7 Exercises to Improve Your Timing on the Guitar

Is timing on the guitar everything?

In a way, yes.

Of course, there are many other elements that make a good guitar player, including technique, the ability to apply music theory for the guitar, and developing a good ear, among others.

But timing is an element that will make you sound amateurish if you get wrong even if all the other elements are perfectly in place.

Developing a good sense of timing on guitar is an important skill irrespective of whether you’re learning other people’s music or composing your own.

In today’s lesson we’ll go through a set of exercises involving different subdivisions of the beat, to help develop this important skill.

All these exercises are in 4/4 time, which means there are 4 quarter (crotchet) notes in each bar.

Each exercise will have different combinations of subdivisions of the quarter note.

It is important to play all these exercises with a metronome. 

When it comes to timing, the metronome is the ultimate judge as to whether you’re playing something right or not.

If you can play something, but you can’t play it with a metronome, you can’t play it on time.

Timing on guitar exercise 1

In the first exercise we’ll be using only quarter notes (crotchets) and eight notes.

It’s easy, and should get you started locking in with the metronome.

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Timing on guitar exercise 2

In the next exercise we’ll divide the quarter note into four equal sixteenth (semiquavers) notes.

Notice that the tempo of the exercise has been significantly reduced since a sixteenth note is four times as fast as a quarter note.

Once you can play these exercises perfectly on time at a slow tempo, you will improve your timing on the guitar even further if you start increasing the tempo.

Timing on guitar exercise 3

In this exercise we will combine the quarter note, with both subdivisions explored so far, the eight note and the sixteenth note.

Timing on guitar exercise 4

Developing a correct sense of timing on the guitar requires not only playing the notes on time also playing nothing when silence is expected from you.

These silences in music are called rests and there is a rest for every note duration.

In the next exercise we’ll explore the quarter note, the eight note and the sixteenth note rest.

To execute the rest, lift your left hand finger from pressing the note, but keep it touching the string, so that it makes no sound at all.

Timing on guitar exercise 5

The last new element I want to introduce in this lesson is the triplet.

In the previous exercises we divided the beat into divisions of two. Triplets occur when the beat is divided into three. 

The next exercise should get you started in getting the feel of the triplet.

Go to this lesson to study triplets more thoroughly and be able to use them in your guitar solos.

Timing on guitar exercise 6

In the previous exercise we subdivided the quarter note into three eight note triplets.

There are more triplet subdivisions than this and also commonly in use are quarter note and sixteenth note triplets.

We won’t go into these and other rhythmic groupings since the purpose of this lesson is to develop a good sense of timing on the guitar, rather than explore all the possible rhythmic groupings.

But it’s important that every time you learn a new rhythmic subdivision, you also learn it’s equivalent silence (rest), so in the next exercise we’ll explore triplets with rests.

One may think that playing (or rather, not playing) silence is easy because you have to do nothing.

This couldn’t be further than the truth.

You need to be able to use the correct muting technique to silence the note (in this lesson we’re only using left hand muting) as well as calculate the exact duration of that silence.

Timing on guitar exercise 7

All the exercises given so far are to be played on the same note.

In the last exercise, we’ll put some of these rhythms in a more musical context by applying them to the A minor natural scale using a three note per string pattern.

To keep things simple I won’t be using rests in this exercise, however applying rhythmic patterns involving rests to a scale also makes a good exercise for improving your timing.

The last note in this exercise is a full note, also called a semibreve. It is the equivalent of four quarter (crotchet) notes and fills a full bar in 4/4 time.

Conclusion: How to keep improving your timing

If you can play the scale in the last exercise on time, even at a slow speed, congratulations.

You already have a good sense of timing.

In order to keep developing this skill, you should work on these things:

  1. More rhythmic patterns – In this lesson we’ve explored some of the most common rhythmic patterns but there are many more, such as combining quavers and semiquavers in the same beat, ties, and dots, and others.

    The more rhythmic patterns you can feel, the easier you’ll find any piece of music to learn, and the more ideas you’ll have when composing your own.
  1. Using them in different musical contexts –  In the last exercise in this lesson you practiced some of the rhythmic patterns in the context of the A minor natural scale.

    Now try applying them to different scales, chords, arpeggios and other exercises you’ll be practicing on the guitar.

Soon, these rhythmic patterns will start popping up at you whenever you’re learning any piece of music!

This will not only give you the ability to play on time, but also helps you learn songs much faster.

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