Reading Music On The Bass Guitar: The Very Basics – Rhythms And Rests

Rhythms and Rests

We have already looked at what the notes are called and how to find them on the fretboard. The appearance of the note tells you how long to play that note for. It tells you the rhythm to be played. So notes + rhythm = reading music. There are a few other things to learn but this will take you very far.

Time Signatures

The above time signature is ‘four four’. For now we will say that that means that there are 4 beats in a bar. Learning rhythms is about understanding that you split each beat in half or a quarter (subdividing the beat). Or you can add beats up to create different numbers of beats. In the UK the terminology is different (crotchets, quavers, semi quavers etc). I will definitely be using the American way as it makes so much more sense! It is based on very simple fractions. There are many different time signatures that denote different feels and styles of music. 4/4 will do for now.


We will only be dealing with these rhythms below. Notice that the note is an ‘A’ (open string) and that it looks different in each bar. Let’s go through what they are called and how to play them.

Reading Music For Bass Guitar Rhythms

This is a ‘whole note’ as it lasts for the whole of a bar. So it is 4 beats long. It is literally one note played for the duration of 4 counts.


This is a ‘half note’ as it lasts for half of a bar (see where we’re going with this?). So it
is 2 beats long. It is one note that lasts 2 beats.


This is a ‘quarter note’ as it lasts for a quarter of a bar. So it is 1 beat long. It is one note that lasts 1 beats. This might help to explain the 4/4 time signature better too. One quarter note is 1⁄4. So 4/4 literally means ‘four quarter note beats in one bar’. 3⁄4 would mean 3 quarter note beats in a bar. 6/8 would mean 6 eighth note beats in a bar (and so on...).

This is an ‘eighth note’ and it lasts for 1/8th of a bar (there are 8 in a bar). A better way of thinking about it is it is worth half a beat. So there are 2 in every beat and 8 in every bar. I realise this is maths and not everyone’s favourite subject but the most you have to count up to is 16 (the next rhythm....).

When you have two or more eighth notes next to each other they are connected with a beam like this: 

Notes are usually grouped in nice convenient 1 or 2 beat chunks which makes it much easier for you to see and recognise quickly. Note that eighth notes have one single beam running horizontally across the top and sixteenth notes have two. This enables you to quickly distinguish between them.

This is a ‘sixteenth note’ and there are - you guessed it - 16 in a bar. Each one is a quarter of a beat. So there are 4 in every beat and 16 in a bar of 4. The English name is semi quaver. I don’t know why..... The fraction method makes a lot more sense so we’ll stick with that!

As with eighth notes, 2 (or 4) 16ths next to each other can be connected like this.

Reading Music For Bass Guitar Rhythms

Looking at this picture again we can see that, if you do the maths, every single bar adds up to 4 beats. That is the rule and something to remember. Learn to tap your foot as you play and that will guide you as to how many beats to play a note for or how you need to subdivide the beat (to get the eighths and sixteenths). Much easier to play it than to read about it! Refer to the video for how to play these rhythms then commit them to memory over time.


You do not play notes all the time, there are gaps between notes sometimes. This is represented by ‘rests’. A rest is exactly what you would imagine - a gap so do not play.

Whole notes, half notes, quarter notes, eighth notes and sixteenth notes have equivalent rests and here they are:

Whole note rest (do not play for 4 counts).


Half note rest (2 beats). Notice this one sits on the middle line of the stave and the whole note rest hangs from the line above. Potential for confusion! Although as a whole note rest is for 4 beats, you will only see one in a bar.

Quarter note rest (1 beat).


Eighth note rest (1⁄2 a beat)


Sixteenth note rest (1⁄4 of a beat).

Dotted notes

A dot to the right of a note means something very specific. This is the case every time you see a dot to the right of a note (you will see the same dot above or below a note but this means something different!). A dot on the right means that you add half the value of the note on.

So whatever note you see a dot next to, you half the value of that note and then add it on. That sounds really confusing, but it isn’t! Have a look...

This is a ‘dotted half note’. It is worth 3 beats as the dot adds half the value of the note on.


This is a dotted quarter note worth 1 and a half beats.



This is a dotted eighth note worth 3⁄4 of a beat. It is very commonly connected to one sixteenth note to make one of those conveniently connected groups I was talking about earlier (worth one beat in this case).



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Related Lessons

Reading Music On The Bass Guitar: The Very Basics - Note Names And Locations

Reading Music On The Bass Guitar: The Very Basics - Counting

Reading Music On The Bass Guitar: The Very Basics - Reading Exercises

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