Rhythmic Brain Teasers: Fun with Scales and Metronomes

A major 4s-16ths Guitar Scales

Read Time 4 Minutes

Subdividing The Beat

Yup, you read the title of this article correctly. I used the word “fun” along with the words “scale” and “metronome”. I think it is possible to have some fun with scale practice, it just takes a little imagination. If you find yourself getting a little bored with your scale practice, you can try some of these rhythmic brain teasers to keep things interesting.

The idea behind these so called rhythmic brain teasers is simple, and that is to challenge yourself by practicing scales and melodic patterns with different subdivisions of the beat. Of course, to get the most out of this lesson you’ll need a metronome. So dust that thing off and get it ready. If you don’t have one, you can always use metronomeonline.com. If you rarely think about how you’re subdividing the beat, you might be surprised at how something as simple as changing from eighth notes to triplet eighth notes can throw you off your game.

A Minor Pentatonic

Eighth Notes

Let’s start by looking at an A Minor Pentatonic scale (A C D E G). It’s very natural to play this scale in eighth notes since it’s laid out on the guitar with 2 notes per string. Set your metronome to a tempo you can handle and give this a whirl. Be sure that you line up the first note in every eighth note pair with the click of the metronome.

pentatonic eighths guitar scales
Pentatonic Eighths – Click to Enlarge


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Piece of cake. I’m sure that’s nothing new for most of you, but we’re just getting started.


Let’s increase the challenge. Try subdividing the beat in triplets.

Pentatonic Triplets - Guitar Scales
Pentatonic Triplets – Click to Enlarge

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A little bit trickier right? Well, maybe that threw you off for a second, but if you’ve been playing for a while a pentatonic scale in triplets probably didn’t give you much trouble.

Hammer-ons and Pull-offs

Let’s up the ante. Try now playing the same scale, subdividing the beat in triplets but with hammer-ons while descending and pull-offs while descending.

Pentatonic Triplets Hammer-Pull Guitar Scales
Pentatonic Triplets Hammer-Pull – Click to Enlarge

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My guess is unless you’ve done this before, or you have a very good natural sense of rhythm, that one probably gave you a little trouble. And the reason is because the hammer-ons and pull-offs take the picking hand out of the equation for some of the strong beats. Combine that with the fact that you’re playing a two note per string scale in triplets and suddenly you have to think a little harder.

Melodic Patterns

Ok, now let’s get a little more challenging. Most guitarists are familiar with the idea of practicing scales in groups of 3 or 4 notes at a time. These particular note groups, or melodic patterns, are very useful devices for creating long melodic lines.

A Major – Groups of Four

If this is new to you, see the following example of an A Major Scale played in groups of 4 (A-B-C#-D, B-C#-D-E, C#-D-E-F#, etc.) For brevity’s sake I’m limiting the next few examples to 1 octave. Feel free to extend these patterns out over all 6 strings if you want.

A major 4s-16ths Guitar Scales
A major 4s-16ths – Click to Enlarge

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When playing a scale in four note groups, it’s very natural to feel the pulse in eighth notes (metronome click on every other note) or in sixteenth notes (metronome click on every 4 notes), as in the example above.

Groups of four in triplets

How about trying to play groups of 4 in triplets?

A major 4s-triplets Guitar Scales
A major 4s-triplets – Click to Enlarge

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Feels a little weird doesn’t it? You may feel an incredible urge to place an accent on every 4th note simply because that’s how the melodic pattern is organized. However, you must resist if you want this to sound like triplets, and instead try to accent every third note.

Groups of 3 in sixteenths

Now try the opposite correlation with the same scale: groups of 3 played in sixteenth notes.

A major 3s-16ths Guitar Scale
A major 3s-16ths – Click to Enlarge

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3rds with triplets

Here’s one more. Another popular melodic pattern is to play a scale in leaps of a third (ie: A-C#, B-D, C#-E, etc). First try playing it in eighth notes to the metronome. Once you feel like you have your bearings, try dividing the beat in triplets instead. For this example I went for 2 octaves.

A major 3rds-triplets Guitar Scales
A major 3rds-triplets – Click to Enlarge

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It’s amazing how much the subdivision makes a difference, isn’t it? That’s the whole purpose of practicing something like this. Every melodic pattern has a rhythmic idiosyncrasy, or a rhythm that feels the most natural. There’s no reason to be stuck having to play a melodic idea in the same rhythm all the time. In fact, playing a rhythm that’s “against the grain” will often create a much hipper, more unique feel and make your guitar playing much more interesting overall.

Challenge Yourself More

We’re just scratching the surface with this idea too. When it comes to pairing up scales/melodic patterns and subdivisions, your imagination is the limit. If you found these exercises to be fairly easy, you can always try something harder like subdividing in quintuplets, sextuplets or septuplets. Or try some more exotic melodic patterns and scales. Anyone up for a Prometheus scale played in groups of 5? As long as you’re creative you can always find ways to challenge yourself, even with a scale you think you know down cold. And who knows, experimenting with subdividing the beat may lead to some very unique musical ideas that you can start incorporating into your own playing.

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Dave Willard

Dave Willard is an experienced guitar player and teacher, providing private guitar lessons in Morristown, New Jersey. After over 14 years of teaching, he's helped literally hundreds of students become better musicians. When he's not teaching, you can find Dave playing in cover bands around the NJ club scene.

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