Rhythm Workshop: Odd Meters, Part I

All odd-metered time signatures and grooves result from various combinations of twos and threes.
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All odd-metered time signatures and grooves result from various combinations of twos and threes. Think about it: 5 can be divided into 2+3 or 3+2; 7 equals 2+2+3, 2+3+2, 3+2+2, and so forth. Even the straight 4/4 figure in Ex. 1a can be made to sound “odd” by offsetting its standard 4+4 eighth-notes into accented 3+2+3 groupings, as evidenced by Ex. 1b, where every eighth-note is played, or Ex. 1c, where each eighth-note grouping is sustained.

3/4 and 3/8 aside, the first truly odd meters are 5/8 (five eighth-notes per measure) and 5/4 (five quarter-notes per measure). Zoning in on 5/8, Ex. 2a features a single accent on the first of every five consecutive eighth-notes, while Examples 2b and 2c break this 5/8 grouping into 2+3 and 3+2, respectively. 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.)

Generally, medium to slower 5/4 tempos accommodate more subdivisions—there are now ten eighth-notes per measure, as shown in Ex. 3a. Ex. 3b divides these into 3+3+2+2, while Ex. 3c can be approached two ways—as 5+5 with the fourth and fifth notes tied, or the same rhythm with a rest on the first eighth-note of each five-note grouping. Ex. 4a depicts an alternative notation for the 3+3+2+2 divisions from Ex. 3b, and Ex. 4b fills out every eighth-note in the same motif, while Ex. 4c syncopates the first three beats (eighth-quarter-eighthquarter) and maintains two quarter-notes on beats four and five.

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At any given tempo, 5/4 (or 5/8) 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. This inherent motif can be played staccato, as shown in Ex. 5a, or with each note given its full value, as notated in Ex. 5b. Examples 5c and 5d displace the same rhythms by one beat by inserting a quarter-rest on beat one of each motif.

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With all of the previous 5/4 rhythms in mind, let’s check out some real-world musical examples. The arpeggiated Dm9/11 figure in Ex. 6a utilizes the motif from Ex. 3a with accents on the third and fifth eighths of each five-note grouping, and recalls the pianistic rhythm figure from Jeff Beck’s “Diamond Dust,” while the Ex. 3b-based root-b3-6-b7 lick played over a droning open low-E in Ex. 6b is redolent of a Led-Zep-IV-era favorite. The ethereal arpeggios in Ex. 6c, which correspond with the motif from Ex. 3c, come courtesy of an obscure Rick Laird composition that appeared on the criminally overlooked Like Children album by Jan Hammer and Jerry Goodman. (All three were members of the original Mahavishnu Orchestra.) You can simplify this figure by delegating the notes on beats one and the and of beat three to your bass buddy. Complete the four-bar progression by transposing the same moves up a flatted fifth, or three whole-steps.

Our last three examples go even more retro. Ex. 7a, an offshoot of Ex. 4a, recreates a classic ’60s spy theme, and Ex. 7b jumps to early-’70s, Larks’ Tongues-era King Crimson à la Ex. 4b (Gm7 never sounded more sinister), but it’s Ex. 7c that recasts the motif from Ex. 4c into the most recognizable and accessible 5/4 rhythm of all time—Dave Brubeck’s (ahem) timeless “Take Five.”

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Your mission, should you decide to accept it, is to groove on all of the previous examples and extrapolate whatever you can. (This lesson will self-destruct in 15 seconds…)