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How to Play the Bossa Nova on Guitar

guitar technique Mar 13, 2023

The bossa nova is one of the most captivating and sensuous rhythms to play on nylon string guitar. And the chords that typically are played in a bossa nova are tasty, beautiful jazz, voicings that really make things sound smooth. You've heard classic tunes from Antônio Carlos Jobim, Luiz, Bonfá, João Gilberto and many more - but how do you play the bossa nova rhythm? You very often hear it played on guitar as accompaniment for a singer, let's look at how we can achieve this classic rhythm. 

Starting With Open Strings

As mentioned, bossa nova typically uses jazz chord voicings, which sometimes can be difficult and unfamiliar, so let's start with just what we need in the right hand to achieve the bossa nova beat.

Your thumb will play the bass notes on beats 1 and 3, letting them ring out for 2 beats each (half notes), while your ring, middle and index fingers play on the 2 beat and the "and" of 3 (directly between the 3rd and 4th beats): 

In the above example we're playing the thumb on the 6th string and the remaining fingers on strings 2, 3 and 4 but the strings you play will depend on the chord you're playing at any given time.

Once you get a feel for this, let's add another "upbeat" on the "and" of 4in each measure:

At this point, you've got a real bonafide bossa nova rhythm. Of course, there can be a lot of variations on this rhythm, but this is a good standard starting point for the bossa nova. Some patterns can go across two measures, but in this example, we are doing the same thing each measure. The next step is to put some chords to this. 

Adding Some Bossa Chords

Before you get into more complex cords, use the following 2 chord shapes to apply the bossa beat. These are great bossa nova style chords that are relatively pain free:

*Notice that you'll have to play your thumb on the fifth string for the D9 chord rather than the 6th string.  

This is what it will look like when you apply these chords, one chord per measure: 


Oncer we're familiar with the bossa nova beat, now we can add something that is quintessentially Latin: the concept of anticipation. The idea here is we want to "anticipate" the chord that's coming up in the next measure by playing the upper notes of that chord, on the "and" of 4: 

Use the above video for more guidance on playing the bossa rhythm and once you feel comfortable with it, start adding other chords and moving them around the fretboard. It's a tricky rhythm but one that is super rewarding and fun to play!  






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