Playing triplets is like riding a bicycle. Until we get the feel for it, they’re awkward and difficult.
Then, once they “click”, it’s a joyride.
The question is: how can we get them to “click”? How and what do we practice so we play triplets expressively and musically?
But first, what is a triplet?
What is a Triplet?
A triplet is a type of “tuplet”. And a “tuplet” involves splitting a beat into any number of equal parts. (We call these equal parts “subdivisions”.)
For instance, sixteenth notes split a beat into 4 equal parts (subdivisions). Eighth notes split a beat into two equal parts.
Triplets split a beat into three equal parts.
We may also encounter other, less common, tuplets, such as quintuplets (5), sextuplets (6), and so on.
Note: Eighth note triplets are the most common, and what we’ll be focusing on here. We also discuss other triplets toward the end of the article.
How to Count Triplets
It’s helpful to count aloud when we’re learning a new piece, or figuring out a rhythm.
To count triplets, we can use either of two common counting methods:
- Tri-p-let, Tri-p-let
- One-trip-let, Two-trip-let
Either will work. The second has the benefit of naming the beat within the measure. This can help in learning and memorization.
Use Your Mouth (It Helps.)
While it may take some getting used to, counting aloud is a powerful tool in practice.
Unless we know what we’re doing, we can’t say the words aloud in rhythm. When we clap and count a rhythm, we must know exactly where we are within the measure. And we must know where each note fits in relation to the others.
When we count silently to ourselves, we often “cheat”. When we become confused we stop counting, often without realizing it. We think we know the rhythm, but we don’t.
For more on counting aloud, take the free 14-day metronome course.
Rule #1: Triplets Are Even
Rule #1 when playing triplets is this: Triplets are even. This means they are of equal length.
Further below, we’ll examine some of the most common mistakes when playing triplets. Most mistakes playing triplets involve breaking this rule in some way.
Tip: Include the Next Downbeat (think 4, not 3)
When we count and play triplets, it’s helpful to include the next downbeat (the next note after the triplet beat).
Instead of thinking of the triplet as three notes, then the next note, we can instead include the next note. This makes four notes, not three.
When we think “forward” in this way, we more clearly demonstrate where the music is going. Short notes usually lead to long notes. So the notes of the triplet “want” to arrive at the downbeat (the note on the beginning of the beat or measure).
As a result, both we and listeners more clearly understand the music. It’s feels more “right” that way.
The Most Common Mistake Playing Triplets
The most common mistakes when playing triplets involve transforming the triplet rhythm into a sixteenth note rhythm.
Instead of three equal subdivisions, we get something like:
The Most Important Note in a Triplet
One note of the triplet has a larger role in communicating the rhythm than the others.
The downbeat (the note on the beginning of the beat), is in the same place regardless of whether we’re playing 8ths, 16ths or triplets.
It’s on the second note that we learn of the triplet.
So the placement of the second note of the triplet is the most crucial. When this note is placed with precision, we (listeners) know that the beat will be divided into three.
The placement of the second note of the triplet is the most crucial.
If this second note is placed slightly off 1/3 mark, the rhythm will too closely resemble a 16th note rhythm.
That said, if we’re not sure exactly where to place it, there’s a trick we can use….
When in Doubt, Stretch ’Em Out
It’s better to stretch triplets out (make each subdivision too large, though still equal) than to compress them.
When we play triplets too fast, we either change the rhythm to example A above, or we get to the next downbeat too soon. This makes the music sound rushed (because it is).
It’s better to stretch triplets out than to compress them.
As blasphemous as it sounds, it’s often more important to communicate the idea of the triplet (a rhythm that “floats” over the 16th note pulse) than it is to be metronomic (in strict time).
Rhythm (once mastered) can be used as an expressive device. This means that we can play more to the intention of the music (the expression) than the “letter of the law” (the metronome). To do this well, we must first be able to play in precise time. Otherwise it’s mayhem, and will likely come out schmaltzy, or just weird.
So practice triplets with precision, but when in doubt, stretch them out. It may not be “right”, but it may be less wrong.
How to Practice Triplets
So how do we master the triplet? What should we practice so we can play triplets with confidence and drive?
Triplets always exist within a context. But a piece could be all triplets. If so, once you start the ball rolling, it’s easy to continue.
Other classical guitar pieces use quarters, eighths and sixteenths. Here, we must play the triplet alongside one of those three other subdivisions.
So to master triplets, master transitioning from each of these three subdivisions to triplets and back.
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Triplets Against Quarters
The first step in mastering triplets is to gain confidence going from quarters to triplets and back again.
At this stage, count triplets when playing the quarter notes (just clap on the downbeat, but continue to count triplets throughout the beat). This way, we can “drop in” the triplets when we come to them. This means we’re not pulling the triplets “out of thin air”, but placing them in the right place.
Many metronomes offer the option clicking on triplets. This feature may be helpful at first.
Triplets Against Eighths
After we master triplets and quarters, we can move to triplets and eighths.
This is where a metronome set to quarter notes is recommended. Otherwise, we don’t get the feedback we need to make corrections.
Tip: alternate between quarters and eighths, and quarters and triplets. When that’s comfortable, alternate between eighths and triplets.
Triplets Against Sixteenths
Remember, eighth-note triplets last longer than sixteenths notes. Up until now, triplets “sped up”. Now, each note last longer than the sixteenths.
We can now build on our work with eighths and triplets to add in the sixteenths.
Quarter Note Triplets
Note: if you’re completely new to triplets, save these for later. Spend your time on the triplet rhythms above, and come back later.
While most triplets are eighth-note triplets (1 beat subdivided into 3 equal parts), we also have other forms of triplets.
Just as three eighth-note triplets take the time of two regular eighth notes, three quarter-note triplets take the time of two regular quarternotes.
To play quarter note triplets with precision, first subdivide the quarters into eighth note triplets. Then play every second note. See the accents below.
Half Note Triplets
In the same fashion as above, three half-note triplets happen in the space of two regular half notes.
And we can use the same method as above to find the exact placement of each note.
Note: When first figuring out these types of complex rhythms in a piece of music, we may have to play extremely slowly. That’s fine, and is all part of the job. Speed creates the illusion of perfection, so keep it slow until you know.
Some players find triplets daunting at first. But with time and attention, they become just another rhythm.
We can “baby-step” into triplets by playing a piece that only has one or two triplet rhythms. That way, we can focus on a specific musical problem.
At the same time, any work we do on triplets as a study unto themselves is an investment in good music-making.