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Guitar Tips – Basic Note Values

Elvis Elvis

Quarter notes, dotted eighth notes, half rests, and so on all make up the basic note values musicians have used for centuries. If that’s foreign to you, I’ll explain. All that stuff simply tells you how long to play (or not play) your notes. That’s it. In text-only tabs this may not necessarily apply, but hopefully you’ve followed my lead and are either reading standard notation or using a program like Power Tab or Guitar Pro to view them.

Anyway, here’s the deal: learning the basic note values is all about simple math, and by simple I mean you won’t have any trouble with it. You won’t even have to calculate anything. Basically you’ll be “doing” the math. It’s easy, I promise; more on that in a second.

This example shows the most common note types from longest to shortest. Pay attention to what’s playing and how quickly it gets played compared to the other notes:

Each measure (the stuff between the skinny vertical lines) takes an equal amount of time to play. As you can see, though, there are lots more notes in each successive one. In fact, there are twice as many in each. That means that, when working from whole notes down to smaller divisions, each note type is played twice as fast as the previous one.

Guitar Tips   Basic Note Values

Here’s a closer look at those basic note values:

    • WHOLE NOTES – When you really want something to ring out and linger, these are the way to go. These are also the reference point for all the other main types of notes you will see. Typically equals four quarter notes. In shape it is simply an oval with a punched-out center.
    • HALF NOTES – Half the duration of a whole note. Shape is a slightly smaller punched-out oval with a stick shooting up into the air.
    • QUARTER NOTES – Half the duration of a half note. In 4/4 time there are four of these. Same stick shooting into the air as the half note, but the center of the oval is filled in.
    • EIGHTH NOTES – Half the duration of a quarter note. Same as the quarter note but with the addition of the flag (that thing sticking off to the side). Eighth notes and faster get “flags” added to their tops to indicate what they are. These flags look different depending on whether the note is by itself or separate.

You can take these patterns as far as you’re able, so up to sixty-fourth notes, one-hundred-twenty-eighth notes, and so on, faster and faster and faster and faster…


Basic Note Values – Rests


By the same token it’s very possible to overplay. If you never give it a rest, things get too dense, and your listener gets turned off because it all just runs together into a dense mass of sound. Neverunderestimate the power of brief breaks in music.

Our musical forefathers knew this, so they invented rests. These follow the same pattern as the notes in the section directly above, except that for the duration of the rest, whether it be a quarter rest, sixteenth, or whole rest, you don’t play at all.

Here’s a quick rundown of the most common rests and how many fit into a typical measure:

Notice that the principles here are the same as with the notes proper; every subsequent value is half that of the one which came before it (quarter rests are half as long as half rests; eighth rests are half as long as quarter rests, and so on).


Basic Note Values – Modifications


There’s more that can be done with this, though. If you really want to get everything out of your music, you will need more control over everything than just “twice as fast” or “twice as slow”. In other words, you’ll need more than just the basic note values.

And that’s that. Feeling the rhythms on these, even just the basic note values, can be a bit tricky at first, so my advice to you is to always play along with the actual song or something in Power Tab to make sure you play everything accurately. You will then develop an intuitive feel for what dotted and tied notes are and how to play them. Like so many other things in guitar, you will find that it becomes automatic.

Good luck!