The rhythmic framework we call 4/4 time consists of a cycle
of four beats divided into four subdivisions each. Each subdivision is a 16th note, and the count
goes like this: 1 ee and uh, 2 ee and uh, 3 ee and uh, 4 ee and uh.
The following chart represents one cycle—or measure—of 4/4
time, and each box represents one 16th note. To make the count fit in the boxes, I
use “e + a” for the syllables “ee and uh”:
Many drummers and other
musicians find it easier to function in this rhythmic framework by counting in
“cut-time.” On my charts in
cut-time, the 4/4 measure with 16 boxes is replaced by two measures with 8
boxes each. Each box represents an
8th note, and the count (which repeats twice in the cycle) goes “1
and 2 and 3 and 4 and.” Notice
that this puts the pulse on beats 1 and 3:
I almost always count and chart rhythms in cut-time rather
than 4/4. I find it easier to work
with two smaller measures rather than one long one. I also find it easier to have a number as a reference point
every two subdivisions rather than every four. And I get confused by all the different syllables used in
The one situation in which I’ll count in 4/4 is when I’m
counting just the main beats—the pulses.
Then I’ll count “1, 2, 3, 4” rather than “1, 3, 1, 3.”
Changing from counting in 4/4 to cut-time or vice versa
doesn’t affect the feeling or speed of a rhythm or song. It only changes the names and numbers
assigned to the beats and subdivisions.
Ultimately it doesn’t matter how you count a
rhythm, or even whether you count at all.
What matters is that you feel the rhythmic framework internally while
you play. I call a rhythmic
framework a “grid” for short, and whether you call it 4/4 or cut-time, the grid
you feel internally while you play should have this structure:
I've been drumming for 20 years now. Before that I played piano. Recently, I've started learning to play the guitar. In truth, I've tried many times over the course of my life to get into the guitar but I've always felt blocked. The strings hurt my fingers. The chord shapes were too hard for my left hand. The fretboard was a mystery to me--with a layout that didn't fit with how my brain worked.
But lately, a series of realizations have opened up the guitar for me. The first was using an alternate tuning. At a party a few years ago, I saw a guy playing guitar with what looked like an effortless left hand. When I asked him what his secret was, he said "DADGAD tuning." The tuning gets its name from the pitches of the strings, going from lowest to highest.
Making the left hand easier allowed me to focus on my right hand in a way that I'd never been able to before. Then I saw a YouTube clip by Dave Isaacs where he taught that a guitarist should think of the instrument like a drumset. Accents on the low notes are like strokes on the bass drum. Accents on the high notes are like strokes on the snare drum. And the quieter strokes in between are like quieter strokes on the hi-hat. As a drummer, this all made sense to me.
The third shift came from playing with a pick. If the guitar is my drum, then the pick is my drumstick. At that point, all the rhythmic knowledge I had picked up over the last 20 years started to flow through my right hand. And it flowed faster than I could keep up! For the last five years, I've been focused on creating instructional videos for beginning hand drummers on djembe, bongos, and cajon. Everything I presented and everything I played was carefully thought out and planned. I had complete control over everything I played.
Now my right hand on the guitar is doing things that I can't even begin to analyze or understand. I guess it was time for me to let go a little and just make music!
But as soon as I learn how to do something, I naturally have the urge to teach it. (I love it when someone is lost in my neighborhood and stops to ask me directions.) And when I figure out how to do something--like play the congas or the djembe or the bongos or the cajon--I love showing other people how to do it. It's as if I've gone into the woods and found this amazing spot with a really cool view. Instead of just hanging out at that spot and enjoying myself, I run out of the woods and holler: "Hey everybody! Come here and look at what I've found!" And then the fun is trying to find the simplest and quickest route to that amazing spot, so that whoever follows me has an even easier time getting there than I did.
So I wouldn't be surprised if my next instructional video isn't about drumming, but rather a beginner's guide to playing the guitar--with a focus on rhythm. But maybe not. Maybe I'll just hang out at this amazing spot for a while.
In the meantime, here's a recording of where I'm at on a Wednesday in April 2012, playing around with just a few simple chords.