How To Properly Begin Learning Rhythm Notation


By Chris Glyde


If you’re not sure why you should learn Rhythm Notation, then I suggest you check out my other article, “Why You Should Learn Rhythm Notation as a Guitar Player.” I would suggest simply googling it. Starting the learning process for Rhythms is not to difficult, but it will take some time to get used to, so remember to be patient with yourself.


The first thing we’re going to do is discuss how you’re going to train and internalize these rhythms. Internalizing a rhythm means that you can see or visualize the rhythm from your head and then automatically play it. Basically, you know what it sounds like before you play it, which allows you to execute the idea or rhythmic figure, in this case.



In order to internalize a rhythmic figure, you must first be able to hear it, meaning that you must be able to hear the count when you play the rhythmic figure. This is essentially what people do when they feel it, but without any rhythmic skill, you perform a much lower primal   level.


In order to learn Rhythms, we will use two steps:

  1. Count it out loud with your foot.
  2. Then, try to strum the guitar to the rhythm of your foot.


In order to do this, we must understand some of the underlying basics of rhythm. So, I will go ahead and provide you some of the concepts you will need. For now, we’re just going to talk about strumming patterns.


There are two basic strumming pattern contexts that most beginners and intermediate level players use. These are an Eighth note strumming pattern and a 16th Note Strumming pattern.


Eighth Note Strumming Context:




In this bar, you will see 8 eighth notes. Obviously an 8th note is an eighth of the measure. These eighth notes are grouped in twos. Here’s what a single eighth note looks like:


The symbols underneath represent which direction you will strum. Hurdles imply a downstroke direction, and the V symbol means upstroke.



This picture above is the most basic Eighth note rhythmic figure: 1 + 2+ 3+ 4+. From this picture, we can observe a couple of different concepts.


  1. Since we are using numbers, the 1 must always come before the 2, and the 3 must always come before the 4.Basically, everything must move in sequential order. You cannot skip around. The + beat of 1 must come before the 2nd beat, and the + beat of 3 must come before 4.
  2. The first eighth note of every pair is a numbered beat, and the second is the + beat (or in musical terms, the “and” beat).
  3. When playing with an eighth note context in our rhythms, all the numbered beats will get a down stroke and every + beat will get an upstroke.


Everything you play in this context will be played using these concepts. There are no exceptions when you see these things:




You will strum the first note that is connected, and you will strum the second note, but miss the strings. This is called a ghost strum, and it allows you to maintain the eighth note strumming context. It also looks super professional! If you hadn’t already noticed, you actually already do a ghost strum on quarter notes when playing a quarter note on all down beats. You must play beats 1, 2, 3, and 4 using a down stroke, which means that you must come up before you can go back down.


If you see something like this:


All you need to do is simply mute the strings with the palm of your right hand, or if you aren’t using any of the open strings, simply release the pressure from your left hand so that the strings touch the string but aren’t pressing them down. This will mute the strings.

Sixteenth Note Strumming Context:


In a 16th note rhythm context, the basic process is counted as 1 e + a (One —ee—And— Ah) or in a full measure of 4 beats. The basic 16th note shape in the picture above is the first beat of the measure.


You will notice a couple of different things in this picture:


  • All eighth note beats (the numbers and + beats) now get down strokes.


  • All sixteenth note beats (e and a) get upstrokes.


The picture above illustrates the 4 basic sixteenth note patterns that all sixteenth note rhythms are based on, so of course it’s most important to get these rhythmic figures down and internalized.


You’ll notice that not all of these rhythmic shapes have all the 16th notes in them. In fact, the three after the first are all missing one note. For whichever beat is missing, you will perform a ghost strum, so in a sense you will always be strumming 1 e + a. But when playing the three variation shapes, you will be missing the strings on one of the 4 beats.



Internalizing and practicing rhythms:


Like we mentioned up above, there are two steps for internalizing and practicing rhythms:

  1. Speak and tap your foot.
  2. Strum and tap your foot.


  1. You will tap your foot. This tapping of the foot creates a pulse, which will be the beats of the measure. While tapping your foot, realize that in an eighth note context the numbered beats fall when your foots on the ground and the + beats fall when your foots in the air. With sixteenth notes, however, it’s a little more diffi The numbered beats and the e beats occur when your foots on the ground, and the + and a beats happen when your foot is still in the air. This will require some personal coaching, so make sure that you play slowly enough so that you can tell if you’re right or wrong.

You will speak the count of the rhythm (1 + 2 3+ 4) while tapping your foot and making sure that your foot lines up with the rhythms. The point of this exercise is to get your mind used to hearing and feeling the rhythms so that you can properly internalize them. If you can speak the rhythms, you have a chance of playing them correctly on the guitar. If you can’t speak the rhythms, you’re just guessing. Do not skip this step.


2. In the beginning, you should be checking every beat. When you’ve finished speaking, and are confident that every beat is right, you may begin trying to play the guitar to your foot. Watch out for trying too hard to match your foot to your guitar, because this is a bad habit that many people develop. They make the foot the slave to the guitar, but it needs to be the other way around.


Tip: If you’re struggling at this stage, you may not have the physical motions of the strumming pattern down. I suggest that you slow things down and just work on the physical motion, even if that means playing off beat.



This is a great step for beginning to perfect your rhythm practice, but there is a lot to absorb in this article and many more steps to be taken. The first thing to do is complete the steps included here. After following these steps on rhythm, you should realize two things:


  • Eighth Note context and Sixteenth Note context rhythms can be combined in one phrase, and quite often are.
  • Once you feel comfortable with rhythm, you need to work on applying these rhythms to lead, which will require more ear training and feeling.


If you have any questions or experience any breakthroughs in your playing as a result to this article, feel free to email me at because I would love to hear about them.





About the Author:


Chris Glyde is a guitar teacher based in the city of Rochester in upstate New York. Check out his website for more.