Counting while playing?

One of the biggest things I struggle with is counting whilst playing, particularly anything featuring syncopation.

I find there’s a huge gap between my ability to play by “feel” and to play by counting. For e.g. if I was learning a song by feel I could probably start at 50-75% speed and quickly work up to 100%, but with counting I have to start at about 10-25% and the progress is snail-paced which I don’t find as enjoyable and is pretty mentally fatiguing (I don’t have the best health so feel my mental resources are limited at the moment!).

BassBuzz has helped with the simpler and slower rhythms (and I’m pretty good at hearing the main beat listening to music), but anything faster or with multiple instances of syncopation or sub-counts and I just have to wing it.

Do people have any good tips or resources for improving counting and playing at the same time? I’ve heard such as tapping your foot with the beat or using a metronome but I just end up confused trying to mentally fit in the off-beats with the metronome or my foot just does its own thing. I’ve also tried clapping the rhythm but this just doesn’t translate easily across to playing for me and .

I’ve even looked into Kodaly and Takadimi methods but I think to me this seems more complicated personally as the useful mathematical/division aspect of counting gets lost and you have another “language” to remember on top of playing.


I’m seriously doubting I’ll ever be able to sight read simply because I have a problem with counting/timing if I can’t hear the piece at its normal speed first. For me syncopation is all about ‘feel’.

As far as tips to improve go, the best I can offer is to use a metronome - I use an app on my phone and have the tones set differently for alternating beats.


It is hard to exactly grasp what you are particularly challenged by (and, by the way, it is hard for most of us, but gets better with practice (as so many things)), but I still would think that using a metronome and tapping your foot along the metronome and then clapping (no instrument yet) various rhythms or rhythmical figures along to your steady tapping is the way forward. However, you probably need to start slow and easy to get your body into it (and your mind to start doing mentally what your foot is doing physically).

Perhaps go all the way down to 60 bpm to start off. First, clap along with the tapping, i.e. all down beats only. Then, clap the off beats while you keep tapping away those down beats. In fact, your foot does nothing but down beats (along with the metronome) as you explore slowly more complex beat patterns with the clapping. The first syncopated figure could be : One And … And… And Four (hope you get what I mean!?). Then slowly increase the bpm.

Before you know it, you’ll be clapping triplets and other neat stuff! Good luck!


Rich - I don’t know of any way to count and play at the same time really well. If I try and play and count out a part at the same time to a student, I almost always goof it up. It’s too much for the brain.

My tactic would be this:
Can you sing along to songs?
If you can sing along to a piece of music like “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” by the Stones, I’d say you’re already an ace at syncopation. And if you tried to count it, you’d most likely trip over yourself.

Playing the bass can be as easy as singing. That’s my basic philosophy for trying to work on syncopation with folks. If you can sing it, you can play it.

Focus on making the syncopation singable and as easy to sing and think about as your most ingrained favorite song. You can even put words to it if that helps.

Anything to move it from a cerebral activity to a guts activity.

A drumming / rhythm reading class would also be awesome - something that focused only on rhythms. I had good luck with takadimi because it put voice to syncopation in a way that worked for me.

Best of luck! Please keep us informed if anything helps. You are not - by any means - alone with this difficulty!!


@Rich.B I’m right there with you. I have M.S. and I am constantly struggling with cognitive issues. I don’t try to count syncopation at all any more. I do it entirely by feel. When I can’t get it, I stand up and dance it out while I’m playing. Nothing too involved, just moving my body to the bass line and trying to let that inform my playing. It seems like my playing is always better when I move with it.

@Gio It’s so refreshing to hear you say all of that. When I was a teenager and playing I, unfortunately, had fallen in with a number of super arrogant guitarists that thought they knew the right way and I was always “doing it wrong”. It took decades for me to find out how full of shit those guys were on so very many things. It has been largely due to the Beginner to BadAss lessons and this forum that I realized I was actually on a pretty good path back then. Unfortunately, I believed the negativity and let it chase me away from something I loved.

@Rich.B as to what @Gio said… Hell yes! If I can sing the bass line, I know I’m at least half way to being able to play it. If I can get my booty moving to it too, it’s all good.


