Rhythm concepts: eighth note triplets (Scroll down for the kickstart tracks)

A triplet of any kind means that you are fitting three into the space that would normally be occupied by two. That might appear confusing, but triplets are actually quite intuitive and natural feeling to play. Eighth note triplets are very common in blues, rock and trad music, and an eighth note triplet feel means that instead of having two eighth notes in each beat as we would usually, (1 + 2 + 3 + 4 + etc) we have three eighth notes in each beat.
These are counted 1 + a, 2 + a, 3 + a, 4 + a or 1 and a, 2 and a, 3 and a, 4 and a.
These three eighth notes can be written as three eighth notes in a row, or one quarter note and one eighth note, or any combination of quarter and eighth notes and rests that has the same duration as three eighth notes. A quarter note rest followed by an eighth note would last the same length of time, for example.
Tap your foot on the beat and tap out a triplet rhythm on your guitar to get the feel of it. Jeff Buckley and Leonard Cohen’s versions of Hallelujah are both examples of songs that use a triplet feel.
How to strum or pick them?
Time signatures for 8th note triplet feel music where all of the music is in triplet feel will end in 8. e.g. 3/8 (three eighth notes in a bar) or 6/8 (six eighth notes in a bar, arranged 1 2 3 4 5 6 with the strong beats being the first in each group of three, namely 1 and 4) or 9/8 (nine eighth notes in each bar, 1 2 3, 4 5 6, 7 8 9) and 12/8 (twelve eighth notes in each bar 1 2 3, 4 5 6, 7 8 9, 10 11 12). It can be a bit of a mouthful counting to twelve, so going to the 1 and a two and a etc counting as above can be simpler. The main thing is that each beat is divided into three, not two as for normal straight eighth note strumming.
You can get a phrase or two of triplet feel inserted into regular 4/4 music. In that instance, a beam across the notes grouping them into three with a little ‘3’ tells you that particular group of notes is triplet time. Check out these examples. Be sure to check the beginning of each line to know which time signature you’re in. Remember – music that is triplet feel throughout will not have the little ‘3’s, although it will show the notes beamed into threes.
Music that is not in triplet time but is inserting some triplet phrases for interest and variety will have a small ‘3’ over the beamed notes. This is a very effective technique for creating interest and tension in lead guitar playing.

Want to do more with this material? Try these training activities:

  1. Understand the concept of triplets.
  2. Go through the rhythms attached with muted picking or strumming or clapping to get the rhythms in your head.
  3. Find a triplet feel song and apply one of the patterns as a strumming pattern. Leonard Cohen has many triplet feel songs and there are plenty of others.
  4. Could you devise a right hand picking pattern in triplet time? This means a repeating picking pattern across different strings, so that you change chords but keep the right hand the same.
  5. Play the riffs that are written in triplet time.
  6. Play up a pentatonic using a triplet rhythm.
  7. Play up and down two pentatonics using a triplet rhythm.
  8. Create two 3-8 note phrases using pentatonics that have a triplet rhythm.
  9. Play these in A minor.
  10. Play these over a Blues backing.
  11. Integrate these with any other phrases or licks you know.
  12. Move them to a different key!
  13. Congratulate yourself on composing with rhythm!