Time Signatures Part 1 (Guitar Lesson)

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Dennis Hodges

Time Signatures Part 1

In this lesson Dennis teaches the following common time signatures: 3/4, 4/4, 6/8, 9/8, and 12/8. Dennis explains each signature and provides a short example for illustration.

Taught by Dennis Hodges in Metal with Dennis seriesLength: 33:12Difficulty: 1.5 of 5
Chapter 1: (00:38) Introduction Welcome back to the Phase 2 Metal Series with Dennis Hodges! This lesson begins an ongoing discussion of rhythm and time signatures. To begin the lesson, Dennis explains the basics of time signatures and the differences between them. He also demonstrate how to play a riff in each of the time signatures that he covers. The current lesson begins with commonly used time signatures such as 4/4, 3/4, and 6/8. Dennis advances to cover less common signatures such as 11/8 and 13/8 in the following lesson.

Note: the following information regarding the importance of rhythm is taken from lesson 1 of Matt Brown's Reading and Rhythm series.

Rhythm: The Most Important Aspect of Music

Rhythm is the single most important aspect of music. Rhythm is the musical component that makes people want to dance, bob their heads, or start a mosh pit. When practicing any piece of music, rhythm should always be your highest priority. An incorrect note usually slides by unnoticed. On the other hand, unsteady rhythm typically results in a musical train wreck.

If you can't play something perfectly in time, then you can't play it. As a result, you should spend the majority of your practice time perfecting rhythm. This task can be accomplished in a variety of different ways. The important rule to remember is to practice with a metronome as much as possible. Playing along with recordings is also great practice.

Rhythmic skills are essential to playing with a group of other musicians. As a guitarist, you can't simply say: "I'll just play along with the drummer. After all, the drummer is responsible for the rhythm." This is a horrible mindset to have. YOU must be responsible for rhythmic perfection at all times. That way, if the drummer is playing incorrectly, you can address the issue as needed.
Chapter 2: (07:43) 3/4 Time Signature Note: If you have any additional questions concerning the information presented in this lesson, write in to the JamPlay teaching staff for extra help.

Time Signatures

Almost all time signatures consist of two numbers. Most often there is one top number and one bottom number written in ration or fraction form. Occasionally you may see a few numbers on top. For example, you may see something like this: 3+2+3 all over 8. This specifies how groups of notes should be divided within the measure.

Top Number

The top number in a time signature indicates how many beats are in a measure.

Bottom Number

The bottom number indicates which note is counted as the beat. Memorize the following examples listed below.

1 on bottom = Whole note gets the beat.

2 on bottom = Half note gets the beat.

Common signatures: 2/2, 3/2.

4 on bottom = Quarter note gets the beat.

Common signatures: 4/4, 3/4, 6/4, 5/4, 7/4.

8 on bottom = Eighth note gets the beat.

Common signatures: 6/8, 12/8, 8/8, 7/8, 9/8, 3/8, 15/8.

16 on bottom = Sixteenth note gets the beat.

It is fairly rare for a sixteenth note or smaller value to be counted as the primary unit of the beat.

3/4 Time

This signature indicates that there are three quarter notes in each measure. This signature can be a little bit tricky since there is an odd number of beats per measure. The waltz is an example of a common rhythm played in 3/4 time. In a waltz rhythm, the first beat of each measure is accented. This gives the rhythm a steady "oom pah pah" sound.

Triple Meters

A triple meter is a time signature in which the number of beats per measure is divisible by three. 3/4 and 6/8 are two of the most common triple meters.

Introduction to Counting Syllables

When counting out a rhythm, specific counting syllables are applied to make things more manageable for the musician reading them.

A. Numerals

The note value that receives the beat is counted /written as a numeral. For example, in 3/4 time, the quarter note receives the beat. As a result, the first beat is designated with the number "1." For a measure consisting of four quarter notes, you would count, "1, 2, 3."

B. The "+" Sign

A "+" sign is used to denote eighth notes that occur on the upbeats. Numerals care be applied to the notes that occur on downbeats (the 1st, 3rd, 5th, and 7th eighth notes in the measure). A "+" symbol is used to label the remaining eighth notes that occur on weak beats. A measure of 3/4 comprised solely of eighth notes is counted "1+2+3+."

