How do you work out complex, syncopated rhythms?

I’ve been working on one of my Dreamer songs - Soundgarden’s Burden In My Hand - and been posting my progress here:

This is a song is a big stretch for me, but I think I’ve got a lot of the rhythm right. However, there are a couple of sections that I keep stumbling over…which are probably quite obvious if you watch the second video.

My question is…what are some of the techniques you folks use to figure out complicated, syncopated rhythms?

I know how to read standard rhythmic notation (by “read” i mean I can puzzle it out, translate it to a strumming pattern, and then practice slowly but perfectly, building up to performance speed).

But that requires an accurate tab…which I don’t have for this version. And even if I did, I find that this is a slow and error prone process for me.

Foot tapping hasn’t helped me. For me, foot tapping emerges when I can already play a rhythm. It doesn’t help me figure out a rhythm…in fact it usually makes the figuring out part more difficult.

So I’d be interested in alternative approaches.

Or alternatively…help me figure out what I’m doing wrong when I try the conventional approaches.


I definitely can’t help with the specific song, but maybe this video could spark some insight. Griff Hamlin, one of my favorite players and on-line teachers, emphasizes how important it is to get timing right from the start, saying that if you don’t put the notes at a place in time your brain will do it for you. He illustrates the concept in this video about learning a difficult lick, and maybe something here could help you out. My Process For Learning Difficult Licks – Blues Guitar Unleashed Blog

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That was a good suggestion, thanks!

He uses the same metronome app that I use - Pro Metronome…I still haven’t found anything better. I also select different sounds for different parts of the measure, like he does…it really does help.

The basic approach was familiar to me, but there were nuances and tricks that I will definitely try.

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Was hoping that people would chime in and describe how they work out complex rhythms…

In the meantime, I think I will describe my process (such as it is), as I work through the trouble spots.

Having a good tab file - that you can listen to - is the best resource I’ve found for figuring out complex rhythms.

It needs to be listenable, because so many out there are wrong to a greater or lesser extent, and I can’t tell just by looking at it - I need to hear it.

Here’s one that sounds pretty good to me rhythmically. (though note it’s in a different tuning - I’m playing a Ryan Lendt “campfire” version in standard tuning, capoed at the 3rd fret). But the rhythm seems accurate, as far as I can tell.

It’s web based, so should work on all the major platforms.

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I understand conventional rhythmic notation - how 8ths and 16ths are notated, etc. But I can’t sight read, and struggle with tabs that have a lot of 16ths…especially syncopated rhythms that have a lot of tied notes.

I have to get the rhythm into my strumming hand somehow. My current approach is to print out the section I’m struggling with, and pencil in the count and the strumming. (Quite similar to the video @dlemire60 shared above)

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Bar 16 is my first trouble spot…what I call the “E string riff”, though it’s played on the A string in the tab, due to the different tuning.

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I first try to get it by ear. If I can’t, then I tab it out (e.g. from a Justin song tutorial). I put the count in the tab, like
1+2+3+4+ or 1e+a2e+a...
and then I just work on it super slow until I muscle-memorize it.


That’s pretty much what I’m doing too. Though I also pencil in all the down and up strums as well, which seems key to my process.

But I find the whole process very slow and tedious…and keep thinking there must be a better way!

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I work out complicated rhythms mostly by first listening to it a ton of times to have the feel of the rhythm, and then by playing it slowed down as much as necessary. I listen to a little part, then play, then listen, then play with. Sometimes I play it slowly a whole lot of times. I don’t really ever count it out, I go by feel.


I with Mari. Trying to count out complex rhythms can be nearly impossible. You need to feel the rhythm

Justin even has a hard time trying to count out complex Rhythms
It the time stamp doesn’t work Justin explain how he figures out the rhythm at the 9:00 minute mark

I’d love to be able to do it by feel! And I often can with simpler rhythms at slower tempos. But this is next level for me - one of the reasons I’m tackling it is in the hopes of leveling up my listening and transcribing skills.

“Feel” seems like such a broad and vague term - it’s hard to feel what someone else is feeling. But i know what you mean - sometimes I just feel a rhythm immediately, and can strum it right out of the gate.

But I can’t do it consistently. And I can certainly feel when I’ve got it wrong! I feel it in my strumming arm - like it glitches somehow - doesn’t know whether to strum up or down. Or that there’s some kind of mismatch between what I hear in my musical imagination and what my arm is doing.

