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.

  • 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
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    Have a go with one of the bass greats : youtu.be/RRmiTta995o :) – 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
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    Get him to clap along in time to records of music that he likes. That should give him the basic idea. – JimM Aug 17 '18 at 10:57
  • Get him to count and clap while walking. I bet he walks in a steady rhythm. – PeterJ Nov 28 '18 at 10:26

11 Answers 11


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.

  • 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
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    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
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    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
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    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
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    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 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.

  • 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
  • When I walk down an aisle or sidewalk, more than a few steps, my brain becomes very aware of rhythm and I start bouncing my head or snapping my fingers or bopping to a tune in my mind. When I'm not playing that's my back-up groove. If I were a door to door mailman there would be no stopping me. – skinny peacock Feb 19 '18 at 17:36


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.


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. http://www.delosis.com/listening/summary.html

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

  • This is unfortunately true. I had a beat deaf student once, and there was nothing I could do for him. He couldn't clap his hands in anything like a steady rhythm. Sure, everything should be tried. But some will simply never get it. – Scott Wallace Nov 27 '18 at 19:18

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.)

  • 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

This is sooo old but as someone who is dance inclined not musically talented (but still artistically talented in a visual way), I can relate. I played drums for a time (as well as piano) and I sucked at rhythm and often tempo keeping.

The way I solved this was by moving my body to the beat. Often, verbally saying 1234 1234 1234 in time, to the busiest part help me understand tempo. It’s a distraction thing, adhd or whatever. Sometimes you get soooo caught up in the energy of the piece, you forget that there’s a steady march there.

He probably isn’t doing anything that wrong, just off for a second or two and that snowballs into sitting there confused to where the hell the beat is. Being confused to where the beat is often is solved by just moving. 1234 1234 then you’re all caught back up.

I find it easiest in dancing, I find it harder in chopping (dj), and it’s the hardest on piano/percussion. Guitar sits in the far percussion range, often with drums and bass. Doing hand work versus body work is difficult and uncomfortable to those who are not super musically minded.

As a not regularly practiced musician, the best way to solve this is more music and movement. Get some busy music and force them to move regularly in time to it. The rest is a cake walk.

I like classical or edm to dance to, or sing to, or chop to. The syncopation is pleasing and often encompasses great palindromic effect. Might be effective


Put on some songs with a very simple drum beats and have him keep beat with the song by just stomping and clapping. For example, Queen's We Will Rock You is a classic for this (and one he should be very familiar with already), or pretty much any AC/DC song as well since they are typically very simple rhythmically, or some songs with very basic drum beats in whatever style of music he's into.

Once he is able to internally feel the beats in these songs and can mimic some simple drum beats by stomping/clapping, you can translate that into rhythm theory and explain how the pattern he just stomped/clapped out relates to the metronome pulse, the guitar, and then standard rhythm theory like quarter/8th/16th notes, etc.

As a teenager I picked up both drums and guitar simultaneously, so I'm a big fan of learning how to internalize rhythm just on its own without the guitar. Stomping and clapping is perfect for this because stomping/clapping doesn't require any thought process so the full attention can be put into focusing on the rhythm itself. That's very different when you're trying to coordinate your hands on guitar while focusing on both chords/fretting and rhythm/strumming at the same time.


Sometimes, for my most rhythmically off guitar students, I will give them the book "Syncopation" by Ted Reed. Which is actually what I use for my beginning drum students. It's simply a book of rhythms, starting with quarter notes (3 "lessons" on quarter notes, because the first three combine bass and snare drum - but I will usually only have them work on one of these). Then going to 8th note patters, then 16th, then 8th and 16th...

For my guitar students, I use these as strumming patterns for chord progressions. It helps that everything is 4 bars.

So I'll assign one or two (or more) chord progressions and say play them with these rhythms on this page. First without a metronome, then later on (after a month or so) with a metronome. I find that all my students get better with their time after a couple of weeks into 8th notes (I think because of subdividing).

I recently learned that Berkley school of music uses the Louis Belson book for rhythm with all their students. So that could work too. That book is bigger, more in depth, and maybe more intimidating to (and probably more than necessary for) younger non-drummers.


A idea that may be covered by the Eurhythmics but is worth mentioning separately is the idea of associating certain rhythmic structures fitting a single beat. For example Jell-O is often said in two even syllables and can stand in for eighth note pairs. Straw-berr-y is often spoken as an eightnote followed by two sixteenth notes. Develop the students vocabulary of rhythm with substitute words like this, and then later the word constructs can drop away leaving the musical knowledge intact. There is a book called Music Mind Games that gave me the idea.

This idea is based on the principal that we have all been learning rhythm as long as we have been learning language. With this method we are tapping into that language learning to give us an easier entry into musical rhythm learning.

  • A great idea, BUT - words that will ONLY ever be said in ONE way by the student must be used. 'Strawberry' isn't a good example, as it can be said in a couple of rhythms, thus negating the effect when the student practises on his own. – Tim Aug 29 '16 at 6:51
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    @Tim the problem with that is, that there are no words like that. All words can be manipulated in this way. I accept that the solution is not perfect, but it is still effective pedagogically. Look for the words that are the best match for common use for you and your region. Pick out your favorites and use then consistently. The real lesson that the student should get from it is that rhythm sounds a certain way for each combination of sixteenth notes and rests, and since there are not very many, they can be easily memorized. – amalgamate Aug 29 '16 at 14:52
  • If a student is mis-matching a rhythm to a word, it may be a good idea to switch words for that rhythm no matter how weird a rhythmic pronunciation it seems to be to you. Or maybe, for that student, just give up using the language rhythm pattern approach and try something else. Speech patterns only go so far. It is one tool in your music teacher's tool chest. That is all it can be. – amalgamate Aug 29 '16 at 14:56
  • BTW, The walking idea is my favorite, but that was taken already. :-) – amalgamate Aug 29 '16 at 14:59

You're not going to like my answer but I have been teaching for 26 years and have encountered all kinds of rhythm difficulties. You have to be born with a sense of rhythm. If you have a sense of rhythm which is sometimes a little off, it can be honed with a metronome. But really, rhythm is innate.


Taught a number of students in school over the years like this... I honestly think it is nigh on impossible without hours of mechanical training ... I dont have hours. I have 2 15 music students who cannot play we will rock you or even clap in time (incidentally my head teacher who is 55 cannot clap in time either!)

I had a student who was a `machine on the piano, really learned songs well solo but could not for the life of hime play in time with a group.... he got very disheartened ... not sure there is an answer. Like kids who cannot sing in tune, sometimes they never will, how do we break it to them?

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