Time Signatures


by Karen Hogg

Examples played by Dan Apczynski

Time signatures—the stacked pair of numbers that shows up at the beginning of a piece of music—provide crucial information about the beat or pulse of a given tune. 

Examples 1-3
Click to enlarge.

The most common time signature you’ll hear is 4/4. It occurs so often that sometimes 4/4 time signatures are replaced by the letter C, which stands for “common time.”

In 4/4, there are four beats per measure and quarter notes are each counted as one beat. Take a look at Example 1 (0:18), a 4/4 power-chord riff played with a downstroke on every eighth note. As you play through this example, count aloud so that you feel the 4/4 pulse. Try strumming beats two and four slightly harder than the others to create your own backbeat, emulating the snare drum in many rock songs.

Now try the more relaxed strum pattern in Example 2 (0:55) . It can be easy to get mixed up when you’re combining different rhythmic values within a passage, so count out the rhythm before trying this out, and really pronounce the first beat of each measure.

Another common time signature is 3/4, also known as “waltz time.” Just like the age-old dance, 3/4 time includes three beats per measure and usually has an oom pah-pah feel. On the guitar you can strum the first beat of each measure a little harder than the others or you can emphasize the bass strings on beat one and higher strings on beats two and three, as shown in Example 3 (1:39).

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