Rhythm Primer (part 6): Eighth notes

This is the sixth lesson in the rhythm primer. We've come a long way, so congrats if you've stuck with me this far! Today we're going to take a look at eighth notes. Up to now the shortest note we've looked at has been the quarter note, worth one beat. But what if you wanted to play more than one note per beat? Good question, thanks for asking. Well the simple answer is eighth notes are worth half a beat. Since there are four beats in a measure, if you played two notes for every beat you would have 8 notes in that measure. Get it?

Eighth notes can be written two different ways. A single eighth note looks like this:

Notice how it looks like a quarter note, except it also has a flag on it. When you have two eighth notes in a row, you could write two of them like the picture above but more often we use a beam to connect two eighth notes together like this:

There is no difference in sound between a pair of eighth notes without a beam as with one. The reason we beam notes together is because it makes it a little easier to read them in groups of a single beat. The number of eighth notes you can beam together is only limited by the number of eighth notes in your measure. So, you will sometimes see more than two eighth notes beamed together, but this is less common than beaming in groups of two.

Before I give you an example to listen to, I want to talk about how we count out rhythms using eighth notes. We use the word "and" as a place holder for the eighth note (often written with a + sign). There are a couple different ways people count eight notes. One is to add the ands only to the beats where you have eight notes, and the other is to count eight notes for the entire measure. So here is an example of eighth notes in practice. Notice that the first measure is exactly the same as the second. In this example I am going to count the first measure using eight notes throughout and the second measure I'm only going to count out the eighth notes I am actually playing.

Description: Exercise introducing eighth notes.

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Again, how you count makes no difference to how the song sounds. So which should you use? At first it might be easier to count every beat using eights, but eventually it actually requires less thought to only count the notes you actually need to subdivide (subdivide is a fancy way of saying "notes smaller than a beat"). Choose whichever way works for you, there is no real right or wrong.

Description: 4 measures, using eighth notes

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Description: Another 4 measure example using eighth notes.

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So how should you use your pick your guitar to create eighth notes? You could pick each eighth note with a downstroke (a stroke where your pick is moving towards the floor) or you could pick the second eighth note in each pair with an upstroke (a stroke where your pick is moving towards the ceiling). Again there isn't a right or wrong answer to this. For now, use whichever way feels best. Or if you really want to do yourself a favor, learn to do it both ways.

Here is another example using eighth notes. Again, the first and second measures are exactly the same in the way they sound. But, I am using different pick strokes to create each. Try to play this example along with me using the pick strokes that I have written underneath the pattern.

One last point to make is that your eighth notes should sound equal in length. You don't want the first eighth note to sound longer than the second. You also want them to be equal in volume so that one eighth note is not louder than another. So try to keep them steady and strike the guitar strings with an equal force when using upstrokes and downstrokes. Here is one last example to listen to. The first measure is played correctly using steady eighths and equal volume, and the second measure is played with swung eighth notes. Unless you are intentionally trying to swing your eighth notes, be sure to play them straight!

Description: Swung eighth notes vs straight eighth notes

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Click here to go to the next lesson: Sixteenth Notes and More

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