Quarter Note Triplets

Not all triplets are created equal! When beginners are first introduced to triplets, they are usually taught about eighth note triplets, where each note of the triplet is played for one third of a beat. In other words, the three notes of the “regular” triplet divide a single beat evenly into thirds, like this:

Regular Triplets

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If you’d like to take a moment to review how triplets compare to eighth notes and sixteenth notes, you probably would find the Guitar Noise Podcast # 3 very helpful as the first ten minutes of the Podcast does a helpful demonstration of these three measures of rhythm. Since you’ll be needing each of these types of notes to help you gain an understanding of quarter note triplets, it might be a good idea to go over them with the assistance of this Podcast.

Once you’ve got a handle on “regular” triplets, it’s time to learn about quarter note triplets. And we’re going to use an example from the White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army” to help demonstrate how these work:

Quarter Note Triplets from Seven Nation Army

This example is in 4/4 timing. The first note is a dotted quarter note, which gets one-and-a-half beats, while the second note, being an eighth note, gets a half-beat. The total rhythmic value of these two notes is therefore two beats.

The last three notes, at first glance, are quarter notes, which would be problematic in that we would be looking at a total of five beats in the first measure, a measure that should have only four beats in it since it is in 4/4 time. Looking closer, though, you should see a little bracket over these three quarter notes and a number “3” imbedded in that bracket. This indicates that these three notes make up a quarter note triplet, which means that these three notes are supposed to be evenly spread out among these last two beats of the measure.

That may sound simple enough (although I’m certain to many of you it doesn’t sound simple in the least), but how do we go about making this happen? Counting out a triplet over two beats isn’t at all easy, even for seasoned players. So we’re going to “cheat” for a moment and make it simpler to count by pretending the song was written in 2/4 time, like this:

Quarter Note Triplets counting 2/4 time

To change 4 / 4 time to 2/4 time, essentially we’re cutting all the note values in half. Quarter notes now become eighth notes while eighth notes become sixteenth notes. A dotted quarter note will become a dotted eighth note. And, most importantly for us, a quarter note will become a “regular” triplet. At least for the duration of this example.

The purpose for doing this is to make it easier to count and to get the rhythm into your head. Most people count sixteenth notes like this: “One, ee, and, ah, two, ee, and, ah…” and triplets are counted “one and ah two and ah…” So we’re going to combine these two and make this measure of two beats go “One, ee, and, ah, two and ah.”

The most important part of this is to make the triplet a triplet, spreading the three notes evenly across the beat, and not turning it into a set of three sixteenth notes with a sixteenth note rest attached. Again, if you’ve listened to the first third of Guitar Noise Podcast 3, you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about.

You can help yourself here by tapping out the beats with your foot, slow and steady. When you are comfortable, pick a four syllable word and say it evenly across the beat. “Alligator” works nicely if you’re stuck for one! Say that for a few beats and then start saying a three syllable word (“elephant” might be appropriate, given the song in question), again making sure that the three syllables are evenly spaced in the beat.

When you’re good with the counting, you can put it all back together, first in 2/4 and then back in 4/4, as done in this example:

Putting triplets together

You’ll notice that when going back to 4/4 timing, I draw out the triplet on the third beat when counting it aloud. It’s not at all easy to count out even beats while playing quarter note triplets, so I think you may find this method a little easier. And, since this rhythm figure is very much the heartbeat of Seven Nation Army, it goes without saying that you want to work it into your head and fingers so that you can play it effortlessly. Don’t skimp on the practice and, whatever way you choose to count out the beats and rhythms, don’t be shy about counting out loud. It can, and does, help quite a bit.

Quarter note triplets are a staple of soloing and you will also find them used in rhythms of songs from all genres. Our lesson on Moondance, for example, involves quarter note triplets in the last phrase of each of the song’s verses.