Learn to Play the Guitar in Two Weeks, Day 4: Tablature and Rhythm

My original idea was to write a post in this series each day for two weeks. Obviously, I won’t be able to keep up that speed, but I’m sure you can find things to practice on even on days without a new post.

One of the reasons why it takes longer than planned is of course that I can’t keep from blabbering on about theory and such. It’s an occupational injury I have, but I also happen to think it’s a good thing to know why things are the way they are.

You can take it or leave it. I try to separate the theory from the practical contents, so that if you just want the chord shapes and the hints on playing technique, it should be fairly easy to find it.


I’d be interested to know if anyone actually follows this series, and if you do, what progress you’re making. Please also let me know if soemthing is unneccessarily unclear or just not explained well enough.
Use the comment area. Someone else may have the same question as you.

Dylancentric? Me?

Uhm… yes. But that’s beside the point.

I use Dylan’s music as a reference point and as material for the exercises, but that’s not only because this is a Dylan oriented blog, but because Dylan is probably the best guitar tutor you can get. His way of playing — when he plays unaccompanied, that is — is outstanding in many ways which are worthy goals:

  • Technically proficient. Don’t let anyone tell you that Dylan can’t play the guitar! Sure, there are wizards who can outplay him, but he has a solid technical foundation both in his right hand and in the left.
  • Musically interesting. It is obvious to me that Dylan knows what is going on in the music he is making (it is equally obvious that he has never read a theoretically oriented blog…).
  • Practically apt. Dylan is a performer — originally a solo performer — and his playing has to work on a stage and not just in a studio or in his livingroom. He uses a fairly narrow set of tools to maximum effect. It sounds much more advanced and complicated than it is. The good thing about that is that it is easy to borrow his tricks (which aren’t really tricks — there is no magic, just simple ways of doing things).

Reading Tablature

I am going to talk mainly about rhythm today, but first two words about tablature — “tab” for short.

Tablature is a representation of what happens on each of the strings of the guitar over time.

                          Time ----->
1st string (brightest) e' -------------------------------------
2nd string             b  -------------------------------------
3rd string             g  -------------------------------------
4th string             d  -------------------------------------
5th string             A  -------------------------------------
6th string (darkest)   E  -------------------------------------

The system is the same as for the shorthand chord notation: 0 means open string, 1 the first fret, etc. In fact, a stave of tablature is just a sequence of shorthand chords turned on the side. The sequence G – D – Am7 from “Knockin’ on Heaven’s door” would be written 320003 xx0232 x02210 in shorthand, and in tab notation:

  G        D        Am7

It takes a little more space (and a little more typing), but what is gained is (a) the time dimension, and (b) the ability to write melodies and other details which don’t involve all the strings, plus (c) the closer visual approximation to what’s going on in the music.

For example,


is a melody we all know well: the beginning of Blowin’ in the Wind.

It gets even more clear if we also add the rhythm:

  :   .   .   .     :   .   .   .     :   .   .   .     :   .

Each dot above the lines indicate a beat, the colon marks the first beat in the measure, and for extra visual clarity, the measures are separated with barlines, just as in ordinary notation. Tap your foot with each dot, and you should get a fairly stiff but essentially correct version of the song.

It should be noted that most tabs you will find on the net don’t follow this practice, but will notate the melody as in the first example above, perhaps with a slight but unsystematic difference in distance according to longer and shorter note values. I find that fairly useless (unless you more or less know the song inside out already, in which case you hardly need a tab), and all the tabs you will find on dylanchords use the more precise notation with the rhythms indicated.

One last thing: “tab” is short for “tablature” which is the name for this particular kind of notation. It goes back to the renaissance, but has seen its own renaissance in the days of the internet. Most of the files you will find on “tab sites” aren’t really “tabs”, but plain chord files — lyrics with the chord changes written out.

Not that it matters, but in case anyone wondered.

For the sake of completeness, here is a snapshot of the guitar neck, with all the note names written in. If you wonder what’s up with the upper- and lowercase letters etc., it’s the standard system to indicate octaves: the “Great” octave is the deepest you will find on the guitar; the “little” octave goes from c to b, the “one-lined” from c’ to b’, etc.

