Video Lesson: Learn to Feel and Play Triplets

They say good things come in threes. Musical expressions are no exception to this rule.

THE PROBLEM

You want to enhance your strumming, solos, and compositions by adding triplets—an essential rhythmic expression in music—but don’t know where to begin.

THE SOLUTION

Work through your picking technique and feel using single notes as well as chords, before playing some familiar examples.

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They say good things come in threes. Musical expressions are no exception to this rule. Triplets hold great sonic potential in cultivating feel and exciting lead lines. Eighth-note triplets are three notes occurring on a single beat, while quarter-note triplets are three quarter notes sounding over two beats in common time. 

When playing through this lesson, as a general rule remember to execute triplets using alternate picking (a downstroke, upstroke, and downstroke), or, if you’re playing fingerstyle, your thumb (p), index (i), and middle fingers (m). You want to feel the strong-weak-weak rhythmic signature pattern typical of sounding a triplet.  

Start with Single Notes

Try Example 1, a single-note line using triplets. Pay attention to the details and place more emphasis on the first note, as creating steady triplets (counted trip-uh-let, etc.) depends in large part on your ability to feel the strong-weak-weak pulse of each beat. You want to create solid triplets that can add contrast to more often-played eighth, quarter, and 16th notes. 

Once you feel that you can play balanced triplets both rhythmically and melodically, move on to Example 2, which develops the concept further by incorporating triplet riff lines between chords. Make sure to practice the transition from chord to triplet in order to develop fluid movement between single notes and chords. Try applying this pattern while developing an interplay between chords and riffs.

Focus on Chord Progressions

Now, let’s focus on creating balanced triplets while strumming chords. In Example 3, play the A minor chord using eighth-note triplets, followed by a G chord in a pair of eighths, then a quarter note. Notice the contrast between these rhythms. The concept is extended to a longer chord progression in Example 4. In measure 1, the G chord on the “and” of beat 2 is tied to a triplet on beat 3. Make sure to strum only the second two chords on that beat, as well as beat 4.   

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Once you’re comfortable using triplets with single notes and chords, move on to arpeggiate a chord progression (Example 5). Again, pay attention to the articulation of each note and strive for fluid movement between chord shapes. Make sure to experiment with your own favorite progressions using this approach.

Explore Quarter-Note Triplets

Thus far we have looked at eighth-note triplets, or three notes occurring on a single beat. Quarter-note triplets use the same concept, but with three notes sounding over two beats. Example 6a showswhat quarter-note triplets look like in notation, while Example 6b illustrates how breaking things down into eighth-note triplets with ties can make it easier to count quarter-note triplets.

In a quarter-note triplet, you want to exaggerate the feel and accent each note for full effect still using a strong-weak-weak pattern, with emphasis on the first note. Keep this in mind as you play Example 7a, containing D and A minor chords strummed in quarter-note triplets. Example 7b extends the concept by using a combination of single and chordal textures, as well as mixed note values, and Example 8 mixes things up with a fresh chord progression. 

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Once you’re familiar with the basics of triplets, try adding them in your solo lines, chording, and compositions. Triplets have the potential to add both tension and an element of surprise to your playing that can spice up your overall performance.

This article originally appeared in the  September/October 2019 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.

Jeff Gunn
Jeff Gunn

Jeff Gunn is author of the Hidden Sounds: Discover Your Own Method on Guitar series. He is the musical director of Emmanuel Jal.

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