Brett playing classical guitar
Understanding meter is critical to proper fingerstyle guitar playing.

To play fingerstyle guitar, you must have a rock-solid understanding of meter and different time signatures. Here's how to ensure that your timing is correct when learning fingerstyle guitar.

What Is Meter in Music?

Meter in music refers to how beats or pulses are organized in music. Beats occur at regular intervals, and we can group them together based on the musical events occurring in the song. For example, a melody contains two main parts, the notes and the rhythmic pattern which dictates when the notes occur. 

The meter provides a framework for the rhythms of a piece of music. By varying the placement of notes, rests, and accents, fingerstyle guitarists can create a wide variety of rhythmic patterns that are essential to the character and expression of the music.

The Time Signature

The meter, or time signature, is a symbol at the beginning of a piece of sheet music. The time signature contains two numbers. The top number represents the number of beats in a measure. The bottom number shows the type of note that represents one beat. Common time signatures include 4/4, 3/4, and 6/8.

In 4/4 time, also known as common time, there are four beats in a measure and a quarter note represents one beat. In 3/4 time, there are three beats in a measure and a quarter note represents one beat. In 6/8 time, there are six beats in a measure and an eighth note represents one beat.

Beats and Note Values

The relationship between the beats and the note values, such as quarter or eighth notes, is determined by the time signature of the piece. In 4/4 time, for example, there are four beats in a measure and a quarter note equals one beat. In this time signature, two eighth notes each also receive one beat.

In 6/8 time, there are six beats in a measure and an eighth note represents one beat. This means that the quarter note, which is typically worth one beat in 4/4 and 3/4 time, does not receive one beat in 6/8 time.

The Bottom Number Indicates The Type of Note That Receives One Beat

The reason for this is that the time signature indicates the number of beats in a measure and the type of note that represents one beat. In 6/8 time, the bottom number of the time signature is 8, indicating that an eighth note represents one beat. Therefore, a quarter note would be worth two beats in 6/8 time, rather than one beat.

Overall, the time signature determines how the note values are played within the measure. In 6/8 time, the quarter note does not receive one beat because the time signature indicates that an eighth note represents one beat.

Our Natural Body Rhythm

The natural body rhythm is the inherent beat that we feel within our bodies. In music, the time signature represents how this pulse is organized within the measure, or the repeating unit of beats in a piece of music.

Our natural body rhythm gives us an innate sense of rhythm. For example, you can naturally keep track of the pulse of music by tapping your foot or clapping along to the beat. This pulse helps us to naturally move and dance to the beat of a piece of music. 

Brett playing guitar and concentrating
Our natural body rhythm lets us enjoy music, and helps us to tap and clap along with the beat.

This natural body rhythm is the reason for the most common time signatures used in music. Most of our music is written with time signatures based on groupings of two or three beats.

Strong And Weak Beats

In music, the beats within a measure can be strong or weak. The strong beat is the first beat in our group of beats. The weak beat (or beats)s is the next beat in a grouping of two beats, or the next two beats in a grouping of three beats.

For example, in 4/4 time, the strong beats are the first beat of a measure, and the third beat. The weak beats are the beats that feel less emphasized and are the second and fourth beat in 4/4 time. In 3/4 time, the strong beat is the first beat, and the weak beats are the second and third beats.

Brett playing guitar in a park
The organization of rhythmic patterns around beats is a fundamental aspect of music that helps to give it its distinctive feel and groove.

Compound Time Signatures

The strong and weak beats in a measure are determined by the time signature.  With a compound time signature, the beats can typically be grouped together and you can count only the strong beats.

In a compound time signature, such as 6/8 time or 12/8 time, each beat is subdivided into three equal parts. Essentially, a compound time signature gives you the feeling of a triple meter inside of a double meter. This means that you should count each measure as if it only contained the strong beats, but each beat is divided into three parts instead of two.

In 6/8 time signature, the emphasis is on the first and fourth beat, which are the strong beats.  The second and third beats, as well as the fifth and sixth beats are the weak beats. One way to keep track is by using three syllable words: "rasp-ber-ry blue-ber-ry straw-ber-ry mul-ber-ry."

How to Count 12/8 Time Signature

In this meter, there are twelve beats in a measure and an eighth note represents one beat. The beats are grouped into groups of three, with each group of three beats counted together.

This means that in 12/8 time, you don't have to count "1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12" for each measure. Instead, you would group the counts into sets of three, like this:

Count 1 2 3 4
Beats 1-2-3 4-5-6 7-8-9 10-11-12

Notice that each count is made up of three beats. Sometimes, breaking down each beat into three parts can help with accuracy and timing.

Fingerstyle Songs That Use 12/8 Time Signature

This time signature is commonly used in blues and soul music, so you may already be familiar with some songs that use it. Some examples include "Kiss" and "The Milky Way" by Sungha Jung. These songs all have a distinct groove that's created by the 12/8 time signature, and they're great examples of how this time signature can be used in different genres of music.

Sungha Jung is a South Korean acoustic fingerstyle guitarist who effectively uses 12/8 time in his arrangement for "Perfect". In his arrangement for "Perfect," Sungha Jung uses the 12/8 time signature to create a flowing, lilting rhythm that supports the melody and adds a sense of movement to the piece.

Overall, there are many fingerstyle songs that use the 12/8 time signature. These songs can be challenging to play at first, but with practice, you can master the timing and fingerpicking patterns. If you are looking to improve your fingerstyle guitar playing, then the online course Play Fingerstyle Guitar Now! is a great place to start.