3/4 Riff #1

Tablature and standard notation to all musical examples discussed in the lesson can be found under the "Supplemental Content" tab.

Watch and Learn

Watch and listen several times as Dennis plays the riff and counts the appropriate rhythm. Remember that it is always much easier to learn something new if you have heard it several times. Dennis demonstrates this riff at 01:27 in the lesson video.

Dotted Notes

For the most part, dotted half notes are employed throughout the riff. A dot adds half of the rhythmic value to the indicated note. For example, a half note receives two beats. When a dot is added, the half the value of the note is added. Half of a half note is one quarter note. Consequently, a dotted half note receives three beats or one full measure of 3/4 time.

Practice Time

Pause the lesson video and practice Riff #1 along with a metronome. Count the beat out loud as you play. Then, return to the lesson video and play along with Dennis to ensure that you are playing the rhythm correctly. If your rhythms do not line up with his, return to the "Supplemental Content" and make any necessary adjustments. If you still need help, feel free to write in to Dennis or any of the other instructors.

For additional practice, play the riff in a wide variety of tempo ranges. Make a mental note of how the tempo affects the overall feel of the riff.

3/4 Riff #2

Dennis demonstrates Riff #2 at 03:55.

A. New Chord Shapes

Some new chord shapes are introduced in Riff #2. Minor and major third intervals can be used as effective two note power chords when on the low strings. For example, the riff begins with a minor third interval that implies an Em chord. An inverted A5 power chord is used in the following measure. Within this chord, the fifth, E, is played in the bass instead of the root note. In the following measure, a major third interval is played. The two notes in this interval (D and F#) imply a D major triad when used in this context. Countless metal classics utilize these special power chord shapes.

B. Picking Pattern

To play the riff with punishing heaviness, Dennis uses consistent downstrokes. Applying alternate picking to the open eighth notes on the E string will greatly diminish the effect of the riff.

Riff #3

Riff #3 riff is a highly chromatic riff in the death metal style. It primarily uses notes from the E half / whole diminished scale. Dennis provides a demonstration of how the riff should be played at 05:23.

A. Picking Pattern

Use consistent downstrokes for all of the eighth note rhythms. When sixteenth notes occur, apply an alternate picking segment.

B. Slurs

Make sure that the slurs in the final measure are played evenly. Do not cut the first note under the slur line short! Play the riff without slurs at first to see how the rhythm should be played. Then, add the slurs back in.
Chapter 3: (06:30) 4/4 Time Signature 4/4 Time

You may have seen this written at the beginning of a piece and not really understood what it meant. Most of the material that Dennis has covered in past metal lessons has been played in 4/4 time. The top note indicates how many beats are in each measure. The bottom number indicates which note value will receive the beat. In 4/4 time, there are a total of four beats per measure. The quarter note receives the beat.

"Common Time"

Sometimes 4/4 time is indicated with an upper case letter "C." Before Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press in about 1439, it was much easier to write a "C" legibly than writing 4/4. "C" stands for "Common Time." This traditional indication of 4/4 time is still frequently used today.

4/4 Riff #1

This riff is reminiscent of the Pantera classic "I'm Broken." Like many Southern metal riffs, it utilizes notes from the E minor blues scale and the E Phrygian mode. These scales are spelled below.

E Minor Blues - E, G, A, Bb, B, D, E
E Phrygian - E, F, G, A, B, C, D, E, F

When combined, these scales form a hybrid scale containing the following notes: E, F, G, A, Bb, B, C, D, E. The key features of the scale are the lowered second scale degree and the b5 "blue note."


This riff features many tied notes that occur over the bar line. A tied note is not picked. Rather, the note is held for the value of the tied note. For example, a quarter note tied to an eighth note receives a total of one and a half beats.

Grace Notes

A grace note slide occurs between an A5 and Bb5 power chord. Grace notes are not counted. They are played as quickly as possible to embellish a specific note or chord.

The final slide in the riff is counted in eighth notes. Similar to playing hammer-ons or pull-offs, you must make sure that your slides are played in the exact rhythm that is notated. Most beginners have a tendency to cut the first note under the curved slur line short.

