Triplets on Guitar: How to Play Them and Exercises to Build Your Technique
In this lesson we’re going to explore triplets on guitar. Rhythmically, triplets are quite a bit different than quarter, eighth, and sixteenth notes and can really add a cool feel to both rhythm playing and lead guitar licks. So in this lesson we’ll break down what triplets are, how to play them, and some exercises for building technique with triplets on the guitar.
What are triplets?
Triplets are when a beat is divided into three notes.
1 beat = 3 notes
So if we consider 4/4 time, or common time, where 4 beats make up a measure, if you played triplets for each beat you would play a total of 12 notes in the measure. In 3/4 time, triplets over each beat would result in 9 notes in the measure.
In guitar tablature, triplets are notated a bit differently than standard 8th notes. They’re notated in a group of three connected notes, with a bracketed 3 above/below the flags depending on the flag direction.
Each grouping of 3 notes is equal to 1 beat. So in 4/4 time, you’ll have four groups of 3 notes. In 3/4 time, you would have three groups of 3 notes, etc.
How to play triplets with a metronome
If you were to play triplets with a metronome, for each click you would play 3 notes. Take a listen to the audio below to hear the difference between 8th notes and 8th note triplets.
Triplet exercises on guitar
The exercises below will help build your technique with playing triplets. We’ll start off just working on the picking hand and keep the fretting hand minimally involved. This will help keep the focus on just the work the picking hand is doing as the picking patterns can be tricky at first.
We’ll then start to incorporate the fretting hand using chromatic exercise patterns and then incorporate some scale exercises with triplets.
As always, practice the exercises with a metronome. One thing to note is that when playing triplets you’re squeezing more notes into a beat, which means by default you’ll be playing faster than if you were playing standard 8th notes. For this reason, you may need to start with a lower tempo on the metronome until you get comfortable with the rhythm and timing of triplets.
Triplet Picking Exercises
When playing triplets, or anything else that is picked for that matter, it’s important to have a solid foundation with the picking hand. The rhythm of triplets at first can be a bit awkward, so the focus of the picking exercises will be to get comfortable with the picking rhythm.
For each exercise, you’ll be using alternate picking, which means you alternate between down strokes and up strokes when picking the notes. Because triplets are an odd number, the emphasis on the beat will alternate between up strokes and down strokes. This can feel a little weird at first, so take your time and start slow until you’ve established a level of comfort with the feel of this alternating pattern.
In this first exercise, the fretting hand won’t even be on the guitar. You’re just going to focus solely on picking triplets on the open low E string using alternate picking. Pay close attention to the emphasis on the beat, particularly when it falls on an upstroke.
This exercise should be practiced across all strings.
The second exercise builds on the first by incorporating a string change from string 6 to 5 and back to 6. For this exercise, you’re just going to hold a static G chord, so there will be no movement required with the fretting hand.
For the transition between strings, moving from the first triplet to the second, you may find it easier to use economy picking to move to string 5. After that, alternating inside picking will probably feel best.
In this exercise, we take exercise 2 a step further and play across three strings while holding the G major chord. This forces consecutive uses of economy picking between triplets and introduces an additional challenge to keeping your tempo.
For the last picking exercise, we’re going to expand the previous two exercises across all six strings and pick over the full G major chord.
Chromatic Triplet Exercises
With this next group of exercises we’re going to get the fretting hand more involved by incorporating chromatic movements into the triplets.
Chromatic Exercise 1
In this first exercise, we’re going to take a basic chromatic exercise and pick triplets for each fretted note. At first glance this may seem simplistic, but it’s a great exercise to help synchronize the picking and fretting hands. Start slow and make sure each each note in the chromatic sequence is played cleanly.
Chromatic Exercise 2
This exercise builds on the first and begins to incorporate vertical movement across the fretboard into the pattern. First, you’re ascending across all strings with the same pattern as in exercise 1. When you reach string 1, reverse the movement and play the pattern descending back to the starting point.
Note that the tab below does not depict the entire exercise, just the start of the ascending and descending sequences.
Chromatic Exercise 3
Now we’re going to incorporate a bit more movement from the fretting hand and play triplets in two note pairs. With this exercise, really pay attention to the accent on the first note of the triplet. This will help you groove the note sequence.
This exercise can also be extended and played ascending and descending across the fretboard.
Triplet Scale Exercises
With the next group of exercise we’re going to apply triplets to the pentatonic scale, but similar sequences can be used with any major or minor scale as well. When playing through these exercises, again be sure to apply the emphasis on the beat to reinforce the rhythm of the triplets.
All of the examples in this section are using the A minor pentatonic scale.
In exercise one, we’re simply playing a vertical sequence using the A minor pentatonic. Each group of triplets contain a repeating note that gives these triplets a stutter type feel.
In this exercise, you are again going to play a vertical sequence using the A minor pentatonic scale. However, the triplet groupings in this pattern do not have a repeating note. Each triplet contains three different notes. These triplets will create more of a rolling feel when played. Compare the feel of this exercise to the previous.
Scale Exercise 3
In this exercise we’re going to incorporate triplets into an extended pentatonic lick. We’re going to stick to the A minor pentatonic and play the lick through positions 5, 1, and 2.
In this lesson we learned about triplets on guitar, including the note values, tab notation, and exercises to improve technique in playing them. If you follow through with the exercises in this lesson, you can build a solid foundation with triplets. From here, expand on these exercises by using different note groupings, scale and picking patterns, and begin to apply them in a musical context.
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