In the 1950s and ’60s, Brazilian musicians like Antônio Carlos Jobim and João Gilberto developed a pleasingly smooth yet delightfully complex new style. Bossa nova emerged from a unique combination of samba rhythms and harmonies from Brazilian folk music mixed with American jazz, not to mention an understated means of vocal projection that moved away from the brash operatic style of samba.
Bossa nova chordal patterns—played on a nylon-string guitar alone or with other instruments—are some of the most pleasing and interesting grooves you can add to your fingerstyle toolbox. In this lesson, you will visit a bit of history, examine the elements that make bossa, and then play a few examples that take you from training wheels to a comfortable ride on this delightfully addictive style.
The Rhythmic Foundation
The core rhythm of bossa nova is based on samba and places a characteristic emphasis on beat 2. Samba has roots in Africa and combines several simultaneous rhythmic layers played on different instruments. João Gilberto developed the basic bossa guitar style by experimenting with the tamborim rhythm from the samba. The emphasis on beat 2 in bossa is very important, and for that reason you will often see it written in 2/4 time. For this lesson, however, I’ve used a 4/4 cut-time feel, making the syncopations easier to read and splitting the guitar pattern over two measures.
Example 1 outlines the basic percussive elements in a bossa nova rhythm section, as played on a drum set. The bass drum covers the surdo part, a stick on the rim of the snare takes the clave, and the hi-hat plays the eighth notes that come from the cabasa part. In this case, the big 2 (indicated with an accent mark) lands on the second dotted quarter of each measure in cut time—actually beat 3 if you count it in a fast four. Note where the rhythms line up, and especially where they overlap in the clave part to create interest.
Before you add the guitar part, it’s a good idea to gain an understanding of the concept of the clave. The clave (pronounced clah-vay) is a tool found in Afro-Cuban music that helps organize rhythmic patterns. It is the structural core of many rhythms, including salsa, rumba, son, mambo, and songo, to name just a few. And it’s also the name of a percussion instrument, a pair of wooden sticks used to play this pattern. When played correctly, the clave keeps all the other parts lined up in just the right way.
The bossa nova clave, which is very similar to the son clave, is a repeating two-bar pattern comprised of three strikes in the first measure and two in the second, as shown in Example 2. The pattern is sometimes expressed the other way around—2–3—but you’ll most often hear it played as 3–2.
The Guitar Patterns
A typical bossa nova guitar pattern combines the feel of the surdo with a part that re-sembles the tamborim in samba. The guitar is the engine at the center of bossa nova and carries with it beautiful harmonies on top of bubbling syncopations, which can be tricky at first, but should come together with just a few repetitions.
Example 3 depicts the training wheels of a bossa pattern—just the tamborim part played with the index, middle, and ring fingers on strings 3, 2, and 1, respectively. Try subdividing when learning this pattern—count it “One-and, two-and, three-and, four-and, one-and, two-and, three-and, four-and.” Don’t get tripped up by the longer pause over beat 3, and be sure to land right on beat 4 before starting the pattern over again.
Spend a good amount of time with Ex. 3, as once you get this pattern, all the others will fall into place. Start slowly, increasing your speed incrementally until the rhythms feel smooth and familiar.
A simple bass line, traveling between the root and the fifth, usually anchors those syncopated chords. Pick through Example 4, which you can use on any chord with the root of A, with your thumb. Note that it’s standard practice to play just the root on chords where the fifth is not easily accessible, so you can practice this pattern on one note—namely, A—as well.
Bossa nova chordal patterns are some of the most pleasing and interesting grooves you can add to your fingerstyle toolbox.
Example 5 combines the previous two figures on an open Am7 chord. If at first it feels tricky to play this pattern, stick to the open A string in the bass throughout, and toggle to and from the sixth-string E as you become more comfortable. Pay close attention to where your thumb and fingers meet (like on beat 1 of bar 1 and elsewhere) and where they play apart (beats 2 and 3 of bar 1, etc.). Your thumb will help you line up the syncopations.
Bossa chords tend to feature a colorful combination of open strings and fretted notes. Example 6 is based on an Am11 chord with the open first string ringing throughout bars 1 and 2. In measures 3 and 4, the chord is relocated to string set 2–4 for textural variety, and the bass line is all on string 6, which will help you get used to changing the bass line on movable closed-position chords later.
The harmony in the previous examples has been static, so now it’s time to start adding chord changes. This is where bossa nova patterns really start to sound magical, but it’s also where the most difficulty comes. One trick, as shown in Example 7, is to change chords not squarely on the downbeat but on the “and” of the previous beat. It might take a little work, but it will soon feel natural to anticipate a chord change in this way.
Once you’ve mastered Ex. 7, you’ll be ready to try the extra note in the surdo part with your thumb, while mixing in everything you’ve learned so far (Example 8). You might want to just stay on one chord for a while until you get the feel of the thumb bouncing to the next beat on the upbeat before the next root or fifth. After this pattern sinks in, feel free to improvise by putting it in and out anywhere you like, but be careful not to overuse it when playing with other instruments, as it can make the groove too busy.
In Example 9, the thumb resumes its easier role on beats 1 and 3, so that you can add some color to the tamborim part. The rhythm basically stays the same, but there’s a change in the first two beats—a pair of eighth notes on beat 1, and a single upbeat after 2 at the beginning. These kinds of figures can be improvised to add interest and build excitement, but again tend to sound too busy if they are overemployed. Feel free to experiment with other parts of the pattern while maintaining the balance of the style.
Bringing It All Together
I’ve written an étude that combines elements of all the previous patterns—see Example 10. The harmony is now teeming with common bossa nova chords: maj9s and 6/9s; extensions such as 11s, 13s, and b9s; and the classic 7#5.
This etude builds a bit in difficulty with each group of chords, and then relaxes near the end. A couple of spots to look out for: the Fmaj7 chord in bar 5 has an extra eighth note in the bass part, followed immediately by a syncopation to the Fm7 barre chord. Keep your first finger barred at the first fret for these two chords. Heads up on the C6/9-to-Cmaj9 change in bars 11–12, where you’ll need to add your fourth finger (on the fourth-fret B) to form the Cmaj9 chord.
I encourage you to let these moves seep into your playing. With just a handful of patterns, you will not only be able to play virtually any bossa nova song, you’ll have new rhythmic and harmonic vocabulary to enrich your playing—regardless of your preferred style.
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This article originally appeared in the November 2017 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.