My flesh-n-blood guitar teacher has tried to get me to count beats (verbally or at minimum in my mind), and I think that I've tried reasonably hard in doing so for few months now. However I've come to suspect that at 44years my mind isn't able to multitask as well, as I just can't keep repeating "1 2 3 4" or even harder "1 & 2 & 3 & 4" while remembering to hit the notes correctly on-beat. It becomes harder when remembering to strum (up or down-strokes on beat). When I reach "1 e & a 2 e & a...", I simply drown. On the other hand, I've realized and my teacher agrees that, when I'm not consciously trying to count beats in my mind (or verbalizing them), I seem to be able to play reasonably correctly on beat, naturally -- although, it is not perfect, as I do sway over a longer period of time (say over 8-10 bars). I'm wondering if there is any hopes at all of my being continuing this journey of learning to play the guitar and getting better at it, or I'd be somewhat stuck until I can get around to actually counting beats.

BTW, I think I can play and sing simultaneously, although I think I keep my better time with my vocals, than with my strumming hand. Is this normal ? Or it's just a messed up brain ?

Are there some exercises that help develop beat counting (in mind or verbalized) accuracy, while strumming or finger-picking ?

  • 15
    Don’t do them at the same time. Learn how to read and count rhythms separately by clapping or tapping on your leg. Once the rhythms are down, learn the guitar technique WITHOUT rhythm. After mastery, add metronome at slow tempo (slow enough that you can do both without messing up). Then, slowly make it faster. It’s never too late, you just need to change your approach. – jjmusicnotes Aug 16 at 11:10
  • 2
    Thanks for the answer. Would you mind elaborating and putting it down as an answer Especially the part "learn the guitar technique WITHOUT rhythm", as in just the plain sequence of notes or chords without a sense of timing ? – icarus74 Aug 16 at 12:13
  • i had exactly this issue. I would get hold of a drum machine, best of all an online one. Set it to teh ryhtms that you want to practice and tap along. You have the visiual feedback of the display. It does come with time, despite age ; I'm averagely 6ms off now. – bigbadmouse Aug 16 at 13:00
  • 2
    Please don't limit yourself because of your age. If you really want to do this, then keep at it! You've only got this life to do the things you want to do. Everything takes time, and it takes different people different amounts of time to do these things. Practice every day, break down your routines. Do them painfully slow. Count rhythm during the day, on the radio, in your head. Then do it with the guitar. If you're focused and you put in the time, you'll definitely get better. Also you're only 44 years old! Half your life ahead of you – Alvaro Aug 17 at 19:45
  • 1
    with practice, rhythm will become a feel; putting all your focus on counting prevents you from playing. Just do things very slowly using your foot or an external beat source. Music tends to work a lot better when things flow naturally and trying to analyze things as you play usually doesn't work. Practice will help you get there, it's not an age thing. – Thomas Aug 18 at 11:38

13 Answers 13

up vote 18 down vote accepted

It's not hopeless, but may take more time than others would.

A couple of ideas. While listening to music, start tapping, singing, nodding, whatever, and turn down the sound, initially so it's still just audible, for several seconds. Turn back up, see if you're still in time. Gradually leave the silence longer until you can manage several bars. I used to do this driving through underpasses with the radio on.

Get used to tapping your foot in time, or nodding your head, moving side to side. Establish where beat one is (probably the most useful thing for musos playing with others). Clap only on beat one. Count the other (usually) three. Then count on 1 and 3. Then all 4, then 1 and 4, and other combinations.

Take something simple, such as Frere Jacques. Decide which syllable is where in each bar. Maybe instead of counting, say the phrase. Make up phrases which can include the & as well as the beats. 'Sonnez les matines' will give 1&2&3 4.. Strum with only one chord, down strums on each beat, ups on the &, and ghost strum the & of 3 and 4. Loads of little, simple ideas that I hope your teacher has already tried. Playing with others will tighten your rhythm ethics.

As Laurence says, use a drum machine - far less boring than a metronome - and clap, sing, play along with it. If, as has been mooted, your chord changes are throwing your counting, they need to be sharpened up so there's literally milliseconds between them. Without that, you'll never make it.

This'll do for a good few weeks, see (and listen!) how you get on.

