Piano Rhythm – 3 Strategies To Improve Your Rhythm Today

piano rhythmWant to improve your piano rhythm? Well, one of the cool things about learning jazz piano is there are so many different things you can practice that will help you improve your piano rhythm skills.

Jazz is a very deep art form and there’s always something new and fun to explore.

For example, you can spend time learning new tunes, practice your jazz piano improvisation chops, learn new jazz scales, learn more chord voicings, develop your transposition skills, train your ear, improve your comping, learn more about jazz theory, piano runs and much more.

It’s exciting that we have so many fun things to explore. Sometimes it can feel a bit overwhelming though with so many different options to practice.

It can be hard to find the right things to focus on in your practice. Over the years I’ve explored so many different things in my own playing. Things come in and out of my practice routine depending on where I want to go musically at that time.

There is 1 skill that I’ve been practicing daily for over 15 years though. It never leaves my practice routine. To say that it was musically life changing would be an understatement.

When I started practicing this skill I noticed an immediate and drastic improvement on my jazz piano playing.

In fact, this 1 skill is at the core of playing jazz piano at a really high level. If you can improve your playing in this area even 10% you’ll see a drastic improvement in how you sound in all areas of your playing.

Now nothing substitutes hard work. But, when you combine hard work with the right practice approach you’re on the fast track toward massive improvement.

So, lets dig into the skill right now. We’ll go over why it’s important and some useful suggestions on how to improve your skills.

How Piano Rhythm Training Can Revolutionize Your Playing

At the end of the day if you want to sound amazing playing jazz you have to develop incredible piano rhythm skills.

Let me put this out here for the record.

The #1 most important ingredient in jazz is great rhythm.

Everything stems outward from there!

You can play all the ‘wrong notes’ with incredible groove and it will sound a million times better than all the ‘right notes’ with horrible time feel.

I don’t care how many scales you currently know or how many hip voicing you might be able to play. If you can’t play those chords in rhythm, or can’t lock in with a drummer, or groove than very few people are going to want to listen to you play.

Learn from my piano rhythm mistakes my friends!

My Jazz Piano Rhythm Discovery

rhythm-pianoI first got into playing jazz as a young teenager. During that time I read lots of jazz theory books and so I learned lots of scales and chord substitutions.

Even though I knew a lot of the right notes to play I hadn’t worked hard enough on how to make those notes sound rhythmically awesome.

So, when I went to jam sessions and tried to pull off all the cool stuff I learned in my jazz theory books I’d often times fall short. I just couldn’t figure out what the problem was.

It wasn’t until I started transcribing the rhythms and the note placement of people like Oscar Peterson, Miles Davis, Gene Harris, and Sonny Clark that my playing really took off.

Although we were playing the same pitches they rhythmically were placing their notes way differently than me.

It was a HUGE eye opener for me and one I was able to emulate how they placed their notes everything changed in my playing.

The same riffs I bombed on a year earlier suddenly became super in the pocket and felt great. It was also around that time that I started getting called regularly for gigs.

By focusing on rhythm and rhythmic placement my playing got 3x better. I was floored by how this simple little shift of approach in my playing made such a big difference on all my jazz piano skills.

I comped better, I soloed better, I accompanied better, and to be frank…playing piano was more fun!

So, I realized that if this little rhythmic fix could improve my playing what would happen if I made it priority #1 in my practicing.

So, I started transcribing everything and anything I could find that I felt had a great groove. I wanted to figure out what made it tick.

I even sought out all the best drummers I could find so I could play with them. You see one of the advantages of playing with a great drummer is it gives you an opportunity to pick up little elements of how they place their notes.

You can’t help but improve your piano rhythm when you play with a drummer that has great groove.

piano rhythmIt’s one of the reasons why when I got a call to do a TV gig with Jaimoe from the Allman Brother Band last year I immediately said yes.

I didn’t even ask how much the gig paid (which is not a usual thing). The guy couldn’t even finish his sentence before I said yes.

You see Jaimoe has incredible groove. So, I knew it would be a wonderful opportunity for me to learn and improve my personal rhythmic skills. So, I said yes right away. Money wasn’t ever a factor in my decision making.

You see even though I play for a living I’m forever a student of music. You can never stop learning and so any serious chance I can get to improve my skills is payment in it’s own form.

Now, in the last 10 years I’ve had the fortune of doing over 1400 gigs. As my career has developed I’ve had the honor of playing with some amazing musicians over the years.

I’ve noticed that the best players ALWAYS have incredibly developed rhythmic skills. Great playing and great piano rhythm go hand in hand.