4/4 Riff #2

Riff #2 is a thrash riff in the style of Slayer. It features some rapid sixteenth note rhythms. Use strict alternate picking whenever a group of sixteenth notes occurs. Use all downstrokes for the remaining notes. Due to the speed of this riff, begin at a very slow tempo and gradually work your way up.

The E Phrygian tonality is loosely used as the basis for the riff. Some chromatic embellishments such as the notes D# and G# are also used.

A. Staccato

Pay careful attention to the articulation indicated. Some chords are played staccato at the end of the riff. Staccato is a musical style in which a note is played short and detached from the note that follows. The duration of the note is cut slightly short. Staccato is the opposite of legato. A dot written above or below a note indicates the staccato feel. To produce a staccato note, lightly lift some of the let hand pressure from the string. Do not completely remove the finger from the string. When adding staccato to an open string note, the left hand must mute the string after it is struck.
Chapter 4: (07:53) 6/8 Time Signature Compound Meters

Compound meters are time signatures in which eighth notes are placed in groupings of three. Some common examples are 6/8, 12/8, and 9/8. The jig (often spelled gigue or giga) is played in 6/8 or 12/8. A slight accent is placed on the first eighth note in each group. 6/8 is not the same as 3/4 due to the way in which the eighth notes are grouped.

Since eighth notes are placed in groups of threes in these types of meters, compound meters have a steady triplet feel. This rhythm is usually played steadily by the drummer on the hi-hat or ride cymbal in the context of a band.


In 6/8 time, there are six beats per measure. The eighth note is now counted as the beat. A quarter note in 6/8 time now receives two beats instead of 1. In 6/8 time, the first and fourth eighth note of the measure often receives a light stress since eighth notes are separated into groups of three.

6/8 Riff #1

This basic exercise will get you acquainted with the basic feel of 6/8 time. The first measure is comprised of eighth notes. Count the beat out loud as you play. To further internalize the pulse, tap your foot on beats 1 and 4. Remember that each eighth note is counted as a beat. Use all downstrokes when playing eighth notes at a slow tempo in 6/8. You may have to use alternate picking if playing at high tempos.

The second measure is comprised of sixteenth notes. In this meter, a sixteenth note receives half a beat. Count "1+2+3+4+5+6+" during this measure. Use strict alternate picking when playing a series of sixteenth notes in 6/8 time.

A. Metronome Marking

Guitar Pro will not allow you to set the correct metronome marking for compound meters. Compound meters are usually written as eighth = tempo or dotted quarter note = tempo. The latter option is far more common. This indicates the metronome clicks on beats 1 and 4. The first option is used for pieces in 6/8 that are played at a very slow, deliberate tempo. When practicing this exercise, do not set your metronome to 120! Instead, set it so that it clicks on beats 1 and 4 at around 80 beats per minute.

6/8 Riff #2

Riff #2 is derived from the fifth mode of the A harmonic minor scale. This scale is spelled as follows: E, F, G#, A, B, C, D, E. Many theorists refer to this modes as the Phrygian Dominant scale. It is called "Phrygian because it contains a b2 scale degree. It receives the "Dominant" part of the title since it is usually used over dominant seventh #9 and b9 chords in the jazz style.

Eighth notes are played with downstrokes. Alternate picking is applied to groups of 2 or 4 sixteenth notes.

Watch as Dennis demonstrates the riff at 80 beats per minute. His metronome is set to click on the dotted quarter note (beats 1 and 4).
Chapter 5: (04:04) 9/8 Time Signature 9/8

9/8 time shows up very frequently in Celtic music. The slip jig is a Celtic dance performed in 9/8. This meter also finds its way into classical music, jazz, metal, and progressive rock.

In 9/8, there are 9 beats per measure. The eighth note is counted as the beat. Eighth notes are grouped in three sets of three. Due to these groupings, beats 1, 4, and 7 usually are given a slight accent. The three eighth notes that occur at the end of a measure tend to pull you into the next measure. Since there is an odd number of beats, this signature has a lot of forward movement.

