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I've been teaching a highschool kid acoustic guitar lately and even though everything related to the left hand is progressing well, he is having major problems with his rhythm.

To give you the full picture my opinion would be that he has no rhythm. He can't understand the concept of it and he doesn't seem to recognize it when he's completely off tempo. He can't clap in sync with a metronome without my help and everytime i show him an exercise, next week comes only to realize that he's been doing it wrong the whole week.

My question is: Are there any techniques or exercises that would help him improve? I've tried working with metronome but he just doesn't listen to it or doesn't understand the beats. I always make him sing the Strums of a particular pattern in tempo before even playing it on guitar (e.g. Down Down-Up Up-Down-Up-Down) to help him remember the movement of his right hand and at the same time practicing rhythm. He sings it ok sometimes but most of the times he's off even when he sings it. And when I say off i mean everything is done wrong. He skips rests, he creates his own rests at times, he accents the wrong strums etc etc

I am really puzzled as to what to try because I am certain he can't understand or feel anything about rhythm which makes it almost impossible to try to explain it to him.

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Not a full answer, but I've had personal success with practicing strumming way up on the neck (7th-10th frets ish). For some reason combining saying down/up, watching a video and strumming way up on the neck it starts to synch correctly. – WSkid Jan 4 '13 at 12:49
Have a go with one of the bass greats : :) – user1306 Jan 4 '13 at 16:45
A bit off the wall: Juggling, learning to juggle will get your hands moving to a steady rhythm. – Lee Kowalkowski May 6 '14 at 10:29

5 Answers 5

up vote 14 down vote accepted

I think @Ulf is on the right track--I'll elaborate here.

It sounds like your student is at the point where you'll need to work on the absolute basics of rhythm. Before you get anywhere near subdivisions, time signatures, even the concept of a quarter note, your student needs to become proficient with steady beat. This is, in many ways, the concept that kindergarden general music teachers spend the entirety of their year working on.

If all else fails, then the Eurhythmics idea is where you want to look. Everyone has an innate internal clock so that we don't fall over when walking from point A to point B. You've got to use this to "bootstrap", essentially, his musical rhythm.

You may have to work backwards at first, have him walk around the room at a steady pace, and play some music on your guitar that matches with his pace. Eventually, you'll have him go in the other direction, having him change his walking pace to match the music that you are playing. You should use a little tempo variation from example to example, but make sure you're playing at a speed that is easily walkable. Too fast or too slow and the exercise will fail.

After that part is learned, then you can add steady beat claps while walking, and go from there. Eurhythmics is the approach to music education developed by Émile Jaques-Dalcroze. There are other approaches, and most educators will use different components of each for different concepts. You should be able to find more resources and examples by Googling Dalcroze Eurhythmics.

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This is a nice answer. We are currently on a break for the holiday so as soon as I get back I will definitely try that technique. I agree that his "problem" is really fundamental so this seems like the way to go. – Panagiotis Palladinos Jan 5 '13 at 13:56
I've tried all of your suggestions! I've come back to this to comment on how my student is doing. Well he didn't care much for the rythm excercises. I tried making them as fun as possible and he did enjoy them a bit but he grew out of them fast and he wanted to go on playing "music" hehe. – Panagiotis Palladinos Nov 19 '13 at 7:32
It's hard to work on individual skills! When you say he "grew out of them" do you mean he mastered them, or just got bored? Ideally you want him to be able to evaluate himself accurately, so he can tell when he makes a mistake and create his own feedback loop. That's really true for all of us -- we grow as musicians and teachers as the set of skills we can identify and evaluate expands. You could try switching it around and having him tell you when you mess up to build up those skills. Lastly, you can always layer a rhythmic concept over the other musical instruction you're working on! – NReilingh Nov 19 '13 at 18:08
But the positive thing about him is that he must be one of the most stubborn and persistent students I've had. He REALLY wants to play music and his willpower is starting to pay off. He is now able to play a full song normally and even though he often gets confused, misses a strum/beat and loses the whole thing (plays offbeat), I believe he's starting to find the rythm inside him a bit. Which I didn't think it would be possible in his case to be honest. P.S. @NReilingh Sorry I 've been meaning to continue my answer (cause I couldn't fit it all in one comment. this is the continuation of it) – Panagiotis Palladinos Nov 20 '13 at 9:21
Also, What I meant by "grew out of them" is he got bored unfortunately. He couldn't apply himself into making them a daily routine. – Panagiotis Palladinos Nov 20 '13 at 9:24

Perhaps record him playing and have him listen to it. It could be that the act of performing the motions and remembering what comes next are taking up all his available attention. Listening to playback, however, has none of these distractions.

