Ask Damian Erskine: Odd Time Signatures

Q: How can I work on getting more comfortable playing in odd time signatures?

A: Great question! The first thing I’d say is, there really are NO odd time signatures. Who made 4/4 the king of all time signatures? A time signature is only “odd” because you aren’t used to hearing it. More accurately, you aren’t used to FEELING it. In order to play other time signatures, you have to internalize them. An African drummer once made me laugh when a guitarist got lost and (while we were playing) asked, “Where’s the one?!” In that moment, the drummer just shrugged his shoulders and kept playing. Afterwards, he said, “You Western guys are funny. you always ask about the one. Nobody cares about the TWO!”

In reality, though. Neither him nor I were counting. In fact, I am 100% incapable of counting while I play! If I have to count it, I can’t play it. If I sit down to jam with my favorite drummer (who is king of the time signatures and never emphasizes the downbeats) and he hits me with something I can’t figure out. I will sit there and NOT play until I can start to feel the motion of the line. I might break the line into segments mentally. Put in order the rhythmic patterns until I can feel the line in it’s entirety. I’m getting ahead of myself here, though…

In order to play ANYTHING with authority, you have to feel it. The more second nature a rhythm, scale, time signature or anything is, the better you’ll play it (and the less you’re brain will get in the way). If all you listen to is music in 4/4, how would you be able to play in anything but? You’re internal clock is securely dialed in at 4 beats to a measure. Usually, if you can think of something you can hear and super-impose that mentally, you’re off to a good start.

For example, in teaching a few guys about playing in 5 at a bass camp, one of the instructors was trying to get the basists to count 3+2. They never really got it. I spoke up and asked if anyone had ever heard “Take Five” and then played the tune. Everyone had heard it and suddenly, as if by magic, they could play that rhythm in their sleep without anyone ever losing the one.
So, step 1 is listening to music that incorporates other time signatures so you have something to reference internally. I love African and S. American music for this. Not only are there some interesting time signatures, but they will, at times, super impose OTHER time signatures on top and weave in and out of them. Rhythmic mastery. Which leads us to Step 2.

In my mind, a step beyond just getting comfortable with a few different time signatures would be to really break them down into variations on rhythm. Inherent to almost any time signature you’ll hear are many different rhythms that you are already accustomed to and can feel quite well. They may have been shifted and assembled in a way that’s foreign to you, but you understand the basis of the rhythms. Two bands come to mind that you may want to check out: Steve Coleman & Five Elements and Dapp Theory.

Both of these bands have abandoned time signatures all-together for the most part. There are no charts, etc. A friend of mine played in both bands (bassist Rich Brown) and said that when it was time to learn a tune, the leader would sing the drum part. Every one had to learn to sing the drum pattern and then, once internalized, fit their part to it. There were no bar lines or time signatures, just assembled rhythmic figures, essentially. He never knew what time signature anything was actually in, he just knew how to sing it or tap it!

To get a simplified example of what I’m talking about. Try this:

We talked about “Take Five” which is 3+2
“boom-da-(ba)-da” + “boom-da”

You can hear that easily and now you can play that rhythm in 5, right? (if you haven’t hear it, download it from iTunes or at least check out the preview of it. It only takes one listen!)

Add another 2 beat “Boom-da” to the end.

Now you’re in 7. and you’ve only taken one thing you were comfortable with and added another thing you are comfortable with.

Add another “boom-da”. now you’re in 9!

Switch them up…

Prog rock bands have mastered the art of breaking up rhythms in new and interesting ways. Check this out.

Take our 3+2 and add another 3 figure

“boom-da-(ba)-da” + “boom-da” + “boom-da-(ba)-da” = 4/4!!

But it’s displaced and feels a little weird. That’s how folks come up with some of this stuff (sometimes, anyway). The guys in Dream Theatre actually use a big white board where they write rhythmic math equations and invent new patterns!

i.e.: 8 bars of 4/4 = 32 beats (4*8).

