How To Figure Out Rhythm Notation

One of the most common problems that new students come to me with is how to accurately play the rhythm notation written on a page.  Figuring them out by ear comes into play here too.  With a little knowledge and a few simple steps you can become the rhythmic groove dragon you’ve always dreamed of.  And don’t call your band Rhythmic Groove Dragon… That’s a horrible name.

Let’s get this little lesson on how to figure out rhythm notation started, shall we?

First let’s quickly recap the values of your musical notes.  See the picture below.  A whole note is worth 4 beats.  That simply you means you play the note and count to four.  Half notes are two beats.  Quarter notes are one beat.  Eighth notes are a half beat.  That means that one full beat contains two eighth notes.  Sixteenth notes are a quarter beat.  You’d then have four sixteenth notes inside one beat.  You’ll notice that we simply cut them in half each time.  So we can also go to 32nd and 64th notes.  We’ll just go to 16ths for this article though as the others are comparatively rare.

Rhythm Note Types with Count

Here’s a quick refresher on how to count 8th and 16th notes.  Eighth notes are counted 1 & 2 & 3 & 4 &. Each 8th notes should be evenly spaced.  16th notes are counted 1e&a 2e&a 3e&a 4e&a.  Again, they’re all evenly spaced.
Let’s figure out how to play the rhythm below.

Rhythm Notation Example 1

Follow these steps with any difficult rhythm you’re trying to figure out:
1.    Learn how to count the rhythm.  Just counting, not playing.
2.    Clap the rhythm.
3.    Play the rhythm on just one note or chord.
4.    Play the rhythm as written, with the correct notes.

The first thing you need to do is find where your downbeats (1,2,3,4) are.  You can do that by looking at the flag groupings of the notes. Looking at the below example, you’ll see there are four groupings of notes.  The first note in each group is the downbeat.

Now you can work on the rhythm for each beat individually and then string them together.

Let’s look at the first beat.  Two 8th notes.  Set your metronome to a medium, comfortable tempo. About 72 bpm for our example here. Clap straight 8th notes against the click.  The first note should come right on the click, the second exactly between the clicks.  Be sure to count out loud as your clapping/playing.

30 Day Guitar ChallengeHere’s a little rhythm game to help you get the hang of this if you’re having trouble.  Turn your metronome off for a second.  With your left hand tap out quarter notes and with your right hand tap out eighth notes.  The easiest way to think of it is your hands tapping together on the downbeat and your right hand tapping by itself on the upbeat (the “&”).  Count out loud as you’re doing it.  When you get it comfortable, switch hands. Quarters in the right and 8ths in the left.

Now turn your metronome back on and practice clapping eighth notes against it. Once you’re comfortable with that, practice clapping 16th notes against the click.  The first clap happening right on the click, the other three happening evenly spaced between the beat.  Count out loud – 1e&a, etc.

When you’re dealing with beats that combine 8th and 16th notes, figure out which 16th is left out. For instance, in the third beat of our example, you have the first 16th (3), then an 8th note, which combines two 16ths (e&), then the final 16th (a).  So that one will be like playing straight 16ths, but skipping the third one, the “&”.

The other three beats of our example will be based on these 16th notes, but leaving one out.  In the second beat which 16th is left out?  Remember, there are two 16ths in an 8th note.  So in this beat, we’re skipping the second 16th note.  Clap that rhythm (2-&a) with your metronome.

The third beat, as discussed before is missing the third 16th.  Clap that rhythm (3e-a) with your metronome.  Then do the fourth beat, which is missing the fourth 16th (4e&-).

Be sure to do each of them individually and loop it around a couple times.  In other words, take just beat two and repeat that against your metronome click. Then try doing groups of two beats, overlapping.  So, beats 1 and 2, then 2 and 3, then 3 and 4.  Finally try clapping out the whole measure.

Here’s an additional helpful tip.  You want to “accent” each downbeat.  That just means play/clap it louder than the other notes inside that beat.  This is what gives your music a pulse and it will help you stay in the groove better.  I also suggest you tap your foot along with the metronome click.  Just a little body movement can do wonders to help you lock in too.

At this point you should be able to clap the rhythm for that whole measure with the metronome click.  If you’re not there yet, don’t worry.  It can take a little practice.  Go back through the last few steps and do them again until you’re comfortable.

Next we’re going to play that rhythm on just a single note of your guitar.  Doesn’t matter which note.  You can also use a chord if you’d like.  But don’t try changing chords yet.  Just hang on one.  This helps you concentrate on your picking hand and not have to worry about your fretting hand yet.

First we have to make sure your picking direction is correct.  On guitar, your picking hand always moves down and up, alternating.  Down-up-down-up.  When we don’t need the note on a particular strum, we still make the movement, just without hitting any strings.

If you’re dealing with just 8th notes, you will pick down on the downbeat and up on the upbeat.  Easy enough to remember, right?  Incidentally, if you’re tapping your foot (which you should), your foot goes down on the downbeat and up on the upbeat.  A method to all this madness!

There are times when you’ll want to downstroke all the 8th notes, say in hard rock or metal, or in phrases that combine 8ths and 16ths like our example.  But learning them with double strokes first will help you feel the rhythm better.  Then it will be easier later to try them with all single strokes.

When we add 16th notes things change a little bit.  We still alternate, but now we’re putting four notes inside the beat.  1(down)-e(up)-&(down)-a(up).  You’ll see that now the “&” is a downstroke.

30 Day Guitar ChallengeIt’s very important to hit your notes with the correct direction of pick stroke for two reasons.  First, it helps you physically keep track of where you are in the beat.  As you practice the same movement consistently, you won’t have to think so much when you’re playing.  Second, especially when strumming chords, there is a slightly different sound between the down and upstrokes because of which strings they hit first.  Our ears expect this slight difference in sound and when it’s not there something sounds “not quite right”. In the past you may have noticed you’re playing the right rhythm, but it sounds off for some reason.  Usually it’s because the picking direction is wrong.

