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Getting Triplets All Wrong

Triplets are probably the most misunderstood rhythm for beginning musicians. The most troublesome part is beginners often think they understand it when they don’t! Even if you’re certain you understand triplets, you should go through this lesson.

First, because this is where most people go wrong, I want to point out what triplets aren’t before I explain what they are.

A triplet is not simply any grouping of three notes. Students are often confused thinking that when 3 notes are played close together, or if they are beamed together in written music, that they are triplets. That’s not necessarily so. A triplet is a specific rhythm, not a note grouping.

What Are Triplets and Eighth Note Triplets?

8th notes compared to 8th note tripletsA triplet is a rhythm playing three notes in the space of two. That is, three evenly spaced notes in the space of two notes of the same rhythmic value.

The most common example is the 8th note triplet. An eighth note triplet rhythm is 3 notes played in the space of 2 eighth notes. You may find it easier to think of the eighth note triplet as being 3 notes dividing a quarter note (since 1 quarter note = 2 eighth notes).

Other triplets exist, too. The next most common is the quarter note triplet. A quarter note triplet is three notes dividing the space of two quarter notes (the same space as a half note).

Again, a triplet is not just 3 notes grouped together, but a specific rhythm consisting of three equally spaced notes.

Eighth Note Triplet Notation

Standard musical notation for 8th note tripletsIn music notation, triplets are always marked with the number 3 over or under the triplet notes. Sometimes triplets have a slur mark (an arc-shaped line), or they may have a bracket. Other times the 3 notes are just beamed together with the number 3 written near the beam. All of these forms of triplet notation mean the exact same thing.

Depending on what the music calls for, it's possible for one or two of the notes to be a rest.

Counting 8th Note Triplets

There are lots of ways musicians count triplets. There’s no one correct way to count triplets.

You might just say "trip – ah – let" for each triplet.

Or, you might count "1 – Ah – Lee – 2 – Ah – Lee – 3 – Ah – Lee – 4 – Ah – Lee."

Or, "One – Trip – Let, Two – Trip – Let, …"

Playing 8th Note Triplets

It’s really important to learn to feel and play the 8th note triplet rhythm. You will encounter it in most every style of music. The 8th note triplet is an essential rhythmic element for many styles like blues, jazz, and a lot of rock.

A lot of people ask whether they need to pluck triplets with 3 fingers instead of just two. Some people do that, but it’s certainly not necessary.

After playing steady 8th triplets comfortably, you’ll want to be able to go freely between other rhythms and the triplets. As with everything, practice enough and it will become automatic. No one can do it for you!

See the 8th note triplet exercises page to hear and practice your triplets.