Grace Notes

Being preoccupied with speed is not a great idea for any musician. Beginners especially often create a connection between rhythmic note values and tempos that doesn’t exist. For example, they’ll say eighth notes are “faster” than quarter notes, totally missing the idea that the eighth notes played at one tempo can actually be played at a slower pace than the quarter notes of a much quicker tempo.

The only place where speed actually means something is in the case of grace notes. In music notation, grace notes are smaller than regular notes and are often tied to the “regular” note that comes after it, like this:

Grace Note

You want to think of grace notes as “oops!” notes. It’s a note that you hit and then immediately replace with a second note – as if you didn’t mean to hit it in the first place and then changed to the “right” note almost instantaneously.

Grace notes don’t have a rhythmic value, as such. It’s the following note that has the full rhythmic count of whatever note it happens to be. In the first illustration, the grace note is the note of the open A string and the B note is a whole note. If you were counting this aloud, you’d hit the open A string as you begin to say “one” but before you finish saying “one,” you want to be on that B.

In other words, grace notes should be played faster than any other rhythmic note. For the following examples, I tried to keep the tempo the same throughout. Each example starts with me counting out the beat then I play a measure of the rhythmic note in question (quarter notes, eighth notes, triplets and sixteenth notes) and then a measure where each beat has an accompanying grace note. Here are quarter notes:

Example 1

You can hear how the quarter notes are played right on the beat – the “one, two, three, four” when one counts to the beat. In the second measure, the grace notes precede each quarter note. The full quarter note occurs as quickly as possible, usually still falling on the beat.

Now let’s try eighth notes:

Example 2

And now triplets:

Example 3
Example 3 continued

And, finally, sixteenth notes:

Example 4
Example 4 continued

Two things to keep in mind about grace notes: First, when playing songs at truly fast tempos, the differences between grace notes and sixteenth notes can become blurred, but you still have to try to make them sound different.

Second, and more to the point, many students trying out slurs (hammer-ons, pull-offs, slides and bends) for the first time will often play all slurs as grace notes and that may not be what’s supposed to happen. This is one reason why being able to hear and count out rhythms (not to mention to be able to read them) can be very helpful to you.