When we are first learning a musical instrument, we usually want to focus on the cool stuff. We want to show off to our peers how good we are getting by playing patterns that have syncopated jazz rhythms and a whole lot of notes.
In the process, we overlook the fundamental factors that separate beginner jazz players from advanced ones.
Though it’s ok to want to play flashy and fast, if it doesn’t feel good and the rhythm is imprecise, it won’t sound good. So, what are these two fundamental factors you need to focus on to make sure every note sounds great?
- Rhythmic Feel
- Rhythmic Precision
In this post, we’ll explore rhythmic feel and rhythmic precision and go over 5 essential jazz rhythm exercises to help you improve each.
If you struggle with jazz rhythm and can’t seem to get the notes to lay right, or your comping rhythm doesn’t quite swing, then you need to check out the Learn Jazz Standards Inner Circle. Learn Jazz Standards is the go-to jazz education resource made by jazz musicians for jazz musicians.
If you are hungry to improve your jazz playing and want to learn proven practice strategies, tips, and methods to accelerate your understanding of jazz rhythms, from the Charleston rhythm and blues music to Bossa Nova and everything in between, then come see what we’re all about.
With that out of the way, let’s talk about rhythmic feel.
Table of Contents
What is Rhythmic Feel?
Oftentimes, it is not how many notes a musician plays but how and when they choose not to play that really creates engaging and magnetic jazz music. The extremely important takeaway is that musicians are sculptors who carve music out of time. Most jazz beginners ignore the importance of Time with a capital T.
You can play all the correct notes over the chord changes, but if the notes don’t lay right, they won’t sound right. The following video is a great example of this. Someone fashioned a robot to play John Coltrane’s part in Giant Steps note-for-note on the saxophone.
Compare the robot’s performance with Coltrane’s original recording.
Though it’s an impressive engineering feat, to be sure, the result is not musical. It lacks the personality of John Coltrane, despite being a note-for-note replica of his performance. The engineer couldn’t quite code for Coltrane’s rhythmic feel.
A musician’s sense of rhythm is an essential part of musical identity. His or her ability to control how and where they place notes, how they feel the beat, and how they blend in with the rhythm section are all factors that help create a musician’s unique sound.
Different Types of “Feel” In Jazz Music
In jazz, the “feel” or groove of a piece is a fundamental aspect of its character and interpretation. It’s about how the rhythm is perceived and played, and it can vary greatly from a heavily syncopated rhythm to a much simpler rhythmic pattern.
Here are some of the most common types of common rhythms or feels in jazz:
- Swing Feel: The most famous rhythmic pattern in jazz is the swing feel. In a swing feel, quarter notes are divided unevenly, with the first note of the pair receiving a longer duration than the second. The exact ratio varies a lot and depends on the tempo, the style, and the rhythm section. Swing feel is not an exact science and relies heavily on the way each musician places their eighth note. You can hear the swing rhythm pattern in be-bop, straight-ahead, cool jazz, jazz waltzes, and other classic jazz music styles.
- Straight 8th Feel: Songs with a straight 8th feel have evenly divided 8th notes. So, when counting four beats, the eighth notes are each given an equal duration. This is common in many styles of music, but in jazz, you’ll hear it in styles like Latin jazz or certain styles of contemporary jazz.
- Shuffle Feel: This is a specific type of swing rhythm where the comping rhythm is based on triplets. The first two triplet notes are tied together, and the third is played separately, creating a long-short pattern. This feeling is common in blues, some rock music, and early forms of jazz.
- Latin Feel: This category encompasses a wide range of specific grooves like the Bossa Nova, Samba, Afro-Cuban 6/8, and other Latin beats. Each rhythmic pattern has a unique way of dividing the beat and a different characteristic rhythm (called a “clave” in many Latin styles).
- Funky Feel: A syncopated rhythmic feel common in jazz-funk and jazz-rock styles. It’s influenced by R&B and soul music and often involves complex rhythms, sixteenth-note patterns, and a heavy emphasis on the off-beat.
Understanding these different feels and how to play them is crucial for any jazz player. It’s not just about playing the right notes—it’s about playing them in the right way. And remember, within each of these music categories, there’s a lot of room for individual interpretation and expression!
How To Develop Strong Rhythmic Feel For Jazz Music
Is there a way we can improve our interpretation of space, rhythmic feel, and precision?