One of my mantras as a teacher is to tell my students to play things "painfully slow." In other words, so slow it hurts. I would say you are practicing too fast. When playing an instrument, there are many, many things to consider all at the same time. In your case, you have rhythm, notes, strumming direction, etc. It takes time for the brain to process all that information and have it come together as a single unit in time. You have to give your body - the neurological transmissions between eye and brain and hand - time to get it together. If you go too fast, at least one of these things will get missed. Slow waaaaay down. Count as slow as it takes to get your hands in place with the proper strum before you count the next beat or the next "and". As it comes together, you can speed up. But as you get faster, as soon as one of those aspects slips into error again, you know you are once again gong too fast, and you need to slow back down to the speed where you can put it all together accurately.

  • Strumming direction, generally, is not something that needs to be high on the priority list. Basic strum patterns are down strums on the beats. Thus the '&' are up strums. Hardly anything to consider. When doubling up (1e&a) everything is twice as quick. Sometimes up (and down) strums are missed, (ghosted), but the direction of movement won't vary. – Tim Aug 16 at 16:54
  • 1
    Wish I could accept multiple answers. This is a great answer and I hope that it remains in my head long enough. The keywords I take away are "painfully slow", "gradually increase speed but step back if you make mistake". Thanks a lot. – icarus74 Aug 20 at 5:22

I doubt anything's messed up. You're just having to think too hard about where your fingers go. When this becomes more automatic, you'll be able to think more about keeping in time.

Practice SLOWLY to a click. Or use a 'drum machine', it's more fun. CAN you get your fingers to the next position on time? If not, practice even slower. And make sure your fingers are going directly to the new position. A 'fluff' may persist at any speed if you don't recognise and correct it.

Adult students are prone to overthink things.

In my experience, playing a melody while saying or singing "one, two, three, etc" is very hard, and doesn't help at all. And when the melody involves eighth notes, it becomes even harder, and not more useful.

I agree with Tim regarding the way of counting: doing something physical (tapping the foot, nodding the head, etc) is much better than counting.

Another possible way to "feel the beats" is composing your own music. Because there you have control on how complicated each aspect (melody, rhythm, etc) is. Or, if you don't like composing, play some progressive studies (or another option: scales), but progress very slowly - start with easy ones, and sometimes revisit the easy ones even while you are doing the intermediate ones.

Example: taken from William Leavitt's A Modern Method for Guitar

https://goo.gl/images/yt3rJ8

I had a similar problem, many years ago - I was trying to learn the renaissance lute, and struggled seriously with rhythm, among other things. What helped me a lot was to 'march' to my favourite pieces; whenever I went for a walk, I 'played' it in my head, and walked to the rhytm - they always seemed to be in an even beat, I'm not sure how well it ould work for a waltz. You have to get it into your body, so to speak.

Another thing - I found it almost impossible to find motivation to learn the beginner's pieces; but I would work hard on pieces that were more interesting. The first piece I was actually able to play was Greensleeves. Maybe you need a bit of challenge?

Invest in an actual metronome. Don't just use software. That's what helped me anyway. I've played for years without having one, when I finally got one (actually more than one now). It really changed my whole perception of music. Before, I used to look for metronomes on the internet or on apps but I'd never really stick to using them. But getting an actual mechanical metronome was really an aha moment for me. Its presence solidified how important rhythm is for music. It made me think about how every song has a heartbeat, much like a person. And it helps alot with practice and it's just, amazing!

Also after you get one, try recording yourself playing a bunch of songs. I think only once you hear yourself playing is when you get more ideas about how rhythm is so important. One of the metronomes I have works solely on vibration so it is silent which is very important for both recording and performing.

  • I'm sorry, but I think a metronome is a poor man's drum machine. And I collect metronomes! Having played in bands for 60 yrs, and got used to, in that time, working with drummers, a metronome is the click track that one uses in the recording studio, and is quite clinical in its approach to rhythm. Give me a drum track any day - it's quite like a real drummer, not like a beginner who's just learned to keep a beat going! Having said that, there are unusual, clever ways in which a metronome comes into its own, like making the click be on the 2nd & of each bar... – Tim Aug 16 at 18:24
  • 2
    @Tim I won't argue with that. but drum machines rely on electricity. whereas my trusty metronome sits besides me and is ready to go 24hrs a day. also I have my laptop next to me with as many drum machines as internetly possible, and I STILL use my metronome. there's something about mechanical things that have a soul that I can't explain. find me a mechanical drum machine though, I might convert. – foreyez Aug 16 at 18:32
  • 3
    Electricity is now available in little canisters, which can be inserted into a lot of drum machines. They last for many months, and are inexpensive. They also alleviate rsi caused by constant winding of the key!!! – Tim Aug 17 at 6:34

A second thing I would like to throw in: How well can you remember rhythms?

