How To Play In Time

It’s the skill most prized amongst serious and amateur musicians alike; transforming even the simplest guitar part into something magical. We dig deep into the topic of staying in time.

Much like a good comedian delivering that well-placed punchline; everything we strum, pick or bend all hinges on our timing. Timing is the key factor in translating what we play into something people want to hear and nod their heads to. It is widely accepted that ‘in time’ is actually more valuable than ‘in tune’; but why? How do you improve your timing? And, more importantly, how do you know if this is something you need to work on? Hold on tight because we are about to get groovy!

Why is timing important?

Every human’s first encounter with music is rhythm - babies can dance before they can sing; and, for the non musician, the first reaction to music is to clap, dance or move in unison to the beat. Consider our human nature; our heartbeats, foot steps and speech all fall into a dependable rhythm; we are conditioned to feel uncomfortable if any element around us falls ‘out of sync’. Put simply - the first thing anyone will notice about your playing is a reliable and solid sense of pulse - it is human nature!

Yet many of us spend more time focused on where to place our fingers, technical accuracy and putting everything in the right order; nailing that lick, riff or solo only to be outshined by some 3 chord wonder laying down some good old fashioned strumming. The message from the audience is clear - make us dance!

What does it mean to play in time?

This sounds simple enough, right? But one of the most common issues, when developing our skills, is the frustrating feeling we are playing ‘over’ the music rather than with it. Sound familiar? Unless you have a group of bandmates to tell you your timing isn’t on the money, it can actually be tough to diagnose this as a problem and, if unchecked, can follow you into your later years on the instrument.

Whether with or without a backing track, playing in time is the simple sense of communicating a solid pulse - like a ticking clock or the afore mentioned heartbeat. When rocking out to a backing track - playing in time is measured by your ability to lock in with the band - playing in sync with the other instruments and mirroring their accents and dynamics.

How can I tell if I am playing in time?

The metronome never lies, as they say; if you don’t have one, find yourself a metronome (a quick search will produce plenty of free online options), now set the tempo moderately low (about half the speed for which you would normally play the guitar part). The next step is to test yourself by playing that riff or part with which you are currently working - that extended space between beats is the perfect void with which to highlight your timing strengths and weaknesses. Are you hitting the strong notes on the beat with accuracy? Does it feel like time is stretching - almost as if the metronome is speeding up/slowing down? And, all round, does playing slowly to a metronome click make you feel like you are out of your comfort zone? Or do you lock into that pulse like machine?

Move your body

The first way to really sync into the illusive ‘pulse’ is to physically tune yourself into it; tapping your foot is the received way of doing this, but the more parts of your body you can employ the better - nod your head, move from the hip in time with the beat. For many musicians this kind of body pulse is actually involuntary! When your whole body is in line with the beat, your hands and fingers will soon follow suit.


One of the key attributes associated with having great timing is the ability to invoke the sense of a band or rhythm section playing with you, even when you are performing unaccompanied. Listen to any dynamic drummer and you will hear certain hits are louder or ‘accented’. When playing to a track, spend some time listening to the drums, filtering your attention away from the guitar; listen out for those snare hits and cymbal crashes plus the overall groove. The chances are the guitar part is working to compliment the rhythm section (or vice versa) so discover how to mirror this with your own playing.

Know where the beats are

Everything you play can be said to fall somewhere on a rhythmic ‘grid’ - the subdivisions between beats to which all music adheres. It makes sense then that being able to keep track of the beat is an integral step in honing your timing skills. If being aware of beats 1, 2, 3 & 4, as you are laying down your parts is unfamiliar, then take the time to count the beats out loud along with the backing track/music to help develop this awareness. When playing unaccompanied, use a metronome and verbally count out loud with each click. During this process, take note of where your riffs or licks begin and end - does your part start on the beat or somewhere in-between?

Develop your timing through the simple stuff

It is important to view your rhythmic development as a skill all to itself - separate from your technique, improvisation or repertoire. In the bid to being able to isolate your timing skills it is very useful to revert back to the most simple parts you can play - after all, a great 2 note riff played with authority and expert timing is worth 1000 complicated parts played with dubious rhythm!

Give yourself permission to break out those 3 chord songs, easy riffs and entry level licks again - all with the goal of perfecting your sense of pulse and timing.

Explore rhythm centric styles

Rock, Blues and Metal all have plenty to offer in terms of refining your timing skills, and it is true to say that you should find everything you seek within these styles; however certain musical genres place a higher emphasis on rhythm, time feel and groove; so take a leap into funk rhythm guitar (just think of all those James Brown songs which vamp on one 9th chord forever!). The beauty of funk guitar is its minimalist approach and an aim to create groove and feel with often little more than one chord or a couple of notes!

Musical styles such as Country and Gypsy Jazz have infectious 8th note back beats which provide a rhythmic anchor, helping you lock in with the band and musical pocket.

So, perhaps a shift in focus for your practice or maybe confirmation that your timing is on point. One thing is for sure, once you gain a good internal sense of rhythm your guitar playing will reach new levels!