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Watch the Dr. Rhythm: Charlie Hunter online guitar lesson by Chris Buono from 40 Day Rhythm SWAT Camp

“I don’t know what it is with guitar players, but they tend to develop terrible time,” says Charlie Hunter. No, he’s not asserting that guitarists are always late to the gig, or that they can’t read a watch. He’s simply observing that when most guitarists sit down to practice, they typically focus on riffs, melodies, chords, scales, and improvisation in other words, on everything except rhythm.

“There’s nothing worse than playing guitar with bad time,” continues Hunter. “It’s something we’ve all been guilty of and it’s always worth improving upon, because unless your time is absolutely on, you’re a burden to the other people sharing the stage with you.”

Granted, whether you’re watching Hunter perform live or listening to one of his adventurous jazz-funk albums such as his new disc, Right Now Move[Ropeadope] there are plenty of spectacular, audience-dazzling aspects of the guitarist’s style that don’t directly have to do with rhythm. For example, the way Hunter simultaneously handles bass lines, melodies, solos, and Jimmy Smith-style organ textures is truly mind-boggling. And hearing the fantastic stereo split of his eight-stringed Novax guitar which routs the low strings to a bass rig and the high strings to a Fender Twin is a spellbinding experience. But technical prowess and logistical wizardry aside, at the end of the night, it’s Hunter’s monster pocketthat utterly knocks you out.

Whether he’s playing backbeat funk or straight-up swing, Hunter’s command of the groove is mesmerizing and his time impeccable all of which is part of the huge rhythmic dividends he earned by practicing with a metronome, learning to play drums (“guitarists have to be able to think like drummers”), and, of course, surrounding himself with stellar musicians. But if there is one particular group of riffsthat has helped Hunter “deepen his pocket,” it’s the lively salsa vamps known as montunos most of which, as you’ll find out in this lesson, work beautifully on standard 6-string guitar.

“No matter what kind of music you’re into, montunos will definitely make a man out of you,” says Hunter of the highly syncopated melodic figures, “because they don’t have a big downbeat anywhere you can land on. Beat one is represented only in your innermeter, so it forces you to really develop your awareness of time, rhythmic propulsion, and how you fit in with the drums.”

“As I understand them, montunos came from Cuba,” explains Hunter. “They were originally played on the three-stringed, three coursed instrument called the tres, and they outline the chord progression by arpeggiating the changes rhythmically.”

What makes Hunter’s montunos particularly exciting is that, like some pianists, he also includes the bass part the tumbao. “The tumbao,” says Hunter, “developed from the ostinato figure played by the lowest conga drum, the tumba.”

Learning a tumbao is as easy as playing the bass notes in Ex. 1 or isit? These two bars of bass are identical to a common tumbao in that their four notes imply a I-IV-V-IV progression, but they’re lacking the tumbao’s most important (and most elusive) ingredient the rhythm. Written as straight half-notes, Ex. 1’s pitches are closer to the main riffs to “Wild Thing” or “Louie Louie” than they are to anything Afro-Cuban. But if you inject the right syncopation into this repeated two-bar figure so that it’s played exactly like Ex. 2 suddenly you have an authentic tumbao.

“The hard part about tumbaos is that they never fall on beat one,” notes Hunter. “If you’re not familiar with them, it’s easy to start hearing beat four as the downbeat of each measure, especially at fast tempos. Not having the luxury of landing on the oneand feeling right at home makes this challenging for most guitar players which is great, because it forces you to step outside your comfort zone.” If you’ve never played a tumbao, you may find the best way to learn it and truly internalize its rhythm is to first slow it way down. Start at a reasonable tempo (such as 70 bpm) and tap your foot on each quarter note. As you play, observe which notes land on the downbeats and which are struck during off-beats. Then, as you get more comfortable, gradually increase the speed. A sophisticated metronome such as the Tama Rhythm Watch RW100 is particularly helpful, because it provides a distinct tone for beat one of each measure, ensuring you never lose track of the downbeat.

“When you get these grooves up to speed, you’ll find that you start feeling them in two,” adds Hunter. For instance, if you play Ex. 2 at 170 bpm (the tempo where montunos typically live), your foot will be tapping so fast that you’ll be naturally inclined to tap it only on beats one and three, which makes beats two and four seem like off-beats. In other words, you’ll be feeling the groove in cuttime.

