How To Play 16 th Notes On Guitar (and build a rhythmic vocabulary)

In this lesson I explain the basics of rhythm. If you don’t know what a quarter note, an eight note, and a sixteenth note are yet, I suggest that you get a general idea of the basic elements of rhythm before proceeding with the rest of this lesson.

In today’s lesson we’ll be taking one element of rhythm on the guitar – 16th notes – and explore it thoroughly so that it becomes part of your rhythmic vocabulary.

You will be able to identify 16th notes when you see them, count them with ease as well as play them on your guitar.

What are 16th notes?

A 16th note (also called a semiquaver) is a quarter note (crotchet) divided by four.

In  4/4 time, or in any time signature where the lower number is four, the quarter note takes the beat, thus a 16th note is ¼ of a beat.

In this example, the quarter notes are in Bar 3 while the sixteenth notes are in Bar 5:

16th notes 1

How to count 16th notes

You can count 8th notes as 1 + 2 + 3 + 4 + and 16th notes as 1 e + ah, 2 e + ah, 3 e + ah, 4 e + ah.

(Pronounce the + as “and” or “an”)

The picking pattern remains a down stroke followed by an upstroke, as with eight notes – though this will change when we mix eight notes with sixteenth notes, as we’ll do later on in this lesson.

For now, just play the sixteenth notes while tapping with your foot on the beat and counting in your head.

Do this with a metronome and repeat this exercise at different tempos so that you internalize the feeling of this rhythmic subdivision.

To help with this it’s a good idea to accent the first note of each beat (you accent a note by picking it harder than the other notes).

16th notes 2

16th note patterns

Sixteenth notes give us new rhythmic options when combined with eight notes to form a beat.

We will explore each of them below.

8 – 16 – 16 

The first option is to play an eight note followed by two sixteenth notes.

Notice that the picking pattern is now down, down, up. 

The reason is that you want your right hand motion to keep going down, up, down, up – without striking the note while you’re going up on the second half of the eight note (when you’re counting “e”).

This concept applies to all 16th note guitar patterns on the same string. (When changing strings you may need to change this pattern if you’re using economy or directional picking).

16 – 16 – 8

In the next pattern we play two sixteenth notes first, followed by an eight note.

The picking pattern for each beat is now down, up, down – since we don’t hit the note while playing the last upstroke (on the “ah”).

Note: When combined with power chords, the two rhythmic patterns above make what is commonly known as the Heavy Metal gallop. They have been used countless times, in different forms and variations by bands like Iron Maiden and Metallica.

That being said, these rhythmic patterns are extremely common and used in all genres of music.

16 –  8 – 16

The other option we have is a sixteenth note, followed by an eight note, followed by a sixteenth note.

The picking for each beat is down, up, up. On the down stroke that falls on the “+”, make the downward motion with your hand without actually striking the note.

More combinations

The above are the rhythmic combinations you can get if you mix eight and sixteenth notes in each beat.

To add variety to your rhythms you’re not restricted to playing the same rhythmic combinations in every beat. 

The following exercises explore some of these options. Try coming up with other combinations yourself. Feel free to mix and match the rhythmic subdivisions that you have just learned as much as you want.

Always make sure that you test that you’re getting the timing right with a metronome. 

Where to go from here: Building a rhythmic vocabulary

If you’ve gone through every exercise in this lesson, you can identify, count and play 16th notes on the guitar.You can use this knowledge when learning music as well as when coming up with your own guitar riffs, licks, and solos.

There are other rhythmic elements you should learn and be able to use which include:

Triplets: When playing sixteenth notes we divided the beat into four equal notes. You play triplets by dividing the beat into three equal notes.

Rests: For every note duration there is an equivalent duration of silence (ex for a quarter note there is a quarter note rest). Rests are a very important element of phrasing. 

Something I notice with many beginners in guitar improvisation is that they don’t consider silence as an option when coming up with guitar solos. In reality, silence, and where it is placed, is as important as the notes.

Dots: A dot following a note increases the duration of that note by half of its value. Thus, if a quarter note is followed by a dot, it changes its duration to that of a quarter note and an eight note combined.

While the above are not all the rhythmic concepts that exist, once you have internalized these rhythmic elements, you will be able to understand the rhythmic aspect of most of the music you will be learning, and have a lot of options to choose from when creating your own.

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