Let’s go through the example rhythm one beat at a time, the same as when we clapped it.  Beat one is just two 8th notes.  Turn your metronome on at the same tempo as before.  Play 8th notes on your note or chord just like you clapped them.  The first one hits on the click, the second one directly between.  You should use a downstroke on the first note and an upstroke on the second.  Down on the downbeat, up on the upbeat.

Because our example rhythm combines 8th and 16th notes, we’ll end up playing the 8th notes in beat one with all downstrokes.  We don’t want to have to switch mental gears halfway through a measure.  So we pick the whole measure thinking in terms of 16th notes.

So once you’re comfortable with double stroking the 8th notes, try doing both notes with downstrokes.  The rhythm should sound exactly the same as before.

Moving on to beat two, we have an 8th and two 16ths.  It’s counted 2-&a, missing the ‘e’. What’s the correct picking for this?  Down-down-up.  Try strumming this with your metronome click on.  Remember though these notes aren’t all the same length.  The 8th note is longer.  To get the hang of this, start by strumming all four 16th notes inside the beat. Then leave out the second one.  Even though you’re not playing the second 16th note, still do the upstroke.  Just don’t hit any strings.  Your picking hand becomes your own personal metronome constantly moving down and up, and hitting strings when needed.

As before, try looping the beat around a few times to learn how to feel the rhythm.

In beat three we have 16th-8th-16th.  So we’re missing the third 16th note.  What’s your correct picking?  Down-up-up.  Same as before, think 16ths and leave out the third one.  Make the move for the downstroke on the ‘&’ even though your not hitting any strings.

Same deal for the fourth beat.  Here we’re missing the fourth 16th note, so it will be down-up-down.
Do each beat individually, looping it a few times to feel the rhythm.  Each of those little bits becomes its own rhythm pattern in your repertoire and you’ll see the same ones time and again.

Like the clapping section, now take overlapping groups of two beats and strum the combination patterns.  Once you can do those, then try the whole measure.  Keep your tempo slow and make sure your 8th notes sound like 8th notes and 16ths sound like 16ths.

Let’s add a new wrinkle to the rhythm notation: a tie.  Take a look at the rhythm notation below.  It’s the same as our previous example except I’ve added a tie from the last note in beat two to the first note in beat three.  A tie “ties” the rhythms of the notes together.  They’re used for creating syncopated rhythms inside a measure and for holding notes past a bar line into the next measure.

Rhythm Notation Example 2 - Tie

In this example, the “a” of beat two ties into the downbeat of 3.  That means you won’t play that downbeat of three, but just let the previous note ring into it.  Then you’ll come in again on the next note, “e”.  Just like before, you’ll still make that downstroke motion on the downbeat of 3, just without it hitting the strings.

Whenever you’re trying a new rhythm that includes ties, try taking them out first and playing the rhythm as if they weren’t there.  Once you’ve got that, then it’s easy to “miss” the notes the ties affect.

Now that you can pick out the rhythm on one note or chord you’ll be able to bring your fretting hand into play much easier.  In whatever rhythm you might be working on, now’s the time to play it as written.  In our example rhythm, try looping the one measure rhythm and changing chords each measure.  Use your metronome, tap your foot, accent the downbeats, and keep your picking hand moving.

Despite what you may think, standard notation is designed to be as easy as possible to read quickly.  That’s why we’re still using it 400 years after it was invented.  You may run into some trouble when learning from transcriptions done by amateurs that don’t know the conventions of the notation.  So if something looks screwy or doesn’t seem to follow the rules, see if there’s a mistake in the notation.  Fixing that usually makes it easier to read.
In particular, there are two notation mistakes I regularly see in amateur notation:

–    Flag groupings including more than one beat.  Sometimes you’ll see two beats flagged together. While still technically correct, it makes it harder to grasp when you’re reading quickly.
–    Hiding the downbeat of beat 3.  The beginning of beat 3 should always be visible at the beginning of a flag group and not hidden inside a longer tied note or something (unless it’s a whole note). The obvious beat 3 gives a subtle visual “halfway point” in the measure.

Got some rhythm now?  By following these steps, you’ll be able to figure out any rhythm notation you run across.  Soon you’ll start to see the same rhythm patterns pop up over and over again.  The more of them you figure out and play, the less you’ll have to think when you’re sight reading them.  You’ll also find you’re able to figure out strum patterns by ear and create your own much more easily too!

If you have any questions on this stuff, leave a comment below and I’ll be happy to help.  If you want, create a video of you playing the rhythm you’re working on and link it here and I can check on your form and picking direction too.

Easy pentatonic scale tricks to play some crazy stuff with…

Get my guide to the “12 Parts of Playing Guitar You Need To Know” plus “The Perfect Practice Session” by sending out a quick tweet with the Tweet2Download button below.
12GuitarThingsPerfectPrac ..


How To Figure Out Rhythm Notation — 4 Comments

  1. I understand the method described for strumming, but I’m having trouble picking the individual notes. Strumming you miss the strums you don’t want, but how do you do that when not strumming?

    • Hi Scott… A couple things you can do here. At the beginning I have my students use that same “miss” technique with single note melodies too. It just happens on a smaller scale. The pick movement is the same – down/up – and you can make tiny missed strokes for the missing notes. As you get more comfortable interpreting rhythms you won’t have to do that as much.

      Another thing you can do is take just the rhythm of the melody you’re working on and strum that out on a single chord. That will help put the rhythm in your ear without having to worry about the notes themselves first. Once you have the rhythm figured out you can apply it to the notes themselves.

Leave a Reply

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