I recently submitted a Youtube video to an online Blues contest — called the Blue Noize contest — hosted by one of the heavyweights of the guitar blogosphere, Guitar Noize. The challenge was to create a solo over a blues backing track provided by the organizers and submit it to Youtube to be judged by a panel of musicians.

Since this was a Blues contest and not a Shredding contest, entries were judged based on their phrasing and overall tastiness and soul. Cramming a million notes into a 12-bar blues — no matter how technically awesome — was not going to get you into the top 20.

I recorded my entry in a fairly haphazard way on a Sunday afternoon and submitted it just for the fun of it. I was fairly happy with my entry until I watched a number of other entries online.

Boy, there was some tasty phrasing going on in some of them!

I listen back to my entry and all of a sudden it’s not sounding as exciting as it did the first time round — there’s something missing. It is not as catchy and tasteful as some of the other entries. What could it be…?

Then it hits me.

I had violated rule #1 of playing the guitar.

Upon watching my entry again, I realize that my timing is way off. The first rule of playing the guitar and the first rule of playing music, in general, is to keep to the beat at all times.

A sure way to lose your audience is by not staying in rhythm. Admittedly, this can be a very subtle thing. In fact, there are several variations, or violations, if you will.

1. Blatantly failing to stay in rhythm

I used to know a drummer who would subtly — and unknowingly to himself — increase the tempo throughout the song. When we jammed together, by the time we’d reached the end of a song I usually found myself not being able to keep up. It’s a mistake many beginning drummers make, but the same is true for guitar players. People just get excited and lose track of their timing.

You play a song or solo and large parts of what you play are not played to the beat. Or, you play something and unknowingly speed up, or slow down. Go back to the woodshed, put some new batteries in that metronome and start practicing on your timing.

2. Rushing a passage

You’ve rehearsed a certain fast lick or riff many times up to that desirable point of being able to play it without thinking about it. The problem is, you rehearsed it at one and the same (fast-ish) tempo. Now, your fingers have got used to playing it at that tempo and when you come to play it over a song that has a different tempo, surprise, surprise, it’s not going to sound that great.

3. Missing an on-beat note

One of the most important times in which you must keep to the rhythm is when you play a note that is supposed to land on the beat, usually the first or third. Failing to do so is bad because it tends to be the most noticeable of all rhythm-related mistakes, especially when it is the first note after a pause, the first note of a new phrase. The audience is a lot more forgiving to your making a timing mistake with notes that land between beats.

Here is a great piece of advice, or two

When you practice, practice with a metronome — at least for a couple of weeks. When you play with a metronome you are forced to keep time. At the same time, you are teaching your brain to adopt the habit of staying in rhythm.

After a while, you will become used to playing in time, even without the aid of a metronome. Don’t stop there, though. I practiced with a metronome, then went months without one and look what happened!

Also, and this is true especially when you practice a particularly fast phrase or lick, make sure that you can play the lick at several different tempos. Being able to play something fast, but at one tempo only, is not very useful.

At all other times, tap your foot. Tap your foot when you play. Tap it whenever and wherever you play. When you’re playing on your own, your foot is the perfect rhythmic companion.

Tapping your foot is also great for creating a groove. And it is the groove that keeps your audience glued to their seats.