An Introduction Rhythmic Notation

By Jason Wilford

Quite often I see a lot of confusion amongst guitarists when it comes to reading rhythmic notation. Rhythm is the foundation of great guitar playing (yes, even for lead guitar), and without understanding how to divide beats properly we become seriously disadvantaged when it comes to getting ahead as a guitar player. On the surface, understanding rhythmic notation seems really hard, and that puts many people off learning how to read it. I’ve heard all the excuses in the book: ‘it’s so complicated and I just want to have fun’ – ‘it’s too boring to work on’ – ‘I’m not a rocket scientist, I can’t read that!’. I was actually in the same boat at one point in my life; for years I walked around thinking that it would be ‘too hard to learn how to read music’, and that thought seriously delayed my goal of going to music college and having a career in music. Had I only understood in my younger years how easy it actually was, I would have mastered it so much earlier!

This lesson is actually going to be easier than fully learning how to read music on the guitar; we’re going to focus solely on learning how to read just the rhythm, and nothing else. Trust me when I say that this makes things way easier than trying to learn how to read the notes at the same time as the rhythms.

For this article I am solely focusing on only five note values: whole notes, half notes, quarter notes, eighth notes, and sixteenth notes. Next month I will go deeper into this and give you an even better understanding of note division, but for now these five divisions should be more than enough to take in, especially if you’re just learning this concept.

I will play each example and post the audio below so you can listen to each note value being played in time after I explain it. Try to play along with each example by just playing the open B string (2nd string).

I won’t go too deep into theory, but as a basis for this lesson I want you to accept that a lot of western music is played in what we call 4/4 time. If you don’t know what that is, just take my word for it when I say that it means there are four (4) beats in each ‘measure’ of music. A measure of music helps us divide songs up so that we don’t get lost when we’re playing. If there were no measures, it would be very hard to figure out where you are in a long piece of sheet music. Have you ever tapped your foot along to a song? Have you ever caught yourself counting 1,2,3,4? Well that’s 4/4 time. Four complete beats in one measure.

This is where my explanation of a whole note will start. Since the standard time signature in western music is 4/4 time (four beats in one measure), the term whole note actually refers to a note that is the length of an entire measure. An entire measure in 4/4 time consists of four (4) beats; therefore a whole note is a note that lasts for four (4) beats. Play your open B string (2nd string) and count to 4 as it rings out. Tad-a – a whole note! Listen to the recording below to hear how a whole note sounds in time.

The next note division we will take a look at is a half note. We are still working from our basis that a measure of music in 4/4 time is four (4) beats long, and a note that lasts the entire measure is called a whole note. Naturally, the name half note suggests that it should last half as long as a whole note, right? Bingo. A half note therefore equals two beats in length. Two half notes fill up one measure. Check out the audio example below to hear a half note in time.

Still following me? Good. The next note division is a quarter note. If you’ve understood everything up to this point, this should be easy for you now. A quarter note is equal to one quarter of a measure. If you remember from before, a measure in 4/4 time is equal to four (4) beats, therefore a quarter note is equal to one (1) beat. Take a listen to hear how a quarter note is played in time.

From here things get a little more tricky, mostly because of the speed. Now that we have divided as far as a quarter note (which equals one beat), we can start dividing that beat even further. An eighth note is equal to 1/8 of a measure. We can also look at it as being half the value of a quarter note, or half of one beat. Here comes the tricky part I was talking about: as we keep time, we need to divide the existing single beat in half to play eighth notes. The is hard because there is nothing counting to tell us where it is – we need to imagine it and divide the note properly in our heads to keep on time. Definitely tricky to do when you first try it by yourself with a metronome. The most important thing is to keep practicing this division until you get it. Take a listen to an eighth note in action:

The final note division we will look at today is a sixteenth note. This is the hardest so far because it is equal to 1/16 of a measure. Or we can look at it as dividing a single beat (a quarter note, remember?) into four (4) equal notes. We have to imagine how to divide that single beat into four equal parts and still keep time! Just like eighth notes, this takes lots of practice, but take a listen to me playing sixteenth notes below so you can get a feel for the sound of it.

Depending on where you’re at in your guitar playing, learning note divisions may feel like something that’s really easy to understand and play, or it might feel like you just hit a brick wall and will never be able to get this. Don’t worry! You’re going to get it – you just need a little practice. Put a metronome on 60bpm every day and practice each of these note divisions to get them flowing through you. Slowly but surely you will get better, but if you don’t practice them, you are pretty much giving up before you start. A really important tip: use alternate picking for anything faster than a quarter note (e.g. eighth notes & sixteenth notes). Work hard at this and you’ll be surprised at how fast this can help you become a great rhythm player in all areas of your guitar playing. Believe me when I say that one day a sixteenth note will come out of you without having to think about it!

About the Author:

Jason Wilford is the founder and owner of Pro Guitar Studio, which offers Guitar Lessons in Oakville (Ontario, Canada).