How To Practice The MOST IMPORTANT Musical Skill

What Is The Most Important Musical Skill?

Tommaso Zillio

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rhythm guitar

What is the one musical skill that overrides all others? The one thing that lets you make as many mistakes as you want and still sound great?

(Ok, that’s two questions… sue me)

Sounds like a superpower, I know, but there really is one skill that, when mastered, will make you sound like a professional, make other musicians love playing with you, and make producers love recording with you.

And that skill is, of course, sweep picking.

Just kidding!! It’s rhythm.

A wrong note, played in time, is no longer wrong. You’re wrong for thinking it’s wrong. At the very least, a wrong note played at the right time sounds much less wrong than a wrong note played at the wrong time.

… right? :-)

Good rhythm is, for all intents and purposes, a superpower for musicians. Why? Well, it automatically makes us sound professional… because time is the primary medium that music is communicated in.

So that’s all well and good, but it doesn’t mean anything if we don’t know the best way to train and master rhythm.

Because, despite what some wannabe guitar teacher may have told you, rhythm is not natural to humans. We are not “rhythmic creatures” (if I had a penny every time I heard a music teacher say that…)

What they should say instead is:

  1. Nobody has great rhythm skills naturally. Some people are better than others, but none compares to a trained musician.

  2. At the same time, it’s easy to acquire excellent rhythm skills by practicing a few easy exercises.

  3. These exercises are fun!

Luckily for you, I recorded a lesson that outlines a few great ways that you can start practicing your time and perfecting your internal clock.

Watch the video now (if you want to thank me later… just ‘like’ it on YouTube):

With all of this newfound rhythm skill, you might be looking for some rhythm guitar concepts to practice. Check out my Complete Chord Mastery guitar course to learn many new approaches to harmony on the guitar and to take your rhythm guitar playing up to 11.

Video Transcription

Hello internet; so nice to see you! Among professional musicians, we have a little dirty secret. It’s not a dirty secret, but it’s a secret. It’s a secret because nobody wants to hear it. And this is it:

If your rhythm is good enough, if you really nail the rhythm in your playing, you can play whatever you want. You can play even the wrong notes or the wrong chords. If your rhythm is solid, people will just go with it, because it sounds like you mean it.

Everybody thinks they have perfect timing and perfect rhythm, everybody at the beginning thinks: ‘yes, of course I’m playing on time’. In my experience, nobody does until they train.

So recently, a student of mine asked me about how to make her rhythm more solid. And so here, I’m going to share with you my answer to her. And this answer contains some secret practices to make your rhythm rock solid and professional.

If, but only if, you practice those things, your rhythm is going to be unshakable, and you’re gonna sound perfect. You could play anything you want, it will sound good, guaranteed. So let me show you those secret practices.


‘Diana?’

‘Hi. My question is around how you can evaluate the sort of integrity of your inner rhythm clock. And the steadiness of that when you’re, for example, adding additional elements like singing, solo performance. Obviously, I’m always interested in improving my own skills in this area. But also, it’s kind of in I was sure that you would have amazing ways to teach it. So I was keen to hear your thoughts.’

‘Yes, and we’ve talked about this before. So, you are trying to see if you can hold the time constant without having a metronome?’

‘Yeah, how you train your, yeah, exactly. Your inner time clock and your ability to keep it steady when you’re singing and…’

‘Okay, are you familiar with that old band Weather Report?’

‘Somewhat.’

‘Okay. Whether you know the songs or not, the songs are nice, but the band was made by amazing musicians. And reportedly, I didn’t know if this story is true. Okay, I haven’t checked, I haven’t asked any of them. But I’ve heard this story from more than one source. They used to train in this way, they were getting go together in a room, as a warm-up. Okay, and they were giving themself a tempo. And then they say now, 136 bars from now you’re going to come back here and they go, they grab a coffee from the machine. And they come back in the same room. They enter, they looked toward the walls, they don’t look together, and they, all together go: (claps hands). All together.’

‘That’s insane.’

‘If it’s true, I hope it’s true, I really hope because that will be like, ‘yes!’. Okay. They wanted to do this to make sure that they really, really, really get the rhythm down. Okay, and so when I heard the story, I was like, how can I get this for myself? First of all, I confess I cannot do 136 bars at such a steady tempo while doing other activities. Okay, that’s not gonna happen. Not for me right now. Not yet, at least. Okay.

