How to Massively Improve Your Rhythm and Timing on Guitar in as Little as 5 Minutes a Day

Working on your rhythm and timing skills is one of the single biggest things you can do to improve your guitar playing.

Ultimate Guitar
Working on your rhythm and timing skills is one of the single biggest things you can do to improve your guitar playing. It is also one of the most important aspects for any musician to develop.

Consider the flowing scenario:

You have the notes down to a riff or a song that you are learning on your guitar, but it doesn't sound right. You continue to plug away at it, maybe trying to play the notes faster, or slower, but it still fails miserably in comparison to the actual riff or song you are learning. No matter what you try to do, nothing works.

This is exactly how it was for me when I was first trying to learn guitar. I would spend hours trying to get what I was learning to sound right. However, it would end in frustration and I would throw my guitar down vowing never to play it again.

I eventually discovered, after deciding to give my guitar playing another shot, that it was my rhythm and timing that was the problem. I had all the notes and chords down, but due to poor timing skills, they were in all the wrong places and this is why what I was playing wasn't matching with the recording I was working with at the time.

To sum up, I couldn't play my guitar in time, not well anyway.

To have everything that you have ever learned on your guitar sound instantly better, simply focus on improving your rhythm and timing skills!

In this article, I am going to show you exactly how to go about this without even needing your guitar. If you have 5 minutes to spare in your day, you can do this.

But first...

Why You Struggle With Rhythm and Timing on Guitar and the Fall Out of Ignoring It

The ability to play your guitar in time will make or break your playing. It is one of the most common frustrations for guitarists of all styles, some of whom are not even aware that this is the area of their playing that is holding them back.

Far too often the focus is on what notes to play, rather than WHEN to play these notes. The frustration occurs when you realise that just because you can play these notes well, it doesn't mean that they are all going to fall into place for you by default.

This frustration turns into embarrassment when you are jamming with friends, or playing in a band, and you discover that you can't play in time with everybody.

Unfortunately, nothing will change until you make the decision to invest time into working on your rhythm skills. It doesn't matter how many songs you learn, you will always struggle to play any of them well if you ignore your timing issues.

What Great Rhythm and Timing Will Do for Your Guitar Playing

The drills I present to you in this article are very effective, and simple, if you work on them consistently, each day. Your awareness of time will improve greatly, and your timing will go from something that you have to "think" about, to something that you "feel."

This is exactly what you are after!

You want to be able to "feel" where the notes are played, and "feel" where the beat is rather than having to "think" about it.

Making this switch from thinking to feeling will transform your guitar playing. Struggling to play songs in time will be a thing of the past for you. You'll love every moment of playing guitar. Songs will be easier to play and much quicker to learn, and your confidence will go through the roof when jamming with friends and/or playing in bands.

No Guitar Needed. Time to Put It Down

You are going to be working on your rhythm and timing in a general sense, as oppose to looking at a specific song or riff. Timing is the common denominator between all music, so if you isolate and work on it then everything you play becomes so much better.

In light of this, you wont actually need your guitar at all. We need think like a drummer and have only rhythm to work with. We don't need the distraction of pitch.

Now that the guitar is out of the picture, you are able to work on your rhythm and timing skills anywhere, anytime. All you need is a spare couple of minutes and away you go. This is a big advantage as you can now improve your guitar playing anytime of the day!

Warning: A very costly assumption that many people make is that they are above simple drills of counting and clapping rhythms. DO NOT fall into this trap! Whether you have been playing guitar for years, or are a beginner, the drills that follow in this article will help your guitar playing no end. They may appear simple, but the rewards of doing them on a consistent basis are huge!

The following exercises are all in 4/4 time. This is the most common time in music, but you should also work with other common time signatures too like 3/4 and 6/8 etc. Also, it's highly recommended you use a metronome. This will train your timing so much better and will highlight areas of weakness that you can then work on (e.g. keeping consistent tempo).

To start, simply count aloud 1, 2, 3, 4, 1, 2, 3, 4 etc.

Each count represents a click of the metronome.

Begin to tap or clap on the "1" beat as you continue to count 1, 2, 3, 4 etc. There should be one tap to every 4 clicks of the metronome. Here it is with the beat you are tapping on, highlighted:

1, 2, 3, 4, 1, 2, 3, 4 etc.

Now tap on the 3rd beat as well as the 1 like this:

1, 2, 3, 4, 1, 2, 3, 4 etc.

