Writing Bass Lines in Odd Time Signatures

Q: I have been playing bass for a while now and have recently started a jazz-fusion project where we are creating original material. At our last rehearsal, I was handed a lead sheet for a song written in 5/4. The member then explained that the song wasn’t in two three or three two, but in four one. How do you go about writing a line for that style of counting, along with other odd time signatures?

A: Start with this chart of a very simple bass line with a few variations. There are ways in which to shine light on the rhythm division of the line but they all add up to the same thing. There really isn’t much of a difference between a line that ‘feels’ more like 3+2, 2+3 or 4+1. It is really just a matter of how you break up the rhythm of the line.

Even if the foundation of the rhythm is, generally speaking, 2+3, there is no reason why you can’t play any number of variations on the line throughout the song. It really comes down to how the line fits and sounds against everything else that is happening around the bass line. It all adds up to 5 but each line will feel slightly different and will put emphasis on one subdivision or another (any given upbeat or downbeat).

I generally use something in the song as my reference point for how I will build my line and where I will put the rhythmic emphasis. This could be a part of the melody, a comping pattern or the drum groove. As long as your line relates to something happening in the song, it’ll likely work well and it’ll also be easier to internalize and feel.

There is also something to be said for contrast, especially when playing odd meters. To my ears, the thing that bugs me about many grooves I hear in compound meters is that everybody in the band is pounding on the 1 of each bar as well as pounding out “mother rhythm” of how the band is feeling the groove (i.e.: 2+3, and everybody is playing a half note and 3 quarter notes). Granted, it can be hard to stray from a line if you are having trouble internalizing it, and you may need to slowly evolve away from hammering at whatever rhythm you are using until you can play freely and expressively.

Think about some grooves you play in 4/4. Yes, you are anchoring the groove and looping the meat of it but you should also be playing with expression and embellishment as you feel is necessary. When you hear something, you play it and you probably aren’t over emphasizing the one of every bar, for example. The same should hold true when playing in ‘odd meters’. Remember to try and make your lines comfortable and musical.

One way in which I like to do this is to think in two bar phrases, which often leads me to play a downbeat every two bars instead of every 5 beats. In the PDF, notice the last two variations of the line. I tried to give a simple example in 3+2 and 2+3.

I’ve also included a PDF from my book, The Improvisor’s Path from the section on odd time signatures. This page takes a quick look at the bass line for my tune, “Bestowal” (from the album Within Sight). [Editor’s note: check out our review of The Improvisor’s Path..]

Here is a video to follow along with that tune:

When we speak of feeling any given rhythm in a certain way it is really just to make it easier on us to play or to guide those playing it. How you will wind up feeling it is entirely up to you and coming up with a bass lines that works or doesn’t has more to do with your ability to listen, react and play comfortably and naturally in whatever time signature you are in. This ability as more to do with familiarity than anything. I would suggest that you explore some music that employs other time signatures. You will not only hear how someone else has done it but you will also develop your comfort level and ability to hear the rhythms more naturally.

I never like the term “odd time signature” because they really aren’t that odd, especially if you listen to non-western music. It only feels odd if we are unfamiliar with it and the more you listen, the less “odd” it will feel.

You might also want to explore getting a metronome that can emphasize compound rhythms (x+x) so that you can practice along to a click that can do 3+2, 2+3, 3+4, 4+3, etc…

I especially love Dr. Betotte for the iPhone or Metronomics for the Mac, iPhone and iPad. There are a lot of metronome options and there are also hardware versions that do the same thing (like a Dr. Beat).

The more you listen and study, the easier it is to play. The main thing to keep in mind when coming up with a good bass line is to not get over obsessed with the time signature and just internalize the music until you can feel it naturally. Then, you will be able to play naturally and the less you are thinking, the more you are listening. That’s the way to go, I’d say.

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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  1. 4 bars of 5 beats/5 bars of 4 beats = 20 beats. Another way to look at it.

  2. that bass guy

    I would shoot for sounding natural and keeping your musical expression as the goal in any piece, and not worry so much about sounding “cool” just because you’re playing something in 5/4, 7/8, etc. Listen to these two cuts of a Miles Davis classic. The first is in the original meter:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JIfdYs8WErM , the second example I’ll let you figure out: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zH9_nfuxHeU. The important thing is that they’re both musical and not noteworthy just because they’re in a particular meter.