How to Fix Rhythm Problems in Classical Guitar Pieces

It’s a rare bird, indeed, that doesn’t struggle with occasional rhythm problems.

There could be any of a number of causes for rhythmic problems in your pieces. And likewise, there could be a number of solutions.

Below you’ll find one way to clarify exactly what needs to happen in your music. You’ll deconstruct the music, and put it back together, only better.

But first, what are the problems behind the problem? (hint: often, if you review the basics, your problem will just disappear, like magic. Not always, but enough to warrant checking in.)

The Layers of Rhythm Problems

When we find a rhythm problem in a piece we’re playing, it’s often due to the complexity involved.

To play a passage, we must:

  • Know the notes
  • Understand the rhythm (are there different rhythmic values? Triplets? Mixed-Meter?)
  • Play the right hand correctly
  • Play the left hand correctly
  • Execute any musical ideas (swells, fades, accents, etc.)
  • Put all the above together

All this can be a tall order. Often one of these is a weak link. So before trying the solution below, quickly go through the 7-step process (including the list above).

In short, you isolate each of the above elements and master it by itself.

If you’ve done separated and practiced the elements above, then here is your next plan of attack.

A Tool to Fix Rhythm Problems on Guitar: Filling in Rhythms

When you are confident that you know the notes, can count the basic rhythm (although the exercise below can also help with this step), play the right hand alone, and play the left hand alone, you are ready to use the technique I call “Filling in Rhythms”.

This is a practice technique that you use to solve a specific problem. You don’t do for the entire piece at once, but for isolated passages.

The goal is to solve the problem in one sitting, once and for all.

The goal is to solve the problem in one sitting, and not need to return to it. Give yourself a few minutes of uninterrupted practice time to complete the exercise, and focus on executing each step in turn.

Count Aloud (No, seriously: Count Aloud.)

One of the main ingredients of this solution involves counting out loud. If you skip this, you’re cheating yourself.

If you find it difficult to count out loud, you’re not alone. It’s a skill that must be developed. But as skills go, this one is well worth the time and effort. You’ll use it for the rest of your musical life, and it will come in extremely useful.

First, pick your problem passage.

For this demonstration, we’ll use a phrase from a Tarrega Mazurka in C.

16th notes rhythm

First, identify a problem passage.

Step One: Isolate Melody and Fill in All Subdivisions

Once you’ve identified a tricky or problem passage, isolate the melody. If another voice creating the issue, feel free to isolate that one.

Related: How to Decipher Classical Guitar Music

Once you have isolated the melody, find the smallest note division (such as 16ths or 8ths), and fill in the entire line with that note value.

Jargon Alert!

how to count sixteenth notes

Play the melody only, with all notes subdivided into the smallest given note value.

Subdivisions” – You can break a beat into small pieces (note values).  These smaller note values are called “subdivisions”.

This means that if the music calls for a dotted eighth then a sixteenth, you would instead play 3 sixteenths on the first pitch and then the given sixteenth.
Likewise, if you then were given a quarter note, you would play 4 sixteenths instead of the quarter note.

If you really want a gold star for the day, do the following steps with each voice in turn.

Of course count aloud throughout. This teaches you exactly where each note falls in the context of the beat, and also in the context of the bar.

Step Two: Add Back In Other Voices

Once you can play the line with all the rhythms “filled in” with the smallest subdivision, you can then add the other voices back in.

Continue to play all the subdivisions, and count aloud.

16th notes rhythm

Add back in the other voices, keeping the rhythm “filled in” with smallest note values.

Note: This will alter your right hand fingerings. That’s alright. You know what needs to happen, and can temporarily alter it for a higher purpose. If you don’t know your actual right hand fingerings, that’s more than likely the real problem, and you need to stop this and focus on that.

Step Three: Accent Actual (written) Notes

Now, play all the “filled in” notes very quietly and all the given notes louder. This is accenting.

Note: Don’t just play the given notes louder.  Instead, bring the unaccented notes way down in volume.  Most of the time, this is the best way to approach accents.

16th note accents

Accent the given (actual) rhythm notes. Keep counting!

Note: You can swap steps two and three

If you like, you can play the given notes accented before adding back in the other voices. Experiment and find what works best for you.

Step Four: Remove Extra Notes

When you can confidently play the line with all notes as the smallest note value (subdivisions), and continue to count aloud, you can then drop the extra notes back out.

It’s especially important that you continue to count aloud for this step.

counting rhythm 16th and 8th

Remove extra notes. Keep counting.

As you play without all the extra notes, continue to “hear” them in your head. This will ensure that you keep the rhythm crisp and accurate.

Voila, Problem Solved!

If you gone through this process, you may find that the problem is taken care of, but that it didn’t seem like much work. This is normal.

While we often think that we have to work hard to solve problems, the opposite is often true.

When you break a complex action into smaller parts, and go through a simple process of understanding and layering the elements, you will often experience big changes and solutions with surprisingly little pain.

As you progress on guitar, you’ll find more of these little solutions and your work will be more strategic and intentional. This allows you to learn music more quickly, play to a higher level, and have the tools and tactics to tackle larger and larger musical projects.

Leave a Comment!

Once you’ve had a chance to put this process to the test, leave a comment and share your experience!

Allen Mathews

Hi, I’m Allen Mathews. 

I started as a folk guitarist, then fell in love with classical guitar in my 20’s. Despite a lot of practice and schooling, I still couldn’t get my music to flow well. I struggled with excess tension. My music sounded forced. And my hands and body were often sore. I got frustrated, and couldn’t see the way forward. Then, over the next decade, I studied with two other stellar teachers – one focused on the technical movements, and one on the musical (he was a concert pianist). In time, I came to discover a new set of formulas and movements. These brought new life and vitality to my practice. Now I help guitarists find more comfort and flow in their music, so they play more beautifully.
Click here for a sample formula.

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