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Major Musical Challenge #2: “My Rhythm Is Terrible!”

In my last post we covered the first (of 3) Major Musical Challenges that just about all jazz students have to deal with.

And today, we’re gonna continue on to #2. Let’s just jump right in…

Challenge #2: “My Rhythm Is Terrible”

Ever thought anything like this to yourself:

“I’m terrible at rhythm. I don’t really know what to play when I’m soloing. To be honest, I feel like I play the same few rhythms every time and I’m afraid my solos sound boring and square. I just don’t know enough rhythms but even if I did I couldn’t possibly worry about what rhythm to play when I can barely find the right pitches to play. It’s so frustrating and overwhelming to try and think of all this different stuff at the same time. I just don’t know where to even start.”

Yikes. That’s a pretty frustrating spot to be stuck in. But like everything else, rhythmic ability is learnable. It’s attainable. Yup, that’s right. It’s totally possible for YOU to develop a deep rhythmic vocabulary to draw from and to get fluent at improvising and creating with it.

We’ll cover a basic process in just a few moments.

But First:

What’s the cause of this rhythmic frustration?

Well, to explain both the cause and the solution to this challenge I’d like to introduce 2 world class jazzers to you. You might’ve heard me mention these cats before because they are awesome:

The 2 Hals:

Hal Galper & Hal Crook

I’ve probably learned more about playing & practicing jazz from these two cats than anyone else. I was fortunate enough to study with Hal Crook with many years. I learned from Hal Galper via records, books, and videos.

To understand the cause let’s take a look at some wise words from Hal Galper. Then Hal Crook will help us out with the solution.

Mr. Galper teaches that:

Jazz is a music you learn by doing – by ‘doing the process’.

*You learn to play over jazz changes by playing over jazz changes.*

To do that, you need vocabulary. Once you have some vocabulary you can ‘do the process'. And in doing so you’ll learn a lot about how to use that vocabulary.

So, if you feel like rhythm is a weakness of yours it’s probably due to 3 things.

  1. A lack of rhythmic vocabulary.
  2. The vocabulary you do have is not sufficiently internalized.
  3. And you’re not ‘doing the process’

This is kind of a chicken and egg situation. You can’t develop your vocabulary and become fluent at improvisation if you’re not playing and ‘doing the process’. But you can’t do the process if you don’t have the vocabulary to do it.

So, what do you do?

Well, the first thing you do is start assimilating rhythmic vocabulary immediately. That’s a fancy way of saying ‘learn some jazz rhythms’.

How do you do that?

Well, you can pick up rhythms from a number of places.

Our improv course Playing the Changes dedicates an entire module to rhythm and includes a bunch of must-know syncopated jazz rhythms.

But you can also pick up rhythms from transcriptions, method books, your musician friends, your teachers and so on.

Actually, I think one of the best places to get ideas and vocabulary is from your favorite records. Transcribe rhythms you love and make them your own. Or you can even just listen to a lot of music and then simply come up with your own rhythms by emulating the music you’ve been checking out, while not necessarily transcribing it verbatim.

But some cats need to start by learning some basic jazz rhythms first before they can hear well enough to pull stuff off of the records. (That’s why we include them in Playing The Changes.)

So, first, you get yourself a rhythmic phrase. Let’s start with a one bar rhythm. Here’s an example you might use:


Okay, so now you have a rhythmic phrase, a little piece of rhythmic vocabulary.

Let’s bring Hal Crook into the picture to help learn this rhythm and to put it into practice.

There are 2 concepts that I heard many times while studying with Hal Crook:

  1. Divide & Conquer
  2. Target Practice

Divide & Conquer – this means to chop up whatever it is you’re trying to learn into the smallest, simplest piece that YOU need to successfully learn it, practice it and assimilate it.

Target Practice – this means to choose one thing to focus on as your target. Often this can mean zeroing in on one improvisation topic (ignoring all others for the moment) and setting clear parameters for the target – so you can evaluate whether you hit the target or not.

The reason is this: you and your conscious thinking brain cannot handle thinking about the myriad variables going on in jazz at the same time. In other words, you can’t practice everything – pitch, rhythm, dynamics, articulation, motivic development, phrase lengths, pacing, time feel, intonation, etc, etc – all at the same time.

