How to Play Stacked Rhythms on Classical Guitar

We use basic musical skills to figure out rhythms that move one note at a time.

But what about when we see trickier rhythms? How do we count music that has many voices all at the same time?

Classical Guitar Music Looks Complex on the Page

Classical guitar use one musical staff (the lines in standard musical notation). But we play bass lines, melodies, and accompaniment parts, all at the same time.

So the music looks complex on the page. Notes and rhythms are stacked one atop the other.

We need to understand the rhythm of everything we play. To this end, we can clap and count aloud.


The Forest AND the Trees

When we have stacked rhythms on classical guitar, we have two main ideas we need to hold at the same time.

On one hand, we have the total rhythm of everything we’re playing. We’ll call this “the forest”.

On the other, we have many lines of music happening at the same time. We’ll call this “the trees”

One of our challenges as musicians is to understand both. We need to give each part it’s proper place, as well as keeping the whole tune together.

stacked rhythms on guitar

Stacked rhythms can look confusing.

The Forest: Vertical Reading

When we read music vertically, we look at all the notes that fall on a given beat at one time.

Working in this way we’ll often recognize chord shapes (if we remember to look for them). This can help us to learn and memorize the music.

But this is only part of the story. We also have….

The Trees: Horizontal Reading

We can also look at each individual line of the music. We can note the rhythm of the melody, the bass and the accompaniment (or interior voices) each in turn.

In an orchestral score (sheet music), each instrument has its own line of music.

stacked rhythms classical guitar

Stacked rhythms are separate lines of music, written all on one line.

On guitar, we play all the parts ourselves. So we cram them onto one line.

Usually, the total beats of each musical part (melody, bass, etc.) will add up to the full value of the measure. So we may see rests or dotted notes.

Related: How to Interpret the Many Parts of Classical Guitar Music

The Common Denominator

To find the total rhythm, we first look for the smallest note value (8ths, 16ths, etc).

We can then write in or imagine a steady pulse of that smallest note value. We can use either a repeated note, or the counts (1 e & a, 2 e & a etc.)

16th note stacked rhythms

Write in a steady rhythmic pulse, or the count.

Next we can notice where within the steady pulse (or count) the notes of the measure occur. On the page, we can underline or circle the beats containing at least on note.

Once finished, we have our “conglomerate rhythm”, or complete rhythm.

complex rhythm classical guitar

Notice which beats include a note, and mark those. The end result is the total rhythm.

How to Practice Stacked Rhythms

We can practice stacked rhythms in many ways. Ideally, we spend time on at least two of the options below.

1. Parts Separately

We can also play the parts separately. We can practice the melody alone, then the bass, etc.

This is beneficial because it’s technically easier than playing all the parts together. But it does take some sight-reading.

When we explore the lines of music making up the whole we gain a more intimate understanding of the music. We hear more. We can make decisions based on what we discover. For example, we can make the melody swell or fade, or to bring certains notes out (accenting them).

This type of “elemental practice” can feel like this “doesn’t count” as practicing the tune. But it allows for understanding that wouldn’t likely occur otherwise. And it boosts listening skills.

2. Isolated Parts Together

Once we know the parts separately, we can practice any two lines together.

We could practice just the bass and interior voices. Or we could practice the melody and bass with no interior voices. We can leave out parts of the music, and explore the interaction of those remaining.

Likewise, we can play one part, and sing or count another aloud.

When clapping and counting, we can also tap the different parts with different hands.

3. All Together Now

Lastly, we can play all the notes, as written. From our analogy above, this is the forest.

This uses all the fingers and notes that will be in the final performance. We can then listen for balance in the parts, so that each is at the volume we decide best.

Music with Ornaments

When we learn music with ornaments, the general rule is to leave the ornaments out to begin with.

We first clap, count, then play the music with no ornaments.

This is the same when counting the stacked rhythms – leave ornaments out.

Once we’re ready, we can clap and count just the line of music containing the ornaments, adding them back in. This allows us to keep the music in rhythm and use the ornaments to their full effect.

Once we can play the single line with ornaments included, then we can add the other parts back in. Here we should take care to maintain the rhythmic integrity of everything.

Related: Play “Naked”: Leave Out the Ornaments (at first
Also Related: A Quick Guide to Musical Ornaments on the Guitar

It’s Okay to Write on the Music

When we becomed stumped by a rhythm (or any other time), it’s perfectly fine to write on the music.

If it helps to write the counts above or below the music, by all means do it.

Pencil is best, to allow for mistakes. This also lets us erase it later if we no longer need them.

In figuring out rhythms, we can do whatever we need to. Anything goes. The main goal is to eliminate confusion and make positive strides in each practice.

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.

Become a Member and Play More, Beautifully!

“The basics are the basics, and you can’t beat the basics.”
Charles Poliquin

Join the program that takes you from the beginning fundamentals to advanced mastery, so you…1

  • Move your hands safely and fluidly
  • Enjoy fulfilling practices and meaningful work
  • Play beautifully with expression and flow

Click the button to take a step towards an
organized, effective guitar practice. >>>