Guitar Rhythm and Techniques For Dummies
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Playing triplets on the guitar is a good way to add variety to your music. When you divide a quarter-note beat into two equal parts, it’s called an eighth note. When you divide a beat into three equal parts, it’s called an eighth-note triplet. A triplet is considered an irregular rhythm because its metric value is an odd number, as opposed to regular rhythms like eighths and sixteenths, which subdivide evenly.

Playing triplets is a little tricky at first because it feels as though the music has changed tempos and/or time signatures, but when you get a sense of the triplet’s oddness (pun intended), you find that the irregular rhythm is actually a regular player in music.

You see triplets used below. Like eighth notes, they have flags and are connected with beams, but triplets will always have a number 3 above them and often a bracket as well.

Triplet example 1.
Triplet example 1.

Triplets are counted in one of three ways:

  • Use the two syllables in the word triplet together with the beat number. For example, “1 trip-let, 2 trip-let, 3 trip-let, 4 trip-let.” You count this example “1, 2, 3, 4 trip-let.”

  • Count 1 and a. This example can also be counted “1, 2, 3, 4 and a” or “1, 2, 3, 4 & a.”

  • Simply use 123. The example above can also be counted “1, 2, 3, 123.”

Transitioning from quarter notes to eighth-note triplets is not simply a matter of doubling your rate; it’s a matter of increasing your rate from one that is even-based to one that is odd-based. As a result, there isn’t always a way to neatly arrange the downstrokes and upstrokes you use while strumming. When you get to the triplet group at the end of each measure, you strum it either “DUD” or “DDD.” You can try it both ways for now.

Notice that when you strum “DUD,” you need to make an adjustment when you begin the next measure, a quick change back to a downstroke. Another option is to play beat one of the next measure with an upstroke, and then get yourself turned around straight to play beat two with a downstroke.

Perhaps the most universally recognizable example of using triplets is heard in the main theme to Star Wars. Tap it out right now from memory, and you’ll understand. Triplets are also featured in the 20th Century Fox fanfare you hear at the beginning of many films.

Next, you play triplet eighth notes on every beat. Because you strum at a steady rate throughout, in this case, you can consistently alternate between downstrokes and upstrokes without needing to make any adjustments. You see down and up arrows above the staff in the example.

The only thing that may seem unusual to you is striking downbeats two and four with upstrokes. You also have the option of playing all of this example with downstrokes.

Triplet example 2.
Triplet example 2.

It’s very rare to strum constant triplets like you see above. The only example that comes to mind is “All My Loving” by The Beatles. It features a rhythm guitar that strums through the chord changes using constant triplets at the rather fast rate of 154 BPM.

The example below introduces you to the triplet eighth-note rest, which looks like a regular eighth-note rest, but like its eighth-note counterpart, is set apart through the use of a triplet bracket. When you get to the triplet sets, you play only the first two triplet beats, and then rest on the third one.

Beginning with beat three in the second measure, you count it “3 trip (let), 4 trip (let),” with a rest on each “let” (hence, the parentheses). In this example, it works well to use all downstrokes and dampen the strings with the side of your picking hand during rests. Add some distortion to sound like “For Whom the Bell Tolls” by Metallica. The same song also features a second guitar that plays a melodic motif set to triplets.

Triplet rest.
Triplet rest.

Next, you see an example of tied triplets. Here, the first two parts of each triplet are tied together, giving you alternating long and short notes. You can strum either with downstrokes and upstrokes as notated, or with all downstrokes.

Tied triplets.
Tied triplets.

About This Article

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Desi Serna has built a substantial online platform as an engaging and approachable guitar guru-a guitar player and teacher with more than 10,000 hours of experience providing private guitar lessons and classes. Serna is hailed as a "music-theory expert" by Rolling Stone magazine.

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