How many ways can we break up those 32 beats so we still land on the ONE of the next 8 bar phrase? the answer it LOTS!

you could play 5 bars of 5 + one bar of 7

you could play 3 bars of 5 + two bars of 4 + one bar of 9


If you’re less jazz inclined, check out Dream Theatre (prog rock) and Meshuggah (rhythmically intense metal).

Those are two examples of ways to play with rhythm. There are as many as the imagination can conjure. The real point is, in order to play in odd time signatures, you need to have internalized a certain amount of rhythm and developed your internal clock. Then it becomes a matter of assembly and the ability to feel things even once you’ve turned them on their head.

In other words? It’s takes both time in the shed and time in the head.

Get a good metronome that does compound meters (fancy word for odd time. but it’s important in metronomes. I can set mine to 3+2, 4+3, 4+5, etc. )

I can get any combination using either – DrBetotte on my iPhone – Boss Dr. Beat DB-30

There are many more that do it, I like these two.

Set up a 3+2 click. Play to it for 20 minutes. I bet you suck much less at the end then at the beginning!! It doesn’t take much, you just have to internalize the rhythm of it…

I’ve found myself in an interesting place lately. I’ve been recording a handful of tunes with guys in 5 and practicing a lot in 5 because I find it a fun time to play in. I found myself on a gig playing Peruvian music in 12/8 (basically 6). It was REALLY hard for me not to try and play in 5! I really wanted to cut off a beat at the end of certain phrases. I’ve actually internalized 5 so well now that 6 feels weird!

It just goes to show you that it really is all about internalization. The guitarist that just recorded my album was having trouble with one tune in 5 and he said that he spent the week before the session counting 5/8 whenever he walked anywhere to internalize the way the beat turned around with the landing of his feet. He nailed the tune at the session, too by the way.

Once it’s inside of you, getting it out properly is never a problem.

I strongly suggest listening to some rhythmically diverse music.

Try writing out different rhythmic patterns out on paper like the Dream Theatre example. Pick a number of beats for the entire line and break them up into smaller combinations. See what you come up with!

Get that compound meter metronome out and go to town on some stuff! (if you’re having trouble, drop harmony for a while and only play rhythm until you can lock in and find a pattern, then introduce more notes. Minimize the number of things you have to think about until you get it, piece by piece!)

Listening and shedding are the only two things that’ll get you there. You just need to familiarize yourself with it and it’ll no longer feel “odd”!

Regarding freaky sounding time signatures that make you think, “How could you ever do that?!” It comes down to the math again and things we’re already comfortable with.

Examples: (try these!)

15/4 (wha?!) = 8+7 (you comfortable playing in 4? can you play in 7?

8 = two bars of four and then one bar of 7 (or 4+3)

4+4+4+3 = 15

19/16 (you musta be crazy!)

The 16 refers to the subdivision, so this one will clip by quickly (you’re counting 16ths instead of 8ths or quarters)

But 19 could be the same as 15 with another 4 beats in there…

4 beats (16ths tho) of 4 + 3

4+4+4+4+3 = 19

So if we’re able to break up the rhythms in our heads and keep everything straight (thru practice of such).

15 should be NO harder to play in than 7 or 5 or 19 or whatever. You just need to develop the rhythmic phrases and keep them in order in your head while you play and before very long at all, you will actually FEEL where the beat is supposed to turn around instead of thinking about it.

Once you are feeling the new 1 or beginning of each phrase, that’s when you know that you own it.

Have a question for Damian Erskine? Send it to [email protected]. Check out Damian’s instructional books, Right Hand Drive and The Improviser’s Path.

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Leave a Reply to gasocaster Cancel reply

  1. gasocaster

    Internalize, good idea. but it means so much more when one can also convey those thoughts verbally. To fly free is a great feeling. But when you can explain yourself, (musically, mathematically,) you are of more value to the group. When a Bass player can’t count and play,(It shows, sorry)