Rhythm charts are a quick and easy way to map out songs and can save a lot of time at rehearsal or when learning a bunch of songs quickly. They're also a great way to archive all the songs you learn, so you don't have to start from scratch when relearning a song.
There are so many applications for rhythm charts that I can't honestly think of a single good reason not to learn to read and write them. In essence, a rhythm chart is musical shorthand that combines standard musical notation as well as a more vague notation that allows you to map out a song using the most important information to convey the part to the player.
Here's a scenario I've found myself in a number of times - I get a call from a bandleader a day or two before their gig asking if I can sub in for their guitar player. The gigs usually require me to play between 25-40 songs (the majority that I don't know how to play), and I've got a day or two to get them all together. If it wasn't for rhythm charts, it'd be near impossible for me to learn all that material in such a short amount of time. However, because I can quickly write out the form, rhythm kicks, and any other essential information, I'm able to chart out all the songs in just a couple hours. The best part is, you only have to figure them out once since you now have them all written out. The next time I'm called, there's a good chance I have a number of the songs already written out. This way, the work load decreases and you begin to accrue a good collection of songs for any occasion.
One quick note about charts before we get started. The amount of information included can range between very bare bones to extremely detailed. What's included in each chart will depend on the situation. If it's a song you're somewhat familiar with you may only need the form and rhythm kicks to jog your memory. However, if you're presenting an original piece or a song to a studio musician that they have not heard before the session, you would want to present as much information as possible.
Let's take a look at a song everyone should be familiar with, "Black Magic Woman" (as played by Santana).
In the above chart, we are given a basic road map of the song. At the very least, this chart gives us the chords to the song, which could be the sole purpose of the chart in some situations. However, this basic chart gives us quite a bit of info about the song. Let's explore:
First, we are give the tempo of the song, which is the quarter note equals 120 bpm (beats per minute). If you wanted to, you could indicate the style by writing blues above or below the tempo (for a song this well known, it's probably not necessary). Next, we see we're in the key of D minor and in 4/4 time. We can then note that we are dealing with a 12 bar chord progression. If this is your first time seeing a chart like this, you might be wondering what the slash marks represent. Since this is musical shorthand, the slashes tell the musician to make up their own part in the style of the piece. So for the first four measures, we can use any voicing of a Dm7 and Am7, as long as we play each chords for two measures each and create a part the serves the song we're playing. The only other piece of information is found in the final measure. This is known as a rhythm kick, rhythm hit, or rhythm figure, and indicates that we accent the first beat of the final measure and then rest until we begin the chord progression over again.
Now, let's take a look at another chart for this same song. However, this time we are going to be given a little more information.
If you compare these two charts, you'll see that we are given all the same information, except for this time we are given the bass line of the song. The first chart gave us the same key, tempo, time signature, and chords to the song, but the bass player was expected to come up with a bass line all on their own. With this chart, the bass player is given an example of what to play. Notice, we still have the same rhythm kick in the final measure. You should have noticed the symbol that looks like a percent sign in measures 2, 4, 6, and 8. This is a measure repeat symbol, and tells us to repeat the figure from the measure before. If you were the bass player, you would play the figure from the first measure, repeat it again in the second measure, then move to the figure in the third measure, then repeat that figure again in the fourth measure, etc. I could have written it out just for the Dm7 chord, and then wrote "simile" above the staff and the musician would know to adjust the figure to each chord that appears in the chart.
Even if you or some of the people you play with can't read music, these charts are still extremely helpful. As you can see from both examples, there is at least some information that will be helpful to anyone. That might be the chords to the song and how long each chord is played.
Now, let's take a look at a chart for the Bob Marley song, "I Shot The Sheriff". This is another song that is common in jam sessions and cover bands, and there's a good chance you've played it before.
What does this chart tell us? First, we can see that we have a tempo of the quarter note equals 100 bpm. Next, we see we're in the key of G minor and in 4/4 time. Anyone familiar with the song knows it's a reggae song, and probably has a good idea of the rhythm guitar's role in this style of music. However, the author of this chart was nice enough to give us a sample rhythm part for the guitar (or any instrument providing harmony). Remember, this is just a suggestion and doesn't have to be played exactly as written. Looking at the first measure, we see we have a rhythm that starts with an eighth note rest followed by two sixteenth notes. On guitar, we'd rest for a half a beat, then strum 'down, up'. This rhythm figure happens four times each measure.
Now that we have the rhythm figure we're going to play straightened out, let's look at the form of the song. We have a four measure chord progression that's repeated (one measure of G minor, then one measure of C minor, followed by two more measures of G minor). Moving forward, we now have a new chord progression - half a measure of Eb, half a measure of D minor, and then a full measure of G minor. This progression is repeated five times before the band plays a melody line together. In the third measure from the end of the chart we see a melody line with the words 'unison figure' above it - meaning everyone plays that melody line together. After the unison figure we have a bar of 2/4 with the words 'drum fill' written above the staff indicating that the drummer plays a short fill before the entire chart is repeated. Try listening to the song and see if you can follow along with the chart.
That's it for this post. In the next part, we will learn more symbols and notation for indicating the form of a song.