Rhythm is often thrown to the wayside, in favor of working on harmony and melody. Perhaps this disregard is caused by a lack of understanding about how to approach this aspect of improvisation.
Here’s a simple and effective process to find and incorporate new rhythms into your playing.
Step 1: Choose a chorus
You’ll need a chorus from a solo. Throughout the article I’ll use the first chorus of Miles Davis soloing on “So What” to illustrate the concepts discussed. Pick something that’s at a medium tempo, where the soloist plays distinct phrases with clear and interesting rhythmic ideas. Solos of Miles are perfect candidates.
Step 2: Transcribe the rhythms
When you transcribe, you do not want to write the solo down as you’re learning it. If I write a solo down, it will often be months after I’ve internalized the entire solo and can play it flawlessly. You always want to make sure you’re not depending on a written copy of the solo to remember it or to play it; you’re writing the solo down to strengthen your ability to notate what you hear and to analyze it more closely.
In this exercise you actually will write down what you’re transcribing as you do it because your reasons for transcribing are highly specific: to identify each rhythm the soloist uses, understand them, notate them, and integrate them into your playing. You’re not trying to learn language. You’re not worried about the melodic or harmonic components. All you’re concerned with is the rhythms. That is why in this particular case, you’re writing stuff down as you’re doing it.
Transcribing just the rhythms from a solo will help strengthen your rhythmic awareness. Because you don’t need to know the pitches, it’s something you can do while riding the subway or waiting for an appointment, so no need to waste your valuable practice time. Listen to the first phrase of the chorus. Hear it in your mind and repeat it a few times in your head. Then slow it down in your mind and hear it even more clearly.
Now ask yourself: What beat does the phrase start on? What beat does it end on? What are the rhythmic values of each note in the phrase? Once you can confidently answer these questions, visualize the phrase’s rhythm in your mind; just select any pitch for the entire rhythm. And finally, write it down.
For example, from the Miles chorus, the first phrase starts on beat 3. It ends on beat 3 of the following measure. It’s made up of a dotted quarter note, an eighth note, and a half note. I then visualize the phrase, seeing it clearly in my mind, and then write it down. So, notating just the rhythm, I would write down:
Continue through the entire chorus in this manner, writing each phrase down as illustrated in the following example. I’ve included the video again so you can listen to it while you look at the transcription. Notate the rhythms as best you can. Often the rhythms played are slightly different than what’s possible to write down. This is why it’s imperative to stay closely connected with the recording even after you write everything down.
Step 3: Select your favorite rhythms
Once you’ve transcribed the chorus’s rhythms in the manner prescribed in step 2, look through your work and find the rhythms that appeal the most to you. Often we forget how crucial this step is. We have the freedom to select exactly what we want to incorporate into our playing. These decisions are what make people sound the way they do. Be conscious of this selection process and choose what resonates with you.
Choose your top three, the one’s that jump out at you the most, and use only those for now in the following exercises. You can always go back and incorporate more. It’s always better to work with a small amount of information, truly master it and make it a part of you.
Here are three rhythms that seem interesting to me from the Miles solo.
Step 4: Integrate a new rhythm into your playing
From your top three, choose one.
Now, playing over a blues or a tune you’re working on, use the rhythm exclusively in your improvisation. Here’s an example over a G blues using the second rhythm from my selected three.
The second rhythm is:
Now I take that and utilize it over a blues:
Once you practice using the rhythm exclusively, practice using it every other phrase. Then try using it twice in a chorus in predetermined bars. And then finally, use it randomly, mixing it freely with other material and concepts.
Emulating the concept behind the rhythm is another way to start to incorporating these new rhythms into your playing. Ask yourself why you find the particular rhythms you chose interesting. For instance, I found the last rhythm interesting because of the half note in the middle of the phrase, occupying beats 2 and 3.
Knowing that, I could then work on creating phrases that use this half-note in the middle of the line. It’s always beneficial to know what attracts you to a particular phrase or rhythm because then you can simply emulate the concept behind the line.
Finding and integrating new rhythms
The straightforward process described throughout this article will help you easily find and integrate new rhythmic ideas and concepts into your playing.
- Choose a chorus which contains lots of defined rhythmic ideas
- Transcribe all the rhythms and write them down
- Select your favorites
- Play over a blues or standard using your selected rhythms in creative ways
Following this process, in only a few hours, it’s possible to tear apart the inner workings of Miles Davis or another masters intricate rhythms, understood them, notate them, and began to integrate them into your playing. I’m sure going through this rhythmic practice will convince you how important rhythm truly is and that it’s quite easy to work on.