Understand time signatures with this easy guitar lesson

(Image credit: Andrew Joyce/Future)

Guitar tabs always have a ‘time signature’ at the start. If you find yourself glazing over and ignoring it, then you’re missing out on crucial information about the timing and feel of the music you’re about to play.

We’ve tabbed out riffs in four time signatures for you to try out. All you have to do is count in time with the music and emphasise the relevant rhythmic pulses. 

Reading time… What is a time signature? 

1. The top number tells you how many beats there are in each bar of music.

2. The bottom number tells you the kind of note: ‘4’ is a quarter note, ‘8’ is an eighth note.

3. So, for example, 6/8 time has six eighth notes in every bar of music. 4/4 has four quarter notes.

3/4 time - Classic waltz

Count: 1 – 2 – 3

Emphasise: Beat 1

Rhythm: Three quarter notes per bar

Character: Also known as a ‘waltz’, you can expect a lively ‘bounce’ to music in 3/4 time, depending on the tempo you play at, of course.

Hear it: The Beatles - Norwegian Wood

4/4 time - Stock rock ‘n’ pop

Count: 1 – 2 – 3 – 4

Emphasise: Beat 1

Rhythm: Four quarter notes per bar

Character: With its steady feel, 4/4 is the most common time signature in music. A typical drumbeat places the kick on beats 1 and 3, with a snare strike on beats 2 and 4.

Hear it: AC/DC - Back In Black

6/8 time - Sweet loving time

Count: 1 & a 2 & a

Emphasise: Beat 1 and beat 2

Rhythm: Six eighth notes per bar

Character: Often played slowly in ballads and love songs, you may pick up on a gentle swaying feel in 6/8 time. It’s often easier to just count the ‘1’ and ‘2’ pulses.  

Hear it: REM - Everybody Hurts

12/8 time - Shuffling blues-rock

Count: 1 & a 2 & a 3 & a 4 & a

Emphasise: Beat 1, beat 2, beat 3 and beat 4

Rhythm: 12 eighth notes per bar

Character: With four rhythmic pulses, there’s a kind of 4/4 feel to 12/8 time, just with every beat having a ‘1 & a’ triplet feel.  

Hear it: Wolfmother - Woman

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