Here’s a great question from a guitarist about rhythm, timing and counting music.
“Had a quick question I was hoping you could answer. Do you actively keep time and count while you’re playing? I play with backing tracks or just to the songs I’m trying to learn, but I rarely count, if ever. I kind of just feel the music. If you keep time, is there a benefit to it I’m missing? When I try to count the whole process of playing just seems very mechanical and arduous to me. Any insight would be greatly appreciated.”
Good question. Here’s my answer.
Generally speaking, no I don’t count. Like you and most other musicians, rhythm and time are felt. However, when I’m not feeling it, then I must count it out. Usually, this leads to me eventually feeling it so that I no longer need to count it. But I am only able to do this because I learned the basics of sight-reading and counting rhythms.
One of the benefits of learning how to read standard notation is that you can train yourself to play and feel rhythms and time signatures that don’t come naturally to you. It has definitely come in handy to me over the years and made me a much better and more versatile musician. You can learn the basics of sight-reading by studying a book like Mel Bay’s Modern Guitar Method Grade 1.
While I can usually feel troubling rhythms after some initial counting and practice, there are some things I always need to count. For example, the breaks in the opening to “Couldn’t Stand the Weather” by Stevie Ray Vaughan. I’m sure the whole Double Trouble band counted those breaks too. The first break, which occurs around the 0:26 mark, resumes on the upbeat after two and a half beats of rest, coming in on the “and” of 3. So does the second break. The third break holds out for four and a half beats, coming in on the “and” of 5, a measure with an odd time signature. It’s really hard for the whole band to come back in together without everybody tapping their foot and counting in their heads.