How to Keep Good Tight Rhythm on the Guitar

Here are some mistakes, which don't allow you to play tight, and there are some reasons behind this.

Ultimate Guitar
How to Keep Good Tight Rhythm on the Guitar

Did you ever notice, that you can’t keep your rhythm tight? And because of this you can’t play along with other musicians, or your vocalist can’t sing along with your playing? I see often in my lessons, that beginners or even some experienced guitarists do the same mistakes, which don’t allow them to play tight, and there are some reasons behind this. These are the most common:

1. Musicians practice without a metronome

If you do any exercises without a metronome, your speed is going to flow. Later on, if you play with a band, you, probably, won’t be able to catch a rhythm, and so, you will mess the others.

2. Musicians usually play a rhythm, stopping a hand, while strumming or picking

If you do stop your hand – it will be harder for you to catch a pulse, which is reached by a smooth movement. There will be no pendulum movement, when a hand goes up and down with the same speed, and so, catching a rhythm will be a harder task.

3. Musicians play a downstroke on the upbeat or vise versa

You should keep in mind, on which beat the strumming, or picking starts, to calculate for beginning, where to play a downstroke, and where to go for an upstroke in the bar. When the rhythm in the bar starts on the upbeat – a lot of people start playing with the downstroke because it's the first stroke. Result - people end up with playing an upstroke on a downbeat, throwing the hand off the pulsation of the music. You should watch for it all through the song when you practice, because it is very easy to mess up in one place somewhere in the middle of the bar and ruin all further accenting.

Here is a simple example of strumming rhythm, which starts with an upbeat:

↓ - means strum down from 6-th string to 1-sf.

↑ - means strum up from 1-st string to 6-th.

Red bars indicates where the metronome's beats occurs.

4. Musicians play rhythm, accelerating or slowing down the movement of the hand

You should keep the speed the same, like your hand is a pendulum, because when shifting the speed you will fall of the rhythm, going always faster or slower, than needed.

The solutions for all these problems

1. A very important rule for a musician – practice with a metronome.

With a metronome, you will feel the pulsation of music, learn to play tight and feel more control over your hands. Also it is good to record your playing for yourself to listen to it later, because you will be able to hear some mistakes, which are not so noticeable while playing because your head is busy analyzing tons of things like movements of the hands, techniques, chords change... This will help you to work on your mistakes much better.

I would recommend to recording yourself in program like Cubese. It allows you to visually see when your playing is not tight with the metronome clicks:

2. Find some good exercises for rhythmic.

The simplest and the most effective one – turn on the metronome and clap your hands. Go for a slow tempo (like 60 – 70 bpm) for the first time and clap on every fourth click, then on every second, and further, as it is shown in the picture:

You can expand this task, for example by clapping three times in a bar, combining two and four claps in a bar and so on. This will help you to feel the rhythm with your hands. Take a 10-15 minutes training every day and you will notice the progress soon. If you get confused with choosing an exercise for yourself, or not sure if you do them right way – ask some good guitar teacher to help you.

3. Think about movements for the first time.

Planned movements can help you to play easier with a good attack and your pick hand will move smoother and more comfortably, like a pendulum. Later on when you learn 20-30 songs it will become automatic, of course.

Here is a simple example of where to use up- and downstrokes in the case of a riff with alternate picking:

П - downstroke

V - upstroke

Notice, that your hand shouldn’t stop, when it comes to a pause, it should move further without touching the strings. This helps you to keep the rhythm.

Now let’s have a look on the example with strumming:

As you can see, here is the same principal. A hand moves smoothly in the air, instead of stopping.

4. Practice the movement in front of a mirror.

It is a way for you to look on yourself playing from the side in a real time and to notice a lot of mistakes, like smoothness of the hand movement, too big or too small amplitude of the hand motion, tension in your hand (you will see your muscles straining), and, of course, you will also see, just how cool you look from the side :)

Let’s underline everything. Do not ignore practicing with the metronome to develop a good feeling of the rhythm. Watch for your picking hand to move smoothly and in pulse with music. Take time to analyze your playing. Record, listen and practice.

About the author:
Pasha Bocharov - professional guitarist and guitar teacher with a lot of experience giving guitar lessons for beginners in Moscow.

15 comments sorted by best / new / date

    My biggest advice always is 1. Get a cheap keyboard that has those dum midi's  2. Keep the hand moving!  Learned that from Dave Matthews.  I'm not a metal player at all but it's helped my metal friends to find a better groove (they blow me out of water in everything else so it's my contribution ha)
    Tight rhythm isn't always about playing perfectly in sync with the metronome. Actually, nobody can play "perfectly" in time. If you hear a performance on a record that sounds perfect, it's because the producer did some editing work so that the recording sounds more machine-like, more precise. It is the little inconsistencies in rhythm which make a groove...groove, and not surgical precision. Correct me if I am wrong, but most of the greatest guitarists had a very liberal approach to timing. Eddie van Halen, B.B. King, Jimmy Page and Yngwie Malmsteen come to mind.  To me it seems like a lot of people don't learn about music by jamming with other humans, but by practicing along to guitar pro, striving to sound robotic due to their approach to rhythm. I wonder how many who write this kind of articles have ever heard the word "rubato" before...
    Yes, rubato is cool thing And yes, no one is perfect But you play in the band timing is critical Your groove must be in sync The better every musician timing is - the better the whole band sounds Imagine if every one in the band plays rubato Rubato is cool to use when you play alone or play a solo over backing track You will understand it when you play a gig and record every instrument separately and listen to your band performance, or record a rehearsal this way If you never worked on this you will be amazed how bad it sounds
    Robert Callus
    Also, correct me if I'm wrong, trying to use rubato isn't a good idea if you're still struggling with the metronome. I'm sure that while Eddie Van Halen plays rubato, experiments and innovates, he can lock in with a metronome perfectly, and learnt that before he went for the cooler stuff.
    Of course, it's like playing out of key In order to do it good you should learn how to sound good playing in the key
    Robert Callus
    It isn't either or. You need to be able to lock in with the metronome and play free time. The guitarists you mention do have a liberal approach to timing, but you can also bet that until they got there, there were times they practiced with a metronome.
    When you record yourself professionally you will start to work on timing if you have not before