This week we’re looking at odd time signatures. I’ve written 5 cool riffs to freak you out and get you counting! We’re looking at 7/4, 5/4, 7/8, 15/8 and 11/16. These are the kind of time signatures found in progressive rock and metal styles from bands like Dream Theater, Yes, Genesis, Rush, Pink Floyd, King Crimsons and many more.
Riff #1 – 7/4
This riff is in E minor and is a great starting point for playing bass in an odd time signature. Just as with the more normal 4/4 time that you’ll be familiar with from almost all rock/pop music, it’s simply a matter of counting beats. The aim is to get the ‘feel’ of the music right rather than just having to count things in your head, but counting the beats is a first necessary step (hopefully you can count to 7!) You should be able to feel the natural ‘swing’ of this riff, but how do you count it to get the notes in the right place?
The trick is to think of it as two sections – one of four beats, and one of three beats, almost like two separate pieces of music. So instead of trying to count to seven, which is surprisingly cumbersome while you’re playing, try to count to four and then to three. So ONE two three four ONE two three. Each separate measure has it’s own feel, but when played together you get the distinct 7/4 feeling.
You might recognise this time signature as that of the riff from Pink Floyd’s Money.
Riff #2 – 5/4
If the feel of this song sounds familiar, it’s probably because of the Mission: Impossible theme or Take Five by Dave Brubeck. As with the 7/4 riff we’ve just covered, the main secret to this riff is actually the feel. In terms of counting, we’re breaking it up in a different way. We’re going to count to 5, but put accents on particular notes.
Try counting to five without playing, but add an ‘and’ in between each number: so “ONE and TWO and THREE and FOUR and FIVE and”
The key to this riff is that the second note falls on the ‘and’ after two like so: ONE AND TWO AND THREE FOUR FIVE. Sing or say that to yourself in your head and you should get the feel before you try playing the line, and it will hopefully come fairly naturally as a result!
Riff #3 – 7/8
If you’ve mastered the 7/4 rhythm then the 7/8 time signature should come fairly naturally to you. The main point of difference is that we are counting in eighth notes (that is, 8 beats in a bar). You might find it easiest to count a bar of four, but with an ‘and’ between each beat: one and two and three and four and. If you do this, all you have to do to count a 7/8 is miss the final ‘and’ from your count. Alternatively, you might find it more natural to break the bar into sub divisions of 4 and 3.
Riff #4 – 15/8
One of the oddest time signatures is 15/8 – which you’ll rarely encounter outside of certain genres of music (particularly technical form of metal and jazz fusion). It’s certainly not easy to dance to! As I’m hoping you’ve gathered by now, the key to counting this is again how you ‘group’ the notes in your head.
In this riff, the notes actually all fall on the eighth notes without the ‘swing’ feel the other riffs have mostly used – so if you literally play the notes as written you’ll naturally play in 15/8, but it always helps to have a mental map in your head of how to group them. I find the best way is to consider a bar of 15/8 as two bars of 8/8, minus the final eighth – so: “one and two and three and four and one and two and three and,” but you might find it easier to count a bar of 4, a bar of 2, and a bar of 3. It is up to you whichever you find easiest.
Riff #5 – 11/16
So far, we’ve only divided our bars into 4s and 8s, but for this final riff we’re going to count 16 beats in the bar – which I do by counting “one e-and-a, two e-and-a” and so on. I hope you’ve got the principle by now – we’re just breaking the bar down into smaller fractions. As with the principle of the other time signatures, as we’re really doing is counting the first 11 of those 16th notes.
And, like other signatures, you might find it easier to break this into perhaps two bars of 4 and a bar of 3. Whichever approach you take you should find it much more natural to count, which will enable you to pick up the line in a more fluid and natural way than trying to perform calculations in your head.
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