Now that we’ve learned the lower voice of a Hunter-style montuno, let’s put it aside for a moment and learn the classic montuno melody in Ex. 3. If you’ve heard even a smidge of Latin jazz, you’ve probably heard this familiar motif. Harmonically, it’s entirely diatonic and nursery rhyme-simple. However, like the tumbao, this hot salsa riff gets its piquancy from its heavy syncopation. To get it dialed in, start slowly. Again, tap your foot on the quarter notes, aiming to feel the off-beats as strongly as you do the downbeats. As was the case with the tumbao, once you’re able to play it solidly in the neighborhood of 170 bpm, you’ll feel the riff in cut time.

You can play this melody with a pick, but later, when we add the bass line (which will be plucked with the thumb), you’ll need to pluck the upper notes with your fingers. With a little common sense, you can easily come up with an efficient plucking path, though one is provided in the example. (Index-, middle-, and ring-finger plucks are indicated by i, m, and a, respectively.)

Now we come to the heart of Hunter’s lesson learning to play both voices simultaneously, as in Ex. 4. Piano players perform this feat regularly, but many guitarists will find the approach a bit foreign, so start slow and remember this: While the end result may sound like two independent voices to your listeners, what you’re actually learning here is a composite of the two parts in other words, a third part entirely. You may find that working this riff out is like learning to juggle a bit frustrating until the magical moment when you suddenly just get it. Once again, start slowly, because it’s at modest tempos where you’ll learn the mechanics of these maneuvers. The riff’s actual groovewill become more apparent when you’re able increase the tempo and approach the realm of cut time.

Once you can play Ex. 4’s montuno alla breve(in cut time), there’s no longer any real need to set your metronome to quarter-notes. Instead, set it to (or tap your foot in) halfnotes because, as detailed earlier, you’re now feeling only beats one and three of each measure as downbeats. A half-note tempo marking of 70-100 bpm would be reasonable, as in Ex. 5, which is our next montuno. Though the tumbao remains the same in this example, the upper voice is new, and although it is less arpeggiated than the first montuno we learned, it is still extremely lyrical and catchy. It, too, spells out a vibrant I-IV-V-IV progression, but does so with a spicy mixture of single notes and double-stop jabs. Learn it separately and then work on adding the tumbao.

“Combining the two parts gets easier each time you do it,” offers Hunter. “I’m at the stage of my development where I can get them pretty damn fast usually just by looking at them because I already have so many combinations under my belt.”

“There are a million different montunos and variations,” says Hunter, playing Ex. 6, a montuno that’s similar to the previous example (again featuring our familiar bass line), but has a more percussive upper voice. “To hear more montunos, check out any record by [pianist and bandleader] Eddie Palmieri. Also listen to Arsenio Rodriguez he’s the great Cuban tres player . And pick up some changui the original Cuban street music with all the montunos being played by the tres. There’s also a great book for learning this stuff 101 Montunos, by Rebecca Mauleon.”

Another familiar montuno riff is Ex. 7, which still outlines a I-IV-V-I progression, but takes place in the key of Aminor. The tumbao hasn’t changed (though it is transposed down three frets), and, in terms of melodic contour and rhythmic shape, the upper voice is identical to the first montuno we learned (Ex. 3). It has simply been adjusted harmonically to match the two minor chords in the progression.

For another wonderful minor montuno, try Ex. 8, which presents our first variation in the tumbao. The chord changes are still in Aminor, but notice that the last note of the bass line tags the 2, B, arguably making the implied progression I-IV-V-II or, Am-Dm- E7- Bm7b5. The upper voice in this montuno is quite clever, moving stepwise up the scale on the downbeats (starting on Ain the pickup measure), and then arpeggiating an E7 chord on the off-beats (starting on G#, end of bar 1).

Hunter’s final offering is the four-bar phrase in Ex. 9. While this bass line has a lot more notes than our previous tumbaos, notice that the rhythm is a tad simpler, repeating every two notes. What gives this riff its intriguing flavor and what makes it extra challenging is that the lower voice is played legato while the melody notes are mostly played staccato.

“Once you get the hang of these montuno things, the next step is learning to play the bass part more on top of the beat, and the upper voice a bit behind the beat,” suggests Hunter. “That’s really important, because that’s what gives a montuno a real Latin sound, like they might sound in Cuba. The person who really got me into this was [drummer] Adam Cruz. I played with him for a long time, and he knows a million montunos. He really beat my ass and got me to play them with the right feel. There’s no pretendingwith this stuff.”