When counting in this meter count "1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9." Most musicians prefer to count "sev" instead of "seven" since seven is two syllables. Otherwise, the seventh beat is subdivided into sixteenth notes.

9/8 Riff #1

9/8 Riff #1 is derived from the E Phrygian mode. This mode contains the following notes: E, F, G, A, B, C, D, E. The note F# is used on beat 5 of measures 1 and 4 of the riff as a chromatic embellishing tone between G and F.

A. Rhythm

Watch at 02:06 as Dennis breaks down the rhythm and counting. Make sure that you understand how the riff is counted before you try to play it on guitar.

Once again, the metronome marking is dotted quarter note = 80 bpm. Now, the metronome is set to click on beats 1, 4, and 7 of each measure.

B. Picking Pattern

Play this exercise using all downstrokes. This will give it a heavy, deliberate sound.
Chapter 6: (05:51) 12/8 Time Signature 12/8 has the same overall feel as 6/8. A measure of 12/8 is simply twice as long. The eighth note still receives the beat. Now, there are 12 beats per measure instead of 6. 12/8 is generally used for faster tempos. Just like 6/8, eighth notes are placed in four groups of 3. Due to this grouping, beats 1, 4, 7, and 9 receive a slight accent. This produces a similar feel to playing a measure of triplets in 4/4 time.

12/8 Riff

This riff is played in the style of death metal legends Cannibal Corpse. Similar riffs can be found throughout their album entitled The Bleeding.

Once again, do not follow the indicated metronome marking. Multiply by 2 to get the eighth note pulse. Then, divide this number by three to get the pulse of the dotted quarter note. This will produce a click on beats 1, 4, 7, and 9. Use downpicking throughout the riff to create a heavy sound. This riff is played in the key of Em, but it features a lot of chromaticism.

The beginning of the riff uses E whole / half diminished scale. The end of the riff features a switch to the half / whole version of the E diminished scales. Minor third power chords are used as well. These elements are staples of extreme death metal and black metal music.
Chapter 7: (00:30) Part One Wrap-up Preview of Next Lesson

Make sure that you understand all of the counting, rhythm, and time signature concepts that Dennis has discussed in this lesson before advancing to the next lesson. In lesson 9, he covers more challenging and rare time signatures. Once again, Dennis will provide sample riffs to practice in each signature.

Video Subtitles / Captions


Member Comments about this Lesson

Discussions with our instructors are just one of the many benefits of becoming a member of JamPlay.

midnightbosemidnightbose replied

This is great Dennis! Learning a lot. Thanks!

arthnagpal112233arthnagpal112233 replied

Dennis, you are AMAZING with the guitar...but i still coudnt understand much 'bout the octave chords...

brownstarbrownstar replied

Dennis u are awesome glad to be ur student F yeah!!

tangohuntertangohunter replied

The last measure of the 2nd 3/4 riff is kicking my butt. I'm having a hard time counting it out.

madman066madman066 replied

You are not alone man. lol

J.artmanJ.artman replied

I love the 6/8 riff. As soon as I heard it I had to go listen to some Megadeth - Go To Hell. Great song. I can not wait to tackle these riffs. I'm waiting for my Schecter to arrive in a day or two...kinda hard to do these on an acoustic.

J.artmanJ.artman replied

Whoops, I mean the 9/8 riff.

metalheadmclovinmetalheadmclovin replied

Ahhh great lesson. Love the riffs. Exspecially the 3rd one for the 3/4.

omrisamaomrisama replied

Shit, this is confusing again.

Metal with Dennis

Found in our Beginner Lesson Sets

Get ready to rock in this metal lesson series with Dennis Hodges. From 80's Metal to modern Dennis loves it all.

Basics of MetalLesson 1

Basics of Metal

Dennis covers important guitar basics such as note names and technical exercises.

Length: 33:00 Difficulty: 1.0 Members Only
Power Chords and RhythmLesson 2

Power Chords and Rhythm

Dennis introduces power chords and basic rhythm concepts. Both subjects are very important to the metal genre.

Length: 22:00 Difficulty: 1.5 Members Only
Essential Techniques 1Lesson 3

Essential Techniques 1

Learn a variety of essential techniques commonly used in the metal genre, including palm muting, string slides, and chord slides.