Like I said, it’s hard to describe feelings.

So many questions!

Where do you feel it? In your head? In your strumming arm (like I do)? In your gut? In your tapping foot?

I suspect there’s a whole lot of listening, bodily sensation, and physical coordination going on that is lumped under the word “feel”. Probably obvious and automatic once you’ve felt it (I get glimmers, like I said). But because it’s all happening invisibly in someone else’s brain and body, it can be hard to understand what’s going on.

Probably hard to explain too - it’s automatic and maybe even below concious thought.

Do you remember how you developed it? Or were you able to “just do it”?

I probably should have been more clear about that. I don’t actually count the rhythms out loud (although I used to try…with very little success…as you say).

But I do find it useful to pencil in the count under the tab. This acts as a sanity check, and locates where the downbeats are.

What really seems to help me is to pencil in the strums. I know it’s an 8th note strum, and all the syncopated 16ths are going to be upstrums on the “e” or the “a”, so I pencil that in.

Then I can slow it down as much as I need to get it into muscle memory correctly, speed it up, and it will start to sound and feel good at tempo.

This works pretty reliably for me, but it’s so much work that I have to be pretty motivated to do it.

And it’s entirely possible that I’ve gotten something basically wrong here. If you see any misunderstandings in what I’ve written, or in the pic I posted upthread - please let me know!

And I’d also be very interested in your answers to the questions I asked Mari63, if you have the time and inclination.

Did you watch the video I posted? I time stamped it where Justin explains how he figures out the rhythm to Jack and Diane by feeling it. It the time stamp didn’t work Justin explains it at about the 9:00 minute mark.

That’s pretty much how I’ve always done it, except I don’t mute all the strings and strum out the rhythm. I just go though the motions without actually strumming the guitar. I just listen very intently, some time with my eyes closed and It just comes to me. Kind of like dancing to the song in your head.

Also some rhythms are hard to get exact because the original performer is in there own groove and not following any set pattern.

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Got it - it’s at 9:30.

That was helpful. Do you say the downs and ups out loud, or is more you are paying attention to whether it feels right in your strumming arm.

Maybe Justin’s just saying it out loud to demonstrate the concept?

I just imagine them in my head but I’ve also been figuring out songs for a very long time. I can see how say them either out loud or to yourself would help. I also find it helpful to really pay attention to what the drummer(if there is one) is doing. That’s a quick way to figure out the groove. Once you have the groove down the strumming just seems to fall into place.

Also unless you in a cover band figuring out songs exactly really isn’t that important. Having a solid rhythm down is more important to the listener.

The group of three notes at the end are triplet 16ths.

I will upload some audio tracks of the rhythm on a snare if it helps.

Thanks. I think I understand the concept of triplets - in this case, 3 notes played in the same time as 2 16ths, correct?

But I don’t know how to strum them in the context shown.

A “D, U, D” instead of the usual “D, U” for 2 16ths?

It’s too bad the new Strumming Tool doesn’t do 16ths yet…would be perfect for figuring this out.

I’m not doing the riff exactly as written…I can’t do the double pull-off.

Just checked…what I do is 0 5 po->0 0, all downs. I actually worked that out by feel, which was quite gratifying.

Played alone, it sounds ok to my ear…what I’m struggling with is when to start it. Looking at the tab, I’m thinking it’s because I should be starting with an U instead of a down.

Yes, if it’s the exact rhythm shown in my pic, that would be very helpful…especially if you could do it at a slower tempo…40 BPM, perhaps.

Just for context, I’m linking the Ryan Lendt “campfire” version that gave me the courage to tackle this song.

Though some of the commenters on my AVOYP didn’t like it, I think it’s brilliant, and captures the spirit of the song in a simplified manner. A couple of things stuck out for me:

  1. I think Ryan’s timing is superb in this, and all his other videos. I don’t know if he’s doing the rhythms exactly as recorded, but it’s damn close, and perfectly captures the feel of the song to my ear.

  2. He doesn’t talk about the rhythm…at all. (except very briefly around the riff). Just whips it off…perfectly…at tempo…as if it’s easy and obvious. So, it’s a great arrangement, but is somewhat lacking as an instructional video.

So typical of so much guitar instruction - online and with real life instructors too. Justin is the only one - that I’m aware of, at least - who seems to teach rhythm from the ground up with carefully chosen exercises that are accessible to beginners.

Hope you like this. If not…well, I guess we’ll have to agree to disagree :grinning: