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How to Strum Guitar in 6/8 Time?

14 December 2016
So far in this mini-series we have looked at 4/4 and 3/4 time signatures. Both of these are described as ‘simple’ time signatures – this just means that each main beat can be subdivided by 2. There is a separate class of time signatures to describe rhythms where instead of dividing main beats by 2, you can divide them by 3 and these are called compound time signatures.

By convention, compound signatures are written with a number 8 as the lower figure. This means that music in 6/8 for example is written based on groups of quavers grouped in three so you could count a bar of 6/8 as 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 etc. There is an accent on the first and fourth beats – this effectively gives a bar of 6/8 a feel of two main beats, each sub-divided by three. So instead of counting it 123 456, I suggest counting it 1 and a 2 and 1 and a 2…as shown in the video above.

The simplest way to strum in 6/8 time is to use all down strokes and make the main beats long, with the pick pushing across all of the string to accentuate the first and fourth beats. In between these main beats, I am really just contacting one or two strings very lightly to keep things ticking over. Well known songs played in 6/8 include House of the Rising Sun which can strum along to using this basic approach, but notice watch the video above to see what happens if we apply the famous arpeggio picking pattern originated by Hilton Valentine on the Animals version of the song.   

This pattern, that probably caused more people of my generation to take up guitar playing than any other single song, is achieved simply by doubling the second of the six beats in the bar – 1, 2&3, 4, 5, 6 or 1 e & a 2 & a.

When strumming along to songs in 6/8 time you can allow yourself to double some of the beats here and there using upstrokes. For example, a great tune that is sometimes played in 6/8, Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’. You’ll notice in the video above how I can happily double some of the beats almost at random to create different strumming patterns that all work fine with this song.

Secret Guitar Teacher members can access a tab for these songs by clicking here and in the next lesson we’ll move on and explore the other commonly used compound time signature – 12/8.

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