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Lesson Series

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Sam Bell Rhythm Guitar Concepts Part 2: Feeling 8th Notes

Lesson Notes

** As featured in issue 54 **


Welcome to my second instalment on Rhythm Guitar Concepts, in the last issue we took a look at some basic timing exercises to help build our own internal rhythmic awareness. Everything we look at from this point in the series I highly suggest is practiced using some of the concepts from the first instalment as this will really help you hone in on your ability to internalise and control your timing! In this column I am going to take a look at being responsible for 8th notes or as your school music teacher would have called them ‘Quavers’. In this series I am going to use the American system of ‘8th’ notes as I feel it makes a lot more sense in common time (4/4) to divide the bar up into these fractions making it much easier to visualise how our note sub-divisions work. If you don’t know what 8th notes are, then you are in the right place! If you already know what 8th notes are you may be thinking ‘where are you taking this Sam?’ and you would be right to ask, however let me put the emphasis here on ‘being responsible’ for your 8th notes, how well can you feel them if they are displaced and how you can work your whole guitar vocabulary around them in order to create awesome variations and most importantly increase your ability to groove…

What is an 8th note?

Not all but most music can be felt in 4, often audiences clap along in 4, group melodic phrases in 4, and count a song in using 4 etc. 4/4 simply means we have 4 quarter notes in a measure of music. This is the down beat, the solid down beats that define the tempo of the song. We count these quarter notes with ‘one, two, three, four’, sometimes audiences clap on 1 and 3, good audiences clap on 2 and 4.  It’s the way of the world. If you are reading this then you most likely already have a strong grasp of these quarter notes, but in this column we are focusing on 8th notes. 8ths are simply dividing the measure of 4 into 8, giving us 8 equal subdivisions of the bar. This gives us two notes per beat giving us a down beat and an up-beat. This is commonly counted like this:

‘ ONE and TWO and THREE and FOUR and’

Sometimes visually represented without sheet music like this:

‘1 + 2 + 3 + 4 + ’

The numbered beats are the down beat quarter notes and the ‘ands’ are the up-beats dividing these downbeats into 8ths. Often musicians say things like ‘this song comes in on the ‘and’ of three’ meaning the opening phrase of a song might start on the up-beat of three when counting in the tune.  (Ex. AC/DC Highway to Hell’). Another common place to hear a strong emphasis on the ‘ands’ is in Ska music where high triadic voicings are used on the ‘ands’ of each beat.

How does this help me get better at rhythm guitar?

Good question, being aware of the 8th note sub-division whilst playing is very important, you are probably playing a lot of 8th note strumming patterns or riffs already. But by analysing what you are playing a bit deeper by working out where you are playing your 8th notes in a bar you can really dig into the timing and become a lot more ‘locked in’ with the groove and much less likely to get lost. Your playing will also sound a lot more confident if you can sense where the 8th notes are through the measures of music you are playing. This should hopefully answer some important questions if you are not familiar with what an 8th note is, however that isn’t my main purpose of this conceptual lesson on getting better at rhythm guitar.

Feeling the 8th notes dude…

So now we get to the most interesting part of the lesson. Feeling those 8th notes, not just by counting 1 + 2 + etc, but really being able to treat each note in a bar like it has its own post code, its own home or maybe thinking of it in its own entity. In the video example of this lesson I count through a bar and only play on certain 8th notes for only the length of an 8th note. A practice routine could be only playing on the ‘and’ of beat one, from here you could practice feeling at different tempos, you could phrase licks or chord sequences starting on this note and finishing on the same note on the next bar, or you could slowly develop complex single note lines that build on only select 8th note beats of the bar. I really want you to try to get to ‘know’ these places in the bar as well as you know your open C chord or first position pentatonic. It seems very basic and it kind of is! However todays budding guitarists who are starting out to forget or even miss out on the importance of being super aware of these subtle and important aspects of time feel in music.


Take riffs and chord strumming patterns that you already know, see if you can count through them. Really work out what you are doing. Looking deep into things that come naturally to you can be a great way of really making sense of challenges that come down the line, but also help solidify your rhythm playing. An 8th note isn’t just for Christmas, it’s for life.

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