Rhythm and timing are arguably the most important elements of music! Listeners will often put up with spotty-tonality (Bob Dylan’s raspy-nasal out of tune voice “adds character” to his music), but it’s pretty rare for listeners to enjoy music that is performed in a sloppily-out-of-time-and-out-of-control kind of way.
A fairly simplistic and broad description of music that I like is “organized sound.” And I also like to describe “rhythm” as events happening in time (sonic events if we’re talking about music, like we are today!). Counting (one way or another) is really the only way I know of to help you keep track of time and understand rhythm.
How to Count?
Out loud! Yes, it can be embarrassing to add your voice to music you are working on, but it’s so important because it will help you internalize the rhythms you are practicing and play the music more precisely and confidently in the future. Eventually, you won’t have to count out loud every time you learn new music, but many musicians I know (myself included) count out loud when they are practicing particularly difficult rhythms.
A former drum teacher of mine used to say: “Some people have perfect pitch. Nobody has perfect time.” It’s true, some people can tune a guitar completely by ear, and name every single note in a chord, but – while some people have better natural timing than others – timing is something that musicians can continually improve throughout their lives.