Simple and Compound Rhythmic Groupings Demystified

In this month’s adventure in rhythm, we explore the differences and similarities between duple and triple beat divisions and meters.
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IN THIS MONTH’S ADVENTURE IN RHYTHM, we explore the differences and similarities between duple and triple beat divisions and meters. Not unlike binary code’s language of ones and zeroes, any rhythmic division can be encrypted using a combination of twos and threes. Who cares? You should, because if you can’t feel it, you can’t play it.


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There are two basic types of rhythmic groupings: “simple” and “compound.” In simple time, each beat is divided by two. Dividing a note in half produces a strong downbeat followed by a weaker upbeat. Simple time signatures include 2/4, 3/4, 4/4, and 6/4. In compound time, beats are initially divided by three. Dividing a note by three produces a strong downbeat followed by two weaker beats. Compound time signatures include 3/8, 6/8, 9/8, and 12/8. All other groupings of time (5/4, 7/4, 5/8, 7/8, etc.) are derived from various combinations of twos and threes. Ex. 1 illustrates both simple and compound divisions derived from a single whole-note.


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An eighth-note triplet divides a single beat into three equal events, and may be applied to either simple or compound meters. Quarter- notes are used to define each beat in 4/4, and their corresponding eighth-note triplets are notated with a bracketed or un-bracketed “3” over the beam. In 12/8, the unit of beat measurement is the dotted quarternote, which is equal to three eighth-notes and thus requires no “3.” Ex. 2a details how to count and play eighth-note triplets in simple 4/4 time using three different picking options. Though they’re notated differently, the compound 12/8 triplets shown in Ex. 2b are played and sound exactly the same as Ex. 2a. Add your favorite chords or single-note lines and go to town.


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The ratio of a triplet can be altered to produce many variations, but the most common is the shuffle rhythm, which divides each triplet into a two-note, 66.6/33.3 ratio by tying together the first two eighth-notes as shown in bar 1 of Ex. 3a. Bars 2 and 3 depict two common ways to notate shuffle eighths in 4/4, with either bracketed quarter- plus-eighth triplets (cumbersome) or straight eighths with an “eighth-equals-shuffle- eighth” indicator floated above the staff (much cleaner). Ex. 3b applies the same process to 12/8 time. You can also tie together the second and third notes of a triplet—flip the trip, so to speak—which results in the reversed, hiccup-like accents found throughout Examples 4a through 4c. Ex. 4c also features a down-stroked quarter- note triplet—the same thing as playing the first and every other note in a pair of eighth-note trips—superimposed over beats three and four. Mix and match ’em.


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Let’s check out three real-world apps for these concepts. Ex. 5, which shows a typical I-chord rhythm figure for a Texas shuffle in E, blends a walking bass line on the downbeats with up-stroked shuffle eighths on the upbeats. Cut those open-string upbeats short, or play them as written, and, for a real brain twister, try reversing down- and up-strokes à la SRV. The G-based feel-good rhythm figure in Ex. 6 intersperses root notes with double-stops, and those b3-to-3 trills played over the b7 on beat three of each measure are classic. The cool twist here is the reversed-triplet “hiccup” that occurs on the fourth beat of both endings, to which we first apply a broken C/E inversion (implying the IV chord), and then a higher-register sliding sixth. Transpose this figure up five frets to cover the IV chord (C7), and two frets higher for the V chord (D7), and then add Ex. 7’s I-V turnaround, which goes very well with Ex. 6 and its transpositions. Half single notes and half chords, this figure straddles the line between “lead” and “rhythm” playing by pairing a slinky, one-bar G blues lick (à la J. Winter) with a measure of accented D7#9 chords that incorporates the quarter-note-triplet divisions from Ex. 4c. Note how each one is surrounded by a muted-string “chuck.” Follow the notation, connect the dots, and have some fun!