For a beginner guitarist, learning to play eighth notes can be a little confusing at first. But with a few quick little exercises you’ll be flying along with them in no time.
What’s an Eighth Note?
If you’ve already taken a look at my basic guitar rhythm primer, then you know that an eighth note gets half of a beat. If you haven’t read over that article yet, I encourage you to do so as we’ll be building off of it here.
Side note: A metronome will be a huge help in learning these quickly. There are lots of good smartphone apps available for free. Or you can check out the metronome I use.
So the big question is, what is half of a beat? One way to look at it is to look at how a metronome clicks. Many people think that the “beat” is the click itself. Really, we consider the beat to be the time between the clicks. That time can be divided up into smaller increments of time. If you play a note for just half of the time between clicks, that’s half of a beat.
You can see that we’re counting “one and two and three and four and”. The notes that have the numbers are matched to the click of your metronome. The “ands” fall exactly in between the clicks.
Another way to look at is to examine how your foot taps. When you tap your foot, it makes two movements, first down, then up. When your foot goes down, that the number (or the downbeat, as it’s called). When your foot moves up, that’s the “and” (or the upbeat).
Do the following action steps with your metronome set at a comfortable, not too fast setting. Between 60-80 beats per minute is usually good here.
Action Step: Tap your foot, trying to make the up and down movements even. While doing so, count “1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and”. Make sure the number goes on the downbeat and the “and” on the upbeat. Adding a little head bob in the same direction as your foot will help cement the feel even better.
Body movement in general really helps to keep a good rhythm. When you see us up on stage bobbing our heads and tapping our feet, it’s not just to look cool. We’re also keeping time with the drummer.
Action Step: Let’s do one more body movement trick. This is actually a drummer exercise, but really helps to get the feel for 8th notes. Set your guitar aside for a moment. What you’re going to do is, on your lap, tap out a quarter note rhythm with your left hand (1-2-3-4) and eighth notes with your right hand (1 & 2 & 3 & 4 &). Try it right now and then come back to reading.
Did you have a tough time with it? That’s totally normal. Here’s the trick to making it work easier. On the downbeats both of your hands should tap together. On the “and” just your right hand will tap. So it’s “together – alone – together – alone – together – alone”.
Once you’ve got the hang of that, switch hands so that you’re doing quarter notes with your right hand and eighth notes with your left.
Ok, now grab your guitar. When you pick eighth notes, you’ll follow the same “down-up” pattern that your foot does. It’s a downstroke on the downbeat and an upstroke on the upbeat.
Action Step: We’re going to play some eighth notes on just one note. Pick any note on any string. It doesn’t matter which one. You could do this with a chord if you like as well. Start your metronome and try playing some 8th notes just on that one note. Be sure that your pick downstroke and your down foot tap lock in with the click. The upstroke will come in between the clicks. Make them as even as possible. Both 8th notes should be even in length and volume.
You may have some coordination issues when you first try this. Don’t give up! Just keep your metronome slow and concentrate on hitting the click on the downbeat. You’ll have it down sooner than you think.
Last Action Step: Once you’re hitting the correctly on just one note, expand that out a little bit by playing a short chromatic melody on one string. For instance with fingers 1-2-3-4 on the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th frets.
You may also want to try playing 8th notes with all downstrokes. In some styles of music, like metal and hard rock, playing 8ths with all downstrokes will give the riff a more aggressive edge. You should learn how to do it both ways.
If you’re having any trouble with these exercises, leave a comment below and I’ll help as much as I can!
Learning guitar efficiently is as much about how you practice as what you practice. Click here to check out my best guitar practice strategy.
You’ll want to know how to read guitar notes too…
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