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Time Signature Basics | Guitar Lesson

Understanding time signatures is the foundation of learning strumming patterns on the guitar. It’s the foundation of rhythm itself. We're going to start with the music theory part of it. But I'll go right into a practical application very quickly. This is a lot simpler than you might think.

We'll use the 3 most common time signatures that you're likely to use in your guitar playing:

  • 4/4
  • 6/8
  • 3/4

So what do these numbers mean? That's the music theory part. 


Understanding Beats

Let’s define what a “beat” is before moving on. Think about “Sweet Home Alabama”. Sing it in your head. Now tap your foot. Each foot tap is one beat. 

This is not to be confused with tempo though. The tempo is how fast you tap your foot (how fast or slow the song is). If you speed the song up you’d tap your foot faster. But each tap would still be a beat.


Understanding Time Signatures

You may see the numbers next to each other with a slash separating the numbers (like they’re written here). And sometimes you’ll see them stacked with a horizontal line separating them. They both represent the same thing. 

The top/first number is telling you how many pulses (or beats) there are in each measure. 

The second number is the subdivision of the notes. These two numbers together are the time signature (also called a meter). 

I know, that sounds complicated. 

Let’s start with 4/4 (pronounced “four four”). The first number tells us there are 4 notes in the measure. The second number tells us what notes get the emphasis (also known as the subdivision). 

  • When you see “4” it means quarter notes. We’re subdividing 1 measure (a whole note) into 4 quarter notes (4 quarter notes equal a whole note). That’s all a subdivision is.

So there are four beats in the measure, and the emphasis is in quarter notes. This is Sweet Home Alabama. You’ll notice you will count to four before repeating each measure. 

In 6/8 (“six eight”) time there are six beats in each measure, and the eight notes are emphasised. 

Finally in 3/4 (“three four”) time there are three beats per measure, with the quarter note gets emphasized. You can think of this as 4/4 with one less beat.


The Feel of Time Signatures

You might notice that 3/4 could be doubled to get 6/8. While mathematically that makes sense, it’s not quite true. These time signatures actually get confused a lot of the time. The biggest difference is the feel of the song. Music is all about feel, and this is no exception.

3/4 has a feel like this:

  • ONE-two-three ONE-two-three

While 6/8 has a feel like this:

  • ONE-two-three-FOUR-five-six One-two-three-FOUR-five-six 

The accent of the notes fall in different places. Think about “We Are The Champions” by Queen. This is in 6/8. Listen to the chorus and count your foot taps. Emphasize the first and the fourth beats in each measure by literally saying them louder than the rest of the beats. 

You’ll notice this is further emphasized by the drums. The kick drum is on the first beat, and the snare is on the fourth. Are you starting to get the feel of 6/8? “House of the Rising Sun” is another great example of a song in 6/8. 

3/4 is used a lot in older Christmas songs, folk songs, and hymns. Songs like “Times They Are A Changin” by Bob Dylan, “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” by Aretha Franklin, and “Open Arms” by Journey are all in 3/4.

The emphasis is on the first beat. You might find the snare hitting on the third beat before restarting the pattern. Sometimes it can feel a little short. Like the measure is being cut off by a beat. This is by no means a bad thing! Different time signatures let you express your musical thoughts differently.

And finally, 4/4 is the most common time signature. If you turned on the radio right now you’ll probably hear a song in 4/4 time. The main accent is going to be on the first beat of each measure. 

  • ONE-two-three-four ONE-two-three-four

Now that you know the time signatures, let’s look at some strum patterns in all three time signatures. Check out the time stamps in the video for examples of each.

4/4 - 2:01

6/8 - 3:00

3/4 - 4:41


Thanks for joining me today. This is a lesson out of a course in my Real Guitar Success academy. If you enjoyed this lesson, I'd encourage you to check it out. I'd love to have you.

Check out Real Guitar Success Academy

Bye for now.

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