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Bolster your rhythmic arsenal by learning how to cycle dotted-quarter syncopations

Last time, we looked at a couple of famous songs that feature exciting rhythmic syncopations created by chaining together dotted-quarter accents in 4/4 meter (“1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and 1 and 2 and 3, 4”), namely the ending of Good Times Roll by the Cars and the chorus to I’ve Done Everything for You, which was written and first recorded by Sammy Hagar and later covered by Rick Springfield. 

Another well-known example can be found in the intro to Suffragette City by David Bowie.

I’d now like to show you a musically dramatic way to keep this dotted-quarter syncopation going until it comes full circle and has you landing on beat 1 again. To demonstrate, I’ll simply strum an E7#9 chord every one and one half beats (see Figure 1).

(Image credit: Future)

It’s interesting to note that, when you play this revolving accent pattern in 4/4 meter, it takes three full bars for it to resolve back to beat 1. I had learned this three-bar pattern back in music college, and at the time I found it very challenging and tricky to play while keeping track of the beats and bars in my head without getting lost rhythmically.

But, as always, I found it very helpful to count the beats and subdivisions out loud while tapping my foot squarely on each beat, as I’m doing here. 

This dotted-quarter accent pattern serves as a highly beneficial rhythmic training exercise, as its uneven length - one and one half beats - causes it to shift to every possible metric permutation in a bar of 4/4, so that at some point every eighth note is accented. As such, it will help you master eighth-note syncopations.

Looking at the tabs for Figure 1, you’ll see that in some places I’ve broken out, or factored, the dotted quarter rhythm into an eighth note tied to a quarter note, specifically when crossing over a bar line, so as to abide by one of the strictest laws of music notation. 

I've always found it very helpful to count the beats and subdivisions out loud while tapping my foot squarely on each beat

I’ve also done this whenever crossing from beat 2 to beat 3, for the sake of showing a break in the middle of the measure, which I think is visually very helpful for sight-reading.

Getting back to the accent pattern, notice how suspenseful, trippy and floaty it sounds, while still being tightly grounded to the underlying eighth-note pulse - “controlled chaos,” if you will. By the way, many drummers and percussionists love this kind of tension-building rhythmic motif.

An alternative way to convey the same accent pattern that can be equally appealing and useful in certain musical situations would be to play each chord staccato, with a “hole of silence” after it. Play Figure 1 again, but this time loosening your fret hand grip on the strings immediately after each strum, so that the chord stops ringing.

Another cool-sounding variation is to employ the highly popular and widely used “rhythm-within-a-rhythm” scheme that we looked at in the previous lesson, for which I had cited the intro to Stacy’s Mom by Fountains of Wayne and the arpeggiated ending of Good Times Roll as examples.

(Image credit: Future)

Figure 2 demonstrates how this approach can be applied to our dotted-quarter accent chain from FIGURE 1, now with open low E notes filling in every eighth note between the chord stabs, which, as you can see, fall on every third eighth note. 

For added contrast and bite here, strum the chords with upstrokes and pick the single notes with palm-muted downstrokes.

What we have now is an implied dotted-quarter rhythm, via an accent pattern that’s built into, or on top of, a continuous stream of eighth notes, which is a very drummer-like thing to do.

You can sculpt two additional and cool-sounding phrasing variations from this pattern by eliminating either the first or second eighth note after each chord stab and replacing it with a rest (see video lesson for a demonstration).

Things get even more interesting when you combine this revolving dotted-quarter syncopation with chord changes, as demonstrated with the angular, AC/DC-inspired open power chord riff shown in Figure 3.

(Image credit: Future)

Finally, a tricky-sounding variation on this last idea would be to loop only three chords - for example, E, G5 and D - with the dotted-quarter accent pattern. You’ll find that it will now take you nine bars to come full circle and have your initial E chord land on beat 1 again, which is a very prog-rock and Tool-like thing to do.