Length: 36:52 Difficulty: 2.0 FREE
Essential Techniques 2Lesson 4

Essential Techniques 2

Metal lesson 4 brings you some info on hammer-ons, pull-offs, trills, bending, and the infamous pinch harmonics.

Length: 45:25 Difficulty: 2.0 Members Only
Left Hand OverloadLesson 5

Left Hand Overload

Dennis delivers left hand techniques and exercises, with topics including spider walking / riffing, octaves, stretching and 4 practice riffs.

Length: 62:36 Difficulty: 3.0 Members Only
Rhythm and TimingLesson 6

Rhythm and Timing

While using a metronome, Dennis covers essential techniques and exercises to obtain great rhythm and timing.

Length: 35:00 Difficulty: 2.0 Members Only
Lesson 7

"Metal Poisoning"

Written just for JamPlay and his Metal series, this song will allow you to put all your techniques to use in a musical manner.

Length: 28:54 Difficulty: 3.0 Members Only
Time Signatures Part 1Lesson 8

Time Signatures Part 1

In this lesson Dennis teaches the following common time signatures: 3/4, 4/4, 6/8, 9/8, and 12/8. Dennis explains each signature and provides a short example for illustration.

Length: 33:12 Difficulty: 1.5 Members Only
Time Signatures Part 2Lesson 9

Time Signatures Part 2

This time around Dennis explains odd time signatures. Similar to Part 1, he uses a musical example to illustrate each new signature.

Length: 45:07 Difficulty: 2.5 Members Only
Rhythm Pt. 2Lesson 10

Rhythm Pt. 2

Dennis continues his metal series with part two of his look at rhythm and timing.

Length: 56:24 Difficulty: 2.5 Members Only
Right Hand OverloadLesson 11

Right Hand Overload

This lesson is the long lost sibling to "Left Hand Overload."

Length: 52:11 Difficulty: 3.0 Members Only
Dennis Hodges

About Dennis Hodges View Full Biography For better or worse, Dennis Hodges cannot stop playing music, and (he hopes) will never stop playing music.

Growing up in Flint, Michigan, Dennis had a tremendous passion for drawing. He couldn't stop copying moves from bands he saw on MTV, though, and it didn't help that his parents filled the house with Santana, Stevie Ray, and Allman Bros. (on real records, no less!) so it wasn't long till he got his first guitar. It was junk. Within a few weeks his parents traded in a poor acoustic for a less junky 3/4-size electric.

Dennis started lessons right away at the age of 8. He still remembers hating it for awhile, and not taking it seriously until he was 12. He is thankful his parents forced him to practice early on and kept paying for lessons, even though rational thinking should have stopped them after a year.

Around this time drawing became less important, and guitar consumed all his attention. After 6 years of lessons he parted ways with his teacher and, after trying out two others with no results, decided to continue alone. His nerdistic tendencies paid off, as he put in hours working on picking and left hand exercises and learned as many Randy Rhoads and Kirk Hammett solos as he could.

Luckily, there were playing opportunities at school talent shows and church. Dennis was playing bass at his church when he was 13, helping to hone his performance skills in a group setting.

In high school, Dennis joined the marching band on sousaphone for all 4 years. It was as awesome as you could expect. He was also fortunate enough to be in several different metal bands, still play at church, and get the incredible opportunity to play guitar for many local community theaters. This kept his sight-reading in shape and gave him an appreciation for different styles of music (and paid pretty well, from a high schooler's perspective).

In 2001, Dennis came to Bexley, Ohio to study guitar at Capital University with Stan Smith. His studies emphasized jazz and classical guitar. Here his metal past merged with a deeper understanding of the instrument and music in general, and the basis for most of his teaching style was set in motion.

Dennis now plays guitar for Upper Arlington Lutheran Church every Sunday, for St. Christopher in Grandview, Ohio, with the youth group, and also plays for touring Broadway shows that stop in Columbus. Occasionally, he plays weddings and private parties, and he is starting a new cover band with some friends, called Dr. Awkward. He is blessed to have his understanding and supportive wife Kate, and is glad to be at JamPlay!

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