Hellz yes, @eric.kiser I love this.
It reminds me of one of my favorite scenes from the Thelonius Monk documentary: Straight, No Chaser. He’s trying to teach a part to one of his musicians and he makes him… or asks him? The memory is hazy (and I couldn’t find a clip) dance it out.

Yep. Get the rhythm in the body and the ears. Having it in the brain is helpful for writing it out, reading it, or communicating it to other fluent music-speak musicians. But to groove it, it has to be in the body and ears.


This has been true for me for every instrument I have ever played. Same for sight reading. Like, I can read music, but if I try to sight read in real time, it totally messes me up. So I play by feel and follow the sheet music to know when to do transitions and so on.

Same for counting. When learning a song I count it out. But if I try that in real time it’s a disaster for me.

Basically both reading music and counting rhythm have been (for me) things I do while learning a piece. Everything in real time is by feel, with cues from the music for important changes.


I’ve been following this thread, and even contributing, but it’s just struck me that I don’t actually count while playing. I mean; AT ALL! I think it may stem from Josh doing the counting for me and then me just knowing where I am and playing by ‘feel’.

It may have something to do with never being any good with maths so I avoid numbers unless they’re essential. Am I weird?


You may not literally count, @PeteP - I don’t think any of us do! Josh did it to help understand more complicated rhythms.

I don’t think we count numbers when playing, but we should have a feel for a constant pulsing (like a metronome), and - preferably - we should have a feel for where the “1” is. Especially if you, as bass player, want to play fills or leading into chord changes etc, you need to know where the “1” is :smile:

So, not weird!


Agree with @PeteP and @joergkutter . . . :slight_smile:

I don’t “count” while playing and am indeed trying to do it by “feel”.

I do have to focus more on keeping track of where I’m at in progressions though, and can lose count of which bar I’m supposed to be playing.

So, hope I’m not “weird” either! :laughing:

Cheers, Joe


I think we may be counting (=feeling) on many levels.

First, there is the feel for the (typically) quarter notes in a bar, i.e., the “pulse”. For slower tempi, we might feel the subdivisions also.

But, we also need to count (feel) that “this is the fourth bar now”, as that is often where a musical sentence comes to conclusion and a new one starts, or where you (or the drummer) would play a fill etc.

And, on the next level up, we keep track of sections and repetitions (“this is the second time we play section A, so we are continuing with section B now”) and so on. Unless there are visual clues, it might be agreed upon beforehand that, e.g., the guitar solo would be over the chords of section C, played exactly 6 times (or something like this).

I would count all this as counting (sorry for the bad pun) :smile:


That’s what I’m talking about :slight_smile:

So, yes, you’re right . . . we are actually “counting” one thing or another. Lots of times, I can “feel” when a change is “right” without having to count it. I suppose it depends on listening to the rest of the the band members, vocal cues, lead guitar cues, etc.


And, by the way, if you routinely wake up in the middle of the night drenched in cold sweat worrying about counting in music, best not get hired for a gig like this:

(If you don’t have an hour to spare skip to maybe 5 minutes right away, as the first movement is fairly “innocuous”. And just to make clear, I think this is great music and an awe-inspiring performance).


Great share on the Reich piece!!


Thanks for all the responses guys. Sorry for the delay getting back.

I suppose more than anything I was paranoid about not doing things “properly”, particularly as I’m looking to do the music grades which do involve sheet music and music with trickier/fast rhythms (e.g. one of the grade 3 pieces is Misery Business which is 173bpm and syncopated from the start).

I was wondering whether the counting was something necessary all the time, or more a useful tool to help in the absence of an audio reference. I suppose the answer to that is a lot of guitar/rock music is only available as tab so playing by ear must be the norm. Plus, musicians eventually play pieces from memory - are they all imagining the sheet music in their head down to each note name and type or are they just getting on with it? I’d imagine the latter is more common. :smile:

I think I’m going to try and split the practice down, spending half the time focusing on counting rhythms, and the rest just playing along freestyle which to me is more enjoyable. I tend to be a lazy perfectionist whereby if I can’t do/understand something perfect I just give up, so hopefully this approach will allow me to get some practice but also just get and keep playing.


I love this expression!