Counting Rhythms While Playing Guitar


Counting Rhythms While Playing Guitar

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.


Comments ( 6 )

  • Peter

    Thanks for the response to my email! I’m glad to hear (or read) I do pretty much the same thing as you. I started to worry perhaps I was missing something key in my development. I understand time signatures and can bang out rhythms to a metronome, thats how I learned to play, but I hated it. For me it’s just so much more enjoyable to throw on some actual music and create some actual music noodling around.

  • Nick

    I really want to buy your fretboard ll to add to all of your dvd’s and book, but I dog-ear pages, underline, use colored markers, and carry book around house as necessary, e-book doesn’t do it for me-please print copies real soon

  • Desi i have a chord progression

    am,g,f,g ,f,g,dm,am,g,f,g,c ,g

    am is the tone center am i in the key of c ????

    thanks art

  • Yes, those chords fit into the C major scale.

    C Major Scale
    C D E F G A B
    I ii iii IV V vi vii?5
    C Dm Em F G Am Bm?5

    But it looks like the Am chord is probably the tonic (tonal center of the music). So it would be better to call this the A minor scale. A minor is relative to C major. The minor scale is the 6th mode of the major scale, Aeolian.

    If you renumber the chords putting Am in the first position then the key looks like this:

    A minor Scale
    A B C D E F G
    i ii?5 ?III iv v ?VI ?VII
    Am Bm?5 C Dm Em F G

    These are still the very same notes and chords from C major. The only difference is that you’re counting everything from A. Notice that the Roman numeral designations changed to properly reflect the chords in this new order.

  • Lee

    Hi nick you can print out pdf files so you have a physical copy its well worth buying by the way

  • Nice post…just tweeted! I’ve always found it tricky to talk with my students about rhythm. It really does at some point have to be felt, even if it starts with counting.

    Except maybe “Couldn’t Stand the Weather” :) I always have to count that break too.