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Guitarist - Composer - Arranger

(10) Rhythm, continued

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.

Back in article 4 I discussed two broad categories of rhythmic patterns for tango: marcato and síncopa. It’s time to get into a few more. Without further ado…


Remember that marcato, in one form or another, dominates tango rhythm. Here are three options,variations on the same theme:

Before we give them names, I´d like to point out what they have in common. All of them accent beats 1 and 3. This is the characteristic of marcato, literally to ‘mark’ beats 1 and 3, which in classical music are known as the ‘strong beats.’ The differences boil down to two main things: the articulation (are they long or short) and to what degree the strong beats 1 and 3 are contrasted with the weak beats 2 and 4.

In the first example (sometimes called marcato in 4) you play all four beats but make 1 and 3 louder than 2 and 4.

In the second example this difference is taken to the extreme: you simply get rid of 2 and 4.

And the final option is what I call ‘guitar marcato.’ This version of marcato only exists on guitar, and it’s one of the most convincing ways to make a guitar sound like it’s playing an authentic tango rhythm. Beats 1 and 3 are accented and long, and beats 2 and 4 are ‘ghost notes,’ with the right hand muting the strings and the pick (or fingers) playing non-tones. When played correctly it simply feels like you’re concluding the long chords from beats 1 and 3.

Think of these three marcatos as general guidelines rather than set-in-stone patterns. My best advice is that you start listening for marcato in guitar recordings and trying to make out the subtle differences. Then you can start to develop and fine-tune the different ways that you like to play marcato.

And of course, to learn to play them properly, and to answer technical questions, you’ll want to get with a teacher.


There are two grand categories of síncopa: on the beat, and anticipated.

From these two categories stems a wealth of versions of síncopa. As with marcato, different combinations of accents and articulations create a nice variety. And as with marcato, now that you’re aware of these different versions of the pattern, start listening for them in recordings. And of course, sit down with a teacher who can really show you how to play them.


This pattern comes from the guitar itself, which was played by payadores (folk bards in the Buenos Aires region at the turn of the 20th century). These musicians accompanied their songs with an arpeggiated pattern in a 3-3-2 grouping. The song form was milonga campera, the slow, folk milonga. Bordoneo pattern is guitarristic and can be used in slow milongas, faster urban milongas (the ones played in tango music) or within the tango rhythm itself. That third context is the one we´ll examine here:

You can easily mix in a bordoneo section when accompanying a tango. It creates a more relaxed feel, so you might want to use it for an introduction, or a section where you want the energy to come down.


Here is a pattern that can be used for short stretches of time in traditional tango. Perhaps a phrase on an ending can use the forward drive of 3-3-2. Astor Piazzolla used it as a main rhythmic pattern in his music, but outside of that context tango musicians use it sparingly. Here are two versions:

A third option is to fill the measure with eighth notes, but accent only the 3-3-2 pattern.


Yumba, or yumbeado, belongs to the world of marcato and is really a specialized marcato created by the Osvaldo Pugliese Orchestra. Check out his tango ‘La yumba’ or really any tango he recorded and you’ll hear this particular way of playing marcato. It has very sharp accents on 1 and 3, and contrasting low clusters on 2 and 4. You really need to check out what Pugliese’s piano does, and what his orchestra does, before attempting to recreate the effect on guitar. Here are two options that approximate the yumba effect:

With yumba, resist the urge to accent beats 2 and 4, even though the extremely low, muddy character of Pugliese’s left hand may lead you to believe that there are accents on those beats.


Here´s a pattern you won’t hear much in groups of guitars, but you will hear in mixed ensembles and orchestras. Because there are two elements here (a bass line and chords) it’s perhaps most typical of piano playing, solo guitar playing, or a solo guitar accompanying another instrument. If you find yourself in a mixed ensemble and this pattern comes up, you might choose to play only one of the elements, mimicking the right hand of the piano, or the bass.

One thing about polyrhythms to keep sacred: when playing in an ensemble, make sure that all instruments are playing the same version of polyrhythm at the same time. You can certainly put one after the other in an arrangement (which can sound great) but if you play one on top of the other the second half of the measure will be a train wreck. Watch out for that.

Half Notes

This last one may seem like a no-brainer, bordering on not even worthy of mention, but if you keep it in mind for your playing and arranging it can be really useful. And it’s a nice contrast to the ‘guitar marcato’ I mentioned above. The guitar marcato can almost feel like quasi half notes, so if you find places for true, long, connected half notes it add a special touch. This pattern definitely calms things down, so it’s useful for intros and quieter moments:

And with that we’ve covered the basics for rhythmic patterns. Each one has many variations, and each player needs to learn how to create the proper feel. Also, with time, you’ll want to learn where and how to use them, not overdoing it or using patterns awkwardly. That will come with time. For now, re-read this article as you listen to some great music (see article 8) and see how many patterns you can identify.

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