Finally, tap on all 4 beats as you count:

1, 2, 3, 4, 1, 2, 3, 4 etc.

It is vitally important that you count each beat aloud as you do this. Make sure your lips are moving.

Counting aloud now leads to feeling the beat down the track. Remember this is our aim.

Dividing the Beat

Now it's time to divide the beat into some common and various divisions that you will come across in your guitar playing everyday.

Start by dividing the beat into two. To do this, simply tap twice to each click of the metronome and count (aloud):
1  +  2  +  3  +  4  +  etc
Next, tap 3 to each click of the metronome and count (aloud):
1 + a   2 + a   3 + a   4 + a   etc
Finally, tap 4 times to each click of the metronome while counting (aloud):
1 e + a   2 e + a   3 e + a   4 e + a   etc
The drills above will provide you with a great foundation for your rhythm and timing. These are some of the most common everyday divisions of the beat that happen in all music, whatever the style. Learn and internalise them well.

Time to Mix It Up a Little

In reality, you will most often get combinations of the divisions of the beat in music. Once you have a feel for the drills in the previous exercise, the next step is to mix them up, coming up with all sorts of variations.

For example, you might do something like this:
1   +   2 e + a   3 + a   4  +  etc
or maybe:
1 e + a   2  +  3 e + a   4  +  etc

Start creating your own variations, by mixing up the divisions of the beat, and always be sure to tap them out while counting aloud. You will come up with all sorts of rhythms doing this.

Remember, all you need is a few minutes to work on this each day. No guitar is needed, so take advantage of the pockets of spare time that we all have in our day, and take your guitar playing to a whole new level!

To fully maximise your acoustic guitar playing, take your new and improved rhythm and timing skills and learn to play guitar percussively with these.

About the Author:
Simon Candy is based in Melbourne Australia where he runs his own guitar school. He has taught guitar for over 20 years to people of all ages and levels covering a variety of styles including blues, rock, jazz, and fingerpicking. Simon also helps musicians from all over the globe learn acoustic guitar online.

