If we consider the beat to be the definitive time keeper for a piece of music we can play slightly ahead of the beat, on the beat, or slightly behind the beat. For hoedown music the thing to do is play right on the beat, sometimes called “hitting it on top”. For waltz or two-step music it can be appropriate to play slighlty behind the beat. Two-steps often “swing” the beat by playing behind it.
Some music is more danceable than others. Old time hoedown music is all about dancing. Most dance music, both past and present, relies on a rhythmic nuance called syncopation. This is true for old time music as well as funk. Syncopation puts emphasis on the beats in between the beats, also known as the backbeat. We hear syncopation in lots of different kinds of music. Count 1 & 2 & 3 & 4. The back beat is the “&” between each beat. In tablature syncopation can be visualized like this.
That in-between beat is what makes the rhythm syncopated and it is that beat that the old time guitar must strum on. In old time music the bass notes are played on the front beat and the guitar strums on the back beat. Some old time music is more syncopated than other old time music. This is a choice of stylistic taste and ability.
Meter is a facet of rhythm that is created by the combination of short and long sounds. Meter is different from the time signature, meter operates within the time signature. The concept of meter can also be found in poetry.
Much of old time music has a meter of short – short – long, which might also be interpreted as long – short – short, depending on whether the pharse is started with a long or short.
The clawhammer banjo technique is often described rhythmically as “bum – did – ee”. In that case the “bum” is the longer sound.
The fall back bowing pattern of the shuffle bowed old time fiddle can be uttered as “chuck – a – chung” with the “chung” being the longer sound.
In old time music the “short – short” is equal to one long sound. The long sound is heard on the front beat and the short – short is used to emphasize or de-emphasize the back beat. If we were to write out the rhythm strokes the long would occupy a 1/4th note and each of the short sounds would occupy 1/8th notes. The guitar can fill the rhythmic space of the short – short with a single, quick downward strum. The guitar can also key into the meter of the banjo and fiddle by playing a quick downward strum followed by a quick upward strum. For a closer look at this approach to the meter see the section on the alternating bass technique.