Premier Guitar features affiliate links to help support our content. We may earn a commission on any affiliated purchases.

Rhythm Rules: Brazilian Guitar 101

Blend syncopated rhythms with jazzy chords and delve into the world of Brazilian guitar.

Chops: Intermediate
Theory: Intermediate
Lesson Overview:
• Develop a stronger fingerstyle technique.
• Understand the basic elements of bossa nova and samba rhythms.
• Learn how to internalize the clave rhythm.

Click here to download a printable PDF of this lesson's notation.

Brazil has a rich indigenous musical heritage. Many musical styles originated in Brazil, including choro, samba, batucada, partido alto, bossa nova, baião, and frevo. In this lesson we’re going to look at two of the most popular music styles to come out of Brazil, bossa nova and samba.

Combining simple folk rhythms with extended jazz harmonies, bossa nova emerged from Rio de Janeiro in the 1950s. Antônio Carlos Jobim and João Gilberto pretty much invented this style and made it popular. In Brazil, these types of rhythms were closely identified with dancing, and the tempo for a bossa nova was slow and cool. I’d recommend watching videos of people dancing to bossa nova to learn more about the feel of this music.

Fig. 1 is a written example of the bossa nova clave. A clave is a two-measure pattern that serves as the basis for nearly all styles of Latin music. In our example we have a 3-2 clave—three beats in the first measure and two in the second. If we wanted to play a 2-3 clave we would simply flip these two measures around.

This first rhythm (Fig. 2) is what I’d call a basic bossa nova pattern. You’ll notice it has an alternating bass part that’s played against the rhythm of the other fingers. You can play this fingerstyle or with a hybrid picking style, which is my approach. We’ll stick to typical jazz voicings because right now we want to focus more on the rhythm and technique. The second half of the progression starts with a IIm-V7-I cadence, but I used a tritone substitution for the G7 (Db9).

The second rhythm in Fig. 3 is a slightly more syncopated version of the basic pattern. We use the same chord progression as in the first example, though in every other measure we anticipate the second and third beats with chord stabs—a subtle, but noticeable difference.

The samba, which evolved out of the choro in the early 20th century, is older than the bossa nova. Its origins are in dance and the samba’s tempo is faster than the bossa nova. The samba has splintered into many sub groups, and we’re going to take a look at two of these.

Fig. 4 is a traditional samba groove. You’ll notice that the rhythm is almost exactly like our more syncopated bossa nova example. It’s not always necessary to have the alternating bass part in Brazilian music, and you can achieve the same effect by simply repeating a note. The interesting part (I hope!) is the use of inversions and the smooth voice-leading. This chord progression is taken from a version of the song “Ding Dong! The Witch Is Dead” from the Wizard of Oz as interpreted by Trio de Paz. If you’ve never heard of them, you must check them out. Their guitarist, Romero Lubambo, is amazing!

The second variation of the samba groove we’ll check out is called a partido alto. In Fig. 5 I’ve written out two different ways that the rhythm is commonly interpreted.

Fig. 6 is a bit more complex because the bass part is syncopated too. It will take a little practice to get it under your fingers, so start slow with a very deliberate tempo. This chord progression is from an original composition of mine called “Psycho Samba,” and once again we use the tritone sub in the last measure.

This second example of a samba groove is called the baião. It originated in the northeast area of Brazil in the 1940s as a dance and then evolved into a musical style. You can see the basic rhythm in Fig. 7.

The baião does not usually have an alternating bass line. The defining characteristic of this rhythm is that the bass is syncopated while the chords on top are not. In this example (Fig. 8), I keep one chord shape throughout and just change the bass note.

Take these rhythms and memorize them, internalize them. Try them out on your favorite Brazilian songs. And don’t feel limited—use these rhythms as a springboard for doing your own tunes in the Brazilian style!