How to Read Rhythms for Jazz Musicians

How to Read Rhythms for Jazz Musicians

Reading Rhythms for Jazz Guitar

If you have ever wondered how to go about learning to read rhythms, you have come to the right place! In this Reading Rhythms 101 lesson, we will teach you the basics of how to read rhythms and show you how it can improve your time.

We will be discussing everything from very basic note values to some common stumbling blocks such as ties, dotted notes, and more.

So put on some coffee, get rid of your distractions and get ready to work.

As a rule of thumb with any of the material presented on this website, it is more important to do things slowly and correctly in the beginning than it is to try to rush through it and make mistakes.

Rhythmic Values: Reference Guide

In this guide, we will be discussing how to count different rhythms and being able to do so can benefit you!

Before we can get to that, we need to make sure that you have a basic understanding of rhythmic values and time signatures.

If this does not sound like you, do not worry! We've prepared this 100% free cheat sheet for your reference.

Download your FREE "Reading Rhythms 101 - Reference" PDF here!

Counting Rhythms

Now let's get into the syllables we will use to count these rhythms. This is where it is really going to help you with your time!

When you learn how to count or sing rhythms like this, it makes you stay aware of where the pulse is at all times. Once you can get the hang of this, there will be no more getting lost when your band members are messing with the time. ;)

Note: When counting rests, many schools will have you say or whisper "rest" on that particular beat. That is how we will be doing it here. 

Which syllable you use is not defined by the note value itself, but by where it lands in the beat. This is important to understand from the beginning.

A Few Examples

Let's go over a few very basic examples.

Some people count whole notes by holding the word "one" over four beats while others count 1-2-3-4 in a way where it's linked together.

Reading Rhythms 101: Whole Note

Counting half notes is the same as with whole notes, only here, it's over two beats. Note: I counted them one and three because those are the beats they fall on. I have always felt that is an important distinction to make.

Reading Rhythms 101: Half Notes

Quarter notes are simple: 1, 2, 3, 4.

Now, with eighth notes we are adding some "in-between" beats. Here, these are counted as "1 & 2 & 3 & 4 &".

Reading Rhythms 101: Eighth Notes

This sometimes varies by school, but I always counted these as "1-e-&-da 2-e-&-da 3-e-&-da 4-e-&-da"

Reading Rhythms 101: Sixteenth Notes

Dots and Ties

Dots are used to add half of a note's value to the beat. For example, a dotted quarter will add an eighth note to it since half of its value is an eighth note.

Quarter note + eighth note

Reading Rhythms 101: Dotted Quarter Note

Half note + quarter note

Reading Rhythms 101: Dotted Half Note

A double-dotted note, although less frequently, it does appear once in a while. This basically adds half of the dot's value.

Quarter note + eighth note + sixteenth note

Reading Rhythms 101: Double Dotted Quarter Note

Hopefully that makes sense!

Ties serve a similar purpose in that they are adding value to a beat. However, ties work by linking two note values together.

In this example, you have a quarter note being tied to a sixteenth note. All this is doing is tying their values together. This would be counted as "1 (2)-e-&-da". The two in parentheses is silent and is only there for reference to the pulse.

Reading Rhythms: Example #1

Now, I will be providing a few examples to give you an idea of how these work. After the examples, there will be audio provided for your reference. Additionally, toward the end of the page, I will provide a quiz and the answers will also be provided in the form of audio to check how many you got right!

In this first example, we are using simple quarter notes and eighth notes to give you an idea of basic counting.

Reading Rhythms 101: Example A

Reading Rhythms: Example #2

Next, we will add four sixteenth notes and a whole note. Once again, the way the whole note will be counted is up to you. If you want to say 1-2-3-4 in one breath, that's perfectly fine. I have always counted these as, simply, 1.

Reading Rhythms 101: Example B

Reading Rhythms: Example #3

Now, we will go ahead and add rests. I made it a point to add these on downbeats, so you can see how they work with smaller subdivisions. Remember that the rest is replacing what would otherwise be a counted number in this instance.

Reading Rhythms 101: Example C

Reading Rhythms: Example #4

Lastly, let's go ahead and add dots and ties. These tend to trick people. The important thing to stay aware of at all times when reading rhythms is where the pulse is. Always know where that is and you will do just fine!

Reading Rhythms 101: Example D

Reading Rhythms: Real Book Example #1

Now, let's try applying what we have learned to a few measures from the Real Book. Keep in mind, we aren't worried about swinging eighth notes here. We are simply trying to get the rhythms right!

Here is one making use of some dotted notes. Once again, for the "ands", I like to hold the count to give you a feel for when the "and" actually lands.

Reading Rhythms 101: Real Book Example A

Reading Rhythms: Real Book Example #2

Here is another one using more of the same kind of material only a bit busier.

Reading Rhythms 101: Real Book Example B

Reading Rhythms: Real Book Example #3

Lastly, here is one making use of some eighth rests forcing you to use the "ands" of the beat.

Reading Rhythms 101: Real Book Example C

Reading Rhythms: Quiz #1

Now, the moment of truth! Just kidding, it's not that serious.

I have made a simple little four measure quiz so you can test your understanding of the material covered here.

Give it a shot and then check your answers in the audio!

Reading Rhythms 101 - Quiz Reading Rhythms 101 - Quiz

Once again,  if you are unsure about the rhythmic values we've discussed here, check our free guide for reference.

Download your FREE "Reading Rhythms 101 - Reference" PDF here!

Before we let you go, we're going to briefly discuss "triplets". Basically, three of the triplet is going to equal one beat of its higher subdivision.

In other words, if you have an eighth note triplet, it will equal 1 quarter note.

Typically, these are counted as 1-o-let 2-o-let, etc. At least that's how I learned it.

Reading Rhythms: Triplet Example #1

Let's give you some examples to give you an idea.

Reading Rhythms 101: Triplets 1

Reading Rhythms: Triplet Example #2

Here's another example with some rests thrown into the triplet to throw you a little curve ball.

Reading Rhythms 101: Triplets 2

Here is the audio for the triplet examples.

Now let's go ahead and try a little quiz including everything we've learned.

Reading Rhythms: Quiz #2

Reading Rhythms: Quiz 2

Next, jump into some great harmonic stuff with our FREE guide on chord substitutions!

Ever wonder how jazz guitarists get all these fresh and different sounds out of their comping and solo guitar playing? Well, a lot of that has to do with the use of chord substitutions. In our guide, we’ll go over the basics and even some more sophisticated techniques you can use to spice up your harmonic content!

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