Tempo, rhythm and groove

When you are involved in playing music you will come across quite a bit of terminology that can be a bit confusing at first. Often there is a dry precise definition but the way people use the terms may be a bit confusing. I find that if you don’t understand the basic teminology you can quickly get lost when they are used a bit more loosely than you are used to. In this article I will introduce how I like to think about tempo, rhythm and groove and how they relate to each other. This is just as important as learning scales.


Tempo is perhaps the easiest term to explain. Basically the tempo tells you how fast to play the music. I guess that you often tap your foot when you play or listen to music. Most likely you will tap your foot at the tempo of the rhythm (it is not uncommon though to tap your foot at twice the tempo or at half the tempo). In order to get the full picture though you also need to know what the tempo is referring to. To define this we have the time signature, this tells us how the music notation is divided in to musical bars.

4/4 is a very common time signature telling us that each musical bar contain four quarter note beats. Seems fair as four quarter notes would make up a whole note. However not all time signatures are that simple but let’s leave that for another time. If the time signature is 4/4, then the tempo tells you how man quarter note beats to play per minute. Therefore it also tells you how long a quarter note lasts.

The tempo is notated in bpm, beats per minute. 120 bpm translates to 2 beats every second. In 4/4 this means that a quarter note lasts half a second.


If the tempo is the speed of the music then rhythm is the repeating pattern of strong and weak beats. Every bar the same underlying pattern is repeated. Listen to how drummers play, rhythm is their contribution to the music and their playing with tell you which beats are strong and which beats are weak.

In 4/4 the recurring pattern is strongest beat, weaker beat, strong beat, weakest beat. For a blues harmonica player this is important to understand. People will pay more attention to the notes you play on beats 1 and 3, make sure make them count!

In comparison 2/4 rhythm (typically marches) only have two types of beats, a strong and a weak.


The best way to think of groove is the feeling of the music. A shuffle has a specific feeling and that is the groove. To be more specific I like to think of the groove in terms of how the sub divisions of the rhythm is handled. How is an eigth note played for example?

In rock music the eigth notes are played very straigth forward against the quarter notes. The eigth note between beat one and two is played half way between the beats.

In a shuffle the eigth notes have more of a triplet feeling, the eight note between two beats is delayed so that it is closer to the second beat. This gives a completely different feeling compared to the rock beat.

Beginner Blues Harmonica Riffs Boogie Inspired Rhythm
Depending on the groove the riff will sound different.


I hope this explanation will make communicating with other musicians easier for you. Maybe this can be your introduction to learning more music theory. A word of causion though. Different styles of music may use these terms differently. In general the way I have described things work most of the time but you may run into different usages as well. For example a beat can mean an entire track or the instrumental part of a song. Groove may mean that the musician is playing a rhtyhm with a lot of feeling pushing and pulling beats with a pleasing effect.

Don’t forget to sign up below to get the Welcome package and exclusive articles! This includes the “Positions and Blues Scale” PDF and useful riffs as part of the exclusive articles.

Click here to get to the sign-up page!

Using Your Voice to Make Sense of Blues Harmonica Rhythms

If you play blues harmonica chances are you play shuffles a lot. It’s a nice groove and typically the first groove you learn to play. Since you probably play it a lot it has been etched into your brain and you don’t have to think too much to follow the groove. But what happens when you run into tabs or musical notation that are a bit more complicated? What happen when you step a little bit outside what you are used to?

Using your ears

If you are lucky you will have a sound file where the riffs you are working on is played, either in isolation or in context with a backing track or a band. In that case it is a matter of listening to the music at the same time as you are reading the tabulature and try to sing along with the rhytmic pattern. If the recording is too fast for you, you can use a program like The Amazing Slowdowner to play it at a more comfortable speed. This step is quite important to make sense of what you are trying to learn. When the rhytmic pattern is in your memory you can start worrying about the pitches as well. The process becomes something like read, listen, read, sing or hum, play on the harmonica. Try to use your ears more than your eyes.

If you want to go the technical route you can use a MIDI sequenser or similar program to program the pattern and have the computer play it back to you. Not a bad choice but not always feasible.

Using your voice before the harmonica

However we are not always lucky enough to have a recording of what we are studying or a MIDI sequencer at hand. In this case you need another method of figuring out the rhytmic pattern if it is previously inknown to you. They way I usually do this is to use my voice and use articulation to get a sense of the rhytmic phrasing. The articulations that work the best for me are:

  • 1/4-note – ta
  • 1/8-note 1/8-note straight feel – ta-ka
  • 1/8-note 1/8-note shuffle, first 1/8-note on the beat – taa-ka
  • 1/8-triplet – ta-da-ka
  • 4 1/16-notes – ta-ka-ta-ka

This list definately does not cover all possible combinations but it is a good starting point for working things out. You have to pay attention to any rests in the pattern and put together the phrases you need to get the complete harmonica phrase you are working on. DonĀ“t forget to use a metronom, rule number 9 of HertzbergĀ“s Rules of Practice.

Let me know if you have any questions on this and if it has been helpful to you. Stay in touch by subscribing to my newsletter below.

Harp on!