In the Fall 2023 issue, I delved into strumming patterns and grooves in common time, with four quarter beats per measure, covering styles including Hawaiian swing, reggae, ska, jazz, and more. This time around, I’ll be shifting our focus to meters in three. Although less commonly explored, there’s an undeniable allure to music played in 3/4, 6/8, and 12/8 time signatures. The shifts in rhythm certainly captivate us as listeners when we encounter waltzes, the gentle sway of folk tunes, doo-wop harmonies, gospel rhythms, swinging blues, and soulful rock.
In the accompanying video, I showcase these examples using a straightforward chord progression (D–A–G) from my song “America,” originally composed in 6/8 time. As you work through these examples, you may notice how the melody is influenced by the various grooves. I invite you to join me in this enjoyable challenge as we delve into the enchantment of playing in triple meter.
Although music was played in 3/4 time (three quarter notes per bar) back in the 13th century, the form of waltz we know today rose to popularity in the 18th century, during the Romantic era. The word waltz comes from the German word walzen and the Latin word volvere, which means turning or rotating. Both a music and a dance form in three counts, the waltz has gone from music of the peasants to charming and elegant, and continues
to influence music today.
Waltz meter, used for such songs as “Edelweiss” and “Blue Danube Waltz,” is best counted one, two, three, etc. As shown in Example 1, the first beat is usually played strong and the following two beats are weak. Play the figure using all downstrums, emphasizing beat 1 with a full strum and using a lighter touch or even partial strums on 2 and 3. You could also try adding a rolled strum on beat 1 to create extra emphasis.
For a more efficient strum, Example 2 shows a different approach, using an upstrum on beat 2. This might take some getting used to, as there are two downstrums in a row, on beat 3 and the downbeat of the following measure. For a more complicated pattern, try Example 3, which incorporates a down index-finger strum on beat 1, then a down thumb strum on beat 2, and an upward index strum on beat 3. After you’ve learned this pattern, it will be easy to embellish your strumming further, and even play in common time while using triplets.
Another way to play waltz accompaniment is by fingerpicking single notes and dyads within a chord shape, as seen in Example 4, an excerpt from “America.” In this pattern, the lower note is picked by the thumb on beat 1, and the middle and ring fingers play the E and A strings simultaneously on beats 2 and 3.
And now for a little more technical discussion. The waltz is an example of a triple meter—that means having three beats per measure. In 3/4 time, the beats fall in three groupings of two eighth notes, as seen in Example 5. Adding eighth-note variations for each beat can be heard in accompaniment patterns on songs like “Rainbow Connection” (the Muppets), “Song for a Southern Boy” (Miss Tess), and on the verse of “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” (the Beatles).
There are also six eighth notes in a bar of 6/8—commonly associated with folk music, ballads, and jazz. But the eighths are often counted in two groups of three, rather than three groups of two. Try strumming in 6/8 using all down strums (Example 6), as heard on songs like “I Got You Babe” (Sonny & Cher). Be sure to emphasize beats 1 and 4, and beef them up with rolled strums if you’d like. If that feels like a lot of downstrums, you can insert some upstrums, as shown in Example 7.
For something a little more complicated, try the 6/8 pattern shown in Example 8, as applied to “America.” Designate your thumb, index, middle, and ring fingers to strings 4, 3, 2, and 1, respectively. I like to think of this fingerpicking pattern as a wave that goes out and comes back in. You can hear similar moves on “House Where Nobody Lives” (Tom Waits), “Can’t Help Falling in Love” (Elvis Presley), and “Hallelujah” (Jeff Buckley).
Of course, you needn’t play just eighth notes in 6/8 time. Example 9 adds 16ths on beats 2, 3, 5, and 6, helping emphasize beats 1 and 4, as they are the only eighth notes. This rhythmic pattern lends a nice swaying feel, used particularly in ballads and folk songs, as heard on “You and Me” (Lifehouse) and “Daughters” (John Mayer). Variations occur when playing dotted eighth notes on beats 1 and 4, so that beats 2 and 5 are ghosted, as in Example 10—a pattern heard on “Kid Fears” (Indigo Girls), “Vrbana Bridge” (Jill Sobule), and “Fade into You” (Mazzy Star).
Doubling a measure of 6/8 gives us 12/8 time, or 12 eighth notes per bar. This meter produces a distinct triplet feel (three evenly spaced notes per beat). It is rhythmically rich and can evoke a sense of movement and momentum, and is often used in doo-wop, gospel, soul, pop, rock, and blues.
Example 11 shows a steady eighth-note strumming pattern in 12/8, as heard on the doo-wop hit “Earth Angel (Will You Be Mine)” by the Penguins. This can be played with all downstrums or with the down-up-down variation (Example 12).The back beats might be played with a staccato strum followed by mutes, as in Example 13. It’s hard to avoid being soulful using this groove, which can be heard on “Gravity” (John Mayer), “At Last” (Etta James), and “Unchained Melody” (the Righteous Brothers). You can also create a swinging rhythm in 12/8 by counting it in as a slow four and playing a quarter note, followed by an eighth, on each beat (Example 14).A good example of this feel is heard on the rockin’ blues tune “Pride and Joy” (Stevie Ray Vaughan).
Playing in meters of three can be a great way to expand your playing and get out of the 4/4 rut. And, although it doesn’t always work, it’s refreshing to try and play songs that you might normally do in 4/4 time in 3/4, 6/8, or 12/8 time instead. It’ll especially feel different when the melody is added, but you just might like it!