Keeping Time

I’ve never given much thought to the intricacies of time keeping when I play; as a former percussionist, it came fairly naturally to me, and as a guitar teacher I incorporate rhythm from the very beginning as a natural part of the process.

Within the last month, two experiences showed me that rhythm isn’t such a natural part of everyone’s playing… the first happened in a performance situation: I was soloing over a set of changes, and anticipating an upcoming key change. The moment arrived, I shifted keys… and the rhythm guitarist didn’t. I asked him about it afterwards, and he’d lost count of the number of measures that had gone by. Two weeks later, I came across a public access TV show giving guitar lessons – since I’m always interested in seeing how others present things, I settled in to watch. It was a bit unnerving as the ‘instructor’ didn’t keep a regular beat – some of his measures were longer than others!

Having come across ‘professionals’ twice in a month who have trouble counting, the problem might be a lot more common, so here’s my basic course in keeping time, from counting beats to syncopated rhythms.

The Beat

The basic element of rhythm in music is called a beat. It’s like a heartbeat – regular, even, setting the pulse of the music. You might not play on every beat of a song, but you absolutely must feel every beat in order to keep a proper rhythm. The first thing we’ll set out to do is develop that feeling for the beat.

Exercise 1: set your metronome on a comfortable speed of 60-80 beats per minute, and play a downstroke on every beat. For the next two minutes, maintain that downstroke – you can change chords if you like, but you must make the downstroke at the same time the metronome clicks. (If you want to make this exercise harder, slow the metronome down to 40 – it’s actually harder to maintain a steady beat at very slow tempos than fast ones!)

Exercise 2: increase the metronome to 120-160 beats per minute. This time you’re going to play every other metronome click with a downstroke, like this:

Exercise 2

Exercise 3: mixing it up. Set the metronome back around 80 beats per minute, and play a pattern of strum-strum-rest against the beat, like this:

Exercise 3

Counting Beats

Music is organized into groups of beats called measures. In the beginning of a piece of music, you’re likely to see something called a time signature, which looks like this:

Time Signature 1

or like this:

Common TimeCut Time

If the time signature has two numbers, the top one will be usually be the number of beats in each measure or group (more on that ‘usually’ qualifier later), and the bottom number will be the type of note that will represent one beat. It’s the number of beats that’s important for keeping time, so we’ll focus on that for this article.

If the time signature is Common Time, it means “common time”, which is the same as 4/4 (4 beats per measure), and if it’s Cut Timeit means “cut time” – the technical term is “alla breve” – and it’s the same as 2/2 with two beats per measure… it’s called ‘cut time’ because the notes will look the same as 4/4, but sound twice as fast.

The next exercises concentrate on counting the beats in a measure…

Exercise 4: with the metronome in the 60-80 range, play downstrokes on every beat, but count the beats 1-2-3-4 as you play them. Accent the ‘number 1’ beat by playing it a little harder than the others.

Exercise 5: repeat exercise 4, but this time, count in groups of three, 1-2-3, accenting the first beat of each group.

Exercise 6: repeat again, but count in groups of two, 1-2, accenting the first beat of each group.

Playing Beat Divisions

Playing only on the beat can make a rhythm seem boring, so we often play divisions of beats. The simplest division is cutting the beat in half, so you play two notes or chords in the space of one beat. The way to count these divisions is by using the syllable ‘and’ in between the numbers, so you count “One-and-two-and-three-and-four-and”, with the syllables being evenly spaced.

This is easiest to achieve on the guitar with alternating strokes – we’ll use a downstroke on the beat, and an upstroke on the ‘and’ that falls between each beat.

Exercise 7: with the metronome in the 50-60 range, play a downstroke on each beat, and an upstroke on each ‘and’:

Exercise 7

Exercise 8: once you’re comfortable with playing divisions of the beat, you can combine beats and divisions to make interesting rhythms. Your counting will remain the same, and you’ll continue to use a downstroke on every beat. We’ll play downstrokes on the beats 1 and 3, and down-up on the beat and division for 2 and 4:

Exercise 8

This will be easiest to do properly if you keep your picking hand moving in time with the division. Simply pass by the strings, only strumming them when the pattern calls for it.

