One of the hallmarks of prog rock is the use of intricate rhythms and unusual meters (a.k.a. time signatures). For those of you who are just getting into exploring this kind of music, I’m happy to say that, if you can groove well in the common meters 4/4, 2/4 and 3/4, then you can, with a little mental training, groove in any time signature. All odd-metered grooves result from various combinations, or multiples, of twos and threes. Think about it: 5 can be divided into 2+3 or 3+2; 7 equals 2+2+3 (4+3), 2+3+2, 3+2+2 (3+4); nine equals 5+4, 4+5, 3+3+3, and so forth. Laying down a groove in any odd meter requires locking into the count and coming up with an appropriate repetitive chordal or single-note rhythm figure. Here are some cool ways to do that.
3/4 and 3/8 aside, the first truly odd meters are 5/8 (five eighth notes per measure, or bar) and 5/4 (five quarter notes per bar). Zoning in on 5/8, Ex. 1a features accents on the first, third, and fifth eighth notes of every consecutive five-note group. Count each beat as shown, but only tap your foot on the non-parenthesized beats. (The same methodology will be used to illustrate counts and foot taps throughout this lesson.) Note how your foot has to double up and tap two eighths in a row going from beat five back to beat one of the next bar. This may or may not be applied any time you’re jumping from a three-note grouping to a two-note grouping.
Try both methods on Examples 1b and 1c, which break the 5/8 grouping into 2+3 and 3+2, respectively. Ex. 1d presents a famous rhythmic motif, albeit way too fast in double time. Superimpose any single-notes or chords of choice (or a combination of both), dig the resultant grooves, and then follow suit with the upcoming 5/4 rhythms. (Tip: 5/8 is generally employed for faster tempos, while 5/4 is commonly used for medium to slower tempos.)
Medium to slower 5/4 tempos accommodate more subdivisions. There are now five quarter notes and 10 eighth notes per measure, as shown in Examples 2a and 2b, where we’re counting and tapping every quarter note. Ex. 2c recasts Ex. 1d in its proper meter and tempo, syncopating the first three beats (eighth-quarter-eighth-quarter) with two quarter notes on beats four and five. Ex. 2d is essentially the same rhythm with the first two eighth- and quarter-notes tied to each other. Both utilize a 3+3+2+2 eighth-note subdivision. At any given tempo, 5/4 generates two strong downbeats (beats one and two) and two weaker upbeats (the “and” of beats three and four), followed by a beat of rest, as shown in Ex. 2e. This inherent motif may be played staccato (short and clipped), or with each note given its full value, or, in this case, a combination of both articulations. (Tip: Try displacing this rhythm by one quarter note.)
Ex. 2f features a dotted-quarter note, two upbeat eighths, and another dotted-quarter on the “and” of beat four. Even more syncopated are Examples 2g and 2h. The former—gleaned from the Seaview’s radar blips on the classic 60’s TV series Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea--hits beat one followed by every eighth-note upbeat, and the latter is the same rhythm with a quarter note on beat five. Follow the picking notation and get your 5/4 groove on.
With all of the previous 5/4 rhythms in mind, let’s check out some real-world applications. The arpeggiated Dm9add4 figure in Ex. 3a utilizes the motif from Ex. 2b with accents on the third and fifth eighths of each five-note grouping, recalling a pianistic rhythm figure from Jeff Beck’s Blow By Blow album, while the Ex. 2d-based root-b3-6-b7 lick played over a droning open low-E in Ex. 3b is redolent of a Led Zeppelin IV-era favorite. The next three examples go even more retro. Ex. 3c, another offshoot of Ex. 2d, recreates a classic 60’s spy theme, and Ex. 3d jumps to early-70s, Larks’ Tongues-era King Crimson, à la Ex. 2b’s eighth notes subdivided into 3+3+2+2.
