Counting and playing in odd meters really isn’t any more difficult than counting and playing 4/4—if you know the ground rules. We’ve already discussed 5/4 and 5/8, so let’s move on to 7/4 and 7/8. 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, creating a rhythmic “skip” of sorts.
A 7/4 or 7/8 pulse results from playing seven quarter-or eighth-notes at a given tempo, as shown in Ex. 1a. 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 “sev-en” as two beats!) 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 subdivided into accented groupings of four-plus-three (Ex. 1b—think Pink Floyd’s “Money”), three-plus-four (Ex. 1c—think Peter Gabriel’s “Solsbury Hill”), and two-plus-three-plus-two (Ex. 1d). Note how the foot taps stay the same in the 7/4 examples versus how the 7/8 “skip” occurs on different beats in Examples 1c and 1d. Assign any notes or chords to these figures and get to know them.
Ex. 2a illustrates a common “three-downbeats-plus-three-upbeats” motif inherent in any 7/4 or 7/8 meter, while Examples 2b, 2c, and 2d illustrate variations derived by adding one or two extra notes to the figure. Try playing each one with an Am(7) on the first three hits and D(9) on all the rest, and then move on to single-note and chordal figures of your own design.
Sometimes it makes more sense to count a given figure as a single measure of 7/4 versus two bars of double-timed 7/8, and vice versa. Establish the 7/4 rhythmic motif in Ex. 3a using a single note or chord, and then compare it with its two-bar 7/8 counterpart. Counting it in 7/4 is much easier, right? Adding Ex. 3b’s Rush-style descending scale sequence and comparing it to Ex. 3c’s double-timed 7/8 version further drives home the point.
Just the opposite holds true for the funky, Beck-influenced 7/4 figure in Ex. 4a (for total authenticity, swap octaves on the first four Cs), and its 7/8 counterpart in Ex. 4b, as well as the killer Todd Rundgren “Everybody’s Going to Heaven” riff depicted in Examples 5a and 5b. Both figures are much easier to count in 7/8, even when the drum parts are sometimes playing in 7/4.
For a trip to seventh heaven, check out “Hope” from the Mahavishnu Orchestra’s Birds of Fire album. The entire song consists of a repetitive seven-bar arpeggiated ascending chord sequence in 7/4 that utilizes one bar of 4+3 and one bar of 3+4, followed by five more bars of 4+3. Absolutely Epic!