Exercise 9: This time we’ll play divisions only on the ‘two-and’ in each measure, so the rhythm will be “one-two-and-three-four”:

Exercise 9

Beat Subdivisions

We don’t have to stop dividing there – divisions of the beat can be split into subdivisions, each getting one quarter of a beat. In order to count this, we need to add a couple more syllables; we’ll use ‘ee’ for the subdivision before the ‘and’, and ‘ah’ for the subdivision after the ‘and’, so you’ll count this:


for a complete measure of 4/4 time. We’ll write it a bit more simply, using e and a for the subdivisions: 1 e & a, etc. We’ll need to work into this in stages, because it’s a bit more complicated to count

Exercise 10: Getting used to the count. With the metronome around 50-60 beats per measure, you’ll play downstrokes on the beat, but count the subdivisions:

Exercise 10

Exercise 11: since the subdivision is twice as fast, you’ll now need downstrokes on the ‘and’ counts, so you can play upstrokes on the ‘ee’ and ‘ah’ counts. With the metronome around 50 beats per minute, play downstrokes on the beat and ‘and’ division while you count all the subdivisions:

Exercise 11

Exercise 12: now you’re ready to play alternating strokes on the subdivision. Start out slow, around 42-48 beats per measure, and increase to about 72 or so:

Exercise 12

Exercise 13: just as we did with divisions, you can come up with a more interesting rhythm by mixing up the subdivisions. We’ll start by playing the subdivisions of beats 1 and 3, and the divisions of beats 2 and 4. It’s easiest to do by maintaining the same wrist motion, so the ‘and’ counts will be downstrokes:

Exercise 13

Exercise 14: the same as the last exercise, but now we’ll leave out the ‘ee’ stroke on the first beat:

Exercise 14


Beats don’t always have to divide into two parts – we can divide a beat into three parts called triplets, with three evenly spaced sounds per beat. To count these, we’ll use the syllables ‘trip-let’ in between the beats:


Exercise 15: the easiest way to play triplet beats is by alternating strokes. This is going to result in downstrokes on beats 1 and 3, and upstrokes on beats 2 and 4. Start out slowly, around 40 beats per minute, and increase to about 60 as you get the hang of it:

Exercise 15

Exercise 16: This one will take a bit of practice – to emphasise the count, start each triplet with a downstroke. You won’t have much time to get your pick back into position with two downstrokes in a row, so start slow at about 40 beats per minute.

Exercise 16

Broken Triplets

Blues and swing music both make extensive use of ‘broken triplets’, or ‘swing eighths‘. To play these rhythms, you’re using a triplet pattern, but skipping the middle part of each triplet. If the music says swing feeling, or 12/8 feel, you’ll use broken triplets.

Exercise 17: Broken triplets are almost always played in alternating strokes. With the metronome around 50-60, try to make it swing:

Exercise 17

Compound Meters

Early on, I mentioned that the top number in a time signature will ‘usually’ mean the number of beats per measure, and in the last section, I mentioned ’12/8 feel’. When the top number of a time signature is 6, 9, 12, or 15, there are two different ways you can count beats.

The first way is just like the other time signatures, with the number representing the beats. That’s called simple time, so in 12/8 you’d count:


for each measure. The other way is called compound time, and it means you’re playing triplets, and counting every third ‘beat’:

Compound meters

It’s easier to count in compound time at fast tempos, and you don’t have to try squeezing in awkward counts like ‘eleven’.

Counting Measures

Sometimes you’ll be playing a tune that has one chord for a number of measures, or a repeating pattern that you have to go through a fixed number of times before changing to a new chord progression. When you’re faced with that, you need to know which measure you’re on, or you won’t change at the right time… the performance situation I mentioned at the start of this piece.

The best way to keep track is to use a different number for the first beat of each measure. If you need to play a C chord for six measures, you’d count:


and you’ll be able to change in the right spot.

If you’re playing a pattern a certain number of times, you can emphasize the number each time you go around – for example, if you’ve got one measure each of Am7, Bm7, Cm7, Bm7 to be played four times, you can mentally call out to yourself each time you start the pattern:


his can be easier to keep track of than trying to count measures 1-16 and remember the chords at the same time.


I promised I’d get to the secrets of syncopation by the end of this, and here we are!

Syncopated rhythms can sound pretty cool, and add a lot to your rhythm playing. You’ll remember how we made rhythms more interesting by using divisions and subdivisions of beats. When we worked at counting them, we counted every subdivision, but we didn’t play them all.

Syncopated rhythms are much the same, but instead of ‘leaving out’ divisions or subdivisions, we’ll leave out actual beats, and play the divisions or subdivisions around them. This ends up shifting the sound we expect to hear on the beat, and provides lots of rhythmic interest. We’ll use a fairly simple syncopation for our example, leaving out beat 3:


To execute syncopation smoothly, keep your hand moving in time to the division… but when you’re not playing on a division, just pass it by the strings without striking them. It’s easier to do than it sounds!

Exercise 18: Start around 60 beats per minute. This example uses divisions, and leaves out playing on beat three. Let the chords ring until the next strum:

Exercise 18

Your hand should be moving up and down on each division, like this:

Rhythm pattern

with the letters in parentheses representing the strokes that pass by without strumming.

Until next time, peace and music,