I learned guitar from young age (8-9 years) on. Even though my lessons also included having to "count the beat" I never actually played according to what I count. I always imagined how the rhythm of the strums sounds (whit the help of counting) and played it then according to the groove in my my mind/brain.

I did not encounter any situation yet where I have not had the time to first count and memorize the beat to play it afterwards.

Even if this is not helpful to you: in my experience anybody can learn anything at any age it just takes different amounts of time. However, I even think that this is not an age issue, but an overthinking issue. Just feel the strums. I can not do any better.

Just as @Laurence Payne mentioned, a click might help you keeping the bpm.

I strongly agree with the other advice to practice very slow. But on the first day I would not even try to be in any rhythm. What I do when learning any new coordination is take as much time as I need to get each "event" right. When I've done that a few times (perhaps over a few practices), THEN I'm ready for a really slow metronome. So, for your case:

1) Put your left hand finger in the right place. Put your pick either above or below the string. Say "1" at the same time you pick the string.

2) Put your left hand finger on the second note. Put your pick either above or below the string. "Say "2" at the same time you pick the string.

If you do that for a little while you will be able to do it without thinking about each step. If you get one measure's worth to happen, then repeat that measure with a metronome.

At some point, something will "click" and it will suddenly go from frustrating to effortless!

  • 2
    This will confuse if the notes are anything but one beat each. Also, the OP is having more difficulty strumming rhythms. Counting 'one' and 'two' won't necessarily be done at the appropriate pace. – Tim Aug 17 at 6:37
  • "get each "event" right" is fabulous advice. +1 – The Count Aug 18 at 15:39

Despite my 40 years of playing guitar and 5 years of marching band, I don't actually count 1 and 2 and 3 and 4 once I get a song up to speed. If I don't know how the song sounds already, I do slowly count it out, but not really playing the real song (maybe strumming dead strings on the guitar or drumming on my leg, or just singing it) and then I listen to how the rhythm sounds, and then stop counting and speed it up and listen to how it sounds at normal speed. Only then do I try to actually play the real notes. After doing that all this time, I pretty much know how most of the common rhythms are written, but now and then, I have to go back and learn a new one. I find I learn by imitating what I heard much better than trying to master counting. Maybe that will work for you as well.

  • Thanks for the answer. Learning by imitating the rhythm without mastering counting is how I've been managing so far. – icarus74 Aug 17 at 17:43

Do you ever tap your feet to music, or snap your fingers, just for fun or out of habit? That is counting beats, so you're probably more there than you realize. I learned to read and play music at a very young age, but having picked up instruments like double bass at 30, I appreciate that it is much harder to learn new musical skills.

I think it would help to find a book that has a strong focus on the beat and meter for beginners. I realize this can seem self-patronizing, but the best thing I did for myself when learning to bow at the age of 30 (when I could already read music and play multiple other instruments) was get a very basic beginner's string book for children. The bowing technique was simple and helpful, and everything else was simple enough that it allowed me to focus on the bowing.

There are TONS of good wind instrument books (Arban's method for trumpet comes to mind, as does the usually silly "Standard of Excellence" series from the 90's) that focus quite a bit on simultaneously teaching the instrument AND basic theory. Playing those exercises on guitar would be very simple and helpful, I would imagine.

Similarly, if you have an extra $100 laying around, nothing helps rhythm likes buying a crappy old drum set and just pounding out some basic beats on it.

These are of course merely suggestions. Your mileage may differ. And it goes without saying that strumming practice takes tons of time.

It's never too late to learn a new skill and grow as a person! Just don't give up.

When I was a teenager, I had no sense of rhythm at all. Let me tell you how I acquired a basic sense of rhythm: I took one lesson from a friend of mine who is a drummer.

He told me the basics: kick drum on the downbeat and beat 3, snare drum on 2 and 4. Sometimes the kick drum will do an eighth note before the downbeat of the next measure.

