Easy guitar theory: cross rhythms

Whether you’re writing songs or improvising, you almost certainly already play your own riffs - most acoustic and electric guitar players do! This lesson is designed to help you get more from these motifs using a method called a cross rhythm. 

This means that the time signature of the music you're jamming with is contradicted by the riffs you play. Don't worry! It'll make more sense once you try out our tab and audio examples.

Suffice to say, it’s used heavily in progressive music - Dream Theater and Tool, for example. We’re keeping things simple here, swapping 3/4 and 4/4 riffs around, but feel free to get creative with your own ideas and try out other time signatures.

Basic 4/4 riff

We’ve played this simple 4/4-time riff a full eight times over our backing track to help you get a feel for it. One riff, one bar of music - simple!

Basic 3/4 riff

Now here’s a riff in 3/4 time. This isn’t remarkable in itself (just count to three instead of four to keep time), and, as before, there’s one riff and one bar of music.

4/4 riff over a 3/4 backing

Here we're playing our 4/4 riff over the 3/4 backing track, generating a cross rhythm in the process. The backing music has an emphasis on the first beat of every bar (that's once every three beats), but the riff is four beats long, so it doesn’t repeat in sync with the track. In fact, it takes four bars until the riff begins on beat 1 again.

3/4 riff over a 4/4 backing

Here, in an alternative take on the same idea, we’ve played our 3/4 riff over the 4/4 music, meaning, once again, the emphasis on beat 1 of the backing track isn’t mirrored by the first note of the riff. This time, you’ll play for three bars until the riff starts on beat 1 again. Try to play the riff with the ‘feel’ of the 4/4 time signature.

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