Notes (lesson)

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Hi all,

In this 3 part lesson we are going to explore something dear to all of our hearts – timing! The good news is that it’s all about counting, and we can all do that right? We will learn first about individual notes, and in the second part of the lesson we will learn about how the timing of a song fits together and also about how to understand time signatures. Finally in part 3 we will look at odd time signatures,

The guitar tabs we are all familiar with, whilst great for understanding fingering and technique are lacking in timing information. Whilst this is not usually a problem because you will have a reference track that will give you the timing, in isolation a Tab doesn’t contain enough information to recreate a song.

On the other hand, standard music notation does contain this information, but does not give guitar specific technique, so it is important to have an appreciation for both methods of representing music. Those of you that have concentrated on tabs may not have formed a full appreciation for the subtleties of timing, and this lesson aims to help with that.


Note Lengths

Timing in music begins and ends with the length of the individual notes that we play. A lot of you will be familiar with 16ths and 16th triplets from your metronome practice, but what does this actually mean?

The basic unit of timing is called, not surprisingly, a note. We can then take a note and divide it into halves, quarters etc. to make shorter notes. It turns out that a whole note is quite long, and it is far more common to make use of quarter and eighth notes in music. Of course in speed picking circles we want to go even faster and talk about 16th notes a lot.

Let’s look at the individual lengths of notes and check out the technical names for them all. You don’t need to call them by these names, but it wouldn’t be much of a theory lesson if I didn’t at least list them! Each note length has a fancy name used in classical music, but more commonly we name them by the subdivision of the basic note that we are using. I’ll also give you the musical notation for the notes – this may be helpful if you are trying to figure out the timing of a particular riff sometime and you have the music and the tab.


In the symbols above, for notation purposes you can show the individual notes with tails going up or down depending on their position of the stave – it makes no difference to the duration of the note. There are a couple of other note types but they are not in common use so we will ignore them for in this lesson.

Next, we’ll look at a couple of ways we can modify these basic notes to get different durations

Tied Notes

Our first modifier is called a tie. Tied notes are individual notes that are played as one note, for a duration which is the sum of their individual durations. For example, suppose you wanted a note that lasts for five 16ths of a whole note – there is no single note that can do that for you. But you could tie a quarter note (which is four 16ths) to a 16th note, and together they would last for five 16ths, like this:


The arc between the notes is the tie.

Dotted Notes

A dotted note is a second way to modify note duration. Very simply, placing a dot, or period after any note makes it half as long again. So, a quarter note with a dot after it lasts for 3/8ths of a note (this is where you start to actually use the fractions you learnt at school!), because 1/8 is half of 1/4 (the original note length), and:

1/4 + 1/8 = 3/8

Written down, it looks like this:


The astute among you will have realized that we could get the same effect by tying a quarter note to an eighth note like this:


You can put a dot after any of the notes I listed above to extend it by half of its duration again. Dotted notes are used a lot in swing timings in Jazz, to give a particular kind of groove.


Of more interest than tied or dotted notes are triplets. We use these a lot in speedpicking but what exactly are they? In general, a triplet is an example of a borrowed division. This name refers to the fact that triplets and other borrowed divisions add a different quality to the timing of a piece that makes it sound like the notes and timing are “borrowed” from some other piece. If you have played 16th triplets at all you will know that when you go into a 16th triplet run the song temporarily takes on a different groove. On its own, that description probably doesn’t help much, so lets look at an example. In the timing we have learnt so far, we are able to subdivide notes in halves quarters etc. But what if we want to use say a 5th or a 3rd subdivision? This is where borrowed divisions come in. Of these, by far the most common is the triplet. 5ths and 7ths are possible, but extremely difficult to play and are not commonly used.

To make this a bit easier to understand, let’s look at an example - our much loved 16th triplet.

In a regular 16th sequence, we play a run of notes that are each 1/16 in duration. In 4/4 time, we get 4 quarter notes to the bar, and each quarter note is a single beat (we’ll be looking at beats and time signatures in more detail in part 2). Each quarter note is divided further into four to give us 16 16ths per bar.

Here are a couple:


In music notation terms, when you have multiple 8th,16th or 32nd notes, you usually join them together into units up to a quarter note long.

For 16th triplets, we are going to replace each two of these 16th notes by three evenly spaced triplet notes. If you do the math, you will see that for 16th triplets you will end up with 24 notes in a bar, grouped 6 per beat. So not only will the notes be played more quickly, there will also be more of them to compensate, so overall we are playing for the same length of time.

In musical notation, we show 16th triplets like this:


For comparison, here is a bar of 16ths and a bar of 16th triplets:



In each case, the phrase, or bar is the same length timewise – we are just playing a higher number of shorter notes in the same time period when we use 16th triplets.

(If you are interested, the notes I am using here are all G – the same as an open G string – the line on the music stave that you put the note on denotes its pitch).

Of course it is possible to have 8th triplets, quarter triplets and any other type of triplet. Just remember that you are replacing two of the target notes with 3 triplet notes of the appropriate duration each case.


Rests are places in the music where no note is played. Rests have a similar system of lengths as notes and work in pretty much the same way except that they have their own symbols. For completeness, here they are:


That’s it for this lesson – in the next lesson we’ll start to look at the timing structure of songs now that we understand how the individual notes work!