Musicians tend to listen to music with a more scrutinizing ear, analyzing each facet of the music and evaluating it on subjective criteria on levels that most ordinary listeners would not understand or even care about. There are also times to put that scrutiny away and simply just absorb the music and emotions and colors it generates. Still, it should always be the goal of the musician to be in command of his instrument in order to express things clearly and articulately. This is made possible by having good ‘chops’, or facility, to carry out these ideas.
Many get the impression that having good chops is about playing fast or technically virtuosic; however, it can also mean excellence in executing ideas, even if these are simple ideas. It’s about having all the tools to get the job done. In this post I really want to focus on the rhythmic execution of phrases and melodies and how important it is to the success of a piece of music.
The successful phrasing of a melodic line or even just a motif is strongly dependent on the rhythmic accuracy of it. Connection with the pulse of the music and absolute control of the rhythm is crucial to the music. Even though the role of each musical instrument is different in musical performances, it is of the highest importance that each instrument is in service of the rhythm of the piece, and lap steel guitar, unfortunately, is not exempt from this. Lap steel players, just like guitarists, drummers and pianists, must have control of rhythm, accents and dynamics of their playing.
I want this post to focus on the picking hand, but it takes the coordinated efforts of the picking and the bar hand to make it a success. In phase 1, we’ll just focus on picking. We can do this by working on picking exercises on open strings using no bar, though it is not something that I like to do at length because I like to make actual music when I practice. In this case, we want to emphasize our ability to pick accurately, so we’ll keep it simple in phase 1. For the purposes of making ourselves more self-aware, it’s recommended to record ourselves practicing often and to learn to listen to ourselves in an honest and critical way. This is how we make improvements and develop a better relationship with music.
When it comes to rhythmic execution, we can look at how we use our picking fingers to play certain rhythmic patterns–for even rhythms, such as quarter, eighth and sixteenth notes, the simplest approach is to use two fingers, usually T (thumb) and 2 (middle), but also T and 1. We’ll keep it simple. For odd groupings, such as factors of 3 (triplets), it’s good to use T, 1 and 2. This is how we are going to proceed.
If you have a metronome (recommended) or a metronome app (I like Tempo for iphone or Time Guru), set it to a tempo of 80 bpm (Andantino). Each click will be a quarter note. Pick in an alternating pattern, T-2, T-2, T-2. T-2, T-2 for approximately one minute. If you’ve recorded yourself, listen back to the recording. Ask yourself if you were dead on all the way through. Now, try it again. Listen again to the recording.
When you feel that you are comfortable with the rhythm and your picking is flawless, change the setting on the metronome to 40 bpm. We are going to consider each click now to be a half note, and we want to play quarter notes, so what that means is that we will play two notes for every click–one on the click and one in between clicks. It’s essentially the exact thing you played before. Record yourself for 30 seconds. Listen. Repeat. It is a little more difficult, isn’t it? We are internalizing the rhythm and we are gaining control of our picking.
Let’s try one more exercise. Reset the metronome to 60 bpm. We are going to play triplets now–specifically eighth note triplets, which means if the pulse is a quarter note, we pick three notes for every quarter note: one-two-three, one-two-three, one-two-three, etc. or one-trip-let, two-trip-let–all played evenly. Let’s play the pattern T-2-1 (thumb-middle-index)–this is the most effective way of playing triplets. Record yourself for a minute or so. Listen back. Repeat.
This is the most basic approach to getting it together–phase 1. Next time, we’ll begin focusing on using the bar and combining glissando (slides) and picked notes using the scale and also using accents. You’ll find it challenging and rewarding, I promise. And there will be written music and tab to accompany it.