I remember vividly the crisp awkward silence that followed my song. I was uneasy. I wished I could disappear right then and there and never come back. A second or two later the adrenaline was coursing through my whole body and I couldn’t get enough of it.
Playing a song in front of anyone when you are learning guitar can be terrifying.
It can also be one of the most intense and transformative experiences of a lifetime.
I’d like to share with you a trap that prevents too many beginners from playing music people want to listen to, and show you how you can avoid it.
I’ll end by sharing a related and very useful trick all successful musicians know of: How to hide mistakes when playing live.
Rhythm Rhythm Rhythm
Most beginner guitarists understandably concentrate on making each chord sound as nice as possible, or on making sure they hit every single note of the song they just learnt. The downside is that the first thing which will suffer as a consequence is rhythm.
This is the trap I was talking about.
What you might not know is that if your rhythm is off, listening to your song will be utter torture, regardless of the quality of anything else.
Take a second to let that sink in.
Bad rhythm + Everything Else Good = Utter Torture.
I’m very serious. You are allowed to mess up a chord completely when playing a song, you are NOT allowed to lose your rhythm or to stop playing to go back to where you messed up.
I’ve seen people who could barely clap to a song cringe when a novice musician missed a beat. They might not have known why, but they didn’t like it one bit.
If that isn’t enough for you by itself, I’ll add that musicians that can’t keep a beat are a bands’ worst nightmare. You don’t want to be that person.
The good news is that you can avoid this trap by making a small change in the way you practice.
As a beginner, you should be concentrating on rhythm when you are practicing anything other than isolated chords.
But how ?
If you are like 99% of beginner guitar students and are having trouble with rhythm, the trick is to slow down, literally.
Use a metronome and go as slow as you need to in order to stick to a beat. Make it so slow it’s uncomfortable and even boring. Start with short exercises ranging from 30 seconds to a minute and a half, rhythm being your number one priority.
When you get comfortable and can play all the notes and chords well, you can accelerate the metronome. Keep repeating until you get to the rhythm you are aiming for.
It’s tempting to take shortcuts and speed up too soon. I urge you to think long term and hold back. Keeping a beat is a skill that will serve you every time you pick up an instrument for the rest of your life. It is worth the investment upfront.
The secret to hiding mistakes
The most common question I get from students applying this rule is what to do if they can’t get to a chord fast enough, or if a certain chord sounds messy. The first instinct is to discard rhythm and take the time necessary to correct the mistake.
But you know better now.
Whether you are practicing or playing live, if you mess up a chord, stay concentrated and continue your song. Do not stop. Do not lose the rhythm.
Have you ever seen a professional musician on stage stop in the middle of a song, say “sorry that chord didn’t sound great”, and start over ? Of course not.
They do make mistakes though.
But they know the secret. They know that if they just keep up with the rhythm, keep singing as if nothing happened, barely anyone will notice.
It is still hard for me to understand WHY this works, but it does so well that I just apply it and don’t ask questions.
I’ve made huge mistakes at concerts where friends new my songs by heart. After the show, I used to say I was sorry but they would just stared at me. “What do you mean ?? I had no idea.” I thought that was the only thing they would remember from the show!
Now I make sure I keep my mouth shut 🙂
And now you know the two rules that every single successful musician knows:
1. Rhythm before anything else
2. Hide mistakes by ignoring them and going on.
Photo credit: Soumyadeep Paul