49 comments sorted by best / new / date

    This helps a lot! Also, this idea helped immensely in giving me a better grasp of odd time signatures. Ex: For 5/4, count 1 + 2 + 3 For 7/4, count 1 2 1 2 1 2 3 Got those ideas in a Billy Rymer video. This kind of thing helps come up with the "groove" of a riff, then it's easy to put cool riff patterns/scales/chords to that rhythm once you have it. Nice lesson!
    I have some trouble with the triplets when they're mixed in with the 1/8 and 1/16 beats Any advice? or will just come with practice?
    This will be hard to explain without sheet music,but I'll try. If you can operate a basic program like guitar pro,you could write what I give you there.It would be easier to understand and you would have the benefit of listening to it. Let's say you have a pattern of 2 groups of 8ths,one group of triplets,and one group of 8ths again. So something like this: Example A. Metronome Beats: 1 2 3 4 Note groupings : 1+2 1+2 1+2+3 1+2 8ths 8ths Triplets 8ths With this pattern you are playing straight on the 2rd beat,then you have to change on "triplet mode" on the 3rd beat and have to change to straight again on the final beat.This is what you want to be able to play,but don't bother with it yet. What you could try at first is playing triplets at every beat,so you get the triplet feel. So you would have something like this: Example B. Metronome Beats: 1 2 3 4 Note groupings : 1+2+3 1+2+3 1+2+3 1+2+3 Pretty easy.Repeat this a few times,so you have the triplet feel "locked" inside you. Now the next thing will be super hard to write. What you want to do is compine Example A with B to create a swing feel. Example C (Q=quarter E=Eighth) Metronome Beats: 1 2 3 4 Note groupings : (1+2)+3 (1+2)+3 1+2+3 (1+2)+3 Q +E Q +E E+E+E Q +E Although this example seems daunting at first,it's actually a lot easier to play that Example A if you get the feel of it.And you are playing the same amount of notes as in example A (your goal).You just count the 8ths with a swing feel,to be able to transition to the triplets on the 3rd beat smoothly. What you want to do after(hopefully)playing example C,is gradually trying to cancel out the swing feel,by making the 8ths as straight as possible. Hopefully what I wrote makes sense to you(I think not ).Have fun and remember,practice makes perfect!
    Frank Gambale had a whole chapter of exercises mixing triplets and 16th notes in his "Chopbuilder" video. Check it out, helped me a lot.
    I personally think the better way to count a 5/4 would be to simply count to 5, since the 2 and 4 in a 5/4 are not off beat.
    I remember when I first started playing Bass. My brother would say, "I wish I had a bass player who can keep time. I focused on timing. I figured why learn to play fast before learning to play correctly. These days, I am known for having a "Great clock". Those formative years when I focused on time really paid off! Anyway, how can I be a decent part of a rhythm section if I cannot keep time? Do listen to this stuff! The tedious things they teach in these lessons are very important. It might be more fun to try to "shred" or learn Tom Morello tricks, but even Morello will recommend you learn proper basics like rhythm before learning flashy tricks. I know music should be fun, but sometimes working on things that aren't much fun will pay off later...and you will have more fun playing music than you can ever imagine. Best wishes, enjoy!
    Good article. Counting aloud solidifies it in your brain. And coming back to the guitar after doing this helps a ton.
    6/8 and 7/8 took me a long time to figure out. Id keep with his lesson and Jr hammett's idea. Buy a metronome and practice! Good lesson!
    Great article Simon. Especially your Warning: A very costly assumption that many people make is that they are above simple drills of counting and clapping rhythms. DO NOT fall into this trap! Guest
    I have been doing this 2 months and I do definitely see improvement but I wonder when you really start to feel an internal pulse?
    I think this is great timing is every thing. We would do the same thing in college music classes.
    For those of you complaining about not having a metronome - there are a bajillion apps that have metronome functionality. I have one called ReadRhythm that has a metronome as well as hundreds of rhythm drills. You can tap the screen to keep time and it even has a mike option that evaluates your timing on any instrument of your choosing. I fekkin lurv it!
    yes. I use a metronome app. not sure of the name maybe Steinway & sons. Ive also got great tuning app called PolyTune. My girlfriend got me RockSmith 2014 for Christmas. I thouroughly recommend it.
    Hi I have a question for example of this exercise    1+a  2+a  3+a  4+a so this mean I have to count out loud the 1 2 3 4, and my hand tapping the 1+a etc? but this is so difficult, counting out loud the 4 while keeping in mind the 1+a etc. How does anyone do this? Could I instead do tapping on my right foot on 1 2 3 4 and clap my hand while i count aloud the 1+a etc?? or this will not work? thanks in advance
    Simon Candy
    Hi Eclipse14, If you are counting out a triplet rhythm as in your example, then count the rhythm you are tapping, so you would count 1+a 2+a 3+a 4+a aloud as you tap that rhythm. Once you have that going, then get your foot to only tap on the beat, the 1, 2, 3, 4 etc.  So in you will be tapping/clapping 3 times to each beat. Does that make sense? You can check out the article here if you like. There are recordings of each example included:
    or just play acoustic with a metronome clicking and count to that, if you master 4/4 then it only gets harder with 3/4 or 4/6. but i see where hes coming from here
    I have another important question, lets say i was strumming eighth notes (down+up) and a group of triplets came up, how would the strumming go? down+down+up?
    It really depends on the context as to how you pick triplets. Most times it will be down, up, down/up, down, up/down, up, down/up, down, up etc But it could also be down, up, down/down, up, down etc or simply down, down, down/down, down, down etc It really does depend on the context and the sort of attack you are after with your pick. Hope that helps
    You want to be ambipictrous when picking. If you can do 1/8th doing (down / up ), you should be able to do it (up / down). So when a triplet hits, you can relate.^-V-^-V-^V^-V-^-V-^
    Try learning Drawing flies by Soundgarden
    Soundgarden gets weird with their time signatures. It's so natural, though, that you don't always realize it until you try to play a song.
