Forum - Banjo Ben Clark

Rhythm Questions


I am hoping you all can give me some input on working out how to play rhythm for songs that you would find in a lot of the song books out there.

The song books I have and what I have found on the internet always seem to give you the words to the songs and on what word the chord changes come, like the attached example, but my question is how do you figure out how many measures to stay in each chord for?

Is there some way to work that out by the words or is is just something that you have to feel as you play the song?

I am really struggling with this. I have several songs that I know the words too, know what chords are in them, have an idea per the song books on where the chords change but just can’t seem to wrap my head around the flow of the measures.

Honestly, when a song is written with the chord above and no beat markings, there really is no way to know how the song is played nor even what the time signature is. But the good news is that if you know the song well enough to sing it, you can generally use these very simple song “charts” to come up with a decent if not accurate representation.

Let’s take your example of WTCBU.

If you look carefully at the tune, you can see that the chord markings are written directly above where they would be used. For example, the chord “G” starts the tune and is played until the chord “C” which is played when you reach the word “cold”. Then “C” is played until you reach the word “day” where you change back to “G”.

Now, if you pick a simple strum as the rhythm (Bass-Strum will work nicely), you can play this strum in an even time until you reach the word where you would change the chord to the one marked above that word.

Be aware, if these simple “charts” are accurately written, the chord will fall directly above not only the word where the chord would change, but above the syllable. For example, in the second verse, second line, the chord “C” correctly falls on the 3rd syllable of the word “undertaker”.

The only other concern you may run into is if you know the song, but have a hard time figuring out the starting note of the melody, given the chords that are in the chart. This is a matter for another topic, but I can tell you that you can often hear what the “key” of the song is just by playing the chords given and speaking the words rhythmically in time with the chord changes.

Good luck!

That’s a pretty good explanation, Michael. I don’t believe I can add anything of value to it, but I did find a neat website the other day that has chord charts for lots of jam favorites. It has not only measures, but individual beats marked, and the lyrics are tied to the beats pretty accurately. I’ve been referring to the site quite a bit when I’m first trying to get a song off the ground.

I like that site you linked, very nice.

I have a link to share also, but it is even more sparse in information than the typical chords over the words chart. The nice thing about this site though is that the author bothered to record himself singing and playing through most of the near 400 songs listed. And, he has bothered to list most of the words for each tune. The site stresses “learning by ear”.

That Toneway site is cool, too. The fiddle player from my jam just showed that site to me a couple of weeks ago. I couldn’t believe I hadn’t stumbled on it before. Even with the chord chart, it’s good to hear the performance of the music. Someone put a lot of time into assembling all those songs.

The main problem with those sorts of song books (or whatever you want to call them) is that they assume you already know the song and you’ve been singing it since childhood.

Without knowing the song already, those lyric/chord charts are useless.

This is because they don’t tell you where the ‘pickup notes’ are. And that means you don’t know where to start counting the full 4 beats of the measure. And that problem rears its ugly head before you even get to the dilemma re not knowing the melody.

You have to be able to mark out the beats of the measure(s). And those charts don’t let you do that.

So, yes, you can try to just strum 4 beats per measure and make your way through the song. But this assumes you’re already familiar with the structure of the song. Most of these songs have some pickup notes at the beginning (or they have some partial measures at the end of verses) that make it hard to figure out how to count your strums.

This nomenclature is mostly for remembering the lyrics, not for learning to play rhythm to a song that you’re not already familiar with.

So, the best thing you can do is get a pencil and mark out each ‘beat’. And when you’re doing that, remember that many songs begin part-way through a measure at the beginning of verses.

Here is a very rough draft of how I figure out the timing of the words in a song. It takes some listening and counting but can be done by all who can count to four.

the chord changes can be heard also. but it takes a slightly more experienced ear for it to become automatic.

You might try looking up an instrumental version or chord chart of the song and then adding the lyrics after you have the chord progression memorized. The Inst. version will have measures and beats written where a lyric version usually will not. Banjo and mando tabs can work great for this if you can’t find a guitar tab/music as they will tell you the chords and # of beats.

Thanks for all the feedback guys

So it’s sounding like these songbooks with just the lyrics with chords over them are probably not the best way to try and really figure out the song.

I do have another set of books that has the melody in them in notation per the attached jpg file, so this book would probably be the better option to learn the song from? Providing of course I figure out how to read notation.

That is definitely a more complete musical version; it includes the melody note/rhythm, the chords placed where they would be played and the words under the melody. Some books will go even further and dictate the proper strum rhythm for the song, but that one looks like a winner.

Reading notes is not that hard. If you haven’t done notation reading before, check out this site : and start with the lessons. It will give you all you need to know to get started reading music.

— Begin quote from "drguitar"

Reading notes is not that hard. If you haven’t done notation reading before, check out this site : and start with the lessons. It will give you all you need to know to get started reading music.

— End quote

That site is awesome, thanks a ton for that!

Thanks for the awesome links …I will definitely try to learn to read music sometime soon …every little bit helps … thanks again !!!