Friday, April 29, 2011

Learning Odd Time Signatures

Something that you don't get in a well rounded college education, or at least it wasn't seriously addressed in mine, is how to learn to play in odd time signatures.  Just do it?  Well, of course that will help but here is a process that helped me.

First, figure out a rhythmic pattern that fits well with and defines whatever odd time signature you'd like to learn. For example, the following example is an easy pattern that nicely defines 7/4.

Once you've mastered the basic rhythm try applying it to a chord changes.  Here is an example clip where I play something that basically sounds like a bass line. It follows the 7/4 rhythmic pattern above and I take it through a blues in concert C. 

After you can play through the changes with out getting lost or losing the rhythm begin to elaborate, embellish, fill in holes, leave space, etc.  You might start out just filling out a certain part of the pattern with 8th notes for a start.  Here is an example of what I call stage 2, embellishing the basic pattern. 

Once you feel like you can leave space or stray from the pattern without losing the next down beat, you're ready to start really improvising in the odd meter.  Begin by experimenting with starting and stopping your phrases in different spots of the measure.  You could try ending on the and of 6 or beginning on beat 2 or any of the other many possibilities.  Find the ones that are most challenging and concentrate on those.  The best test is of your ability with a given odd meter is to record yourself improvising unaccompanied and then listen back and see if you can hear the meter and changes clear.  Here is an example of stage 3, freedom from the original pattern. 

After all of that, here is a list of things to do that will undoubtedly help you continue along the odd meter journey.
  •  Playing unaccompanied will make you a strong independent player, but its also necessary to practice playing odd meters with a rhythm section as that will add its own surprises.  I have some odd meter play-alongs below for those of you who would like to play odd time signature all day long while your band mates are at their day jobs.
  • Transcribe some great players and see what they are doing rhythmically over odd meters.  Duh...  Again, see below.
  • Finally, take any musical concept rhythmic or otherwise that you like to use in 4/4 and  figure it out in the odd meter. 
Practice resources for odd time signatures including play-alongs, lead sheets, and even some transcriptions of Chris Potter in 7/4 and 13/8 visit and go to the free stuff section. 

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