Learn to Read Music, Part 4

Get a handle on triplets with this lesson.
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Alrighty then. You should be feeling pretty good about how your reading chops are developing, and you’re hopefully tackling all the notation you can get your hands on, in this publication and elsewhere. When you run into something you haven’t seen before, try doing a quick Google search—that should make things clearer. Again, it’s a language.

One thing we haven’t covered in this series of lessons is triplets, or three equally spaced notes per beat. They look like what you see in Ex. 1. You can count them “one triplet, two triplet,” etc., or by saying any three-syllable word, but I like the numbers, because it tells me where I am in the bar. Ex. 2 is fairly close to one of my favorite triplet lines of all time. Recognize it?

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Those are all eighth-note triplets, but it’s possible to play three equally spaced notes faster, as in the sixteenth-note triplets in Ex. 3, where you have three notes on the downbeat and three notes on the upbeat. Ex. 4 is reminiscent of Jimmy Page’s badass descending line in “Good Times, Bad Times.” Don’t let the ledger lines flip you out. Since the top line is F, you know that you can keep spelling A, C, and E. So the next line should be a G, right?

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Obviously on guitar we don’t always play single-notes. Most of the time we play chords, and chords are a lot harder to read. One thing that helps, though, is that we quite often play the same chords, or at least the same types of chords, such as power chords and cowboy chords. Ex. 5 features the most common open-position chords (although you could play most of these exact voicings in other positions). Find the notes, grab the grip, and reinforce it in your brain: “That’s what a C chord looks like. That’s what an E chord looks like.” You’re going to be seeing these often, so know what they look like. As you play this, you should hear an awesome Kinks riff, with a couple of extra chords thrown in.

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We played some root-fifth power chords last month. That interval has a distinctive look. Here are some more [Ex. 6]. See how they move in parallel? Recognize that and know that you are taking the same shape up the neck. That will give you confidence when you’re reading something for the first time. Oh yeah, and this is a bitchin’ Sabbath-style progression. Fifths are nothing more than inverted fourths. This is what fourths look like [Ex. 7]. Isn’t that riff awesome? See how it has both downbeats and upbeats? Now play it in G. Uh huh. Get it?

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Octaves also have a very recognizable look on the staff. Play through Ex. 8, and, as you do, remind yourself that you’re playing octaves, and this is what they look like. This riff should make you think about the glycemic index of the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

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Now it’s time to put all—or most—of this together. Take a look at Ex. 9. Kind of scary, right? Any time you approach a new bit of notation, remember that you’re dealing with it one note at a time. You’re not Tommy Tedesco, and neither am I. One note at a time. Give some thought to the rhythms, but for starters just find your notes. We’ll apply the rhythms once we know where we’re going. So what have we got here? Well, the first bar is a cool little arpeggio in triplets. Then we’ve got some stacks of notes that you should recognize as cowboy chords, the first two as eighth-notes (one-and), and the next on the and of two, tied to a half-note (three-and-four-and). Bar 3 has two-note figures that are spaced out such that you should be thinking, “I bet those are octaves.” They are, and you’ll count them “one-and, and, and” or down-up-up-up. Bar 4 has dyads that are obviously closer together. Stacked fourths? Yep. Find the notes and play ’em “one-and-two-and” and let it ring. Damn! Did you really just read through that? Yes, you did. Congrats!

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