When I notice things like that I don’t take these observations for granted. It’s for that reason that I work on deepening my rhythmic skills everyday when I practice.

I make sure all my students do the same since it’s so powerful.

jazz-piano-lessons-onlineIt’s also one of the reasons why we explore so many different rhythmic techniques inside the Premium Membership course.

How Can You Practice Your Piano Rhythm

So, now that we talked about how important and impactful rhythm is I want to share with you 3 things you can do start improving your own rhythm. These are all things I’ve done and/or continue to do to this day.

1. Play Along With Recordings Of Musicians That Have Great Rhythm

Perhaps the most important thing I’ve done over the years is transcribe and play along with my favorite players. I’m constantly listening to groove masters like Wynton Kelly, Oscar Peterson, and Herbie Hancock.

By listening closely to these masters I’m constantly refining the way I place notes, my note duration, my beat placement etc. My whole rhythmic consistently gets better.

My Barry Harris Revelation

piano rhythmFor example, I remember one day about 15 years ago I completely changed the way I articulated my triplets after a discovery I made from listening to Barry Harris.

I noticed that Barry sounded way better than I did when he played triplets. The way he articulated was so much more swinging than the way I was doing it at the time.

After carefully digging into his recordings I noticed several things he was doing that I wasn’t. When I figured out a few of his articulation tricks I was overjoyed! It really helped my groove.

Some people get excited when they receive gifts or some new shiny object. Not me. I’m far from a materialist person. If I can improve my music that’s the best gift in the world. So, I got super excited when my triplets sounded better! 🙂

Now, I recognize for some people it can be hard to pick up that information 100% by ear.

That’s why I film an example performance and notate every single song tutorial inside The Premium Membership Course.

This gives every student an opportunity to play along with me and learn exactly how I place my notes.

It’s a great way to improve their rhythm.

They can do it by watching every move my hands make, seeing the notes on the screen, or by reading the notated sheet music.

2. Practice With A Metronome Or Pro Jazz Drum Loops

If you’re currently not practicing with a metronome start right away! I can’t overemphasize how much practicing with a metronome can improve your playing.

Most people aren’t born with 100% perfect rhythm. So, when a particular section of music gets hard they’ll usually slow down in the hard sections of the music or worse yet they’ll speed up in their attempt to try and aggressively nail that section of music.

When you consistently speed up and slow down in the middle of a performance it creates a really disjointed and unsettling feeling for your listener.

This is where practicing with a metronome is gold. By playing with a metronome you’re teaching your muscle memory to keep consistency in your time and physical movements.

Another advantage of practicing with a metronome is it allows you to practice a difficult piece in a logical way.

For example, practicing with a metronome allows you to slow down a piece and master the motions. Then, once you’ve mastered the motions slowly you can gradually speed up the tempo of the piece as you get better at it.

blues-piano-lessonI used to play this really difficult boogie piano piece that was meant to be played about 220 bpm.

When I first started working on it I slowed down the metronome to 60bpm. That gave me the opportunity to really dig into the piece and learn all the subtle physical motions I needed to play the piece well.

Once I was able to really understand the nuances I was able to gradually speed up the tempo and eventually nail it at 220bpm.

I never would have been able to play it if I hadn’t started practicing it slower and used a metronome.

3. Play With Other Musicians That Have Great Rhythm

As I mentioned early in the article, I try to seek out musicians that have incredible rhythmic skills. I’ve learned so much over the years simply by jamming with monster rhythmic players.

Remember, when you’re playing with other musicians you’re making music as an ensemble. So, you have to listen and adjust your playing in order to play well together. Just being in that environment you’ll naturally pick up little things they do.

So, I recommend you find other musicians in your area that you can jam with and learn from.

If you’re not comfortable jamming with other musicians yet there are tons of pro jam tracks inside The Elite Premium Membership Course.

That way you can practice playing with pro drums and bass samples in the comfort of your own home without feeling nervous about players with others.

Important Piano Rhythm Final Points

This article was a little longer than most of my other lessons but rhythmic training is such an important skill that I couldn’t make it any shorter.

Make it a point to pay attention to your rhythmic on everything you play for now on. Remember, it’s not enough to just hit the right notes. That’s only a small part of the picture.

If you combine the right notes with great groove your playing will go through the roof.

So make rhythm a new focus in your practice going forward. You can do by playing with a metronome more regularly, playing along with musicians who are better than you, jamming with other musicians, or simply paying more attention to how you place your notes in the groove.

If you have any questions on today’s lesson please feel free to leave a comment below. I read every comment and I’m happy to help.

Happy practicing!

Steve Nixon