Video Lesson: Get Rhythm, Part 2: More on Beats, Meters, and More

Even if this is review for you, it’s always a good idea to revisit the basics—not only to further solidify the foundation upon which all else is built, but to provide new insights as you examine something familiar with fresh eyes and skills.

In the first part of this series (AG August 2018), I covered some necessary terminology, introduced basic note values, and provided a number of musical examples, both for counting and for playing on the guitar. If you haven’t already seen it, I suggest taking a moment to study it and work through the associated examples. Even if this is review for you, it’s always a good idea to revisit the basics—not only to further solidify the foundation upon which all else is built, but to provide new insights as you examine something familiar with fresh eyes and skills.

Dotted Rhythms

As you saw in Part 1, a dot next to a note adds half the note value to its length. So the duration of a dotted half note is a half note plus a quarter note. A dotted quarter note is a quarter plus an eighth note. A dotted eighth note is an eighth plus a 16th. As previously, you’ll start by internalizing and counting the rhythms, then applying them to the guitar.

Example 1a depicts a dotted-quarter rhythm in 4/4: a quarter note plus eighth. (Remember that while in staff notation, a time signature’s two numbers are stacked vertically, in text they’re expressed as fractions, for the sake of readability.) Tap the smallest subdivision of the beat—in this case, the eighth note—at a slow tempo with your right hand. Use a metronome if you’d like, but it’s also fine to tap a slow, manageable tempo. Count out loud: 1 and, 2 and, 3 and, 4 and. With your left hand, tap the rhythm as indicated in italics. Be sure to look at the notated rhythm once you understand it—don’t focus on the written words. They are there to get you started, but you’ll want to get comfortable with notated music.

The positions of the eighth and dotted quarter notes are reversed in Example 1b. Here, tap 1 and, 2 and, 3 and, 4 and. In Examples 1c–d, the note values from the previous two figures are halved. For Example 1c, featuring the rhythm of a dotted eighth note followed by a 16th, tap the smallest subdivision of the beat—the 16th note—with your hand. Count aloud and tap 1-ee-and-ah, 2-ee-and-ah, 3-ee-and-ah, 4-ee-and-ah. Example 1d, reverses the dotted eighth–16th rhythm: 1ee-and-ah, 2ee-and-ah, 3ee-and- ah, 4ee-and-ah.


Once you’re comfortable saying and tapping these rhythms, grab your guitar and play them, tapping your foot in quarter notes, but using the same verbal counting as when you tap the rhythms with your hands. Choose whatever chord or note you feel like. The idea is to pick something easy for your fretting hand so you can focus your attention on the rhythms.

Tied Rhythms

A tie—a curved line connecting two or more notes—creates a note value equal to the sum of the notes. Ties can join notes of any value, and in some cases ties function similarly to dots. For instance, Ex. 1b could be alternatively notated as shown in Example 2a. Though the two figures are rhythmically identical, Ex. 2a makes it easier to see each beat of the measure.

Example 2b shows a quarter note tied to the first 16th of the following beat. To negotiate this figure, tap the smallest subdivision with your right hand, while counting out loud and tapping with your left hand: 1-ee-and-ah, 2-eeandah, 3-ee-and-ah, 4-eeandah. Work out Example 2c, which builds upon Ex. 2b, with your left hand tapping 1-ee-and-ah, 2-eeandah, 3-ee-and-ah, 4-eeandah. A new rhythm—the dotted eighth, followed by a 16th tied to an eighth—is introduced in Example 2d. Count it like this: 1-ee-and-ah, 2-eeandah, 3-ee-and-ah, 4-eeandah. As with all examples, when you feel confident, transfer them to the guitar.

Triplets and Tuplets

A tuplet is any rhythm that divides the beat into an equal number of subdivisions other than implied by the meter. The most common type of tuplet in simple meter is the triplet—three equal notes in the space normally occupied by two, indicated with a numeric 3 either above or below the group of notes, which are sometimes bracketed. Given the basic beat of a quarter note, as in 3/4 or 4/4 time, eighth-note triplets would mean three notes per beat, rather than the typical two. Similarly, 16th-note triplets are three per eighth note (or six per quarter).

Example 3a shows one measure of eighth-note triplets. First, try counting them. In this case, it will make it most comprehensible to count and tap quarter notes with your right hand, and as follows with your left hand: 1-2-3, etc. For Example 3b, containing a triplet rhythm of a quarter note followed by an eighth note, tap quarter notes with your right hand, and in this pattern with your left hand: 1-2-3, etc.


Example 3c introduces 16th-note triplets. Tap in eighth notes with your right hand, and tap and count the triplets. Because of the high number of notes per beat, I find it’s more practical just to count triplets, rather than triplets and beats of the measure, like this: 1-2-3, 1-2-3, etc. Example 3d shows how consecutive 16th-note triplets are more commonly expressed—as sextuplets, depicted with a numeric 6. Count these the same way as Ex. 3c.

Triplets are a good entry point to understanding and feeling compound meters, in which the beat consistently divides into three equal parts. In a compound meter, the note value representing one beat is a dotted note. As in simple meter, there are duple, triple, and quadruple compound meters: 6/8, 9/8, and 12/8, respectively. The top note designates the number of divisions of the beat in a measure, while the bottom number indicates which note is the division duration. So in 6/8, 9/8, or 12/8, time, that is the dotted quarter note.

Example 4a shows one measure in 6/8, which I prefer to count as 1, 2, 3, 1, 2, 3. Try the same approach to understand Example 4b, which juxtaposes rhythmic values, as well as Example 4c. The same principles apply for counting and playing in 9/8, or 12/8—there would just be more beats in each measure.

I should mention that counting/tapping isn’t a strict science, and there are multiple effective ways to do so. Some people prefer to count triplets as tri-pul-let; some count  6/8, as 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6. Go with whatever approach makes sense and feels practical to you.

As with all the examples, study these concepts first, play them on the guitar, and then—I always have to mention this part, as I believe in it so strongly—put them to use by writing something new using them. Doing so ensures they become part of your musical vocabulary. You’ll not only understand the theory better, but you’ll be using it to broaden your creative palette.


This article originally appeared in the September 2018 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.

the way music works by gretchen menn
Gretchen Menn
Gretchen Menn

Gretchen Menn is a guitarist and composer. She is the author of The Way Music Works.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *