As a guitarist, it’s beneficial to be able to play in a variety of different styles.
And although note and chord choices sometimes do define a style, more often than not, the rhythmic patterns do more to evoke a particular genre or feel than the notes themselves.
Syncopated rhythms are what define dance music. And though I take it with a grain of salt, I’ve heard a lot of people say that “the point of music is to get people dancing.”
But even if not for that, it’s great to be able to add some tools to your belt, so let’s take a look at syncopated rhythms for guitar.
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What Is Syncopation?
Syncopation refers to unexpected rhythmic patterns, most commonly heard in genres like funk, jazz, reggae, gospel, and so on.
The emphasis of the beat in a typical 4/4 rock song is easy to identify. The kick drum can usually be heard on the first and third beats, and the snare on the second and fourth beats. You could say that the accents are on the beats. Meanwhile, most forms of dance music use some kind of off-beat rhythms to get people moving.
One of my favorite groups, Dan Reed Network, was labeled as a “funk rock” band early on, because even though they were a rock band, they wanted to keep the dancefloor moving and used syncopated rhythms in their music. Lenny Kravitz has a similar approach to his music.
Another way of looking at syncopation is that it’s a shifting of the typical accent. So beats that aren’t normally accented would be accented in songs featuring syncopation. Terms like “off-beat” and “counterpoint rhythm” are also used to describe syncopation.
How To Play Reggae Guitar
If you know how to play triads, then you can play reggae (if you can play barre chords, even better). The main thing to keep in mind is the rhythm.
Here is how you would play a series of non-syncopated triads:
Pretty straightforward, right? But in order to turn this into a reggae riff, we have to syncopate it.
Hopefully you noticed how I used eighth-notes in the above example. When you’re playing eighth-notes, you need to count them like this:
1 & 2 & 3 & 4 &
In a typical rock or punk rock song, you would either play on all of the beats, or you would play on all of the beats and during the “&’s” as well.
In reggae, you wouldn’t play on the beats at all, only during the &’s. So here’s how the previous example looks when it’s properly syncopated:
“But that doesn’t sound any different,” you may say, and you would be right. It’s only with the presence of other instruments (drums, at least) that you really notice the syncopation.
But here’s a little trick that can help you feel that syncopation a little better. Try strumming down during the numbered beats, either without touching the strings, or with muting (to produce a “chuck” sound known as scratching). Then, use your upstrokes to actually strum the triads. Here’s how that would look on paper:
Once you’ve mastered this technique, you should start to feel comfortable playing reggae style riffs. Just keep in mind that rhythms can be hard to “feel” for some people. Don’t worry, you can still learn how to do it, it just might take a little more work than it would for others.
How To Play Funk Guitar
You’ve already learned the basics of syncopation, and you should now be able to start applying it to other areas of your playing.
With this in mind, stylistically, funk is a little different than reggae.
Funk is more about the interplay between different instruments than any one instrument, and the idea is that practically every instrument in the band, including the guitar, becomes a “percussion” instrument.
Funk riffs on guitar can take a variety of different forms, and don’t always abide by a standard set of rules. But there are a couple of things that are typically true of funk riffs. For one thing, most funk songs have a 16th-note feel to them, which means you need to be able to count 16th-notes. Here is how to count a full measure’s worth of them:
1 e & a 2 e & a 3 e & a 4 e & a
One other thing is that, unlike reggae, the guitar typically accents the first beat in funk. But again, this isn’t always the case.
Now that you know the basics of funk, it’s time to try some examples. Don’t worry – I’ll go easy on you.
With the first example, you just need to strum on the first, second, third and fourth beats. I've made all of the rests 16th-notes to make counting easier. Give it a try.
Since funk is based on a 16th-note rhythm, you don’t want your strums to last longer than a 16th-note. Make them quick and almost staccato-like.
Now let’s add some “scratches” in between the strums. You’ll need to lift your fingers after strums to make this work, but you don’t want to take them right off of your guitar. It’s similar to the reggae technique we talked about earlier. Basically you want to mute all of the strings and strum them muted. So your fingers should be touching the strings but not applying any pressure. Here’s how it looks:
Now that things are starting to get a bit funkier, let’s try one last example. The idea here is to strum on “1” and “a”, and “3” and “a”. Again, with funk you’re really just strumming the whole time, but I’m talking about where the regular strums and not the “scratch” strums go. Let’s get to it.
Now we’re really starting to sound funky!
Every guitarist should learn to play syncopated rhythms at one point or another. If you’re looking to become a session guitarist, then it is absolutely essential to be able to play in a variety of different styles.
The more rhythms you learn, and the better you understand rhythms, the better able you will be to create variety and interest in your playing. When you hit plateaus as a player, you should focus on learning new rhythms as opposed to new scales or chords, as this will offer more inspiration.