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Time Signatures For Guitars And Everything Else

Elvis Elvis

Time signatures are simple once you understand what’s going on, although, truth be told, they don’t have anything to do with signatures:

I want you to pay attention to the numbers (4/4, 3/4, and 6/8). Those are your time signatures; pronounce them “four-four”, “three-four”, “six-eight”, etc.

Each one tells you two important things:

  • How many of a certain note will fit into a measure. This is indicated by the top number.
  • What type of note that “certain note” is. This is indicated by the bottom number, so…
    • A 4 on the bottom indicates a certain number of quarter notes.
    • An 8 on the bottom indicates a certain number of eighth notes.

Take the first picture, for example: 4/4 time tells you that the measure contains the equivalent of four quarter notes worth of music. It does not tell you is that it will actually contain four quarter notes, only that the notes it does contain will be equal in value to that. In reality it could have eight eighth notes, sixteen sixteenth notes, or any other combination that is equal to four quarter notes. This principle is true of all time signatures. The Top Number

This tells you how many beats are in the measure. Usually it’s 3, 4, or 6.

Time Signatures For Guitars And Everything Else

The Bottom Number

First of all, I know quarter notes get the beat because 4 is the bottom note in the time signature. That tells me I’m dealing with quarters of something. If an 8 were in the bottom, I’d know that eighth notes get the beat. Incidentally, those are by far the main two denominators you will see in time signatures. You may occasionally see a 2 or 16 (and maybe a 32 or 64) but those are so rare they really aren’t worth mentioning. You will never see a 9 or 46 on the bottom, for example, because there’s no such thing as a “ninth” or “forty-sixth” note. What we do have are:

  • Whole notes
  • Half notes (2)
  • Quarter notes (4)
  • Eighth notes (8)
  • Sixteenth notes (16)
  • Thirty-second notes (32)
  • Sixty- fourth notes (64)

Why and How

That’s great, you say, but what’s the point? Why use time signatures in the first place? Simply put, different time signatures give a very different “feel” to songs. 4/4 tends to have a steady, common beat, and is the most common time signature overall. 6/8, on the other hand, tends to have a very driving, progressive rhythm. While each of these characteristics can be affected by what takes place within the measure, by default it’s generally accepted that they will have those characteristics.