For total authenticity, replace the low G’s with metallic, muted-string “clanks,” and let your bassist handle the song’s alternating F’s and G’s. Gm7 never sounded more sinister, but it’s Ex. 3e that recasts the motif from Ex. 2c into the most recognizable and accessible 5/4 rhythm of all time—Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five.” 1969 supergroup Blind Faith picked up on this action, minus the swing feel, and based the longest cut from their only album on the similar but less syncopated figure shown in Ex. 3f.
Essential Listening: “Diamond Dust” (Jeff Beck); “Four Sticks” (Led Zeppelin); “Theme from Mission Impossible” (Lalo Schifrin); “Larks’ Tongues in Aspic Part II” (King Crimson); “Take Five” (Dave Brubeck); “Do What You Like” (Blind Faith). Also Recommended: “Living in the Past” (Jethro Tull); “Tarkus” (ELP); “Dancing Madly Backwards” (Captain Beyond); “Countdown” (Dave Brubeck); “English Roundabout” (XTC);.
While a 5/4 pulse adds one beat to its 4/4 counterpart, a 7/4 pulse subtracts the last beat of every other bar or 4/4, creating a rhythmic “skip” of sorts. A 7/4 or 7/8 pulse results from playing seven quarter notes or eighth notes at a given tempo, as shown in Ex. 4a. To count time in 7/4, tap your foot on every beat, accenting the downbeat (beat one) on every repeat. (And don’t you dare count “se-ven” as two beats! Better to just say “Sev.”) To count time in 7/8 (depicted here at twice the 7/4 tempo), tap on every other beat—one, three, five, and seven--and when you reach beat seven, skip back to beat one by double-timing your foot tap to accent the next downbeat. A 7/4 or 7/8 pulse can be sub-divided into accented groupings of 4+3 (Ex. 4b), 3+4 (Ex. 4c), 2+3 (D.I.Y.). Note how the foot taps stay consistent in the 7/4 examples, versus how the 7/8 skip occurs on different beats in Examples 4b and 4c. Get to know them.
Ex. 5a illustrates a common “three-downbeats-plus-three-upbeats” motif inherent in any 7/4 or 7/8 meter (it’s 5/4 counterpart is Ex. 2e), while Examples 5b and 5c illustrate variations derived by adding two extra notes to the figure. Try playing each one with an Am7 on the first three hits and D9 on all the rest, and then move on to single-note and chordal figures of your own design. You might recognize Ex. 6a’s 3+4 subdivisions as the main rhythmic motif from Pink Floyd’s “Money,” but Examples 6b-6d illustrate how to derive three similar motifs simply by displacing its single pair of eighth notes to different beats. The 4+3 division in Ex. 6e utilizes four beats of galloping eighth and 16th notes, plus three beats of syncopated eighths to create a facsimile of a section from Heart’s “Barracuda,” while the funky 3+4 divisions in Ex. 6f recall the main rhythmic motif from Peter Gabriel’s “Solsbury Hill.”
Ex. 7a fleshes out Ex. 5c with a pair of add9 chords played a whole step apart, and Ex. 7b recasts a well-known 60’s single-note 4/4 soul riff in 7/4. (Tip: Try converting some of your favorite 4/4 riffs to 7/4.) Ex. 7c presents a sparse, fusion-y figure built from four slash chords, while Ex. 7d demonstrates how to rhythmically embellish the same figure. Sometimes it makes more sense to count a given figure as a single bar of 7/4 versus two bars of double-timed 7/8, but just the opposite holds true for the funky, Jeff Beck-influenced riff shown in Ex. 7e. The figure is much easier to count as two bars of 7/8—indicated by the dotted bar line—even though the drums are playing in 7/4.
Essential Listening: “Money” (Pink Floyd); “Barracuda” (Heart); “Solsbury Hill” (Peter Gabriel); “Thousand Days of Yesterdays” (Captain Beyond); “Cool Jerk” (Todd Rundgren); “Evolove” (Jan Hammer Group); “You Know What I Mean” (Jeff Beck). Also Recommended: “Back in NYC” (Genesis); “Unsquare Dance” (Dave Brubeck); “YYZ” and “Limelight” (Rush); “Just the Same” and “Black Cat” (Gentle Giant); “Are We Not Men?” (Devo); “Firebird Suite” (Stravinsky); “The Pilgrim” (Wishbone Ash); “Everybody’ Going To Heaven” (Todd Rundgren).