0          1         2        3       4      5
b ||----c'----|---c#'---|---d'---|--eb'--|--e'--|---
g ||----ab----|----a----|---bb---|---b---|--c'--|---
d ||----eb----|----e----|---f----|---f#--|--g---|---
A ||----Bb----|----B----|---c----|---c#--|--d---|---
E ||----F-----|----F#---|---G----|---Ab--|--A---|---

The full c major scale goes like this:

  E  F  G  A  B  c  d  e  f  g  a  b  c' d' e' f' g'


What makes the guitar so special is that it is rhythm section and harmony section at the same time. So far, we’ve mostly talked about the harmony section, for which the left hand has the main responsibility. The right hand is the timekeeper.

There are two main right-hand techniques: strumming (in one form or another, with or without a pick, etc.), and fingerpicking. We’ll leave the fingerpicking to a later post.

Strumming is first and foremost a way to mark the time. Time — that’s the domain of clocks. A clock — a good old one — has a pendulum that swings from side to side. Your arm can also be a pendulum, and that idea is the foundation of a good right-hand technique.

Instead of thinking of strumming as striking the chords when you want a sound to come out, it could be seen as this: move your hand past the strings in a continuous and regular up-and-down movement, and once in a while you actually touch the strings and make a sound. The movement, the rhythm, is there all the time, and the sound grows out of that movement (as opposed to: the rhythm comes out of the sounds).

That is to say: rhythm is primary — the actual sounds secondary.

When I say: “once in a while you actually touch the strings”, it shouldn’t be as random and accidentally as that may sound. You would usually follow a pattern. The two simplest patterns are:

  :   .   .   .                 :   .   .   .
|-v---v---v---v---|    and    |-v-^-v-^-v-^-v-^-|

"v" denotes a downstroke, from the deepest
to the brightest strings, "^" an upstroke.
Play with any chord you like.

On this foundation, the sky is the limit for variations and combinations of different patterns, from the simple

  :   .   .   .                 :   .   .   .
|-v---v-^-v---v-^-|    or     |-v---v-^-v-^-v-^-|

to the more complex

  :   .   .   .                 :   .   .   .
|-v-----^---^-v-^-|    or     |-v---v-^---^-v---|

Just to give an idea.

Disclaimer: The constant up-and-down movement is not necessarily something you should emphasise — that might seem stressful, e.g. if you’re just playing regular downstrokes — but it’s a good idea to keep it in mind as a mental image.

Rhythm and tempo

A particularly nosy and irritating student might ask: “But didn’t you say earlier that one should be climate-friendly and don’t waste energy? If my hand is already down there after a downstroke, why should I then move it up again without playing anything? Couldn’t I play:

  :   .   .   .


The answer is threefold. (a) Most/all music has an underlying pattern of weak and strong beats. The downstroke is heavier than the upstroke, and is therefore usually used with the heavy beats in the measure. (b) What if, after your first measure above, you want to play some shorter rhythms? you might end up with a mess like:

  :   .   .   .     :   .   .   .

which is not necessarily wrong, but the regular pendulum movement of your arm is broken, and with that the most reliable tool to keep track of time and hold a steady rhythm.

(c) Your pattern could be seen as a twice as slow version of this:

  :   .   .   .

The difference is not so much the tempo itself, as the the way the tempo feels. If downstrokes imply beat, attack, emphasis, naturally a pattern like

  :   .   .   .

will sound more energetic than

  :   .   .   .

even though the actual tempo is the same.

Take e.g. the classic rock’n’roll pattern, which you should be able to play now, if not perfectly, then at least good enough for this example:

  :   .   .   .     :   .   .   .

Try it first with only downstrokes, then in the same tempo but with the down-up-down-up pattern, and feel the difference.

The extreme example of this relationship between time and pattern, is reggae. A typical reggae guitar will hardly ever play a regular downstroke, but rather mark the rhythm by muting all the strings on the downstroke, and then play the full chord on the upstroke:

  :       .         :       .


  :       .         :       .

(“x” marks a muted stroke. This is most easily done if you play barre chords, which we haven’t come to yet: one releases the pressure on the strings but keeps the fingers on them, so that they are muted. For the full effect using ordinary chords, one would have to place a finger over the strings, which is not a beginner’s technique, but for now, you can just dampen the strings you have fingers on, or leave them out altogether, as in the upper version, and mark the beats with your foot instead.)

What to play with

Many — not only beginners — use the thumb for the right-hand strumming. I can’t say that that is wrong, but personally I only do that if I want some special effect, such as a softer sound or some kind of slap effect. I prefer to use the index finger, for several reasons.

One is that the nail gives the downstrokes a certain edge and, conversely, the upstrokes a certain softness. In other words, the difference between up- and down-strokes is emphasised. This is, coming to think of it, an aesthetic decision: I choose to strengthen the dynamic between weak and strong.