    To be in time you gotta be like you're packing a smokes. And your arm is loose but at constant rate. Gotta be loosely goosey. Gotta feel it. Like flicking something off your hand. Flick, flick, flick. You gotta emote, be cool, be the rock.
    I have been playing guitar for years and I can do chords some solos and play some songs but I am always told that my timing is off. I tried to play bass in a band and although we were not playing anything technical my timing was off. I am actually embarrassed to play in public. I have tried these exercises before and I get the clapping right but when I try on guitar I just suck. Does anybody else have this problem? I am starting to think that thing about rhythm you either have it or you don't is true. Sometimes, I just want to put my guitar down call it quits.
    Try play over a basic 4/4 drum beat with a crash symbol over each chord change. Itl help u notice when u go out.
    Hey great article but I got a few questions With dividing the beat, 1 + 2 + 3 + 4 + Do you count (loud) the + signs or do you just count the 1, 2, 3, 4? And do you do it in time with mentronome if you were counting the "+" ? Also with the tapping, do you space out the tap or do you just tap repeatbly after each one. For example when the metronome clicks, do you tap twice one after the other like tap tap, or do you tap wait 0.5 seconds then tap again or whatever the feel of the beat is?
    as a guy who started on drums, it's easy to forget how hard it can be for guys learning/playing guitar who don't have that much natural rhythm. for all the drummer jokes that get thrown about, i think it's beneficial for guitarists to at least know the basics, appreciate timing, and allow them to be able to play easier with others as a result.
    agreed man. Also, learning drum music notation is easier to grasp at an elementary level than other music forms of notations, and learning that first was great for me to do music, all I needed to learn after understanding the drums was replacement of beats with notes... I am no drummer by any stretch of the imagination, I did Grade 4 in drums, and it made me such a better musician all round. I never make jokes on drummers, one of my best friends is a drummer and it is the oddest thing when we are rocking out to whatever, he always air guitars, and I always air drum...most guitarist might not admit it, but I think most guitarists would want to be drummers if not guitarists, and drummers guitarists if not the rock genre, as both guitar and drums can get quite technical in the field of rock! drum solos, guitar solos!
    I think this highlights something else for musicians. A lot of learning, and practise in music can be done without your actual instrument. Thinking about keys, trying to work out all notes to all the keys in your head whilst sitting on a bus. Playing different rhythms with your feet/anything is all practise, and if music isn't on the brain unless you have something in hand or have music playing, you might never make it past a hobby.
    Can someone please give me some info on playing with a metronome? I already know about all the beat stuff and all that from singing for so long, but I have never been able to play an instrument with a metronome. How do I begin to do this?
    Just think of a metronome as a drum track and make sure your in time with it. You don't play a note for every click you hear- the clicks help you stay in time just like a drummer would. Pick a riff or lick and set the BPM to a comfortable speed and then play along with the metronome. If you are out of time try slowing down the BPM.
    Follow the drills I present in the article above with a metronome. Be sure to count aloud and leave the guitar out of it for now while you get use to feeling the beat and tapping along to the metronome
    I wasn't a fan of the article for a couple of reasons. Firstly is the getting rid of the guitar bit. This is seen as a positive because now you 'can practice anywhere, anytime' but the article then goes on to highly recommend using a metronome. I don't know many people who carry metronomes on them at all times. Secondly is that rhythm for guitar needs to be applied to guitar. Playing and clapping and hitting stuff and swaying in time is all well an good, and is good practice for feeling a beat, but it is useless for applying it to a guitar. I play drums and can keep 4/4 or 3/4 beat extremely comfortably, but i'm having to work on getting my picking hand synced up with these time signatures on the guitar, especially at slower speed. To practice rhythm for guitar you need a guitar in your hands, in my opinion.
    I don't know many ppl who carry a guitar at all times either You can do these exercises anywhere, anytime, and it will definitely help with timing
    I like having exercises to do on my commute or in places that I do not have my guitar. In regards to no one carrying a metronome around with them, most people do have a smartphone. Plenty of apps and sites offer a free metronome.
    I think the article rather adresses people who have a hard time keeping a straight beat or 'feeling the beat'. You as a (decent?) drummer are one step further and your problem is rather a mechanical one I think. If you keep practicing at slow speed, you will eventually get to playing stuff in time, because you can hear the beat in your head. For people who lack that ability this article is a good way to try improving their (basic, yet vital) rhythm skills. Picking up the guitar would be the next step. peace
    Hi Vidarrt, Thanks for your feedback The article is more about developing good timing away from the guitar, so that when you have it in your hands, you are in a better position to play it in time. Of course, I am not saying that tapping rhythms away from guitar is a complete system in itself to playing your guitar in time, but it is a very important piece to the over all skill of rhythm and timing. Too many people get distracted with a guitar in their hands when it comes to rhythm so to work on it away from the guitar ensures you will focus on this very important skill in isolation. I also think there is something to be said to doing these drills even when you have good time because there are always certain combinations you'll come up with that you may not have otherwise and will serve you well in your playing on the guitar, particularly in improvisation. As some one already suggested, most people do have a metronome in their pocket via a smart phone, but you can always use your foot to keep time if you can't use a metronome
    Just try practicing making songs that are in uneven time like 5/4 like I did.. Now the rhythm is stuck in my head and it's so much easier to play in 5/4 time..