“The most exciting rhythms seem unexpected and complex, the most beautiful melodies simple and inevitable.” - W.H. Auden
Almost everyone in the UK likes music in some way or another. If listening to music can make you feel better, imagine how much better playing it will make you feel!
In order play the guitar, you have to play the right notes with the right timing.
Do you know the difference between binary and ternary rhythms?
Don't worry if you don't. You'll find the answer in this article!
So What is Rhythm on the Guitar?
Keep in mind that rhythm is present in every style of music, even in styles of music that don't have a drumbeat.
Regardless of whether you're playing rock, folk, or jazz, you're going to need to understand the basics of rhythm.
To put it simply, rhythm is the duration of each note played and the rests between them. Rhythm is all about timing. If you really want to understand rhythm, you need to know about note value:
- Semibreve = 4 beats
- Minim = 2 beats
- Crotchet = 1 beat
- Quaver = 1/2 beat
- Semiquaver = 1/4 beat
- Demisemiquaver = 1/8 beat
- Hemidemisemiquaver = 1/16 beat
Rhythms are created by playing notes at different times for different lengths of time. In music, you can use a metronome to help keep you in time. In music, the rhythm is just how time is divided up.
In western music, notes are often divisible by one another, meaning that notes are regular fractions of other notes.
- A semibreve = two minims
- A minim = two crotchets
- A crotchet = two quavers
- A quaver = two semiquavers
- A semiquaver = two demisemiquavers
- A demisemiquaver = two hemidemisemiquavers
However, you also need to think about the time signature. For example, a crotchet doesn't technically have the same value in a ternary rhythm as it does in a binary rhythm.
The Basics of Understanding Rhythm on the Guitar
To really understand how to play the guitar, you'll need to understand certain aspects of music theory.
Including the role of measures, for example. All music is made up of measures.
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In fact, every piece of music is broken down into measures, like paragraphs in a book. You can recognise them as the vertical lines in sheet music.
While this isn't always the case, in most cases, the measures are indicated throughout the entire piece of music.
Measures help you find your place in a piece of music. It's much easier to find your place in a 7-minute long song by saying "let's go back to the 17th measure" rather than " let's go back to the sixth page, third line, 16th note", for example.
Measures also serve a rhythmic function. In fact, the duration of every measure is exactly the same. For example, in a measure with four beats, you'll have to count from 1 to 4 before the measure is over. After that, a new measure begins.
Learn some of our favourite guitar rhythms.
Binary Rhythm on the Guitar
Binary means two. This means that binary rhythms are divisible by two. Binary rhythms are used in almost all the music you'll hear on the radio including pop music, rock, folk, funk, reggae, etc.
If you see 2/4 or 4/4, you know it's a binary rhythm.
The second number, the denominator, indicates which note value represents a beat and the first number, the numerator, indicates how many beats there are in a bar or measure.
Therefore, 4/4 time is made up of four quarter notes. The accented notes usually occur on the first and third beats and are played by the bass drum whereas the second and fourth beats are played by the snare drum.
How to Spot a Binary Rhythm in a Song
Given that most songs are in a binary rhythm, it should be pretty easy to find them. Listen to the music and, by using your hands, feet, or head, tap or nod along to the beat. Listening to the drums can also help.
Count along with the drumbeat until you hear that first accented beat again. If you count a multiple of two, you’ve probably got a binary rhythm.
Examples of Songs with Binary Rhythms
- Jimi Hendrix - Hey Joe
- Santana - Europa
- Dire Straits - Money for Nothing
- Lynyrd Skynyrd - Sweet Home Alabama
There are plenty of others for both the electric and acoustic guitar. You can also listen to Eric Clapton, the Rolling Stones, and Led Zeppelin.
Playing a Binary Rhythm on the Guitar
There are plenty of ways to play binary rhythms on the guitar.
By dividing notes into two, you’ll still have a binary rhythm:
- Play a semibreve. This means playing a note once per measure.
- Play two minims. You should play both as down strokes. These will be the first and third beats in a measure.
- To play a note on every beat, you'll play a crotchet. In standard time, a measure is made up of four crotchets. Again, play every note as a downstroke.
- To play quavers, you'll also play on the offbeats. Instead of counting "one, two, three, four", you'll count "one, and, two, and, three, and, for, and".
When you play quavers, you should use both up and down strokes. To play even more quickly, you can play semiquavers. There are 16 semiquavers in a measure in standard time. You can count semiquavers in a measure by going: "1, e, and, a, 2, e, and, a, 3, e, and, a, 4, e, and, a,”.
Ternary Rhythm on the Guitar
Ternary means three. To play ternary rhythm, measures need to be divisible by three.
For example, a time signature with three quavers the measure.
Common ternary rhythms include 3/8, 6/8, or even 3/4. Often, but not always, the result of these fractions will give you a decimal result rather than an integer.
The numerator will always be a multiple of three. Remember that the numerator indicates how many beats there are in the measure.
Binary rhythms tend to give a more rigid impression where ternary rhythms have more sway. Ternary rhythms are almost always used in jazz and blues.
How to Spot a Ternary Rhythm
Just like with the binary rhythms, you'll need to work out the accented beats, which are often the first beats in a bar.
You can count along with your hand, foot, or head. Ternary rhythms are far more common in jazz and blues music than they are in rock music, for example.
Once you've found the beat, try to count how many there are in a bar. You'll quickly see that there are multiples of three.
Find out why you should study rhythm.
Songs in a Ternary Rhythm
- Sweet Home Chicago
- ZZ Top - La Grange
- Toto - Hold the Line
- The Police - Walking on the Moon
- The Beatles - Love Me Do
Playing a Ternary Rhythm on the Guitar
In order to play ternary rhythms, you'll have to count differently: “1, and, a, 2, and, a, 3, and, a, 4, and, a”. This gives you a more swaying rhythm.
There are a few ways to play ternary rhythms with a plectrum:
- Down, down, down.
- Down, up, down.
- Down, down, up.
- Down, up, up.
In music, groups of three notes together are known as triplets when used in binary rhythms. Similarly, two notes can appear together in ternary rhythms.
Additionally, blues music uses a lot of swing. This is where the beat is played on time but the and the other two notes in the triplet are played in a quick succession. This gives you a more swaying rhythm.
In blues and jazz, you can also get groups of six notes together. Whatever you want the play, make sure you take the time to break down the rhythm and play it correctly.
Good luck, you can do it!
If you're still finding strumming patterns and chord progressions tricky, consider getting guitar lessons from another guitarist or guitar teacher. Private guitar tutors can help beginners, intermediates, and experts to get better at playing guitar. Whether you want to play lead or rhythm guitar, they can tailor their tutorials to how and why you want to learn guitar.
If you want to strum along to your favourite guitar songs, they can focus on finger placement, how to read tablature, and barre chords and power chords, for example.
If you're interested in becoming a great guitar player, you'll still start with guitar lessons for beginners but you'll learn how to play guitar and the theory behind each chord progression, how riffs are put together, good habits to improve your guitar playing, and about different types music.
You just need to find the right tutor for the guitar techniques you want to master. If you want to learn about rock guitar, don't go for a tutor specialising in blues guitar, for example!