Brazilian Guitar Basics

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I started getting into Brazilian music in college.  Like a million other jazz students across the country I was playing really bad versions of Blue Bossa, Black Orpheus, and Girl From Impanema.

But I was hooked!  It was different from than any guitar playing I’d heard.

I started listening the greats –  Tom Jobim, Elise Regina, Joao Gilberto and others.  As well contemporary artists like Joyce, Caetano Veloso, and Maria Rita.

Over the years, these styles have influenced me greatly and have become a huge part of my personal sound.

This is Part 1 a series on playing great Brazilian guitar.  It’s meant for any guitarist interested in learning the basics of the Brazilian style.  My goal for you is that you’ll have the tools to play confidently in the style in minimal time.

Here’s an appetizer of what we’re going to dive into – Desafinado played by Joao Gilberto – One of the most famous Brazilian vocalists and guitarists.

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In this post we’re going to tackle the basics of Bossa Nova rhythm guitar.  Let’s get started!

My Go-To Resource

First off, give credit where credit is due.  The best book that I’ve found on the subject of Brazilian guitar styles is Nelson’s Faria’s book, The Brazilian Guitar Book.  Many of the ideas and concepts covered below are from his excellent book.  I highly recommend it if you’re serious about learning this stuff.


Bossa Nova harmony is heavily influenced by jazz harmony.  You can substitute in your favorite jazz progressions into any of the rhythmic patterns to follow.  I recommend starting with basic ii V I progressions and their substitutions – e.g. Dm9 G7#5 C69 or Dm9 Db9 Cmaj9.  Another great way to practice is to find pedal-tone based progression with a chromatic moving voice – e.g. Amaj7 A7 D6/A Dm6/A – [g# –> g –> f# –> f].  Very common in this style.

  • 4-note chords.  Start by using 4-note chords divided into 2 parts: the top voices and the bass
  • Top Voices.  These are played using fingers 1, 2, 3 on strings 1, 2, 3 [e, b, g] OR  strings 2, 3, 4 [b, g, d].
  • Bass voice.  Play with the thumb.  Alternates between root and 5th.  Can stay on the root if the chord is rooted on the 6th string.  Note: Going below the root to grab the 5th is preferable.

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Bossa Nova is a highly syncopated style.  It’s very common for melodies to be syncapated on every beat.  This is reflected in the top voices guitar as well.  The top voices provide the syncopation while the bass notes act as the anchor for the whole sound on the strong beats.  Here’s an example of how a non-syncopated rhythm would be interpreted in the Bossa style:

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The Clave and Variations

Bossa Nova rhythm guitar is based on the clave patterns in Brazilian music.  Claves are two wooden percussion instruments that play a repeated rhythmic figure throughout a piece of music.  The guitar patterns however are free to vary from the basic pattern.

Basic Bossa Rhythm Guitar Pattern

Here is the basic rhythm guitar pattern based on the Brazilian clave as well as common variations and some of my favorite rhythmic ideas.  Audio examples included.

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Variation 1 – Anticipating beat 1
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Variation 2 – Syncopating beat 2
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Variation 3 – Syncopating beat 1
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Combination of var. 1, 2, and 3
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Top Voice Variations.

Adding top voice variations is an effective way of adding rhythmic and harmonic interest to these patterns.

Variation 2a
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Variation 3a
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Combination 2a and 3a
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Ending Phrases

For the most part the patterns stay rather consistent when accompanying a melody, but it’s fun to add some variation at the ends of musical phrases or as transitions to the next section.  Here are a few of my favorites.

Emphasizing beat 4.  Anticipate the next chord by playing it on beat 4.

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Syncopating the bass line.  Switch the roles of the bass and top voices so the bass line is now providing more of the syncopated.  A great to end a phrase.
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Wrap up and Next Steps

What we covered in this post are just the very basics, but it should give you a great jumping off point if you want to continue learning about this style.  I’m considering doing a followup post on this topic depending if people enjoyed this post and want to learn more.  If you’d like to see a Part 2, let me know in the comments below.

I’ll leave you with a few final tips to consider when practicing what we covered above:

  1. Experiment.  Add more chords, play in 3/4, break some of the rules and see what happens.
  2. Listen to great Brazilian music.  Mimic the phrasing, or as Nelson puts it in his book – the “accent”.  And steal some additional ideas from what you hear while you’re at it!  Here are a few suggestions: João Gilberto, Elise & TomFilo Machado (love this guy), and Maria Rita
  3. Always play with good time and feel.  Start slow.
  4. Go grab Nelson’s book.  He does an amazing job of covering a lot of ground in a short effective book on Brazilian guitar playing.

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