The guitarists we revere are often those who play the most soulful, the fastest, or the flashiest solos. Stylists and innovators like Eddie Van Halen, Jeff Beck, Slash, and Joe Bonamassa delight and amaze us with their skill and prowess, inspiring us to learn similar licks in the hopes of imitating them.
What we too often forget, though, is that every great soloist must also be a great rhythm player; no guitarist who isn’t would be allowed anywhere near a sizable stage or well-regarded recording studio.
Learning to play rhythm guitar well is essential to becoming a well-rounded guitarist; no matter how impressive your soloing skills are, you won’t make the band if you can’t stay in the groove. Fortunately, there are various rhythm exercises that can help you hone your rhythm skills.
Ways To Improve Your Sense Of Rhythm On Guitar
Let’s take a look at twelve of the most popular and effective ways of improving your timing and rhythm.
I. Practice Using A Metronome Or Click-Track
One of the surest ways to improve your sense of internal timing is by practicing using a metronome of click-track. Playing along to a metronome or click-track at any tempo will help improve your timing, but there’s a trick to getting the most out of your metronome practice–namely, take it slow.
Metronomes are devices that produce evenly timed clicks musicians use to stay in time. The first metronomes were basically pendulums with sliding weights that could be adjusted to increase or decrease the pace of the click. Today, most metronomes are digital, and you can even download metronome apps to your phone or device.
A great exercise for improving your rhythm on guitar is to set your metronome, or click-track, to forty beats per minute (40 Bpm.) Play a single note over and over, aiming to land each precisely on the click every time. This exercise sounds deceptively easy, but it can be surprisingly difficult to master.
Once you’re landing the same note consistently on the beat, challenge yourself to play a short series of notes, again on a steady beat, being careful to sound each note exactly over each click. Eventually, you’ll be able to move to play entire scales and runs with precise timing.
Don’t be discouraged if you don’t get it right away; keep practicing, even if it’s only a few minutes every day. You’ll be surprised how many internal timing issues a few weeks of practicing this exercise can correct.
II. Tap Your Foot/Bob Your Head
The next time you’re watching a concert or live performance, take a second or two and watch the musician’s feet. Unless otherwise occupied with Wah, bass drum, or piano pedals, the smart money says they’ll be tapping to the beat.
Tapping your foot or bobbing your head along to the music you’re playing is another good way to sharpen your sense of rhythm and timing. Most musicians do this without even thinking about it, and you probably do also.
If you find you do, pay particular attention to that expression of your inner clock as you play rhythm guitar; if tapping your foot to the beat isn’t something you do naturally it’s no cause for alarm, but try to make it a habit by doing so every time you play.
III. Practice Different Strumming Patterns
Generally speaking, strumming patterns are how rhythm is expressed on guitar. Strumming patterns are communicated in up and down strums; a steady four-four rhythm strumming pattern might read UP-DOWN-UP-DOWN.
There are countless strumming patterns, and lots of ways to accent and flavor those patterns. Beginner guitarists as well as those of us looking to put a finer point on our rhythm guitar skills would do well to familiarize ourselves with as many strum patterns as it is practical.
Some online sources suggest beginners should learn at least three, intermediate players at least six, and advanced players no fewer than eight go-to strumming patterns.
The more strumming patterns you have at your fingertips, the better prepared you’ll be when faced with intricate or less-familiar rhythms and time signatures. By using a familiar strumming pattern as a touchstone, you’ll be better able to understand what variations of strum pattern will be necessary to accommodate a new rhythm.
IV. Try Sub-Dividing Beats Into Parts
The more time that elapses between beats, the more difficult it becomes to accurately time intervening notes. Simply put, there’s far more room for error.
Imagine you’re driving along a highway with markers at every mile; should you be tasked with dropping packages at intervals of exactly one mile along this road, it would be easy enough–just drop one package at every marker.
Now, imagine you had to drop some packages at a distance of a quarter mile from each other, or even an eighth, sixteenth-, or thirty-second of a mile? Dropping these packages with any degree of accuracy is going to prove much harder.
Notes that land on the beat are like the packages placed at every marker; they’re easy to sound accurate because the beat serves as the signpost. Notes played between beats are harder to land in time, as we’re forced to estimate the distance to the next “marker.”
We can fix this problem by subdividing the beat; or, in keeping with our metaphor, by simply adding more signposts per mile of road.
To do this, you don’t need a click or metronome. To divide each beat into half notes, simply count one-and-two-and-three-and-four, instead of one-two-three-four.
Each “and” represents a halfway point between beats. To divide beats into quarters, you’d have to add three extra syllables; an example would be: one-e-and-a-two-e-and-a-three-e-and-a-four-e-and-a.
The next time you find yourself struggling with a particular rhythm, do what the pros do, and subdivide.
V. Count Out Loud
Counting out loud while playing guitar may sound way uncool; truth be told, it isn’t something I’d advise doing on stage or at your next audition. That said, counting out loud is a great way to work on sharpening up your internal sense of time.
