Keeping Time: How To Play Guitar to a Beat

In music, keeping time is one of the most basic skills that everyone should learn. Sometimes when people try to learn how to play guitar for the first time, they mistakenly believe that rhythm and timing are aspects that are only important to the rhythm section of a band. This is entirely false, and it’s an aspect that every musician needs to learn. Without great timing, your music won’t sound synchronized and may even sound sloppy.

This article will teach you the basics so you can learn how to play guitar to a beat. Rhythm is an essential part of all music and being in tune with it by learning how to count and feel it is why this is one of my first guitar tips for beginners. On top of that, rhythm and time can be applied to any instrument! Perhaps it can even make you a better dancer if you struggle with that. However, if you’re like me, this was never the case. I’m still an awful dancer!


How to Play Guitar With A Metronome

A metronome is a handy tool that allows musicians of any skill level to practice or verify their timing. There are old-fashioned ones, but these days, a lot of people (including myself) like to use digital metronomes.

Beginners may learn how to play guitar in time by practicing basic rhythmic notation drills against the click. After that, you may start to strum chords and practice scales against the beat.

Later on, as you get even better at playing the instrument, you can practice entire passages or songs to a metronome to solidify your timing and accuracy. It can also be noted that this is one way you can learn how to play guitar without a guitar.

Here’s a picture of the metronome I’ve been using for many years, the Korg MA-30. As far as I know, this metronome has been discontinued and replaced with the MA1BL, which has more features than the MA-30, and an increased tempo range.

how to play guitar to a beat

While you will be missing out on some technical aspects of the guitar, such as picking, you will still be learning about rhythm and timing which is vital to every instrument. So, if you are temporarily away from your guitar, this is one way you can practice and sharpen your skills.

By default, a metronome will be set to quarter notes, and each click will signify a beat. If your metronome is set to 4/4 (which is common time), there will be 4 clicks total. Usually, the first click will be louder than the rest, in order to keep you on track of where you are within a measure.

By understanding this, you can break these quarter notes down into smaller subdivisions. You can try:

  • 8th notes

  • 16th notes

  • Triplets

  • 32nd notes and more!

32nd notes may be more difficult to count (and perhaps slightly too advanced for a beginner) unless you have experience with manipulating the tempo or the feel of the time, but learning the simpler subdivisions will be helpful in learning how to play guitar to a metronome.

Learning about subdivisions is foundational to one’s rhythmic development, and learning how to count them is pretty easy! All of these basic rhythmic values will have examples with them to help give you a visual illustration to assist you


Eighth and Sixteenth Notes

First, we will be starting out with some of the most common rhythm values of all time, the 8th and 16th notes. I could be wrong, but these two are probably way more common than half and whole notes, but probably on par with quarter notes in how frequently they are used.

Luckily, like the whole, half, and quarter notes, 8th and 16th notes tend to be very straightforward to count.

  • 8th notes are normally counted as 1-and-2-and-3-and-4-and
  • 16th notes are usually counted as 1-ee-and-uh-2-ee-and-uh-3-ee-and-uh-4-ee-and-uh

The beats are bold for easier reference and to give you an idea where everything falls into place.

Here are a couple of measures of all straight 8th or 16th notes. They should be played evenly to ensure you are keeping accurate time. Here’s what the notations for both of these look like:

how to play guitar to a beat

how to play guitar to a beat

8th notes and 16ths won’t always be this undemanding. However, it is crucial that you understand the basics on how to count these, so you will be well-equipped when you run into a more challenging rhythm.

Keep practicing these and many different variations because I can assure you that you need to become super familiar with them.



Triplets are a little odd compared to others because of just that – they are separated into 3 perfectly-even notes between a beat. These can be quarter notes, 8ths, 16th notes, or a mixture of these. It will be obvious that you are dealing with triplets if you run into notations that have a “3” in some brackets. Take 8th note triplets for example. Don’t be overwhelmed; these are very common, and when trying to learn how to use a metronome for guitar, they can be counted as:




how to play guitar to a beat


Putting It All Together

These are some of the most basic ways to start learning how to play guitar to a beat. Eventually, you can mix things up and make even more complicated rhythmic patterns to practice your timing and counting skills. For example, you may have a measure that consists of both 8th notes and 16th notes as well as triplets. Rhythmic variation like this keeps things interesting. Here’s a measure that mixes things up:

how to play guitar to a beat

As you can see, while you can potentially count these the same exact way such as 1-and-uh-2-and-uh, and so-on, it’s imperative to understand that the spacing between these notes are not the same and hopefully, this example illustrates that well enough for you. 

Since you are dealing with three notes per beat in each of these, there is sometimes a lot of confusion, and “two 16th and one 8th note” patterns are mistakenly called triplets. The real triplets are the ones that are on beats 3 and 4 of this measure.