What this allowed me to do is visualize what the drummers in my favorite bands were doing. So I'd listen to my music and "air drum" along to it. (Air guitar was my first instrument, so this was natural to me as I didn't own a drum set). Eventually, I developed the coordination necessary to feel like I was actually playing along. Years later, I realized that while I listen to music, my left hand (or one or more fingers on that hand) taps on 2 and 4. Without even thinking about it. I'd never play drums in front of people, but that kind of practice allowed me to "feel" the beat instead of having to think about it.

Other things you can do: get a metronome or drum machine. Better yet, play with a group of people. Play songs you know well, so you don't have to think about what chords are coming next and how to play them. Playing with an object or other person that is keeping time will force you to keep time as well.

One last suggestion: This summer, I've played bass at church. It's easy; little more than playing the root on the downbeat, actually. But my sense of when that downbeat will occur has grown so fast, I can hardly believe how far I've come.

Im 61 played for just over 3 years ,self taught using u tube tutors and ebooks Have always taken advice from my peers when i started going to folk sing arounds and almost all espoused the virtue of counting or foot tapping

However counting beats was a 100% no ,understood it helps get a steady consistent strum in concert with the song your trying to play but felt a little hemmed in by it , especially when most songs i play never conform to a uniform up down up down 4/4 or other strumming patterns . I ended up playing like a robot when i attempted it,metronomic i guess and songs sounded dead

I Found it easier to just play along with the song(with a chord and lyric sheet in front of me ) and ensure i was hitting the strums in concert with the song,making my strum Fit the song chord and lyric rather than worrying about counting

Priority one for me was Keying in chord change with the start of a new verse or line or major tempo change

Early on had to listen many many times to a passage to get the Chord/lyric connection right ( superb chorus on Tom pettys "I wont back down" as an example) took me months ,but when the lightbulb hit it stayed and i can now comfortably pick up a songs "rhythm" within a few minutes, so dont give up bro Most everybody shouts out the benfits of counting the beats and i guess if you wish to compose your own music or play in bands its importance as a skill must be learnt,but Its certainly not impossible for you to learn without it,Ive never counted and i dont foot tap although must admit i do a little bit of body sway!

Nothing is hopeless but things need to be put in perspective. You will get better at counting with practice but if you are attempting to pursue a career in music this is an issue.

What most people don't realize is that the tasks musicians are trained to do in order to play in sync with an orchestra, follow a conductor, or just be good performers, do NOT come naturally to humans. I sometimes joke about this with my students. It is our job to perform for the audience's enjoyment, not necessarily our own. Now, you should enjoy your job (if you don't you're in the wrong line of work) but people have an expectation that the arts doesn't involve "training" or "technique" but is rather a path to self discovery and expression. The later is true too. But those of us who perform for others need to be able to (1) keep track of where we are in a piece, (2) keep track of where everyone else is in the same piece (for a small group), (3) follow the leader (for sudden unexpected changes), (4) read the audience, etc. As you can see, we are multi tasking and none of it helps play the correct note at the correct time. The music needs to be automatic and that takes a lot of practice. It may come more naturally to some than to others.

As for counting while playing, this can be a challenge. I have students who can "keep a beat" and even dance, but cannot keep time with a metronome. There are a few things that can help.

  1. One is to practice counting every other beat. Don't try to count 1& 2& etc, but set the metronome to twice the speed you want to count at and tap to every other click. This allows you to hear a delta T (time interval) and that helps you predict what's coming next. A goal to to be able to hear the click in your head when it's not there. If you have a metronome like Dr Beat from Boss (mine is over 30 yrs old) you can turn on eighth notes, sixteenths etc. Start at some tempo with the 8th note on and tap to the quarter. Then turn the 8th off and try to "hear it" in your mind's ear. After some time your ability to predict the quarter will improve.

  2. Another thing is that it is harder to count slowly that quickly. Trying to tap too slow will put you in a frame of mind where you don't really feel the dT. Some musicians fill in the empty space with clicks in their head to keep them from losing track of the dT. Start with a pace similar to a song you like that you can tap your foot to.

  3. If you don't tap you foot while listening to music... Start now. Use any listening as an opportunity to practice taping in sync with the other players. You can do the same thing while watching a pendulum swing. Try to synchronize your body movement with a simple pendulum (this is that same as taping or counting).

protected by Dom Aug 17 at 1:59

Thank you for your interest in this question. Because it has attracted low-quality or spam answers that had to be removed, posting an answer now requires 10 reputation on this site (the association bonus does not count).

Would you like to answer one of these unanswered questions instead?

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.