"How to master counting while playing?"

What I am trying to achieve is the following:

For example, when playing a blues pattern with my guitar I want to play variations or fills. I find it difficult to play whatr I come up with, without breaking the flow of the music. Of course, I could just think of the variation, practice it beforehand, and the combine it with the original pattern, but that is not what I want. I want to achieve a kind of freedom to explore ideas without having to interrupt the music. In the same way as I am able to move around in the harmonic space, I want to be able to move in the rhythm. Drummers can play fills naturally and easily, so maybe a drummer can give me advice here.

Can anyone give me any advice or ideas on how to improve this skill?

4 Answers 4


Most important thing is to know where you are in a bar. Know Where beat one is first and foremost. It's actually what dictates how the music is written down - it tells how many beats are in each bar, it's usually the most emphasised bit of most bars.

For now, you're going to have to count. Nothing childish about that. Without knowing where 'one' is, nothing's going to improve.

For now, at least, consider each and every fill is going to finish on 'one'. So, if it's a short two beat fill, of, say, 4 quavers, it'll happen on 3-4 of a bar, and end with (probably) a chord tone on beat one of the next bar. Bear in mind that fills are most effective at the end of a line of singing (to let the vocalist have time to grab a breath!), so during bar 4 is a good fill time. As a bass player and drummer, it's the break I'm waiting for - literally!

Once you've got beat one sorted, try listening carefully to lots of songs, and establish what beat each part of the song starts on. It might be the anacrucis last beat of the bar. '1-2- Happy- birthday-to-you, or 1-2-3-On-Ilkeley - Moor - bah - Tat. By listening (and still counting), you'll have a greater awareness of where everything is in each bar - and each line.

A loop station is a great toy to help here. Play something simple, and practise playing fills over it. By the way, drummers don't play fills naturally by any means. One of my students plays some nice fills, but we're having an awful job timing them so they finish at the right time. At present, in 4/4 time, whenever there's a fill, there's a bar of 5/4. Not good for dancing to! So, you're not alone!


If I understood correctly, your playing the blues pattern A-D-E- and so on.

The following is gonna be pretty opinionated, because it represents my view in improv and fills. To me they should add to the music played, not take away from it. With this in mind it is easy to come to the conclusion that while playing the blues pattern, add fils licks in between chord changes, without breaking the ongoing rhythm of the pattern. Alternatively use the small licks to change from one chord to another abut then get back to the original pattern.

You could also replace a part of the pattern, like one or two chords, by a lick that uses said chord as the basis and represents it.

It's really important to keep track of the original pattern and always go back to that, because the other musicians will also build their music around said pattern.

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    – Aric
    Aug 22, 2018 at 9:02

I suggest learning by doing. Find some kind of accompaniment that keeps the time for you, play along to that, notice when you came out correctly and when you didn't. Keep doing that until you have improved your sense of where you are within a bar.

Unless you have access to patient living musicians to jam with, you'll have to stick with automated accompaniment. In order of increasing complexity:

  • a metronome
  • a drum computer or drum app
  • a looper pedal that lets you play and loop back a chord progression to jam over
  • a more sophisticated program like Band-in-a-Box, or the "session" mode in Rocksmith
  • Or one of millions of backing tracks available on the 'net.
    – Tim
    Aug 22, 2018 at 9:51
  • @Tim: yes. Good point. Aug 22, 2018 at 9:54

I'm asuming piano in my answer below, but a little adjustment makes it applicable to other instruments.

If you have trouble knowing where in a measure you are and keep getting lost, it suggest to me you are trying to run when you still have trouble to walk.

The answer is not to add fills and licks to your improvisation until you are able to improvise a simple melody or rhythm in the right hand using the chord notes, while having the left hand really steady. Only try to complicate things when you are realy secure with this. Take your time to learn this! When you can do this, add an occasional fill or lick.

Also: almost any technical or musical problem in music can be solved by slowing down first. So slow down (really!).

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