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Below is my definition of on-beats and off-beats in the context of guitar playing.

On-Beat

  • In a 4/4 time signature, beats 1,2,3,4 are on-beats.
  • If we were to use the 1 E & A counting system to count out the beats we say "one two three four"
  • When we play this in guitar we strum down on the on-beats.

Off-Beat

  • In a 4/4 time signature, beats directly between all four beats (1,2,3,4) are called off-beats.
  • If we were to use the 1 E & A counting system to count out the beats we say "one and two and three and four and". The "ands" here represent the off-beat.
  • When we play this in guitar we strum down on the on-beats and strum-up on the off-beats (the "ands").

Am I correct to interpret on-beats and off-beats this way?

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  • One possible source of confusion: sometimes people use the term "offbeat" in a colloquial way to refer to what might more properly be called "weak beats": beats 2 and 4 in a basic 4/4. Most diatribes about "clapping on the offbeat" really mean beats 2 and 4; to clap on "offbeats" that were in fact between every beat would only apply to a hoedown-like "stomp clap stomp clap" situation. Sep 22 at 14:57
  • Of course it does get tricky because the metric stress (patterns of strong and weak beats), if we speed up enough, can start to be perceived as beats themselves—"1 2 3 4" can become "1 e and a." Or vice versa. Sep 22 at 14:59
  • @AndyBonner Depending on the style of music, clapping on the 1 and 3 can be completely wrong. Think of a roomful of people clapping along to "Hit the Road, Jack". They'll be clapping on the up beats (1 and 3, ie "road" and "Jack") instead of on the down beats (2 and 4). Oops! Sep 22 at 17:08
  • @JonKiparsky What is the purpose of this remark? Andy did not write anything about clapping on 1 and 3, much less demand it as universally acceptable.
    – Lazy
    Sep 22 at 18:24
  • @JonKiparsky I didn't want to get into it here, since it's off topic—you added "depending on the style of music," but I often hear the same idea presented as a universal polemic, often with vehement rhetoric ("People who clap on 1 and 3 are just un-musical! They're ignorant!"), when I feel like more often it betrays a culture clash; there are genres and regions where it's conventional. But my main point was that those "beats" could morph into "eighth notes," depending on how you perceive the pulse. Sep 22 at 20:00

3 Answers 3

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It does depend on the nature of the groove. Traditionally you’d have musical meters, derived from poetic meters, called arsis and thesis. Arsis denotes the light, unstressed parts of a measure, thesis the heavy, stressed parts of a measure. In a 4/4 measure traditionally 1,3 would be considered as thesis and 2,4 as arsis, while for example in a 3/4 traditionally only 1 would be considered as thesis while 2,3 would be considered arsis.

Now offbeat could be understood simply as playing (or even accenting) a part of the measure that would be understood as arsis, so in 4/4 with this stress playing on 2 and 4. On the other hand if we count each beat as thesis such as in double time or in a 4-to-the-floor groove we often get some sort of offbeat between the beats, which is what you are describing.

So rather we could say that offbeats are all (sub)beats that do not fall on a thesis or stressed beat.

Then there is no general way how you play these things. If you play each beat with a downstroke it is logical to play the offbeats with an upstroke. But if you play music that emphasizes offbeats you might want to play the off beats with a downstroke (e.g. if the guitar only plays on the offbeats).

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  • 1
    I think most good guitarists would play offbeats (wherever they are) as upstrums rather than downstrums. The sound is different, and each has its own place and sound.
    – Tim
    Sep 22 at 9:17
  • 3
    @Tim Imo the mere fact that there is a difference of tone, energy and character does speak strongly against postulating a general way of playing offbeats.
    – Lazy
    Sep 22 at 11:36
  • I see this question being more about effective strumming and not about emphasis of beats. Down on the beat and up on the & or down on beat and & and up on ee and uh is good practice and which is emphasized for the music has nothing to do with strumming direction. Great strumming can sound almost identical up and down and the emphasis for syncopation or whatever can be applied correctly on up or down strokes. Sep 22 at 14:39
  • In other words, even when I’m only playing off beats I strum up on those off beats if they fall in the normal upstroke part of the strumming pattern Sep 22 at 14:41
  • @ToddWilcox - I think that's what most good guitarists will do, to keep the pattern 'proper'. But there is a subtle difference between a down and an upstroke. I can hear it in some numbers, particularly when the player goes the 'wrong' way.
    – Tim
    Sep 22 at 14:44
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Yes.

An even when the music requires only the on-beats — that is, only down strumming — it is still common to up-strum silently on the up-beats.

More generally, thinking of simply a series of (equally timed) pulses (both up-beats and down-beats are "pulses" here, as would be e and a in 1 e & a), the up and down strums alternate with each pulse. Thus, 1-down e-up &-down a-up.

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When only strumming 4 to the bar, you're counting 1-2-3-4, generally speaking all down strums. You could count 1&2&3&4&, with the & being the upstrum, which is obviously needed in order to play the next strum down, those & silently missing the strings.

With 1e&a2e&a etc., you'll be strumming twice as fast, so the 1234 and the &s will be downstrums, and the es and as will need to be the upstrums in between. Any or all of those strums may actually play the strings, or miss them, but the action is one of down, up, down, up, for each beat. There comes a time when that pattern is too fast, so 1&2&3&4& may be reverted to.

As far as on/off beats are concerned, it will depend how you look at the overall pattern. Just playing 1234, then we see 1 as onbeat, and 3 as off beat, but once that pattern effectively doubles in speed, the on/off doesn't really make a lot of sense.

We could say a basic Reggae rhythm is playing on the offbeats - all the &s, for example. Which would automatically put 1234 as onbeats.

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