How to Count: Be Aware of the Beat | Hub Guitar

How to Count: Be Aware of the Beat

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Hi. This is Hub Guitar.

Let's talk about counting and awareness of the beat.

Counting is one of the most basic musical skills. And if you're ever in a large band where each member has a smaller part to play, you simply can't get by without counting. Even several minutes of rests can be a difficult part to perform -- because you have to be ready exactly when your part is going to come in. If not, you could ruin the entire thing by coming in at the exactly wrong beat and throw everydody off.

You should count before you begin playing, especially with a metronome, as this will help you get in the groove.

If you're trying to imagine a part in your head, or figure out how it goes, or just follow along with some music you can count and tap or count and conduct. I'm going to show you both of that.

One important thing to remember is that eventually you will internalize the beat. You'll basically just know when you're playing 1, 2, 3 or 4. You won't need to say the names of those beats in your head in order to keep track of them. And that's how you'll know you're getting it.

Counting is one of the basic skills and it's crucial to learn if you want to play the guitar or any instrument. Fortunately, it's not that difficult. You've just got to deliberately practice it, and it will become second nature.

Why You Should Be Counting

The first step to developing strong rhythm is learning how to count.

When you begin playing guitar, you’ll likely find that most music you encounter is grouped into 4 pulseUsually used to indicate the repetition of a single rhythmic value. This pulse can then be used to create sub-divisions and other rhythms.s. That means that all rhythms are created from groups of four 4 beatA word meant to describe the pulses by which music is organized (as in beats per minute), but also often used to describe the unique nature of its rhythm.s, either by combining them, or dividing them into smaller parts.

Sometimes the pulse is heard very clearly, especially if the music has drums. However, we do not have to hear the pulse at all to know that rhythms are being created from it. Imagine an architect’s drawing on top of graph paper. The accuracy of the lines drawn is based on the lines of the graph, whether or not that graph is visible. Once the graph is removed, the drawing remains.

Since playing in time is one of the most important jobs you have (if not the most important), you’ll need to be able to do a few things to do your job correctly for any given piece of music. Being able to count helps you keep track of the beat and improves your time.

How to Count with Recorded Music

If you’ve never practiced counting before, there is no need to start when you are in the middle of trying to play a song. Instead, consider counting while you listen to some recorded music. This will make it much easier to learn.

Identify the meter

The meterThe rhythmic division of music. Meter contains two parts. The first is beat grouping. Most music has a 4-pulse beat grouping. The second is the unit that is used to measure those beats. This unit is most often either the quarter note or the eighth note. So a meter with four beat grouping, measured in quarter notes is called “4/4”, otherwise known as common meter. refers to the way pulses are grouped, as in the case of groups of 4, or groups of 3. It’s probably safe to assume that the meter is 4. Try counting four first, and see if that sounds right.

Tap along

Tap what feels like the beat of the song. The beat is a straight and even pulse. All beats are the same. Use the tapping of your hand or foot to help guide yourself through the pulse.

Count along

If the meter is four, count the beats:

“1, 2, 3, 4”

These basic four beats of each group are called the downbeatThe beats that compose the main pulse. They are counted numerically (1, 2, 3, 4).s. Of course, you can divide the downbeats into many other combinations. Take a look at our Introduction to Rhythm Notation guide if you are not sure how to do that.

Normally you will only count the downbeats, but there is often a need to count eighth notes that are between the downbeats. These are called upbeats, and are normally all counted with the word “and”. The first one is called “the ‘and’ of 1”, and so forth:


Advanced: Conducting

Conducting is a special movement of the hand that clearly marks each of the beats in the measure. In a measure of four beats, the hand will move down for the first beat, left for the second beat, right for the third beat, and up for the fourth beat. This can be very useful because now you can count with your hand. If some event happens when your hand is moving left, you know it must have happened on beat 2.

How to Count as You Play

Counting while you listen to music has to become second nature, or it will distract you from playing. Here are some methods that can help you get started.

Tap your foot

When you are playing guitar, you can’t use your hands to tap or conduct, unless you have an extra one you aren’t telling us about. So the best thing to do is to tap your foot to the beat as you play.

Count out loud

Counting in your head can quickly be drowned out by other thoughts. Try counting out loud as you play. This is harder than it sounds. You will be counting “1, 2, 3, 4” but playing one of many possible rhythms on top of that.

Count only active rhythms

This is a bit harder. You count all rhythms (including upbeats), but only if there is a note striking on that rhythm. It’s a little easier if you’re sight-reading, because now you can say the name of each beat as you play a note, for instance:

This would be counted: 1 and 3 and 1 and 2 and 4. Your foot would tap the “1, 2, 3, 4”

Always be counting

If you catch yourself not counting, return to counting.

The Result of Counting

Counting will make your time better. Eventually, you will learn to internalize the rhythm. You will basically always know what beat you’re on. You won’t remember counting the number “4” in your head, but you will know when you are on beat 4. This improved awareness is one of the most important foundations of good timekeeping.


If you want to improve your time, you’ve got to count. It’s tempting to skip counting, but it will make things harder later on if you aren’t aware of the beats you’re playing.

Key Exercises

  • Put on any piece of music, and start counting along. What meter is it? Can you use a metronome to figure out what the tempo is?
  • Strum a few chords, counting along as you do so.
  • If you’ve learned to read music, see if you can count while you read. It’s okay to start with an example that you already know how to play.
As the creator of Hub Guitar, Grey has compiled hundreds of guitar lessons, written several books, and filmed hundreds of video lessons. He teaches private lessons in his Boston studio, as well as via video chat through TakeLessons.

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