Basics of Rhythm and Time Signatures

As we continue with our beginner guitar lessons, we will now concentrate a bit on one of the most important elements of music: rhythm. This rhythm guitar lesson will focus on how music is counted. When you hear a song you like on the radio, you tap your foot or snap your fingers to the beat. Normally, your toe-tap or finger-snap will fall on an emphasis or a pulse in the rhythm.

Have you ever tried counting along to the beat? You may notice that different songs place the pulse on different beats, or that some songs have a different number of beats in between pulses than others.

That is because different songs often have different “meters.” The meter of a song relates to the number of beats in each measure. For example, a song in “4/4 time” has four beats in each measure, whereas the measures of a song in “3/4 time” each have three beats.

As you learn how to play rhythm guitar, you will see that the vast majority of music in this world is in 4/4 time. Musicians pronounce it “four four,” or they might call it “common time,” and it is written like this:

Or, occasionally like this:

The “4” on the top, as we have seen, tells you how many beats are in each measure, while the “4” on the bottom tells you that each beat is a quarter note. Therefore, each measure of this song has four quarter-notes in it, like this:

Now, if you know your math, you will know that four quarters is equal to two halves, and that two halves is equal to one whole. The same is true in music:

In our beginner guitar lessons, we will see that the same concept applies to songs in 3/4, or “three four,” time, except that the divisions aren’t quite as neat and tidy when you start using half-notes. That’s because there are three quarter-notes per measure, so there can only be one half-note along with the equivalent of a quarter-note per measure:

Even if you plan to be the next Jimi Hendrix, you will need to know how to play rhythm guitar. That is because, in order to be an effective lead guitarist, you must know how to follow a rhythm. So, every lesson will, in some sense, be a rhythm guitar lesson.

Here are some examples of other time signatures. The ones at the top are more common than the ones below.

These last two meters, 5/4 and 7/4 time, are a bit more difficult to count and are used far less often than the others, but you will see them again during your musical career outside of these online guitar lessons. Occasionally, some Asian or Eastern European music will have much more complex meters with eleven or even thirteen beats per measure. Some jazz artists who know very well how to play rhythm guitar in complex meters, will venture into elaborate rhythms, like this, but these meters are very rare in western music, and so we will not be dealing with them during our beginner guitar lessons

Simple Rhythms

Now, let’s continue our rhythm guitar lesson by discussing how these beats are counted.

When we’re looking at a measure of four quarter-notes, we count those beats simply as “1, 2, 3, 4.” Each of those counts falls directly on the beats they are counting:

But if we have two half-notes in each measure of 4/4, we count them like this:

That is, we count only the beats that the notes fall on, while keeping track of the silent notes. So we count whole-notes like this:

If we mix quarter and half-notes, it will count something like this:

Simple, isn’t it? If the rhythms in these beginner guitar lessons were as complex as rhythm got, music would be very easy to play. And very boring. Fortunately for us, music gets much more interesting than this, which you will see as you learn how to play rhythm guitar. Those quarter-notes we just looked at divide into eighth-notes, which divide again into sixteenth-notes, then thirty-second and then sixty-fourth-notes.

It sounds complicated, and it certainly can be, but, for this part of our rhythm guitar lesson, we will concentrate only on the eighth-notes.

Now, if a measure has four quarter-notes in it, can you guess how many eighth-notes it will have? If you said eight, you’re right, and they look like this:

So now you’re wondering how these are counted. It’s simple. Just add “and” in between each number. Like this:

It starts to get tricky when we mix the eight-notes with quarter-notes and half-notes:

It’s very important during beginner guitar lessons to learn how to read rhythm, because even if you decide that you will only play chord charts or tablature, it is very likely that you will see rhythm notation applied to those same chord charts and tablature. Even the most basic guitar chords can still be played against very complex rhythms.

Here is an example of the type of thing you might encounter:

For this introductory rhythm guitar lesson, this is going to be the most complex rhythm we will look at. In future lessons, however, as you get more familiar with how to play rhythm guitar, we will get more in-depth.