The subject of time signatures has plenty of scope for confusion and for this reason I try to get my students to think more in terms of what is called “˜feel’. This is perhaps more easily learnt by spending time programming drum patterns than by playing guitar, but here are some tips about how to identify and play these different rhythmic feels.
A piece of music in 4/4 time (meaning four beats to the bar) may commonly be expressed in a straight eighth feel, a syncopated feel, a 12/8 feel, or a 16-beat feel.
Straight Eighth Feel
Each note is kept to exactly the same length in straight eighth feel. The result can be verbalised like this:
“One and two and three and four and”
It is normally best played with all down strokes.
A shuffle pattern is often applied to this in blues, R&B and rock music, emphasising the backbeats (beats 2 and 4 – also called snare beats as they are commonly picked out by the snare drum):
“One and two and three and four and”
On rhythm guitar this is often reinforced by adding the sixth note of the scale to a power chord like this:
This is the one I find people need the most help with. First of all I recommend forgetting the number 12 – it’s just too big a number to count. Counting “One two three four five six seven eight nine ten eleven twelve” every bar is likely to just result in you spitting all over the front row of your audience as you play!
Better to go back to the description of straight eighths and instead of dividing each of the four main beats into two equal halves, divide them into three equal thirds. This is best verbalised:
“One-and-a two-and-a three-and-a four-and-a”
And should, except at really fast tempo, be played with all down strokes to keep it smooth.
It is the staple rhythmic diet of slow blues (Jimi Hendrix‘ “Red House”), some soul and gospel (Sam Cooke “Bring it on Home”) and 8-bar country blues like “Key to the Highway” by Big Bill Broonzy.
There is a great deal of discussion about exactly what constitutes a swing feel but, in the simplest of terms, swing rhythm differs from straight time by making the first of each pair of notes slightly longer at the expense of the second.
Strangely enough, this is done through triplets, like those you counted out in the 12/8 feel. But instead of playing all three notes of the triplet, you just play the first and last notes of each set. Swing, in its simplest form, can be verbalised like this:
“One a-two a-three a-four a-”
It is almost always better to play swing rhythms with alternating strokes:
Down up-Down up-Down up-Down up-
Most commonly found in funk, jazz, disco and heavy rock, the sixteen beat feel is probably the last of these four feels to try and master.
Again, the notes are all of even duration. This time each of the main four beats are subdivided into four lesser beats. As with the advice on the 12/8 feel, don’t try counting from 1 – 16! Better to think of it as:
“One-e-and-a two-e-and-a three-e-and-a four-e-and-a”
And play it with a nice free right hand, strumming evenly, strictly alternating up and down strokes.
We have barely scratched the surface with this article, but I hope it will inspire guitar players to look deeper into this aspect of their playing. A great way to expand your understanding is simply to try to figure out which of these four categories the music you are listening to falls into. There are, of course, other time signatures, feels and many sub-varieties of those listed above; but you may be surprised just how many popular songs have rhythms that fall into one of these four basic categories of rhythmic feel.
The author welcomes feedback from guitarists and teachers alike. You’ll find more such articles plus loads of other free resources for guitar teaching on www.teachguitar.com