If that is too subtle and theoretical, the second reason is more practical: the index finger is more easily fine-tuned, you have (or at least: I have) more precise control over what you’re doing, than with the cruder thumb.

The third reason is that if one uses the index finger, the hand position is the same as with a plectrum. In fact, I tend to hold my hand as if I had a plectrum there.

This is not written in stone; it’s just what I do and why. There are other possibilities, such as playing with more than one finger, or using the thumb on downstrokes and the other fingers on upstrokes. That way, we’re almost half-ways to fingerpicking.

The disadvantage of using the index finger, is that the nail tends to be worn down quickly. That’s particularly troublesome if one, like me, uses the nails for fingerpicking. I’ll come back to the question about nails later on.


That’s it for today. I’d better post this now, and leave some stuff for the days to come. Tomorrow: some more chords, and some more interesting things to do with them, such as: ways to get from one chord to the next.

13 thoughts on “Learn to Play the Guitar in Two Weeks, Day 4: Tablature and Rhythm

  1. hej eyolf,
    great job; gonna try to learn to play at least in a decent way using your lessons.
    hope it works.
    tack ska du ha.

  2. Excellent! Very good guide, I´m trying to learn to play guitar and with my previous musical knowledges plus this guide I´m doing very well. Keep on giving us Dylan´s songs as example, I love him and I really want to learn how to play his songs.
    Bye bye!
    Matias from Argentina

  3. Very useful! I’ve been playing guitar occasionally for years (of course to try singing some dylan’s stuff) but I still find it useful to get some basic theory and some practical hints like yours. Thans a lot and go ahead!!
    giuseppe from italy

  4. I will follow through the series, of course.. :)
    Glad you talked about playing with index finger: for some reason I have more control and better/softer/more professional sound with it than with the plectrum. With plectrum I somehow cannot attain this full continueus sound…So you say that using your index finger is a legitimate way of playing (and not just a dirty compromise?) Is his Bobness strumming with his index finger also?
    Thanx for your efforts,

  5. I don’t know if Dylan strums with his fingers; I don’t think so. I do remember a picture from one of the big interviews in 1997 (I think it was), where he clearly has “playing nails” on the right hand.
    If playing with the index finger is not legitimate, then I don’t have a legitimate technique. In general I would say: the only thing that would make a technique non-legitimate is if it prevents you from doing something else, or if it lets you do at a greater price what you could just as well do in another way with no or less cost. As an example, holding too tightly around the neck (so that you strain you muscles) or holding your right hand at too sharp an angle, with the fingers almost parallel to the strings (so that you decrease your mobility), are probably bad techniques because you don’t gain anything from it, whereas using your thumb will be unlegitimate in some styles (classical guitar) and perfectly right in others (Dylan-style).
    The only thing you lose by using your index finger is that the wear on the nail may prevent you from using it for fingerpicking, as I mentioned.

  6. I used to like dylan 40 years ago and decided to drop it for a while and see what i could do with life on my own. I picked up a guitar not long ago and found some new dylan songs and wonder why it is so hard to remember the lyrics and sometimes the tune. Songs like ‘no dark yet’, desolation row, she belongs to me. love minus zero, if y ou see her say hello and missisippi tells me some old values are worth preserving . Great web site you have done have you any video’s ?

  7. Hello Eyolf,
    a lot of widtom in your words especially regarding the section on rhythm. I think it woudl be great if you had a sound recoring to demonstrate your thought . some things just need sound even the pronounciation of your name is difficult without a sound clue. For a non english student try pronouncing rhythm wiithout a sound clue regards john

  8. Eyolf, re: theory: I am glad you put some of it in your posts. “I also happen to think it’s a good thing to know why things are the way they are” is exactly why I like it.

  9. Eyolf,

    Thank you for these posts. You are peppering theory in a way that I can follow in the flow of the lesson. I have a post of an original on youtube to give you an idea of where my playing is (or isn’t) at. No self promotion here just to let you know that your time and effort here will go to helping someone develop what they are trying to do.


    When I started about a year ago I knew as far as guitar playing goes I wanted to play like Dylan does on World Gone Wrong. Still do.

  10. Not quite sure where to comment this in your series, but do you think you could explain the technique bob dylan picked up in the late 80’s? which lonnie Johnson taught him in the early 60’s he doesn’t explain it in a way I completely understand in his book “Chronicles: volume 1′

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