Beginner guitar: lock down your rhythm playing with this lesson in basic note durations

Having taught countless private students over the years, I’ve found that, among many unschooled and do-it-yourself homeschooled guitarists, rhythm is an area commonly lacking in understanding and training.

This represents a potential developmental weakness that can seriously hinder one’s ability not only to solo in time, but on a more basic level, communicate and function effectively in a band situation, or read a transcription without having to rely on listening to the recording to figure out the phrasing. 

In any case, it is very beneficial to be able to conceptualize and internalize rhythmic structures and patterns in your head, or mind’s ear, and to be able to do so while playing your instrument and tapping your foot in an even, steady pattern, with the foot taps occurring either on every beat, every other beat or every third beat, depending on the song’s tempo and groove.

Most popular music is conceived in what’s called '4/4 meter,' also known as '4/4 time'

The first step in acquiring these skills is to learn how to verbally count rhythms, and a great way to do that is to learn how to read them on paper or a computer screen. For the sake of leaving no one behind, let’s start by covering the basic principles of rhythm and rhythmic notation. 

Some of you may already be familiar with this foundational material, which, by the way, is all based on elementary-school arithmetic and fractions, so please bear with me and consider it a worthwhile review.

Most popular music is conceived in what’s called “4/4 meter,” also known as “4/4 time,” as indicated in sheet music and Guitar World’s rhythmic tab notation by the visual symbol, or time signature, 4/4 (four four), appearing at the beginning of a piece of music. 

The top number, or numerator of the fraction, if you will, tells you how many beats there are in each measure, or bar, of music, in this case, four. So you would basically count one, two, three, four, one, two, three, four, etc, with a slight emphasis, or accent, on one, what’s known as the downbeat of the measure.

The bottom number, or denominator, of the time signature indicates what kind of rhythmic value is serving as the foundational beat, around which everything else is calibrated. The number 4 signifies that a quarter note receives one beat. So, in 4/4 meter, we have four quarter-note beats in each bar of music (see FIGURE 1).

(Image credit: Future)

A quarter note is indicated in rhythmic tab by a straight vertical line appearing directly below a tab number, or stack of tab numbers if it’s a chord. In standard sheet music, the vertical stem would be either below or above a solid (darkened) notehead, depending on its location in the staff.

As you know, 4/4 = 2/2 = 1. In 4/4 meter, these values all equal one complete bar of music, rhythmically. So you can have four quarter notes, each held for one beat, two half notes, each held for two beats (played on one and three) or one whole note (played on one and held for the full duration of the bar; see FIGURE 2).

In rhythmic tab, a tab number or stack of tab numbers enclosed in a circle or oval, with a vertical stem below it, indicates a half-note. A circled number or stack of numbers with no stem signifies a whole-note. In standard notation, a hollow notehead is used instead of a tab number.

in a bar of 4/4 meter, you can have several possible combinations of quarter notes and/or half notes - but they must always equal 1

Getting back to fractions, 2/4 = 1/2. Thus, two quarter notes equal one half note. Likewise, two half notes equal one whole note (2/2 = 1/1, or simply 1). To make a food analogy (my favorite kind!), picture a loaf of bread, fresh from the oven. 

Unsliced, it represents one bar of music in 4/4 time and the duration of a whole note. If you slice the loaf in half (like cell division), that represents two half notes. Slice each of those halves in half, and you will then have four quarters, or quarter notes. 

You could, of course, continue cutting the loaf many different ways and into slices of varying thickness, and dividing a bar of music into many smaller rhythmic values of varying duration. That is something we will explore in upcoming lessons.

Finally, in a bar of 4/4 meter, you can have several possible combinations of quarter notes and/or half notes that add up to four beats, as you cannot have a shortage or surplus of rhythmic values within a measure - they must always equal 1, or one whole note, per the 4/4 time signature.

Other possible permutations are:

  • A half note followed by two quarters (1/2 + 1/4 + 1/4 = 1; see FIGURE 3
  • Two quarter notes followed by a half note (1/4 + 1/4 + 1/2 = 1; see FIGURE 4)
  • Quarter, half, quarter (1/4 + 1/2 + 1/4 = 1; see FIGURE 5).

Senior Music Editor “Downtown” Jimmy Brown is an experienced, working musician, performer and private teacher in the greater NYC area whose personal and professional mission is to entertain, enlighten and inspire people with his guitar playing.

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Jimmy Brown

Over the past 30 years, Jimmy Brown has built a reputation as one of the world's finest music educators, through his work as a transcriber and Senior Music Editor for Guitar World magazine and Lessons Editor for its sister publication, Guitar Player. In addition to these roles, Jimmy is also a busy working musician, performing regularly in the greater New York City area. Jimmy earned a Bachelor of Music degree in Jazz Studies and Performance and Music Management from William Paterson University in 1989. He is also an experienced private guitar teacher and an accomplished writer.