Lesson Two – Note Duration


Notes are the musical symbols written on the staff to show what pitch to play (how high or low the note sounds), the note duration (how long each note should be played) and when to play a particular note.  The parts of a note are shown below.


The note stems can either point upwards or downwards – it doesn’t affect the note that’s played.

Let’s start with the note duration, sometimes called the note value.

Note Duration

Notes are drawn in different ways to show the note duration, that is to say the length of time a note lasts relative to other notes.

Note duration

A whole note, written with an open note head (or hollow oval), is the longest note we normally use in guitar music

A half note, written with an open note head and a stem, lasts half the time of a whole note. Therefore two half notes last as long as one whole note.

A quarter note, written with a closed note head (or filled-in oval) and a stem, lasts one quarter the time of a whole note. Therefore two quarter notes last as long as a half note and four quarter notes last as long as a whole note.

note duration

An eighth note, written as a closed note head with a stem and a flag, lasts one eighth of the time of a whole note. And so it goes on – a sixteenth note is written like an eighth note but with two flags,  and a thirty-secondth note has three flags. Notes of even shorter duration – and more flags – are possible but rarely used. Unless you’re playing “The Flight of The Bumblebee”!

When there are two or more consecutive flagged notes they are frequently joined together with a beam. In the case of sixteenth notes they are joined with two beams and so on. See the diagram above.

In this sound file you can hear the relative durations of the notes, starting with one whole note, two half notes, four quarter notes and so on.


Sometimes we have a small period of silence in music so instead of having a note we have a rest. The duration of a rest is determined by the rest sign and there are different ones which correspond to the notes they replace.


A whole note rest appears as a small rectangular box which is placed below a line (usually the fourth staff line counting up from the bottom). A half note rest appears as a small rectangular box which is placed above a line (usually the middle staff line). A quarter rest is a squiggle, and an eighth rest is a short stem with no note head and one flag. An additional flag is added for a sixteenth rest and so on.

The combination of notes and rests should always add up to fit in with the time signature. So, as an example , in the 4/4 time signature below, the notes and rests in each bar add up to four quarter beats.

Rests in action

The above example would sound like this:

So far, we’ve covered the basic note durations but there’s a little more to it than that and we’ll look at dotted notes and ties now.

Dotted Notes and Tied Notes

A dotted note and a tied note are both ways of altering the length of time a note is played, but there are subtle differences between them. Let’s look at dotted notes first.

Dotted Notes

A dot is always placed directly to the right of the notehead and means that the duration of that note is increased by half as much again. For example, a whole note has four beats and a half note has two beats but we may want the note to last for three beats. By placing a dot next to the half note it will increase it by an additional quarter note (i.e. half the value of the half note) which makes it three beats long.

Put another way, a dotted half note is equal in duration to three quarter notes, a dotted quarter note has the same time as three eighth notes and so on.

dotted notes duration

A dotted note must never be used if its value takes it over the bar-line. As we mentioned in Lesson One, a measure has a specific number of beats and if we want a note to carry a note into the next measure we would use a tie instead. (This will make more sense once we’ve covered Time Signatures in Lesson Four).

Dotted Rests

Just like a dot to the right of a note indicates that its duration is increased by half as much again a dot to the right of a rest does much the same thing.

dotted rests


Ties also extend the time a note will ring out.

Ties use a curved line to merge two or more notes of the same pitch creating one longer note rather than several separate ones. Only the first note in a series of tied notes is played but it continues to ring out for the duration of all the tied notes. Therefore a tie serves to lengthen the first note and the tied notes are simply added together, even if they have different durations.


Tied notes may be used within the same measure or can be used to cross a bar-line so that the note can be sustained into the next measure.

This is one of the reasons we use ties rather than dots in some circumstances. As mentioned before, the notes and rests in a bar must add up to the correct amount according to the time signature. But if we want a note to sound across the end of a bar then a tie is used to combine notes in more than one bar.

This may sound a bit confusing so here’s an example. Listen to these two bars of music

We’re in 4/4 time but the fourth note that’s played needs to have a duration of two quarters.


To keep in with musical convention we can’t write it like the diagram above because the first bar would have five beats and the second bar only three. So a tie is used to join two quarter notes like so:


N.B. Remember that a tied note has to be linked to another at the same pitch.

(There is another curved line called a slur which looks very similar to a tie and connects two or more notes. However, the notes are usually of differing pitches and it signifies that the notes should be played very smoothly. Hammer-ons and pull-offs also use curved lines between notes but these will have different pitches. More about slurs, hammer-ons and pull-offs later!).


  • Notes have different symbols to indicate how long they should last
  • Dotted notes increase the time a note should last by half as much again
  • Rests are periods of silence and have symbols with equivalent durations to notes and dotted notes
  • Tied notes also increase the time a note should last
  • Only the first tied note is played and lasts for the sum of the duration of all the tied notes
  • Tied notes can be used to allow a note to ring across a bar-line into the next bar, or measure

Please take me to

Lesson One – Staff, Clef and Measures, or Bars

Lesson Three – Note Pitch on the Guitar

Lesson Four – Time Signatures

Lesson Five – Intro to Guitar Scales