You know how to Count – 1 2 3 4

Learn to play the guitar
Playing what matters.

Understanding rhythm is about counting in regular intervals.

The rhythms we usually come across are repeating units of 12 or 123 or 1234 and versions or combinations of these basic units.

Measuring the speed of rhythm – tempo

Tempo or how fast or slow you need to play, is written as beats per minute (bpm).

Every whole note can be divided into smaller units of time. If a whole note is divided into 4 equal parts, each part is a quarter note – 1/4th the duration of the whole note.

This quarter note is called a beat when you are playing a rhythm based on 1/4th note.

For example 4/4 is a rhythm with the basic unit of 4 1/4th notes. If we are asked to play it at 80bpm, it means that we need to play one beat (1/4th note) on each click of the metronome set to 80bpm.

3/4 has 3 1/4th notes as the basic unit. Playing the 3/4 rhythm at a tempo of 72bpm means playing a 1/4th note on each click of the metronome set to 72 bpm.

Since minute has a fixed duration (forget Einstein and such for the 'time' being), beats per minute is an absolute, without any subjectivity. 72 beats per minute means we want to divide a minute into 72 equal parts, and the beats we play will be fast enough to divide a minute to those 72 equal parts.

The tempo of the seconds needle

A seconds needle ticks 60 times a minute.

So its tempo is 60 beats per minute or 60 bpm.

You can use the seconds needle as a metronome with a fixed bpm of 60. If you can play 2 beats for every tick of the clock, then you are playing at a tempo of 120bpm.

Units of Three

Set metronome to 60 bpm.

Play a downstroke for each click of the metronome.

Play 3 downstrokes.

Now, while playing the downstroke, count 1 2 3. One for each of the downstrokes.

Now repeat the process. Keep striking downstrokes, keep counting 1 2 3 then repeat from 1 again.

1 2 3 1 2 3 1 2 3 1 2 3 1 2 3 … etc.

The repeating unit is 3.

To make it sound more like Waltz, try playing the 1 on the bass strings avoiding the 2nd and 3rd string. Play the other two beats (2 and 3) more on the treble strings avoiding the 6th and 5th strings.

Units of Four

Instead of 123 123 … as in the above example, if we played 1 2 3 4 1 2 3 4 … we get a rhythm with a basic repeating unit based on 4.

2/4 and 4/4 are examples of rhythms based on 2 and 4 beats.

2/4 can be played as: (1)downstroke (2)upstroke (1)downstroke (2)upstroke…

4/4 will be double that of 2/4: (1)downstroke (2)upstroke (3)downstroke (4)upstroke…


Emphasizing the 1s to make the rhythm obvious

In the case of repeating 123 or 1234, it can be made clearly audible that the basic unit is 3 or 4, by emphasizing the 1s.

To emphasize the 1s and there by the rhythm, you can:

  1. Play the 1 stronger by applying more pressure when striking on the 1s.
  2. Play the 1 mainly on the bass strings without sounding much of the 3rd 2nd or 1st strings.
  3. Mute all the down and up beats, and play the chord ringing  for just the 1s.

Split a beat into two – the 'and' in between

 1 2 3 4

Set the metronome to 60bpm.

Say 1 2 3 4 for each click. Then repeat. 1 2 3 4 1 2 3 4 1 2 …

Each number notes one beat. One beat being a quarter note – 1/4th duration of the bar. 1 click for a quarter note, beat. 4 clicks = 4 1/4th beats = 1 whole note.

Now after the 1 and before the 2, add an 'and'.

Count 1 for a click, count 2 for the immediate next click. In between the two, where there is no click, count 'and'.

1 & 2 & 3 & 4 & 1…

Set the metronome to 120 bpm – a click for the number and '&'

With the metronome set to 120 bpm, play 1 (downstroke) for a click, skip a click, play 2 for the next click, skip a click, play 3 for the next click etc…

Since we skip a click, the beats are played only on alternate clicks of 120 bpm, which is in effect playing beats at 60bpm. 120/2 = 60 beats per minute.

Now, play '&' for each of the clicks we skipped. Play a downstroke for the 'and'

Play 1 for a click, play or count '&' for the immediate next click, play 2 for the next click, play '&' for the next click etc…

You are still playing the downstroke beats at 60 bpm, with '&' dividing each beat into two eighth notes.

The numbers 1 2 3 4 and each '&' are now 1/8th of a bar long. 8 1/8th notes forming a whole note.

Add an up stroke at 'and' – conscious rhythm playing exercise

1& 2 3 4 | 1 2& 3 4 | 1 2 3& 4 | 1 2 3 4&

Set the metronome to 120bpm

Play downstroke 1 for a click, play upstroke '&' for the immediate next. Play 2 for the immediate next click. Then… leave a click, play 3, leave a click, play 4, leave a click, play 1… continue.

The second time, play 1 for a click, leave a click, play 2, then… play '&' for the immediate next click, play 3 for the next click, leave a click, play 4 for the next click, leave a click, play 1…

In each of the bars, there is only one '&'. First bar, the and is between 1 and 2, second bar between 2 and 3, third bar between 3 and 4, fourth bar after 4.


Unit of 4 as 123 123 12

12312312 can be heard in much of music we have heard over the years, including Eagles and many other popular bands and musicians.

123 can be seen as a group of 3 8th notes.

12 can be seen as a group of 2 8th notes.

In all, 12312312 has 8 8th notes, together giving us a full bar. 8 8th notes has the same duration as 4 4th notes.

Before, when we said 1234 to note a unit of 4, each number was 1/4th of a bar long. Each note was a 1/4th note.

But when we try to play 12312312 (8strokes) in a bar, naturally, each number is only 1/8th of the bar long.

If we were to use '&' , we could write the same as (1&2)(&3&)(4&)

Since it is easier to say 123 123 12, we prefer to count this way. Only, in this case no '&' is used and each number is 1/8th of the bar long.

How to play the 12312312

The right hand goes on playing down up down up through the 8 strokes.

Emphasis to the 1 can be given by

  1. playing the 1 with a bit more pressure, sounding all the strings with a faster stroke.
  2. playing the 1 stroke mainly on the bass strings without playing the 1st and 2nd strings
  3. by muting the chords using the left hand when playing any stroke other than 1.

Playing rhythm with mixed ups and downs

1(down) 2(up) 3(down) 1(down) 2(up) 3(down) 1(down) 2(up)

The first 123 ends in a downstroke. The next 123 starts with a downstroke. So we will be playing two downstrokes one after the other. Similarly the second 123 ends in a downstroke and the 12 starts in a downstroke


Playing rhythm with continuous right hand up and down movement

The same rhythm can be played with the right hand continuously playing up and down strokes.


1down 2up 3down 1up 2down 3up 1down 2up

The second '1' is played using an upstroke.

Practice the mixed ups and downs to bring control to your playing. Then practice the continuous up and down movement. We will be using the continuous one more in future.

Playing rhythm consciously, the right hand being able to move freely when we want to play any rhythm – that is the main aim of the above exercises.

We will learn more about rhythms in the coming article.

  • Right hand up down continues – left hand plays the rhythm
  • The percussive rhythm guitar – left mute
  • Emphasizing the 1s – up or down
  • Muting all except the 1s
  • The two groups of strings – bass and treble to make the difference
  • Reggae – bass / treble use and off beat
  • The son clave as 123 123 1234 12 1234
  • Conscious playing – mutes, constant right hand


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