There are way more advanced rhythmic patterns out there and there notation patterns that haven’t been touched upon in this article (such as dotted notes and ties). However, these are just here to help understand the basics of learning how to play guitar with a metronome.

Playing around with a metronome and learning to walk before you can run will clean up your guitar playing and make you a much tighter player overall. Additionally, by understanding how rhythm works, you will also probably become a more creative player because you know rhythmic values and how they are supposed to sound.


How To Play Guitar With A Drummer

To be frank, playing with a metronome 24/7 will make you better rhythmically, but its clicking may get on your nerves at the same time. That’s why it’s a good idea to vary your practice. You can do this a couple of different ways:

  • Play with a drummer (a real life one or programmed drums)

  • Jam along with backing tracks (these will usually have more instrumentation than a lone drum track)

Learning to play with the sounds of the drums is extremely useful. Learning how to play guitar to a drum beat can:

  • Inspire new ideas

  • Make you less sterile-sounding (Drums groove better than a metronome, so you probably will too!)

  • Simulate playing actual music rather than practicing a set of drills

If you know a real drummer, you’ve hit the jackpot! Not only will you have an actual person to play along with, but you can also receive feedback as well. Drummers are the backbones of basically every single band, and it’s common for them to have a much deeper understanding of rhythm than the rest of the band members, especially in the early years of musicianship.

While it may sound and feel a bit different, starting to learn how to play guitar to a drum beat isn’t really different than playing to a metronome or click track. The basics are there, and unless the drummer gives you instructions about things that are accented, the time-keeping basics are still there.

Typically, when jamming with other members, a drummer will use a crash cymbal or hi-hat to lay out the quarter notes, while hitting the snare on beats 2 and 4. They may embellish in between these, but understanding what your drummer is using for quarter notes will help you lock in. Usually, this will require you to focus on the cymbals and snare. Just think of these as the clicks!

A backing track is an excellent practice tool as well. Not only will you have drums, but other instruments as well that you can jam along to. By learning how to play guitar with a backing track, you can practice your timing as well, as your music theory understanding.

Backing tracks usually have a key signature and chords which will allow you to sharpen your melodic-sense (this requires a grasp of timing and knowing what notes you should use). Importantly, it gives you another way to learn how to play guitar to a beat.

how to play guitar with a drummer


How To Play Guitar To A Click Track

There really isn’t much difference between a metronome and click tracks; they’re basically the same thing. Once you’ve learned about the metronome, you already know how to play guitar to a click track. They both click and you apply rhythm against this reference.

However, the only thing that really distinguishes the two is that a click track is most often used during the recording process. While they have the same function – to keep you on time, the way they are used is slightly different. Metronomes are for practice, click tracks are when you’re working.

Sometimes, guitarists may bypass the click track because the drummer in his or her band will have already laid out the drums which will allow the rest of the band to record on top. However, many experienced guitarists like using click tracks because it gives them some comfort or familiarity because of all of the time invested with a metronome.

When it comes to music production, practicing with some type of click can be seen as one of the most straightforward guitar timing tips. Having a good time when recording in the studio will save you time, money, and a lot of frustration. When everyone is on-point, everyone should be feeling good. Show your producer that you know how to play guitar to a beat and nail those takes!


Summary & Conclusion

Learning how to keep time is an essential skill for all musicians to have, not only drummers and bassists, and other percussive instruments. The truth is, your “melodic” instruments are also responsible for keeping the rhythm and staying in time.

Without rhythmic notation, there wouldn’t be melodies. Practicing rhythm and staying sharp is crucial, and you can do this by dedicating time to really focus on it. If you need many examples to work with, the Rhythm Bible by Dan Fox has at least a thousand of them, starting from the most simple to some of the most complex ones that are syncopated and in odd-time signatures. I think this is one of the most useful music books I’ve ever got my hands on.

If a player is unable to stay on time, this can make the music sound disorganized, no matter how technically proficient they are. This can reduce the impact of the music. You can test this out with a backing track.

If you know how to play guitar to a backing track, you can purposely try to play notes off-time to demonstrate this. It doesn’t need to be complex; you can simply perform some quarter or 8th notes. This can give you an idea of what not being on-time sounds like in a musical setting.

By getting good at knowing how to play guitar to a beat, you will be desirable to any musician that you work with because you will be able to sync up together easier, assuming each member has a grasp of rhythm and time.

If you know how to play guitar in time, you can absolutely get good with playing with other members, especially drummers. Real drums have a different and organic feel to them that may take a little while to get used to, especially if you’ve been grinding away to the click, but once you are able to lock in together, it will feel magical.

Whether it’s a metronome, a drummer, or recording with a click track, learning how to play guitar to a beat will make you an exponentially better player and set you apart from the rest. Timing is everything!

Learning how to use a metronome has shaped me into a more solid player, and it is something that I wish I knew when I started learning how to play guitar for the first time.