All About Triplets – How to Count and Play Triplet Rhythms

Playing triplets in music 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, a sixteenth note (semiquaver) splits a beat into 4 equal parts (subdivisions). An eighth note (quaver) splits a beat into two equal parts.

Triplets split a beat into three equal parts.

rhythm for music

Eighths = One quarter note beat divided in two

triplet rhythms

Triplet = One quarter note beat divided into three

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 Triplet Rhythms

It’s helpful to count aloud when we’re learning a new piece, or figuring out a rhythm.

To count triplets, we can use a method of saying syllables.  We can use either of two common counting methods:

  1. Tri-p-let, Tri-p-let
  2. One-trip-let, Two-trip-let
triplet music rhythm
count triplets in music

Whichever way it’s counted, either will work if you want to count the eighth note triplet. 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 note values aloud is a powerful tool in practice.  Rhythm and pulse are the glue that holds music together. 

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”. We’re not clear about where the syllables fall.  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, and then the next note, we can instead include the next note. This makes four notes, not three.

triplet mistake

A common mistake is to pause between the last note of the triplet and the next downbeat.

group triplets with the next downbeat

Think 4 equal notes, with no pause before the 4th.

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 at the beginning of the beat or measure).

As a result, both we and listeners more clearly understand the music. It 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:

triplets counting
triplet mistakes
triplet mistakes
common triplet errors


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 at the beginning of the beat) is in the same place regardless of whether we’re playing a quarter note (crotchet), eighth notes (quaver), sixteenth notes (semiquaver), or triplets.

It’s on the second note of the group that the listener recognizes we’re playing a 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 the 1/3 mark, the rhythm will too closely resemble a sixteenth 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 count and 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.  Some well-known pieces, like Spanish Romance, are like this.  If so, once you start the ball rolling, it’s easy to continue.

Other classical guitar pieces use the half note (minim), quarter notes (crotchet), eighth notes (quaver), and sixteenth notes (semiquavers) as well as triplets.  Here, we must play the triplet alongside one of those three other subdivisions.

So to master triplets, we need to master changing from each of these three subdivisions to triplets and back.

[If you’re logged in, Click Here to get the practice packet.]Woodshed Members see the bonus videos in the Woodshed Library.

Triplets Against Quarters

The first step in mastering triplets is to gain confidence going from the quarter note (crochet) 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 of clicking on triplets. This feature may be helpful at first.

alternate triplet and quarter notes

Alternate between triplets and quarter notes.

Triplets Against Eighths

After we master triplets and the quarter note, we can move to triplets and the eighth note.

This is where a metronome set to the quarter note is recommended. Otherwise, we don’t get the feedback we need to make corrections.

triplets and eighths

Once you’ve mastered triplets and quarter notes, add in eighth notes.

Tip: alternate between quarters and eighth notes, and quarters and triplets. When that’s comfortable, alternate between eighth notes and triplets.

Triplets Against Sixteenths

Remember, eighth note triplets last longer than sixteenth notes. Up until now, triplets “sped up” the music. Now, each note lasts longer than the sixteenth, so the rhythm slows. 

We can now build on our work with eighth notes and triplets to add in the sixteenth note.

triplets and sixteenths

Then we can work on playing triplets alongside sixteenths as well.

Quarter Note Triplets

Note: if you’re completely new to triplets, save these (and the following Half Note Triplet) for later. Spend your time on the triplet rhythms above, and come back later to the quarter note triplet.

While most triplets are eighth note triplets (1 beat subdivided into 3 equal parts), we also have other forms of triplets.

Just as three 8th note triplets take the time of two regular eighth notes, three quarter note triplets take the time of two regular quarter notes.

To play the quarter note triplets with precision, first, subdivide the quarters into eighth note triplets. Then play every second note. See the accents below.

quarter note triplets

Don’t guess: know the math and subdivide.

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.

half note triplets

Practice slowly, then speed up.

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.

Start Small

Some players find triplets daunting at first. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, because it means we take care to get them right.  With time and attention, they become just another rhythm like the half note and the quarter note

Eventually, we’ll be able to play triplets and common rhythms on different strings at the same time.  This is called a polyrhythm.

In the meantime, 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.

Allen Mathews

Hi, I’m Allen Mathews. 

I started as a folk guitarist, then fell in love with classical guitar in my 20’s. Despite a lot of practice and schooling, I still couldn’t get my music to flow well. I struggled with excess tension. My music sounded forced. And my hands and body were often sore. I got frustrated, and couldn’t see the way forward. Then, over the next decade, I studied with two other stellar teachers – one focused on the technical movements, and one on the musical (he was a concert pianist). In time, I came to discover a new set of formulas and movements. These brought new life and vitality to my practice. Now I help guitarists find more comfort and flow in their music, so they play more beautifully.
Click here for a sample formula.

Become a Member and Play More, Beautifully!

“The basics are the basics, and you can’t beat the basics.”
Charles Poliquin

Join the program that takes you from the beginning fundamentals to advanced mastery, so you…1

  • Move your hands safely and fluidly
  • Enjoy fulfilling practices and meaningful work
  • Play beautifully with expression and flow

Click the button to take a step towards an
organized, effective guitar practice. >>>