Instead, you zoom in on ONE topic at a time and create a clear target to practice it and work towards. Dig? Cool.

Okay, step one here is to figure out this rhythm. Some readers might already be able to easily read this rhythm and play it. Some might need to break it down, count it out, etc.

If you do that’s fine. You must practice and learn at the edge of YOUR ability. So if you don’t know how to play this rhythm right away, no sweat. That’s where you start.

You might write the counting in above the rhythm so you can work it out.


You might have a more experienced player play it for you over and over while you learn it by ear.

You might break it down into fragments or beats and build it up note by note.




And of course, adjusting the tempo is a natural way to make something easier. So you would want to slow this down to the point that you could easily play it and hear it.

Now, here a KEY idea: Once you can play the whole example, then the practice begins.

Read that last sentence again. You’re not actually practicing it until you can play it. And then you practice it until it’s fully internalized. Meaning your ear and body can ‘just play it’ without you (your thinking mind) having to concentrate or ‘try’. You just know it and your body knows it. That’s the goal.

Once you’ve got a piece of rhythm internalized to that level, you can begin to ‘do the process’ with it. Again, using Hal Crook’s concept of target practice you limit some or most areas of playing so you can focus on others.

In this case, you’re going to start to improvise over a tune with this rhythm. But we’re only going to use this one rhythm. So, on every single bar of the tune you’re working on, you’re going to play this rhythm.

Now for the pitches you’re going to use. Again, you'll want to limit your choices in order to find the edge of YOUR ability. A natural starting point is the roots of the chords.

Again, using the principles we’ve been talking about, you would work on the roots first (or whatever melodic parameters you’ve chosen).

You would learn all the roots, bar by bar.

And then practice them phrase by phrase and get to the point where you do not have to think about what you’re playing. Your ear and body simply know the roots and can easily play them and hear them.

Now, you combine these 2. You play through the tune using just the rhythm you’ve internalized and just the roots of the chords.

Then what? You guessed it! You practice that until you’ve got it internalized.

Once you’ve got that down, you simply take the next step forward.

You could do the same exact thing with another rhythm.

Or you could add a second pitch. For instance, now you’re going improvise with the first and second notes of the chord scale. So if you’re improvising over a D- chord you would just be using D and E, as an example.

Again, you'd want to practice these 2 notes until you know 'em cold.

One you’ve internalized both you would combine them. At this point, you are actually starting to improvise. Albeit within very tight parameters: one rhythm, and 2 notes that you improvise with. Obviously, this will sound very simple and unsophisticated.

But that’s fine. Because you’re simply going to continue to move forward step by step. Introducing new rhythms and new pitches. And you’ll work on each step until you internalize it and it’s easy for you.

Pretty soon you’ve done this with 10 rhythms. At this point, your ear and mind will naturally start to combine these rhythms into new rhythms.

You’ve begun to develop a rhythmic vocabulary.

You’re actually starting to be able to improvise with it fluently.

And you’ve also gained harmonic control and have gone through 10 other scenarios, for example: different digital note patterns (1, 2 | 1, 2, 3, | 1, 2, 3, 5, |), all of the chord tones (Root, 3rd, 5th, 7th), the chord scales, the chord scales starting on different pitches, the chord scale ascending, the chord scale descending, approach notes, etc, etc.

You’ve worked on gaining melodic/harmonic control and flexibility by itself.

You’ve worked on assimilating and developing rhythmic control and vocabulary by itself.

And you’ve worked on putting the two together.

It’s easy to see where this approach will get you down the road. Improvisation will be easy for you. Because you’ve made it that way on purpose. You’ve applied the principles of divide & conquer, target practice, and learning by doing to become fluent at Playing the Changes.

This now puts you in the position to ‘let go and let the music flow through you’.

The moral of the story is ability with jazz is attainable. Rhythmic skill and vocabulary is attainable. With the right strategies, some time in the shed and a little patience you can become a solid jazz improviser.

[If you dig this approach I would definitely recommend you check out Playing the Changes – a jazz improvisation master class with Joel Yennior and myself. It covers this basic strategy in depth. Plus a ton more.]

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