Three Ways to Perfect Your Rhythm

If you happen to follow Philip Hii’s Blog, a while back he wrote a series of articles on the importance of rhythm.

Rhythm can make a piece sound alive. It can take an ordinary phrase and turn it into something magical and moving. But rhythm only has that power if you are its absolute master. That starts with counting and understanding how the beats fit together.

Lessons Learned from Sight Reading

Anyone good at sight reading will tell you that the notes don’t really matter. It’s more important to keep the beat and keep moving. If you’ve ever been in an ensemble that had to stop every two bars to get people caught up, you know exactly why rhythm and counting are more important than hitting every not perfectly. Rhythm is kind of a big deal

On the other side of a the coin, Learning a piece is about developing and shaping habits over time. Nothing is perfect from the get go, but it’s your job to make sure every repetition is as close to perfect as possible. Develop a bad habit early only and you’ll spend hours fixing it later.

With an element as crucial and powerful as rhythm, it’s even hard to go back and reverse those bad habits. That’s why counting is so important. You cannot hope to push and pull a pieces beat, count and rhythm if you don’t fully understand it. So here are three ways to do that.

1. Put Down the Guitar

And Clap.

Too often we get so caught up in the finger mechanics of playing that we completely ignore the rhythmic aspect. Divorce the two. Your sense of beat and time should never be tied into the mechanics of playing the guitar, and one way to make sure that doesn’t happen is to practice reading rhythms separately.

Put down your guitar and try clapping the rhythms of each of the lines in your piece. Do it at tempo, slow, and fast. You should also clap rhythms while counting aloud (see point three).

2. Sing & Tap

Again, without the guitar, sing the musical lines of your piece in time.

If you do this without some sort of counting it doesn’t count (pun intended), so be sure to clap the beat or tap your foot while singing. The mechanics of music making should never be tied into your sense of time. This is another way to divorce the two.

3. Count Aloud

A teacher once told me that if you can’t count aloud while playing your piece, you don’t know it.

This is the only method of the three that involves your guitar. Count a loud while you’re playing a piece. But don’t just count when you play, keep a steady stream. In other words, pick the smallest subdivision in the piece and count that the entire way through. If that happens to be a sixteenth note, you’re count would be 1 e & a 2 e & a 3 e & a etc. the entire piece or passage. In most cases this involves you counting more than necessary.

You should also try the opposite: count less than necessary. If you have a passage in 16ths, try counting only 8th notes

counting exercise
Counting Less Than Necessary

This is, like the previous two methods, about divorcing your sense of time from the mechanics of playing guitar. Counting a loud is a convenient way to do that.

Should I Use Metronome For These Things?

Sure. But know when to put it down. If you want to really have some fun, get your tempo from a metronome, then shut it off and play/sign/clap a passage. When you’re through, immediately turn the metronome back on. Did your tempo wander? Or did you stay in time?

Its never a bad choice to use a metronome, but be careful that it doesn’t become the only way you can stay in time.

Posted on in Musical Interpretation and Musicianship


  • Vito

    So vital for a good performance.

    Unfortunately the classical guitar seems to have a tradition of playing unrhythmically. Look at old Segovia: his rubato was used to cover up technical difficulties like left-hand shifts.

    So playing in a clean rhythmical manner is definitely worthwhile. Worldclass performers use a metronomes:

  • Larry Deack

    Rhythm is so much more than counting beats. Ultimately it’s about feeling it in your body.

    My last blog was on rhythm with two small samples that demonstrate the idea of how important harmonic rhythm is. Learning to play to the chord change is critical for shaping larger rhythmic structures. Beginning students get bogged down at the pulse level of the rhythmic structure losing the sense of anticipation that comes from the phrase level of the rhythm. The groove is more in the meter than the pulse. If you can’t feel the groove you can’t make it swing by pushing ahead or laying back on the beat, like a snowboarder getting air in a half pipe.

    CGists should be able to vamp on two chords and make it interesting. Most pop guitarist play “rhythm” (chord strumming) guitar and can do this easily.

  • Seattle Guitar Lessons

    Bury the click! I like to slap my thigh in time with the snare when I listen to music in my car. I try to get it exactly in time so I can’t hear the snare. But since it can never be absolutely perfect, I exercise my ears at the same time and try to hear whether it was early or late. The goal is to get my physical sense of rhythm in a better state than my ears can discern.

  • John

    Good advice.
    One needs to start with exact rhythm from the beginning: from the easy pieces. Otherwise it will be difficult when the rhythm suddenly gets more complex… if one is not used to it.

    One should always have a good buildup where things stay easy. Otherwise there is a cumulative effect of difficulty, which just blows any chance of reasonably coping:
    difficulty of rhythm, timing difficulty, technical difficulty, coordination difficulty, dynamics (loud soft) difficulty, timbre difficulty (metallico, dolce).

    So don’t go and accumulate difficulty…
    do things the right way, even on easy works -> and everything else will follow.

  • John

    Chris, you may want to keep this as an idea for a future post…
    One needs to break things down.
    Otherwise one will hit that typical dead wall, beyond which one cannot get.

    But that wall is just there because the player is handling too much.
    Sometimes it’s good to backtrack and split up things and handle them separately… to get used to them.

    Hope this advice is helpful. Best of luck to all readers, from a student studying in the city of music. 😉

  • Floricel @ Learn Guitar Fast

    I like this post so much! It reminds me of my childhood years when I was getting some piano lessons with my aunt. She would ask me to read the notes aloud and then together we will clap the beats per measure base from the time signature. It was a fun way to learn as far as I can remember.

    And while I was learning guitar on my own brought by my inspiration from my father. I started studying base on guitar chord diagram. I’m grateful enough to easily learn how to strum the strings and get the right rhythm to say the least. I think it helps when you really know the song and you get to be able to listen and feel the groove.

    In my opinion, being able to get the rhythm easily in an instant is also a gift that every musician want to possess. And I think this post is a useful advice to help a musician obtain this gift.