9/4 or 9/8 meters involve establishing a pulse of nine quarter or eighth notes per bar at a given tempo. Since it is a common practice to notate 9/4 as a bar of 4/4 plus a bar of 5/4, especially at slower and medium tempos, we’ll focus on 9/8 rhythms, all of which can be converted to 9/4 by playing them at half tempo. Ex. 8a illustrates a basic 9/8 pulse at a moderately fast tempo, but 9/8 is typically subdivided into smaller accented groupings of eighth notes. Since nine is divisible by three, our first subdivision (Ex. 8b) groups the nine eighth notes into “threes” (3+3+3), creating a loping shuffle feel. Tap your foot on each accent and think of it as a bar and a half of 6/8, three quarters of a bar of 12/8, or three eighth-note triplets in a bar of 3/4. Experiment with a variety of tempos until you feel acclimated to the meter, and then apply different notes and chords.
Examples 8c and 8d show another pair of common subdivisions—4+5 and 5+4—which may be counted as such. Tap your foot on the first, third, fifth, seventh, and ninth notes in Ex. 8c, and on the first, third, fifth, sixth, and eighth notes in Ex. 8d. Note how both examples require tapping your foot on two consecutive eighth notes when crossing from the last note of the “fives” to the first note of the “fours.” By further subdividing these “fives” and “fours” into two- and three-note groupings, we arrive at the next four groove options. Ex. 9a features a 3+2+2+2 configuration, while Ex. 9b’s 2+3+2+2 formula shifts the three-note grouping (and the doubled-up foot tap) one slot to the east. The process continues as we displace the three-note group two more times to produce the 2+2+3+2 and 2+2+2+3 subdivisions in Examples 9c and 9d. Now, let’s check out some real-world apps.
First up is Ex. 10a’s bluesy, single-note, root-b7-5 motif, which utilizes the 3+3+3 grouping from Ex. 8b to outline the I- and IV-chords (A and D) in the key of A. (Tip: Use it to form an entire 12-bar blues in 9/8.) Next, we move back into Beck-y funk/fusion territory utilizing the 4+5 and 2+2+2+3 subdivisions (and foot taps) from Examples 8d and 9d. The two-bar motif in Ex. 10b features a James Brown-style dotted-eighth-to-16th-to eighth move, followed by three staccato eighth-note hits on beats five, seven, and nine applied to Am7 and C/Bb. For extra credit, create a single-note accompaniment that utilizes a segment of the A Phrygian mode starting on its 5 (E-F-G-A-Bb-C) applied to every 16thnote in each bar—all 18 of them.
Any study of odd meters is incomplete without at least one Mahavishnu Orchestra reference. The single-note riff in Ex. 10c employs the F# minor pentatonic scale in another 4+5 or 2+2+2+3 rhythmic grouping. Repeat the ostinato in bar 1 four times, segue to the descending 3+3+3 groupings of dotted-eighths in bars 2 and 3, and dig the transition between subdivisions. Finally, we come to perhaps the most famous 9/8 tune of all time: Dave Brubeck’s “Blue Rondo a la Turk” (from 1959’s landmark Time Out album, which also contained “Take Five.”). The song’s melody again utilizes the now-familiar subdivisions from Examples 9d and 8b. Ex. 10d, with its shifts from three bars of 2+2+2+3 to one bar of 3+3+3, arranges Brubeck’s right-hand piano part for the fretboard, and, as a bonus, the chord grids in Ex. 10e provide appropriate adaptations of his Gershwin-esque left-hand accompaniment.
