learn how to wail on the altered scale, and if I could only master the complexities of implied harmony and extensions, then maybe I would be able to play like my favorite artists.
After countless hours spent learning to play over changes and developing a more advanced vocabulary and exploring every intricacy of my guitar neck that time allowed, I began to return to my old (and truest) heroes with the ear and understanding of a more advanced player. Hendrix has always been an idol of mine, and while I had learned a few of his songs, I certainly lacked a firm enough grasp of his playing habits to understand why what he played moved me so. I couldn’t wait to uncover which of my newly acquired high level tactics he wielded back in the 60s to melt the collective face of the world.
Much to my horror/delight, I soon discovered that in many of my favorite songs, he’s just playing the DAMN MINOR PENTATONIC SCALE THE WHOLE TIME – the same simple damn minor pentatonic that I had learned about four months into my guitar journey some ten years prior.
Countless hours wasted, I thought! (And, of course, that couldn’t be further from the truth, but I digress.) If I didn’t need to learn any of those ridiculous jazz scales, then what is it I need to learn? What on Earth is he doing to make that magic?
Sometimes quickly and sometimes slowly, I began to piece it together: it’s the rhythm, child.
In seventh grade science class, our teacher scrawled in Expo dry erase marker the three primary elements of music: rhythm, melody, and harmony. This is, of course, an oversimplification (and I can find no source on the internet to validate this particular tripartite breakdown, but I digress once again.) Let me be clear that this whole essay, too, is an oversimplification, but profound truth nonetheless lies within it: of the main ingredients of music, rhythm reigns supreme, and placing a greater emphasis on rhythm resulted in a revolution in my playing, my improvising, my songwriting, and my general understanding of quality music.
In the beef brisket sandwich of a song, the melody and harmony are the golden, flakey bread and the sweet symphony of sauce, but the 12 hour slow-cooked deliciously charred cow is the rhythm. In the mansion that is a hawt track, the chord progression is the furniture, the hot tub, and the paranoia-tinged, NSA-level multicam security system, but the rhythm is the foundation, the walls, the roof, and even the sprawling bucolic land upon which the home is built. Can one craft a great sandwich with stellar bun, unforgettable fragrant sauce, and beef that’s a little dry? Sure, sometimes. But it’s a whole lot easier to start with that mountain of succulent tender flesh, and without it, your barbecue isn’t about to win any awards at the state fair.*
The riff of Whole Lotta Love doesn’t change lives because of melody or harmony or even the rich guitar tone (though I will say here that I think Hendrix’s other critical ingredient is his general SOUND – the timbre, the texture, the bends and grace notes.) Whole Lotta Love has fueled countless make out sessions because of the rhythm. Superstition could still sound cool and get the hips moving with different notes in the riff or melody, but the rhythm must stay the same or else the legendary song becomes unrecognizable.
Rhythmic motifs, rhythmic displacement, melodic rhythm and harmonic rhythm are just a few of the plummeting chasms into which I have giddily dived during the “rhythm period” of my life as a musician. Even those bebop masters and modern jazz giants to which I earlier eluded would be nothing without the thrill of rhythm. Without the playfulness of the rhythms, without the tension built from establishing and then breaking rhythmic expectation, their breathtaking runs would never dazzle like they do. Playing the half-diminished scale isn’t too hard for a driven human being who wants to learn an instrument. How to play it is the true challenge, the true question, and finding our own answers is our high pleasure as artists.
I know other musicians and listeners who seem to have a generally greater appreciation for harmony than I do. Different sounds speak to different ears and to different souls. And it bears repeating that “rhythm trumps all” is a gross reduction of the truth. But still, try it on for a little while! Locking in on all things rhythm – the patterns, the feel, the structures, the dance – has transformed my whole approach to music. Maybe all of this is obvious to you. Rhythm and its primacy are certainly staring us in the face, but it sure stared at me for a while before I took appropriate notice (man, that was awkward. Sorry rhythm!)
If you reach a plateau in your development or you can’t put your finger on just what the chorus of your new song needs or you are taking a solo in front of an eager crowd and you aren’t feeling what you’re putting out and you start to panic and blank, just remember:
It’s the rhythm, sillyhead!
*I am a vegetarian and do not condone the torture, slaughter, and consumption of meat, but I could not think of a vegetarian food analogy nearly as clear or descriptive as the beef brisket sandwich in the short time I allowed myself to write this.