Exploring Odd Meters

April 1, 2010

MOST OF US ARE RHYTHMICALLY starved, surviving on a steady diet of just three meters: 4/4, 3/4, and the delightfully churning 12/8. But there’s more to life than these three patterns, and it’s fun to branch out and explore meters based on less common beat groupings, such as 5 and 7.

Meters are categorized as perfect or imperfect. Perfect meters can be divided into equal halves or thirds. Imperfect meters—better known as odd meters— cannot be evenly divided by 2 or 3.

http://www.guitarplayer.com/uploadedImages/guitarplayer/GP0410_Odd_Ex-01.jpgPerhaps the best known odd meter is 5/4. (Kudos to alto saxophonist Paul Desmond, who wrote “Take Five,” the jazz classic popularized by the Dave Brubeck Quartet, for bringing 5/4 to the world’s attention.) When playing in 5/4, it’s often helpful to subdivide the meter’s five quarter-notes into groupings of 2 and 3. As Ex. 1 illustrates, you can play 5/4 as a 3+2 or 2+3 grouping. In this example, the paired quarter-notes (beats four and five in bar 1, and beats one and two in bar 2) are further parsed into eighth-notes to create a rippling effect.

http://www.guitarplayer.com/uploadedImages/guitarplayer/GP0410_Odd_Ex-02.jpgTry playing this repeating passage using a hybrid pick-and-fingers technique. As you move from bar 1 to bar 2, arch your fretting fingers so the open-E string can ring freely and provide sonic cover for the position shift. Tip: In bar 2, grab each tenth interval as a unit and simply arpeggiate the first two grips.

Another cool odd meter is 7/8. Subdividing the seven eighth-notes into groups of 2 and 3 yields three patterns: 2+2+3, 3+2+2, and 2+3+2. Examples 2a-2c each contain one of these patterns. Practice each phrase individually, then combine them in different configurations. Using a downstroke, lean into the first beat of each subgroup and hammer, pull, or slide the remaining notes as indicated. Put some muscle into the slurs, so they ring loudly and don’t get overshadowed by the droning open strings.

http://www.guitarplayer.com/uploadedImages/guitarplayer/GP0410_Odd_Ex-03.jpgBecause 9/8 can be divided into equal thirds, it’s actually a perfect meter. But if you’re after the elliptical roll of an odd meter, divide the eighth-notes into 4+5 or 5+4 groupings. Ex. 3 illustrates the latter. This string of arpeggios sounds particularly trippy played through a swirling rotary speaker or Uni-Vibe effect.

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