Sharpen Your Rhythm Guitar Skills by Learning to Read Rhythmic Notation

Practicing rhythmic fundamentals can show immediate results and also gives you a structure to internalize new rhythmic patterns.

Playing in the pocket, or keeping consistent time, is an essential musical skill for all guitarists regardless of style or context. Yet, I have found that a basic understanding of rhythmic notation and its application to strumming can be a challenge to many guitarists. That’s a real shame because of the benefits it can give to your overall musicianship. 

Notation is simply a code of instructions—once you understand the code, it becomes much easier to know what to do and when to do it. Reading a rhythmic pattern will help you slow down your practice tempo and allow you to internalize both the rhythm and its corresponding movement. Then when you get the strumming pattern up to speed, the consistent movement will help you maintain rhythmic accuracy. 


Practicing rhythmic fundamentals can show immediate results and also gives you a structure to internalize new rhythmic patterns. If you, like many guitarists, have shied away from this essential work, this lesson will help you learn to read rhythmic notation and apply the rhythms to strumming patterns using a variety of chord shapes and styles to keep things interesting. 

rhythm notation guide

Week One

The heartbeat of music is the pulse. Whether we are playing complex or simple rhythms, connecting the sounds we make to the beat is the foremost priority. First, we’ll develop the con-nection between quarter notes and the pulse. In Example 1, take a basic G barre chord and strum it on all four beats using downstrokes. (Note that in the accompanying video I use a plectrum, but these examples can be played without a pick by gliding your thumb across the strings). Make sure you count four beats preceding the first measure, and when you start playing, tap your foot while counting “One, two, three, four,” as you strum.


Now let’s add quarter rests. Think of a rest as playing silence−that way you’re paying rhythmic attention to the pulse, only using silence instead of sound. In Example 2, we have four measures of quarter notes and rests. Before playing this example on the guitar, see if you can imagine what it sounds like (audiation). Then count yourself in and play the four measures using downstrokes for all the quarter notes. Now, play the same example and try out the skip technique: Instead of leaving your strumming hand motionless during the rests, keep it constantly moving, missing the strings instead of hitting them on the rests. 

Example 3 mixes things up witha bolero rhythm and a more involved chord progression. The half note in this rhythm covers beats 2 and 3. Start by keeping your strums moving downward on all four beats−only skip the strings on beat 3 to complete the duration of the half note. Once you get the feel of the rhythm, make a smaller motion with your strumming hand beneath the strings on beat 3. 

Beginners’ Tip #1
New to using a pick? Hold it with a closed but relaxed fist, with the tip of the pick pointing perpendicular to the outside line of your thumb. Keep a slight curve in your wrist and generate the movement from your entire arm. 

That’s the end of week one. The complete lesson features four weeks of workouts (plus a bonus exercise.) There are two ways to access the full video and musical examples: Join our community at OR Buy the May/June 2024 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.

Acoustic Guitar magazine cover for issue 344

This article originally appeared in the May/June 2024 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.

Greg Ruby
Greg Ruby

Greg Ruby is the director of Guitar Week for the Swannanoa Gathering and has taught extensively. He is the author of the Oscar Alemán Play-Along Songbook.

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  1. Great article! I find that even intermediate to advanced guitarists can benefit from going back to the basics and working on their rhythm skills. Looking forward to Part 2!