9/4 or 9/8 meters involve establishing a pulse of nine quarter-or eighth-notes per measure 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 be focusing on 9/8 rhythms, all of which can be converted to 9/4 by playing them at half-tempo.
Ex. 1a illustrates a basic 9/8 pulse in a range of moderate to fast tempos. Choose and play any single note or chord, and try tapping your foot on every beat, accenting the downbeat (beat one) on each pass. It’s too fast, right? Now try just tapping the downbeat (beat one) of each measure. That’s too slow, right? Here’s the deal.
9/8 is typically subdivided into smaller accented groupings of eighth-notes. Since nine is divisible by three, our first subdivision (Ex. 1b) groups the nine eighth-notes into “threes” (3x3x3), creating a loping, triplet/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, and/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. (Tip: Try arpeggiating some of your favorite chord voicings.) Apply the same process to the following seven examples.
Examples 1c and 1d show another pair of common subdivisions that combine accented five-plus-four-note, and four-plus- five-note groupings. Tap your foot to either set of accents—on the first beat of each four- and five-note division, and then on the first, third, fifth, sixth, and eighth notes in Ex. 1c, or the first, third, fifth, seventh, and ninth notes in Ex. 1c. Note how in both examples the second set of accents requires 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 options. Ex. 2a features a 3+2+2+2 configuration, while Ex. 2b’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 2c and 2d. Now, let’s check out some real-world apps.
First up is Ex. 3a’s bluesy, single-note, root-b7-5 motif, which utilizes the 3+3+3 grouping from Ex. 1b to outline the I- and IV-chords (A and D) in the key of A. In Ex. 3b, we flesh out the same riff by using double-stops to cover both chords, embellishing the I-chord with a hammered b3-to-3 (C-to-C#) played below the 5 (E), and adjusting the C# to C to accommodate the IV-chord. Use either figure (or both) to construct a complete 12-bar blues progression and jam yourself some serious 9/8 blues.
Next, we move into funk/fusion territory utilizing the 4+5 and 2+2+2+3 subdivisions (and foot taps) from Examples 1d and 2d. The one-bar motif in Ex. 4a features a James Brown-style dotted-eighth-to-sixteenth-to-eighth move, followed by three staccato eighth-note hits on beats five, seven, and nine. Apply the chord voicings diagramed in Ex. 4b to this rhythm at the rate of one chord every two bars, and then tag on a single 12/8 measure utilizing the four descending chords shown in Ex. 4c (played one chord per dotted-eighth-note beat), and you’ll hear a pretty close approximation of the rhythm figure from Jeff Beck’s “Scatterbrain” (from 1975’s Blow by Blow and 1976’s Live with the Jan Hammer Group).
Any discussion of any odd meter is incomplete without at least one Mahavishnu Orchestra-style reference. The single- note riff in Ex. 5a is similar to “Vital Transformation,” from 1971’s The Inner Mounting Flame, and employs the F# pentatonic minor scale in another 4+5 or 2+2+2+3 rhythmic grouping. The repeated ostinato in bar 1 begins with emphasis on two downbeats before getting all syncopated in the middle and ending with a pair of hammered sixteenths on the last two downbeats. Play this figure many times, segue to the descending 3x3x3-grouped dotted-eighths in bars 2 and 3, and dig the transition between subdivisions. Follow up with bars 2 and 3 of this figure repeated a whole-step lower with one slight alteration. (Tip: Listen to the record.) Hold a final second-string/third-fret E for a few bars, and then add the one-bar ascending whole-tone motif depicted in Ex. 5b, noting how the subdivisions have changed to 5+4 (or 3+2+2+2). Follow the notation and repeat the same motif for five ascending whole-steps over the course of five bars. Top this off with a high, oblique, unison F# bend held for one measure to complete a full-circle transition back to Ex. 5a.
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, which is often incorrectly assumed to be based on Mozart’s “Rondo alla Turca,” utilizes the now-familiar 2+2+2+3 and 3+3+3 subdivisions. Ex. 6a, 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. 6b provide appropriate adaptations of his Gershwin-esque left-hand accompaniment.
Keep in mind that any of the basic eighth-note groupings in Examples 1a through 2d can be further subdivided into endless combinations of mixed eighth-notes, dotted-eighths, sixteenth-notes, sixteenth-note triplets, etc., or elongated with quarter-notes, dotted-quarters, half-notes, and so on. Check out the back catalogs of the Mahavishnu Orchestra, Frank Zappa, Gentle Giant, Yes, Led Zeppelin, Rush, Kansas, Dream Theater, and even ’60s TV themes like “The Saint” for more 9/8 action!