Essential Listening: “Scatterbrain” (Jeff Beck); “Vital Transformation” (Mahavishnu Orchestra); “Blue Rondo à la Turk” (Dave Brubeck). Also Recommended: “Apocalypse In 9/8” (Genesis); “Manticore,” 5th movement of “Tarkus” (ELP); “The Crunge” (Led Zeppelin); “Claire de Lune” (Debussy); “Theme from The Saint” TV series (Edwin Astley); “Black Rain” (Soundgarden); “Somewhat Damaged” (Nine Inch Nails).
Not surprisingly, a pulse of 11 eighth notes or quarter notes per bar offers even more potential for rhythmic subdivisions and “factoring.” We’ll be checking out ways to groove in 11/8, but keep in mind that all of the following examples can be adapted to 11/4 by halving the tempo and doubling the value of each note. First up are the obvious lopsided 6+5 and 5+6 divisions (Examples 11a and 11b). Work on one at a time by establishing a comfortable tempo and tapping your foot to the notated accents while observing how you again have to double up foot taps when going from odd to even subgroupings. Find the groove, add some single notes or chords, and you’re off and running.
Ex. 11c features a loping, triplet-based 3+3+3+2 subdivision that easily translates to the 11/8 shuffle beat shown in Ex. 11d. Note the changes in the accented foot taps. Examples 11e and 11f focus on 7+4 and 4+7 divisions respectively, where again, you’ll encounter two consecutive eighth-note foot taps when crossing from odd to even groups. Lastly, Ex. 11g details a 4+4+3 (or 8+3) subdivision, which is essentially the same as Ex. 11f’s 4+7 grouping. Let’s send them all into action.
The next three examples feature a single chord shape (Em9) arpeggiated in accordance with Examples 11a – 11c. Choose a picking technique—pick only, fingerstyle, or hybrid pick-and-fingerstyle—and have at the 6+5 grouping in Ex. 12a, the 5+6 grouping in Ex. 12b, and the 3+3+3+2 subdivision in Ex. 12c. Though all three are similar, it’s the different sets of accents that make each one unique.
Ex. 13a transforms the subdivision from Ex. 11c into a propulsive, E-based blues/rock riff—the 11/8 counterpart of Examples 8b and 10a. Ex. 13b applies the elongated, shuffle version of the same division (from Ex. 11d) to a pair of alternating E5 and E6 chords for an 11/8 shuffle that wouldn’t sound out of place in a Mahavishnu Orchestra jam. Ex. 13c makes use of Ex. 1g’s 4+4+3 grouping with a single-note, E-Mixolydian-based fusion riff that doubles the value of the first, third, fifth, and seventh eighth-notes to form a four-quarter-note plus three-eighth-note motif.
If you’re getting the idea that 11/8 meter is exclusive to jazz or fusion, have a go at Ex. 14a’s 3+3+3+2 subdivision, which suggests the most famous 11/8 figure in blues-rock history—the intro to the Allman Brothers Band classic, “Whipping Post.” Ex. 14b completes the picture with a second guitar part to be played over Ex. 14a. We’ll end in a much more relaxed state with Ex. 15, the basis for John McLaughlin’s pastoral “Follow Your Heart.” Transpose it to the IV, V, and bIII chords to form the song’s 12-bar progression.
Essential Listening: “Whipping Post” (Allman Brothers Band); “Follow Your Heart” (John McLaughlin).
Also Recommended: “Magical Dog” (Jan Hammer Group); “Pantagruel’s Nativity” (Gentle Giant); “Rosetta Stoned” (Tool); “The Eleven” (Grateful Dead); “Eleven” (Gil Evans); “Queen of Hearts” (Gregg Allman); “Here Comes the Sun” (Beatles); “Losing It” (Rush); Happy with What You Have to Be Happy With” (King Crimson).
For further study, check out any albums by Mahavishnu Orchestra, Gentle Giant, King Crimson, Frank Zappa, Don Ellis, Dave Brubeck, Tool, and Dream Theater, Oh Yeah? by the Jan Hammer Group, Todd Rundgren’s Utopia, as well as traditional Greek and Balkan folk songs and dances, and get your odd-meter groove on!