Ain’t No Sunshine, a rhythmical deconstruction

A Rhythmical Deconstruction of Ain’t No Sunshine!

Ain’t no Sunshine was Bill Withers first single, it quickly became a well known track.

Ain’t no sunshine is a soul classic that has become a ‘standard’ among working musicians the world over.

As a guitarist you might be expected to know this tune should you ever play a cover gig with no preparation.

To understand why this was a hit we shall in this blog look at cyclic rhythmical patterns, note choices and the art of repetition. But first, let’s watch the video.

Ain’t No Sunshine Finger Style Pattern

The goal is to get the III and V chord to move the vocal phrasing along.

The back beat pattern does this in a very simple way. So first try playing Ain’t no sunshine with just this basic rhythm.


The bass works against the chord in a claw comping technique, use the video and the diy tab sheet of the Guitar Conspiracy.

Ain’t No Sunshine Vocal Melody


The rhythm is essential. The first two sixteenths start on beat 2, this immediately brings the focus of the listener to the singer because beat 2 feels more unexpected than beat 1.

The rhythm section, in this case just a guitar, plays two 8th notes over beat one, a bar earlier than the vocal, and ends on the back beat of beats 1 in bar two.

When the vocal finish its phrase on beat 1 of bar three, the guitar takes over with it’s steady 8th notes, setting us up for the next vocal phrase. This cyclic rhythmical pattern moves the track along.

As you can see in this notation, the guitar and vocal use a call and response technique where they rhythmically ‘take turns’.

gtr and vox wp

I know, I know, I know

After 26 ‘I knows’ we get the picture, Bill knows that there is definitely no sunshine when she’s gone.

But how do you make 26 ‘I knows’ sound interesting?
Rhythmical placement, that’s how. And when you run out of that, add a note.

The variation Bill use is a pattern of 3, the rhythmical phrase last for 3 beats before it lands on a downbeat again.

To make things even more interesting this pattern of 3 beats use 4 ‘I knows’ each. This type of rhythm is called a cross rhythm, a very useful musical tool.

The notes move between the b7, root and the low 5th. As soon as this becomes slightly boring Bill moves up to a min 3rd to really tell us that he knows.

This cross rhythm feast is finished by a wailing Bill seemingly loosing track of time but securely landing on beat 1 with “…but ain’t no sunshine when she’s gone”, and we’re back in with the steady 8th note pattern.

Minor pentatonic with an added 9th

As the guitar conspiracy states; you have to get to know all intervals inside every scale shape in order to become a free player. As we do this we add the 9th to the minor pentatonic, like David Gilmour of Pink Floyd often does.

This trick is what Bill Withers use for his scalic palette in Ain’t no sunshine as well.

A great exercise would be to take the instrumental video (finger style lesson) and play the vocal melody on electric guitar, constantly reference Bill’s phrasing in all its detail.

For maximum effect, do this in all positions of the minor pentatonic.

Next blog shall take a look at Blackbird by The Beatles.

Dan (your guitar guru)

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9 thoughts on “Ain’t No Sunshine, a rhythmical deconstruction

  1. Nal

    So the cross rhythm could be thought of a time signature change for the rhythm like 3/4 while the vocals stay 4/4

    Rhythm 1 2 3 1 2 3 1 2 3 1 2 3
    Vocal 1 2 3 4 1 2 3 4 1 2 3 4

    Or same effect but like this ( so no time signature change, just the placement of the tap over the 4/4 brat and vocal):
    1 2. 3. 4. 1. 2. 3. 4.
    I know I know. I know I know
    X. X. X.
    - sorry, the visual spacing may not be right, it’s to do in a comment.

    Does that appear about right?

    1. Guru Post author


      3/16 over 4/4 would be correct.

      But that is way too complex. 16 time only happen on fusion drummer records.

      It’s easier to view it as a group of 3 16ths or 1 16th and one 8th to be exact.

  2. Nal

    Hope I understand. Having 4 against 3, we could come with a new denominator of 12.

    If you break up the 12 for the vocal so you have groups of 3, you’d have 4 groups of 3 sixteenth notes, so this equates to 3/16, but feels like 4/4 cos the accent stays kind of the same.

    And for the rhythm, you’d have 3 groups of 4 sixteenth notes.

    Hmm, nope, I’m confusing myself. Any tips for understanding this a little better?


    1. Guru Post author

      This is how you get 12/8 time. 3 triplets on each beat, in this case were talking grouping, it’s not really the same.

      Especially since it’s 16 + 8, not 3 16ths.

      As I said 16 time is so rare it barely exists.

  3. Nal

    Good thing is I don’t want to play 3/16, just understand this cross rhythm thing :-) . Learn from the song as you say :-) .

    I still felt unsure yesterday and then as I rolled over in bed last night, I think I got it.

    Is there a way to attach a picture? I doubt my attempt will visually look right below.

    “X” = 1/16,
    “x-x” = 1/8th (2 16ths tied).
    * = 1/4 (used to keep the beat)

    The “I know” is the 1/16 + 1/8. The beat stays on 4/4.

    I know I know I know I know I know I
    X x-x X x-x X x-x X x-x X x-x X | x etc
    * _ _ _ * _ _ _ * _ _ _ * _ _ _ | * etc

    So you get 5 *full* I knows in the 1st bar against 4 beats, the 1st and 4th beat of this bar line up with “I”.

    Something like that I hope!

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