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Guitarist Greg Chako Discusses The Importance Of Counting

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Counting is not something you do as a beginner and then forget about when you turn pro . . . it’s something pros do all the time!

When I arrived at Berklee College of Music on a partial scholarship in 1976, I was told I needed remedial tutoring in sight-reading. At my first session as I pulled my guitar out of its case the tutor said, “You won’t need that.” He instructed me to put it away. I didn’t understand why initially, but then he explained that he wanted me to simply clap the rhythms of the music notation, because he said that if I could not clap the rhythms correctly, then I wouldn’t be able to play them correctly.

Greg Chako in concert – and probably counting…

This was and still is such an important lesson! In my decades of experience teaching music, I’ve come to accept that for the most part, what distinguishes my playing skills from those of my students is fundamentally rooted in my superior abilities pertaining to rhythm and phrasing. Generally speaking, many of my students already know enough scales, chords, and have acceptable playing technique. But what they often lack (in addition to experience of course!) is a keener sense of rhythm and good phrasing.

The first step to: 

  1. learning how to sight-read
  2. playing tricky rhythms and 
  3. developing superior melodic phrasing . . . 

is to learn to count as you’re reading music notation. I mean to be able to count out loud “one and two and three and four and” for each 1/2 beat (an 8th note value) in a bar; the numbers being the downbeat and “and” representing the upbeat (or off-beat). Of each downbeat, the first is the most important. It’s vital to always know where beat one is.

If while playing you lose track of one, you’re lost, and the longer you remain lost, the harder it will be to get back on track.

Furthermore, if you can’t even “count in” a tune properly, then you’re lost even before you begin! On occasion, I will ask a student to sing Happy Birthday, because that’s a song that everybody knows. Then I’ll ask them what beat it starts on, or in effect, to count themselves in. It never ceases to amaze me that that question should stump or confuse anyone, but I’ve discovered that even some intermediate-level students and semi-pros have been counting in tunes they often play with an unacceptable degree of uncertainty, simply because they’re not used to actually counting as they play.

In the case of Happy Birthday, the downbeat (1) is on the syllable “Birth-“ and the two syllables “Hap-py” are two 8th notes on beat 3 if you’re singing it in 3/4 time and on beat 4 if you sing it in 4/4 time. Those two syllables are the “pick-up” notes and the “A” section of the song begins with the word “Birthday”.

Here are the first 8 bars of one of the world’s most popular songs, which all my students say they know . . . but I’ve yet to find one student to date who can correctly clap and count this rhythm out loud:

I have some friends who like to transcribe solos too. Sometimes they will share a solo they’re transcribing with me and ask for help with the process. In my opinion, the very first step in transcribing any song or solo is to correctly identify the rhythm being played; specifically, to first identify the downbeat. If my friend is having trouble with the transcription, it might be because he was so focused on getting the right pitches on the guitar that he overlooked the correct rhythm, and as was suggested at the outset of this article, if you’re struggling to identify the correct rhythm, you’re likely unable to make an accurate transcription even if you get most of the pitches right. 

As a rule, while playing, the rhythm is more vital to get right than the pitch. You can ‘get away’ with making mistakes with the pitch of a note, but blatant rhythmic mistakes are harder to gloss over. 

The whole point of this article is to highlight the importance of learning how to comfortably count rhythms. Honestly, I have never met a truly great player who didn’t count! Counting is not something you do as a beginner and then forget about when you turn pro . . . it’s something pros do all the time! For example, the song melodies on my newest album, “Life After 40,” have some very tricky syncopations. What follows is a 9-bar excerpt of a portion of the “first ending” of the title track: 


I kid you not . . . if I don’t literally count this section out loud, 9 times out of 10, I will accidentally displace a beat by hitting the anticipation of the Fmaj7 in bar 8 on the “and-of-3” instead of on the “and-of-4” as written. To play this section correctly and consistently, I start counting at the end of the first bar on beat 4 just before the ‘first-ending’ begins, and force myself to keep counting right up until I know for sure that the last anticipation of 1 (the Eb9 chord on the “and-of-4” in bar-8) is correct, and I know for sure where the real beat 1 is! During rehearsals before our recording session (we completed tracking for the record a couple weeks ago), I goofed up because I couldn’t maintain my counting of the rhythms and I lost track of where the real downbeat was. I asked my bassist, who had played the section perfectly, if he was counting the whole time, and his response was “Hell Yes!”

The best players have no difficulty counting at any time it’s necessary. So please do yourself a favor and start counting!


Greg Chako’s 14th album Yokohama Live! with a stellar Japan-based rhythm section is being released worldwide on August 25th, 2023.


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