Keys to Developing a Great Rhythm Section

Featuring Mark Cole Posted on April 1, 2008

Getting a great rhythm sound from part-time musicians can be challenging. Here are a number of areas to work on.

  1. Make sure all the instruments are tuned properly: Often simply buying a tuner and using it to tune the guitars and bass will really help. Guitars often need to be tuned a few times during worship time. Having onstage tuners and on/off pedals can make this process seamless.
  2. Make sure everyone listens to each other: The rhythm section is an interactive group that needs to respond to the different players and song styles by listening to each other. Often the monitors need to be set-up to facilitate this. Musicians tend to mostly listen to themselves. They need to broaden their focus to include the full range of instruments that they are playing with.
  3. All players need to develop a good sense of time. One of the main keys to a rhythm section is to play together and learn to keep a steady tempo. Players need to learn to not rush or drag a song. The drummer is one of the key elements to establishing the tempo. Drummers should work with metronomes and recordings to improve their overall sense of time. They need to make sure that all their drum fills are in time and don’t rush or drag. A drummer can make or break a rhythm section.
  4. Decide which instrument will be the lead sound on that particular song. Some songs are more keyboard oriented and some more guitar oriented, some more bass and drums oriented. If the players understand the driving musical force of that particular song it will help them know their role in the overall musical scheme.
  5. Use metronomes to count off the songs. I’ve seen 15-30 minutes wasted in a rehearsal while players decide the tempos of various songs. If you figure out the tempo markings before the rehearsal and then have metronomes available for the various players starting a song it will really make the rehearsal go much better. Usually one of three players starts a song.  It is usually the drummer, guitar player or the keyboard player. If each of them has a metronome to get the exact tempo it will save time and produce a more musical result. I also suggest that you use multiple metronomes for each player so that no tempos need to be set up during a worship service.
  6. Each player should know how to read a basic rhythm chart. This should include knowing all the chords and their extensions on their particular instrument, knowing how to read notated rhythms, and understanding the musical roadmap of a piece. (I.e. repeats, 1st and 2nd endings, D.S., signs and Coda)
  7. A rhythm section needs to develop a wide range of understanding for different musical styles. Each style of music has it's own musical feel and the role of each instrument changes for that particular style. For example, in a lot of guitar based worship tunes, the keyboard player plays simple musical pads (strings or organ) to support the guitars. In gospel music the piano is often the lead instrument and the electric guitar player just plays fills. Giving your players tapes or CD’s of the original recording of the song will help them understand their role in that song. They will be able to hear what the original players played and then develop their own part from there.
  8. Rhythm sections also need to learn to play by ear. Picking out a chord progression by ear is easy for some and hard for others. It is a skill that can be developed. The key is listening to the bass progression. If players can learn to hear the falling of a 5th, and 3rd and stepwise progressions that will help them determine what the chord is playing above that musical root. The other important thing to listen to is the type of chord. Is it a major, minor, diminished, augmented, 7th chord. Does it have any extensions added? Which inversion is it? Learning to hear all these basic things will help each player a better understanding of music and pick out a progression by ear.
  9. Understand where the ‘kick’ and ‘snare’ go in a musical style. These different rhythmic ‘feels’ provide the rhythmic foundation for contemporary music. If the drummer and the bass player learn to listen to each other and agree on the ‘kick’ pattern for that song, it will set up a good musical foundation on which the other players can work from. The snare also provides an important part of the rhythmic foundation of the song. Knowing whether a song has a ‘half time’ feel, a ‘double time’ feel or just a normal ‘2’ and ‘4’ pattern is foundational to the song. Rhythm sections often don’t have these patterns notated. They are usually picked up by listening to the original recordings, musical experience or working with the song till you get what sounds right. I often communicate to drummers by singing the pattern to them or by describing it as a ‘half time feel’, ‘double time feel’ or other commonly used rhythmic term.

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