All guitarists, and beginner guitarists especially, should count out loud as they practice their rhythm exercises during music lessons; doing so for even a few months will helps develop rhythm and timing.
VI. Check For A Pulse
When learning a new song or jamming with other musicians, the first thing you’ll need to identify is the pulse of the music in question.
No matter how intricate its drumbeat is, or obscure its time signatures, every song has a “pulse” beat that anchors the rhythm. Consider the Dave Matthews Band; many of their songs are quite intricate, and the sophisticated drum work often makes it more challenging (though not overly difficult) to identify the pulse.
If you watch a performance by the DMB though, you can easily identify the pulse by watching not Carter Beauford on the drums, but Dave himself-or more accurately, Dave’s foot.
Once you’ve identified the pulse of the song, you can use it as an anchor of sorts; even if you haven’t yet worked out the intricacies of a particular rhythm, the pulse can act as a touchstone to keep you from straying too far as you experiment with different strumming patterns.
VII. Embrace Your Inner Air-Drummer
We’ve all done it–some of us only when we think no one is looking, others whenever and wherever the mood grabs us–playing the air drums along to our favorite songs.
If you’ve ever felt foolish about your penchant for pounding air whenever Rush’s Tom Sawyer comes on the radio, here’s some good news: playing air drums can actually help improve your sense of internal timing.
When you play air drums for the purpose of improving your internal musical timing, you’re doing more than identifying the pulse of a song; you’re attending to all the hits in between the pulses, thereby reinforcing and even fine-tuning your internal time sense.
VIII. Record Your Performance
A failsafe way to test the accuracy of your timing on guitar is to record yourself practicing, then play the resulting file with an accompanying click track.
For this exercise, record yourself playing without a metronome; use your internal sense of rhythm playing timing only. Then, use your metronome to identify the beats per minute of your recorded performance. Listen carefully to how well the clicks line up with the notes you’ve played. Few tests offer better insight into the accuracy of a guitarist’s timing and sense of rhythm.
Recording your performance or practice is a great way to gauge the accuracy of your timing, but it can also prove frustrating and discouraging. Don’t expect perfection when you try this exercise–even session players have difficulty doubling some guitar lines exactly.
IX. Try Learning Songs By Ear
There are some pitfalls to trying to learn songs by ear before you’ve reached a certain experience level: for one thing, it’s likely to prove frustrating, especially at first; also, the odds of figuring out certain licks and riffs as a beginner are slim-to-nil, no matter how good an ear one has.
That said, there are some significant and undeniable benefits to attempting by-ear play. One such benefit is an improved sense of rhythm and internal timing. One way many ways playing by ear improves a guitarist’s rhythm is it forces them to experiment with a variety of strumming patterns as they zero-in on the correct one.
X. Play To A Drumbeat
Another great way to improve your rhythm and timing is to play along to a drumbeat. If you don’t have a drum machine or a friend who plays drums, don’t worry; there are countless drum tracks available for free on Youtube and other online platforms.
When playing to a drumbeat for the purpose of rhythm practice, start by playing one chord exclusively. Once you’ve dialed in the exact rhythm of the groove and identified a suitable strumming pattern, graduate to alternating between two chords, then ultimately to playing entire chord progressions.
Incidentally, playing to a drumbeat is also an excellent way to spark your creativity; don’t be surprised if you come up with some cool progressions and song ideas while working to improve your rhythm and timing.
XI. Explore New Horizons
Another fun and potentially inspiring way to work on your timing is to explore playing in different, unfamiliar genres.
Exploring different musical styles can expose you to new rhythms and time signatures. If, for example, you play primarily the blues or rock, try playing over a Latin-Rock, or Jazz Fusion backing track.
These lively, often busy percussive rhythms will give you a fresh perspective on timing and present new challenges as you learn to navigate playing with and over more complex rhythms.
Funk is also a great genre for those of us looking to up our rhythm guitar games. The greatest funk songs require rhythm guitarists to be on their toes; there’s a lot of face-paced muted strumming in between sounded chords (often accompanied by the Wah pedal) as well as chord slides and hammer-ons.
XII. Practice More Than Just Straight Picking
All the abovementioned rhythm exercises can help you fine-tune your sense of internal timing. To get maximum value out of some of them, though, you’ll want to do more than just picking notes.
Hammer-ons, pull-offs, slides, bends; these may be techniques more popularly associated with soloing, but they’re all fundamental building blocks of rhythm guitar playing too. When playing rhythm guitar exercises, don’t neglect these important picking alternatives.
More advanced guitarists can use many of the exercises mentioned above to improve the timing of more advanced playing techniques like finger-tapping, sweep-picking, and fingerpicking.
About the Author
Gustavo is a music teacher and classical guitar player from Brazil, currently residing in Dublin, Ireland. He holds a graduate degree in Classical Guitar Performance from the Federal University of Pelotas. In 2020, Gustavo successfully completed a Master's degree in Sound Engineering from the Academy of Sound in Ireland.