I’m a long time student and teacher of tango guitar. This series of articles is for tango guitar students and guitarists interested in pursuing tango. Contact me for more information on lessons and workshops.
We’ve already discussed some melodic concepts for tango guitar, so let’s take a look at rhythm. (In fact, it’s logical to look at rhythm first but it’s easy for guitarists to neglect melody, so I switched the order).
How does rhythm work in tango? First of all, we’re talking about the rhythmic basis of accompaniment. Tango has distant African roots and creating the right rhythmic feel is essential to playing well. One peculiarity of tango is that unlike many other genres of Latin music, there are no percussion instruments. Instead, the percussive roles are handled by all instruments, and in a large part by those that are handling accompanying duties at any given time.
*A note to the reader* The below is a general discussion of the rhythmic concepts in tango, vals, and milonga. I don’t get into details of technique. In order to really incorporate these concepts into your playing you’ll want to get with a teacher.
Of the three ‘genres’ or song forms (see article 2) tango is the most complex in terms of rhythmic accompaniment, so we’ll start there.
In all three examples assume we are talking about playing chords, unless we specifically mention bass notes or arpeggios.
The rhythm of tango accompaniment can be broken down in to several general patterns. The most important are marcato and síncopa. There are many variations on each type of pattern, but in general terms marcato is made up of four staccato quarter notes, with accents on beats 1 and 3.
In traditional tango you’ll hear marcato most of the time, say 80 percent. The síncopa pattern is used as a way of breaking up the monotony. As the name suggests it’s a syncopated figure, in its most basic form two eighth notes on beat 1 and a half note on beat 3.
As with marcato there are many variations on this concept. Síncopa should not be overused, and might appear 5 or 10 percent of the time, for lengths of about 2 measures.
In addition to the two principle patterns there are a few others. Bordoneo is an important one and comes from guitar playing. Bordoneo is literally ‘a pattern made on the bordonas’ or the bass strings of a guitar. It’s a swaying arpeggio of eighth notes organized into three groups like this 3, 3, and 2. It comes from the milonga campera (slow folk milonga) and appears all over tango music. It can be used both in tango and milonga.
(If that paragraph was confusing, definitely read article 2)
Two other patterns: half notes, and 3-3-2. Half notes (self explanatory) may be used in introductions, or as a way of breaking up marcato sections. And 3-3-2 (two dotted quarters followed by a quarter) may be used as an effect, or as the ending of an arrangement. To clarify: we are talking about traditional tango here. The music of Astor Piazzolla is a different story – one of its characteristics is the use of 3-3-2 as one of the predominant patterns, replacing marcato.
All of the above is the standard intro to tango rhythm for any instrument. Before we finish, we need to mention a special type of rhythmic pattern that is only used on guitar. I like to call it ‘guitar marcato.’ In this version of marcato beats 1 and 3 are accented, but are tenuto, and beats 2 and 4 are the percussive sounds of the right hand dampening the strings. It’s probably the easiest way to make a guitar sound like tango, and it’s also probably impossible to reproduce with the same effect on piano, bandoneón, or bass. You can here the pattern in Edmundo Rivero’s introduction to Cuando me entres a fallar:
So there, you got your money’s worth in one paragraph.
As we’ve discussed previously, the milonga genre used in tango music is in an up-tempo 2-4. The predominant pattern can be played with two staccato quarters playing chords, and two additional bass notes taken from the habanera pattern. The result is this:
Another pattern is bordoneo, here in 16th notes.
And finally, it’s common to use tenuto quarters in a certain situation: when the harmony changes quickly, i.e. two chords per measure. A classic example is when using a ‘circle of fifths’ progression as a turnaround.
Playing a vals pattern on guitar is a relatively simple affair. The main pattern is a legato dotted half as a bass note, and staccato quarters (chords) on beats 2 and 3. As an alternative to quarters you can use a half note chord on beat 2.