Music is a language, and no one is born speaking a language by default. We learn to speak the language that people who surround us speak. You can be German or Japanese, but if you grew up in Spain, you are going to end up learning Spanish because you are surrounded by Spanish-speaking people.
So yes, it is possible to master jazz music’s rhythmic feel. Like any language, all you need is to immerse yourself in the culture and community. Here are some more concrete tips that will help you develop a strong swing feel.
- You need to play jazz music with other musicians.
- You need to listen to and transcribe jazz musicians with great time feel.
- You have to consciously determine what kind of time feel you want to develop and strive towards it.
So with exposure, listening, transcription, and practice, you can master swung eighth notes and build a strong and unique rhythmic identity. Check out this video on how to use rhythmic variations to enhance your jazz solos.
However, you’ll also need rhythmic precision to express the syncopated rhythms and swing feel of jazz music with command and authority.
What is Rhythmic Precision (For Soloing and Comping Rhythm)?
Rhythmic precision is all about consistently playing rhythms accurately. While some may argue that great, organic music should have a relaxed feel – and I agree – that relaxed feel still needs to be precisely controlled to consistently convey that relaxed vibe.
Take New Orleans music, for example. It has a unique feel, with 8th notes that are neither completely straight nor fully swung. Musicians refer to this as playing “in the crack.” To authentically emulate this style, we need to find that “crack” and maintain our playing within it. Achieving this calls for high levels of rhythmic precision.
I was first introduced to the following exercises during my teenage years while studying rhythms at a classical percussion conservatory. Later in college, John Patitucci, then a professor at the City College of New York, revisited this exercise with me, presenting it in a slightly different light.
These exercises are fantastic for helping you hear and internalize subdivisions, enhance your reading skills, and of course, increase your rhythmic accuracy. It also serves as a great coordination exercise, as it engages both our hands and voice.
But why not use your main instrument?
Why You Should Play Rhythm Patterns Off Your Main Instrument
Your main instrument represents is usually the most familiar way you access music. If your main instrument is the piano, you’ll probably feel most comfortable doing these jazz rhythms on the piano. Likewise, for other instruments, as well.
However, these jazz rhythm exercises are designed to improve the musician in you. Not the trumpet player, piano player, jazz drummer, or guitar player in you.
If you can’t sing it or play it with your right and left hands, then you haven’t internalized it.
So, here are 5 jazz rhythm exercises to improve your sense of rhythm. See instructions for how to play these exercises below.
5 Jazz Rhythm Exercises To Improve Rhythmic Feel and Rhythmic Precision
How To Play These Rhythms
As mentioned earlier, to practice these exercises, we will use both our hands and our voice. The process is simple: our hands will play the notes, and our voice will play the rests. Listen to each backing track, then try playing with each track. After playing with each track, try playing them on your own with a metronome.
If you listen to example tracks 1-4, you’ll notice that I’ve used a cowbell to represent the notes and a shaker for the rests. Your hands will play the part of the cowbell—that is, the notes—while your voice takes on the role of the shaker, or the rests, using a short syllable of your choosing.
Once you’ve mastered this, you can reverse the roles: sing the notes and clap the rests.
Take your time and start slowly. These rhythms might be challenging, but they’re certainly worth your effort.
For Exercise #5, you might have noticed I switched the sound source to a synth. This change was intentional, as I want you to play the actual duration of the notes and rests when singing them. So, for example, when you’re singing the rest, pay attention to its duration and hold your voice for the entire length, doing the same when you sing the notes.
You can also practice these exercises in different music styles, such as New Orleans, Brazilian, Jazz (with a swung eighth note), Hip-Hop (with swing 16th notes), or any other style you’re currently working on.
For instance, Exercise #5 is already performed with a swing feel.
Remember, these rhythms might not be easy—they require a significant amount of concentration and practice. However, the results will make you a stronger musician.
You can use any music reading book or rhythmic material you already have and apply this concept.
Join The Learn Jazz Standards Inner Circle and Master Jazz Time Feel
Precise rhythm and a strong time feel are two of the most important aspects of jazz musicianship that you cannot ignore if you want to become the best jazz musician you can be. Knowing the music theory behind chord changes and understanding which notes to play are small parts of becoming a competent jazz musician.
So much more depends on how you play those notes.
The Inner Circle is designed for musicians who want to improve all aspects of their jazz musicianship—their tune repertoire, their improvisational skills, their understanding of jazz harmony and music theory, as well as their sense of rhythm.
Ready to become the best jazz musician you can be? See what the Inner Circle has to offer.