Getting Past ‘Up and Down’ – Part 2: “Turning Notes into Strokes”

Ages ago, in “Part 1” of Getting Past “Up and Down, you learned about sock puppets and the importance of keeping the “sock puppet saying no” motion going to ensure steady strumming. Doing so gives you an automatic metronome that helps you maintain a smooth and steady beat.

This becomes very important when you encounter more complicated rhythms, as you’ll soon see. But I’d like to take a moment to clue you in to something that will also help you immensely when it comes to playing rhythm – written music notation. Notes written in musical notation do double duty. They tell you which note to play and they also tell you how long any given note should last in terms of beats.

Tablature is certainly helpful, but usually only to a point. For example, take a moment and play this for me:

Example 1

You certainly can handle the notes themselves, but notes are only one part of music. Rhythm is another and it can be very important. How important? Well, suppose I tell you that the example you just played is the first line of the Christmas carol Joy to the World? Did you play it like that the first time? Or did you play it simply, giving each note a single beat? Quite a difference, no?

Since we’re truly only concerned with strumming (for now, anyway), you only have to concern yourself with reading the rhythm aspects of notation. We’ve a number of lessons here at Guitar Noise about this, like Timing is Everything. You might want to take a few moments to look that one over, particularly since it gets into counting and that’s right at the heart of what we’re discussing.

When you count out the beats of the song, you usually do so in terms of quarter notes. We did this in “Example 1” in Part 1, where you strummed down each quarter note like this:

Example 2

I’d like to take a moment now to introduce some of you to rhythm notation. Rhythm notation uses just the rhythm part of notation. Instead of writing all the notes of a chord out in notation, a simple slash is stuck at the end of a stem, like this:

Example 3

These are four quarter notes of the G chord, just as you saw in “Example 2” a few moments ago. It doesn’t matter in the slightest where on the staff, on whichever line or space, the slash appears. All you’re concerned with is that they are quarter notes. Many music books use rhythm notation without staffs, placing strumming notation above a lyric line.

We’ll use rhythm notation for our next few examples. I’m not going to bother putting a chord in the following examples so you should feel free to use whatever chord you’d like.

Getting back to our quick review of “Part 1,” you also read and saw how when you strum in quarter notes, you’re actually strumming in eighth notes when you take the upstrokes into account:

Example 4

So far, so good. Now how about if you want to play some more complicated rhythms, maybe something in the style of Jack Johnson, perhaps? He’s actually a great choice because most (if not all) of his music is available in books, which means you don’t have to guess how he strums things, it’s all written down for you!

You may be wondering how that is possible. After all, no one probably went and marked every downstroke or upstroke on the notation. And you’d be perfectly right about that. But if you take a moment and apply your brain, using the information you got in “Part 1,” you’d make some important discoveries.

Suppose you want to play a rhythm where the fastest notes are sixteenth notes? First, you have to think about strumming in eighth notes. Why? Because sixteenth notes are half the value of eighth notes, just like eighth notes are half the value of quarter notes. So if you were to strum a measure of eighth notes with all downstrokes, like this:

Example 5

That means you’d be strumming in sixteenth notes when you take the upstrokes into account, like this:

Example 6

Of course, more likely than not, you’re not going to be overly challenged by a rhythm that is either straight eighth notes or straight sixteenth notes. The fun comes when things get a little uneven, such as in strumming something like Jack Johnson’s song, Taylor. Here’s the riff that gets played pretty much throughout the song:

 Example 7

This looks kind of formidable unless you are able to see it and say, “Hey, that’s all sixteenth notes! Some of them have ties, but they are all sixteenth notes and I can do that!” First, chart all the notes out and ignore the ties. Since the two measures of this riff have the same rhythm, I’m going to just use the first one in the next two examples:

Example 8

Now, when a note is tied, that means you just play the first of the tied notes and not the second. That means that we miss whatever strum happens to fall on the second of the tied notes, like this:

Example 9

Instead of the rhythm and the strumming being a total mystery, you’ve got it down perfectly. Let’s try the whole riff:

Example 10

That wasn’t hard at all, was it? Not to figure out, anyway! Executing the strumming correctly will take a bit of practice, but nothing you aren’t capable of.

In the chorus sections of Taylor, a second acoustic guitar part comes in playing some open position chords while the first guitar is playing the riff we just worked out. Here is how the strumming of the second guitar looks in notation (rhythm notation this time):

Example 11

By the way, I’m going to use a regular open position G instead of the “G5” if that’s okay with you. I just like the sound of it better. Following the same process we just used for the first guitar part, we notice that there is a combination of eighth notes and sixteenth notes here. First, we want to just write out the count, and here’s something very interesting about that – It seems that many notation software programs, particularly those used in guitar books, usually separate out the groups of sixteenth notes or eight notes or dotted eighth and dotted sixteenth notes and what have you, in clusters of single beats. This makes writing out the count a lot easier, as you can see:

Example 12

Finally, just add in our upstrokes and downstrokes according to where they fall in the count and you’re good to go:

Example 13

You’ve gotten quite a bit to digest here, so we’ll save going into even more complicated rhythms for next time.

Until our next lesson…