Are you struggling to take your guitar playing to the next level?
Here’s the deal:
No matter how fast or fancy you can play, timing and rhythm will determine your skills as a guitarist.
What are rhythm and timing? Quite simply:
Playing notes at the correct time, and following the prescribed tempo.
Once you master rhythm and timing, you’ll skyrocket your skills as a guitarist. Soon, you’ll see patterns emerging in popular songs, and jamming will become second nature to you.
In this article, I’ll discuss the most powerful techniques to improve your timing and rhythm. These are strategies you can use in the next five minutes to become a better guitarist.
After that, I’ll discuss a more advanced, ninja-level technique that will transform your playing forever.
Let’s jump in!
Bonus: Download The Insider's Guide to Online Guitar Lessons, which is a 71 page resource guide covering everything you need to know about learning the guitar online.
The Myth of “Perfect Tempo,” and the Surprising Secret to Great Rhythm
Picture yourself playing guitar like you’ve always dreamed. You pick up the instrument and can play whatever you want.
Are you plucking note after note like a robot? Or are you creating beautiful music that ebbs and flows with emotion?
The truth is this:
The best players don’t have 100% perfect, exact timing—and they don’t want it.
Any computer can play notes in excellent timing. But there’s a reason we prefer humans—precise timing isn’t the same as music.
To improve, stop thinking about the rhythm, and focus on feeling it.
Imagine two guitarists playing together in a band. All is going well until the lead singer skips a line. Disaster!
A guitarist who’s thinking about each part of the rhythm will get tripped up and confused. He might even have to stop playing for a bit to figure out where the song is.
But a guitarist who’s feeling the rhythm understands where the beat is, and she recovers flawlessly. In fact, people might not notice the error at all.
Your goal is to become the musician who feels the rhythm.
The Fastest Practice Method to Improve Your Rhythm (and speed)
If you try to improve your timing on a whole song or piece, you’re going to struggle to make any meaningful progress.
Instead, focus on a small section at a time—you’ll make the most progress this way.
To start, find a piece and play it all the way through. When you find a tricky part, practice that section—it will be a few measures or a single line.
Practice this section with a metronome at a very low speed. If you’re starting, Google’s built-in metronome should work fine.
When you can play it correctly (using the techniques outlined below), increase the speed by ten beats per minute and play again.
Don’t worry about your playing getting worse as you increase the speed. As long as you’re playing accurately, your increased tempo will amaze you.
Poor rhythm is holding back your speed—not the other way around.
How to Leverage Other Musicians to Improve Your Rhythm
Sometimes, the best way to get a feel for a rhythm is to listen to the flow from another guitarist.
A lot of guitarists listen to the song they’re trying to practice. They understand “exactly” how the rhythm should to go, yet they can’t make it sound right.
Why? Because rhythm is different in every version of a song.
Listening to a few different recordings will give you a better feel for what’s important, and your playing will improve.
Look up a song (try these easy songs for beginners) on a program like Spotify:
Listen to the song from a few different artists, or a live performance if it’s available.
Once you listen to another version of the song, you’ll have a better understanding of how the rhythm should sound.
Use This Simple Web App to Visualize Your Timing
If you’re struggling to nail a particular piece of music, the problem might be that you can’t imagine how it should sound.
The solution? Get a computer to play it for you.
Use this online rhythm writer and build your rhythm. You can design a pattern based on which notes appear, like this:
Listen to it a few times, and watch your rhythm improve.
Fix Your Picking to Improve Your Rhythm
When you play any note on a guitar, you’ll either pluck on a downstroke or an upstroke. (For this tip, I’m referring to flatpicking—fingerpicking doesn’t apply here).
When used correctly, this can help you get a better feel for the rhythm—you’re literally moving to the music!
But if your alternate picking is sloppy or nonexistent, it will confuse you in the short term, and hurt your playing in the long term.
To improve, consider saying the beat out loud. On any note that lies on a quarter note, you’ll pluck down. For eighth notes, make sure your pick moves up.
To improve your rhythm, you’ll need to ensure your alternate picking is impeccable. Once it is, practice until it becomes natural.
Get Instant Feedback on Your Practice
Once you can play a challenging section correctly at a slow speed, make a recording.
I use the voice memo app on my iPhone:
Listen to the recording, and clarify anything that needs work. Sometimes, we lose track in the moment.
Instead of practicing it incorrectly again, slow down the metronome again until you can play it correctly.
Use Muscle Memory to Your Advantage
It’s a scientific fact:
Movement helps us learn music. But often we forget that. We spend near-motionless hours hunched over our instruments, wondering why progress is so slow.
Instead, let yourself move.
Many guitarists subconsciously tap their feet to the rhythm of a song. If you aren’t doing this, it’s a good idea to start.
Even better, you can alternate between feet—tapping out quarter notes with one foot, and eighth notes with the other.
Take Your Rhythm to the Next Level
All these techniques offer tremendous benefit, and they can transform your playing.
But they only scratch the surface of effective guitar strategies. With advanced instruction, you can change how you play and improve your skills dramatically.
To get started with that instruction—a far quicker and faster way to learn rhythm and timing—read these reviews of online guitar instruction.