But there are ways to set your internal clock. Okay? So, here’s what I do with some of my students. And you can do it with yourself, I do this with myself, use an electronic metronome. Okay? And it’s important that it’s not one of the mechanical ones, I know the mechanical ones are nicer, okay. And it’s important is not one on the phone, because you can still see what’s going on.

You want to turn on the metronome and start clapping in time. Then you or somebody else turn down the volume of the metronome and you turn it the other way. And you keep doing it. And then somebody, you or somebody else, you can keep tapping your foot, for instance, and turn on the volume of the metronome and see how far away you are from the metronome. Okay, when you do this, I would recommend you guys do this for like two bars. Okay, it’s already enough. Okay. You typically rush a lot when you do this. Okay.

The problem here is that your brain does not process time in a simple way. So, whenever there is a stimulus, your brain slows down time because it wants more time to analyze the stimulus and then there is no stimulus you speed up time, which means that when you turn off the metronome most likely you’re going to be ahead of the beat, which does not sound good as we all know. That’s one factor.

The other factor is that whenever you are testing yourself or whenever you are under examination, okay, typically when you are on stage, or you’re in a studio and you click the record button, and there is the red light. Okay, you have all these adrenaline pumping, and you’re like, I’m going to record this solo, it has to be perfect on the first take because it’s recorded, and everybody will be able to hear it. That’s where you started speeding up because you’re full of adrenaline, maybe I’m exaggerating but, the way to fix that is to get used to it and do it often.

So, one way is this with a metronome. Okay? This is simple, reliable, and can be done anywhere, you just need a metronome. If you are in studio, on the other hand, you have better options, you could do this, you open your recording program, you create a click track, or a drum track or whatever. And then you mute the central part. And then you start recording something, it doesn’t have to be complex, okay, you can just record just the usual eighth notes or any kind of strumming pattern, something simple one chord, but you start to see the first two bars, say you have the drum track, and then you have four bars without, and you keep recording. And when the drum track comes back, you should be in time.

Okay, it’s not easy. It’s not, it’s not the first few times. But once you get used to it, it’s not even that complex, either. Okay, now, the beauty of doing this in the studio recording, I mean, it could be your home. So, you don’t have to pay for studio hours. But it could be your own studio. The beauty of doing this is that you can see the track you recorded. So you know, when you went out of time.’

‘And then you also know if you went faster or slower?’

‘Yes, exactly.’

‘And by how much?’

‘Exactly. Okay, so it’s, it’s good, because then you can start diagnosing the problem like, are you going, are you going ahead of the beat immediately are you late, but only at the end or so you can have an idea on where you are. Okay, that will be level one for me, then there is level two, level 2 is this: Do the same thing with the drum track. So, leave a gap, record your first track, mute the track, and do it again on a second track.

Not only both tracks should come back in time with the drums, but they should also be synchronized with each other to tell if they’re synchronized you pan one, right, one left, and hard right and had left. And you listen, if the track sounds like a big guitar, I mean every note hits at the same time, you’re good. If the track feels like it’s shifting back and forth, it means you’re not hitting those notes at the same time. And you need to work a little bit more to get the synchronization right. That’s tough, especially the first few times.

Okay, that’s why I say start with one chord, start with a simple rhythm. Once you can have this down for one chord in a simple rhythm. It’s easy to go more complex rhythms because you got the feeling now. Okay. And then here you can also do things like try to play slightly ahead of the beats, slightly behind the beat, but I will suggest you to these only after you are sure you can play exactly on the beat.

Okay, now, I will start with a gap between two and four bars. Depending on the tempo. Faster tempos are easier, because there’s less time in the gap, and also because faster tempos are easier to feel. The slower tempos are much harder. Then you expand the gap and then you can expand as much as you want. There’s no top limit for that.’

‘I observe that many of my students tend to, and myself actually, tend to go faster when they’re playing live.’

‘Oh, yes, yes. Yeah.’

‘A nice way to monitor for that as well?’

‘Yes, adrenaline, happens all the time. So yes, a good- idea, not a good idea. I’m not saying this is a specific good idea. But an idea could be to train yourself and your students under pressure. So use the exact same exercise with an audience and see if it works on stage. I don’t know. I mean, depends on the facilities you have. And I mean, I don’t know if you can pay an audience to look at you while you practice, I don’t have these kinds of resources, you may have. It’s something you can do. Okay. Again and use the metronome, so you have an idea.’

‘Cool.’

‘Great.’

‘Thank you very much. Great tips.’

‘Thank you, Diana. Great question.’

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