Getting Comfortable with Odd Time Signatures


Photo by Paco Vila

Q: Lately I’ve been finding myself in situations where tunes with odd time signatures are called up on gigs. I’m finding it a challenge to switch gears on the fly and be able to come up with a grooving bass line and not lose the one. How do you handle – and prepare – for these types of situations?

A: Whether it’s pop, jazz, fusion, funk, world, or something else, playing in odd meters is really about getting comfortable with different rhythmic groupings, in my opinion. That’s not to say that you couldn’t write a line that works, practice it until it’s internalized and then execute it perfectly without worrying about the bigger picture, but to get a real comfort level with odd meters requires more than that.

I do know a lot of guys (primarily pop and rock players) who simply develop a bass line and shed it until they can hear it in their sleep. Think Pink Floyd’s “Money”, for example. There are plenty of guys who can play that tune night after night and never lose the groove but can’t play in 7/4 outside of that song.

This tells us something: The ability to play a groove in any meter requires that we can hear and feel that groove internally. I find that it’s not the meter that is the issue, so much as the way rhythmic groupings are paired together.

For example, a bar of 5/4 is often grouped as 3+2 (think Dave Brubeck’s “Take 5” or Sting’s “Seven Days”). Internalizing this grouping does not necessarily mean that you can play any tune in 5/4, but rather that you are comfortable grouping 3 and 2 in that way. I’ve had lines written in 4/4 that were grouped in such a way that made them hard to play (a fast 3+2+3 might prove difficult, for example).

This is all to say that the way I work on playing in odd meters is less about thinking about “learning to play in 5, 7, 9 or 11” so much as it is developing the ability to internalize various rhythmic groupings.

For this, I find that having a metronome that can pound out different rhythmic groupings is key. “Dr. Betotte” or “Time Guru” are two metronomes for iOS that I’ve found very useful.

Most musicians can feel groupings of 2 or 3 pretty easily. The real trick is the ability to feel groupings of rhythms using both 2 and 3.

I actively strive to find rhythmic groupings that don’t come naturally (using “Time Guru” you can also pair different subdivisions comprised of 8th notes, 16ths and 32nds, as well as various triplets. For some advanced shedding, try putting together different groupings of 16th notes and 8th note triplets).

The number of ways you can pair different rhythmic groupings is endless, as well as different groupings of subdivisions. The key is working in bite-sized chunks. Start fairly easy (quarter note pulses in groupings of 3+2, 2+3, 3+3+2, 3+2+2…) and continually raise the bar from there using a good metronome.

This is all fine and good, but the ability to hear how this can all work together is priority one. If you can’t hear it, you can’t play it. This means that we must also explore what is out there in the world of music and learn different music that employs the things we are working on. I find that African, Latin, Indian and Middle Eastern music all push my abilities to hear and feel music in new and exciting ways. I would recommend that you start cruising YouTube and/or your favorite online music service to seek out new music that appeals to you.

There is also plenty out there in the jazz/fusion realms if your ear isn’t quite up to listening to non-Western music just yet. I find that students who grew up listening to Western music exclusively often need to evolve the ear over time. If the music doesn’t intrigue you, it can be hard to focus enough to internalize it. You have to dig it to dig into it.

The more tunes you internalize with different rhythmic pairings, the more you are putting one more way to phrase (or speak) in your musical vocabulary. The language of non 4/4 music is vast. For example, I know that drummers from Baltic countries that grew up singing and dancing to the music of their parents that is in 13/8. They can play in 13 as easily as I can play the newest Disney radio hit. It’s all a matter of experience and exposure.

You really have two choices on what to do next:

If you want to simply come up with a line for a song played in 7/4 and you have time, you can simply use a metronome or piece of paper and work it out, practice it and play it.

If you really want to hear non 4/4 music well enough to do it on the fly, you need to expand your musical vocabulary.

Just as one who wants to really learn how to play jazz needs to listen to jazz a reasonable amount of the time, one who wants to real feel non-4/4 time signatures needs to listen and learn music that employs those meters. Serious listening combined with a thoughtful exploration of rhythmic groupings is the path to “odd-meter” nirvana. We need to give yourself more frames of reference and your ear will evolve which means that your playing will evolve!

Readers, how about you? How do you practice getting more comfortable with odd time signatures? Please share in the comments.

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.

Get daily bass updates.

Get the latest news, videos, lessons, and more in your inbox every morning.

Share your thoughts

  1. jesse

    i honestly thought this was a page about konokol . . . . . #The Gateway To Rhythm (Konokol)

  2. 4stringswillsuffice

    i find it very useful playing any Tool songs because all of them change time signature multiple times during a song,the important thing is to find a song that you like alot so you don’t get bored practicing it.go slap some bass!

  3. This is great advice, oddly, Bass instruction rarely goes into this topic, but I’ve found drumming videos by #bennygreb to be immensely helpful. He uses words with syllabic rhythms that help you keep a sense of time when stretching into odd time or playing polyrhythms

  4. I wrote an article about this not too long ago, basically describing how rhythm can be associated the same way intervals can. In essence, when you sing an interval, let’s say a major 3rd, you can sing the major third above the note you’re playing. To solidify that relationship, you can do the reverse, which is to sing the major third below the top note and play that top note instead, so you’re hearing both notes as significant lines, rather than harmony. So the same would go with an “odd” time signatures, where you take a basic idea like 4/4 and play something in 7/4 against it, and then play the same line with regard to counting the 7/4 while playing something in 4/4 against it. This sort of expedites the process of learning mainly because you’re taking both elements as important. And yeah, it is a lot like Konnakol. I used to do this at jam sessions with good drummers, where we’d play a song in 4 and one of us would switch to 7, and the same thing once we both moved to 7 back to 4. Obviously, you have to have a significant trust doing stuff like that.

  5. Gene Torres

    Another fun way to practice odd meter is to take any standard being jazz, pop, rock, etc. etc. & play it in a odd meter. For example, (Jazz) Misty in 3/4, Rock with you (Pop) 5/4, etc, etc

  6. Jim

    Here’s a good start to learning Konokol from Rick Peckham at Berklee.

  7. that bass guy

    The key to being comfortable with “odd” things is to spend more time with them until they become commonplace. I listen to a lot of indian music, consequently songs in 10/4 (3+2+2+ 3) don’t sound strange that much anymore. Try listening to “Miles from India”, where some of the standards are reworked into odd signatures, like “All Blues” in 5/4, and “So What” with a “missing” beat every other phrase.