Another idea is get him to listen to lots of rhythmically-interesting music. Art Blakey's African Drum Ensemble, perhaps. Or some Taiko drumming. Or some of Sheila Chandra's vocal percussion. Just to get more rhythm in his head.

After further thought, I suspect an important issue might be the student's eagerness to please the teacher. While this may work well in scholastic studies, it will not serve him here. Music has to be selfish.

I begin to fear that any "technique or exercise", presented as such, will not be diligently practiced at home. It has to provide immediate gratification. It must be a technique the student desires to learn. And the only way I know to do that is to tie it directly to songs he wants to play.

So for every facet -- harmony, rhythm, tempo, articulation -- the first exercise on the sheet should be ripped straight from his favorite song. Then perhaps a few simplified or supporting variations. If the exercises are rewarding, they are much more likely to be profitable.

(This edit was influenced by @gingerbreadboy's surprisingly terrific answer. And draws from my own lack of diligence as a student.)

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I tried recording myself on video playing and singing the rhythm so he can listen to it and maybe try to play along. But he can't keep up with it. And it obviously doesn't help him cause he understood the wrong rhythm when I came back next week - even though he had on video. But you're right about his attention because the only times he can play the rhythm continuously are when he seems distracted and completely relaxed. – Panagiotis Palladinos Jan 4 '13 at 9:45
But what about recording him, and then listening to it together? – luser droog Jan 4 '13 at 9:48
I haven't tried that. I will! But most of the times he makes mistakes that he can't understand. Won't listening to mistakes make them stick in his head? - Also I WILL suggest some rhythmically-interesting music. That one seems like a must cause I think part of the problem is his lack of rhythmical stimulations throughout his life so far. – Panagiotis Palladinos Jan 4 '13 at 9:56
"Won't listening to mistakes make them stick in his head?" I sure hope not. But reading that question really made me stop and think. I think that's where your guidance will make all the difference. If you're pointing things out like "see you're anticipating here... and a little late here", then it's associated with the label 'mistake' and should help him better to recognize when he's doing the same thing during practice. – luser droog Jan 4 '13 at 10:09
Thats a very good point actually! I'll try that approach see if has results... :) thank you! – Panagiotis Palladinos Jan 4 '13 at 10:10

Perhaps you could try working on walking in time. That should be simple enough to explain and includes basic physical feedback on the activity. The difference in the pace between walking and running might be helpful.
Gradually you could add extremely simple hand clapping patterns while walking.

(Your question is really interesting, and I'd love to hear an expert answer. :-)

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hehe. My vocal teacher made me do these kinds of stuff for concentration. I used to walk around the room clapping and shouting stuff. It sounds weird but it works really well. The only downside in this situation is that it is much tougher than it sounds. You never know when you will find the button of a person though, so I will try this too. Thank you for bringing it up. – Panagiotis Palladinos Jan 4 '13 at 15:40


If you can forget about the actual playing of the guitar, play a recording of the tune which we're learning, and ask your student to just groove in their seat. Then introduce a bit of free-style muted strumming, but continuing the chair dancing.

The most important aspect in this approach is to get them to loosen up and not be shy about it, "look at me I'm dancing like a tuneless fool" has to be the battle cry.

YMMV, but I've used this on some utterly rhythemless people in the past and, although it might not have made them into the funkiest man in the whole damn town it does help get over the initial shyness.

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Sounds to me that your student may be beat deaf.

He more than likely is attempting to guess where the beats and rests are. If he is beat deaf, then making him practise this is only going to cause frustration for him.

There used to be an online test linked to the study but the study ended, the results of the study is found here.

You could contact them to see if they are willing to make the test available online again.

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