Music Theory Lesson: Triplets
One way to add rhythmic interest and variety to country and bluegrass music is through the use of irregular rhythms (also called irrational rhythm or artificial division). An irregular rhythm is any rhythm that involves dividing the beat differently from what’s allowed by the time signature. The most common of these divisions is called a triplet.
A triplet is a rhythm that involves playing three notes in the space of two. In other words, three evenly spaced notes in the space of two notes that have the same rhythmic value.
Let’s look at an example
One of the most common triplets is the eighth note triplet. An eighth note triplet consists of three notes played in the space of two eighth notes. You might find it easier to think of the eighth note triplet as three notes played over the span of one quarter note (as 1 quarter note = 2 eighth notes).
Here’s one measure of all eighth notes
Now here’s a measure of eighth note triplets
Triplets are notated with the number three over or under the triplet notes. Sometimes there’s a slur mark (an arc-shaped line) or a bracket. Other times, as shown in the example above, there will be three notes beamed together with the number three above/below the beam. All of these triplet notations mean the exact same thing.
One common way to verbally count triplets is to say “trip – ah – let” for each triplet. If you have multiple triplets in a row, you could say “One – Trip – Let, Two – Trip – Let, etc.” There’s no wrong way to count triplets so feel free to create your own method if you like.
Different Kinds of Triplets
Triplets can be played with different durations such as quarter note triplets, eighth note triplets, sixteenth note triplets, etc. Don’t let these names confuse you. An eighth note triplet does not mean you play three eighth notes in a row, but instead, it means you squeeze three notes within the span of two eighth notes. Triplets are named after the two notes of equal value that they are “replacing”. Sixteenth note triplets would consist of three notes played within the span of two sixteenth notes. See the example illustrated below.
One measure of all sixteenth notes
One measure of sixteenth note triplets
Using triplets in country and bluegrass music
Triplets are very important for country and bluegrass guitar players. Mixing triplets into your flatpicking will give your guitar playing a bit of extra twang and variety. Let’s try this out with an example.
Play through the two country and bluegrass licks below. The first lick is written in all eighth notes and it does not have any triplets. The second lick is the same except we’re going to kick it off with a couple of eighth note triplets. Hear how the triplets add a nice rhythmic quality? There are several different ways to incorporate triplets into country and bluegrass licks and we’ll cover some different lick ideas in future Gold Pick weekly lesson videos.
Guitar Lick #1 – All Eighth Notes
Guitar Lick #2 – Eighth Note Triplets