How do you work out complex, syncopated rhythms?

You’d never know from my playing, but I’ve been playing guitar for almost 50 years. I’ve therefore forgotten a lot of how I learned the things I know that are kind of second nature now. Rhythm is for the most part one of those things. When I say ‘feel’ I just mean listen to the groove and go with it. Rick makes a good analogy to dancing, I hadn’t thought of it that way before but that makes sense to me. Slowing it down and listening over and over and over again and then trying to play, again and again and again, mostly it just works - with enough practice. I expect it will all come together for you if you continue to listen, and practice. And don’t worry, it’s not going to take 50 years! :slightly_smiling_face:


Yeah, I saw that. Unfortunately, I’m not much of a dancer, but I’ve done a bit, and will keep that in mind as I work on these rhythms.

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Not sure how helpful this will be, as I used to play drums so rhythm is “easy”, but there are still definitely tricky rhythms that take a while to get under the fingers. In the grand scheme of things, Burden In Your Hand is not a super hard rhythm, it’s just not simple.

I don’t bother writing rhythm down. Writing rhythm is tricky, especially when there is syncopation, triplets, etc.

Listen, listen intently. Know the rhythm from memory. Then give it a go. Some rhythms will come out automatically. Presuming it doesn’t, then try to replicate it very, very slowly. If you listened intently enough you will know if you have it or not. If you can’t get it, then you need to practice some rhythm patterns - triplets, bo diddley strumming, etc, so you can bake them in.

I tend to think if you can’t tap a rhythm, you probably can’t strum it as well.

Once you get the rhythm, then repeat it, slowly, again, and again, and again. Until you can’t do it wrong. Then speed it up, slowly. Until it’s harder to do it wrong than do it right, this could take 5 minutes or could take days and days. I find that once I get a rhythm in my hands, I can speed it up a lot and still keep it right. There’s a point where it goes from still-slow through to baked-in, and can speed it up very quickly.

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Okay, here goes.

  • 1/4 note count in
  • one bar of maracas playing steady 16ths
  • one bar of a snare playing the rhythm pattern shown above (with maracas still playing 16ths)
  • one bar of guitar playing the rhythm pattern above (muted A string until the hammer-on and flick-off part) with snare and maracas still playing

To get things moving you could play the final part of the bar as:
open E string
open D string
3rd fret A string
open E string

No hammer-on / flick-off needed.


A few thoughts.

Who wrote the tab?

Is the written tab and written rhythm canon? (The only way it can be done)

I ask, because the tab is someone else’s interpretation of the rhythm you are trying to work out. Maybe it is the actual original composer’s way, maybe it is just another more experienced guitar player, maybe it is some hack, like half the tab online.

I think with beginner players like me, having a simplified version and tab that we can follow pretty rigidly is very useful.

However, as we get more advanced and the song versions we attempt are more complex, this rigidity may fall apart a bit.

I am working on a Grateful Dead song. Pretty hard to find notation that means much, tab is not great for figuring rhythm, and the Dead played it differently about every time they played it.

Not to mention, like many of these songs, the original versions are played with a full band, so any post hoc guitar version is someone’s attempt to fill some part of the full band sound and distill it to a guitar only.

There is no established strumming pattern. There is an overall rhythm and feel to the song.

So, the way I am figuring it out is to listen to the simplified patterns a few people use in their YT tutorials, and listen to a well recorded version of the song and get into the groove.

Then I find a pattern that is close enough and that I am capable of doing to learn the cord changes and get a version under my fingers.

Then, as I get more comfortable with it, I will expand on the rhythmic elements and in perhaps a few more decades, I’ll have a passable version of the song.

At least, that is the plan…

As CT would say, find your own voice and make the song yours (and fit your abilities).

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I dug up an old app that I haven’t used in a while - Anytune.

Set a loop on bar 16, and slowed it down as much as the app allowed - 40% of original tempo.

Vocal is horribly distorted, but I can clearly hear the beat (there’s a hi hat in the original I never noticed before), and the riff at the end.

Was able to do a “4 finger tap” (a trick an old guitar teacher gave me, that I’ve never seen described anywhere), and sing the riff quite quickly.

Suddenly, everything seemed much more clear!

Still letting this sink in, and haven’t tried it on the guitar yet. But many things seem to be gelling, and falling into place.


I’ve been hitting this pretty hard for the last few days, and it’s starting to yield. Think I’ll be able to post a video soon that shows great improvement.

Might have some insights to share as well.

Just wanted to check in and say “thanks again!” for all your suggestions and thoughtful responses. I read all of them and am incorporating many of them into my practice.

Anytune is great for learning strumming patterns.

Anytune is the App I use too, it doesn’t seem to be one of the more popular ones but it works great for me. The free version, it has everything I need, slowing down, and key changes.

Glad to hear you feel you’re getting somewhere. Lightbulb-ish moments are nice when they happen, otherwise Patience and practice :slightly_smiling_face:

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