• Understand how to subdivide various time signatures.
• Learn how to use accents to imply odd-meter feels.
• Improvise comfortably in 5/8, 7/8, and 9/8.
Put on your dancing shoes: We’re about to explore the concept of odd time signatures and influences from Eastern Europe, and see how they can help us improve our understanding of time, accents, and phrasing. We’ll also attempt to address a common problem for guitarists and musicians in general: dealing with odd time signatures.
At some point, many guitarists learn about styles that feature unusual time signatures—world music, progressive rock, or math metal, for example—and become obsessed with figuring them out. And this can often be taken to extremes that seem more cerebral than natural. But there is something intrinsically organic about the sound of a time signature that’s not plain old 3/4 or 4/4. Whether it’s the 12/8 feel of a slow blues or the 7/4 groove of “Money” by Pink Floyd, there’s a groove naturally built into the pulse.
The concept behind World Gone Shred is to discover new ideas from around the globe that a shredding guitarist can use. This time out let’s focus on Eastern Europe—specifically the folk songs of Bulgaria.
Often musicians have to count odd time signatures to understand them, but the folk songs in Bulgaria are sung socially. This means that, yes, non-musicians are clapping and singing songs in 13/8 as naturally as we sing “Three Blind Mice.” I came to understand this through Miroslav Tadic, a world-class guitarist, master of many guitar styles, and leader of a Bulgarian ensemble I’ve had the good fortune to perform with.
Let’s start by exploring a bit of time-signature theory. There are three main classifications for time signatures: simple meter, compound meter, and odd meter.
Simple meter is any time signature where the pulse is divided by two eighth-notes (or a quarter-note). For example, 2/4 is duple simple meter, 3/4 is triple simple meter, and 4/4 is quadruple simple meter.
Compound meter is a time signature where the pulse is divided by three eighth-notes (or a dotted-quarter note): 6/8 is duple compound meter (you count one, two, three, four, five, six), 9/8 is triple compound meter, and 12/8 is quadruple compound meter (like a triplet feel of 4/4).
These two feels—simple and compound—can be identified and defined if you contrast 3/4 and 6/8, which both contain six eighth-notes but are counted differently. In Ex. 1 you can see (and hear) how the two time signatures compare.
A common myth is that whenever there’s an odd number on top of a time signature, it must be an odd time signature. Not true. In Ex. 2 you can see how 9/8 can be felt as a compound meter (3+3+3) and as an odd meter (2+2+2+3). For most of our examples we will discuss odd meters as a combination of simple and compound meters consisting of both quarter-notes and dotted-quarter-notes.
The three odd time signatures we’ll focus on are 5/8, 7/8, and 9/8, and we’ll explore variations of each by placing the compound beat either at the beginning or end of the phrase. In Ex. 3 you can see six different Dm-Am grooves. There are several different picking possibilities for each one. You can either use strict alternate picking or use a down-up pattern for the simple beats and down-up-down for the compound beats.
For the next example (Ex. 4), let’s just focus on the pulses and strum downstrokes on the beats. This demonstrates a rhythm and feeling that is deep in Bulgarian culture.
Now, it’s time to start improvising over these time signatures. To keep things easy, we’ll use a simple D Aeolian (D–E–F–G–A–Bb–C) scale. In Ex. 5 we isolate the simple beats from the compound beats by playing a steady rhythm of eighth-notes for the simple beats and a dotted-quarter note for the compound beats. Once you get this down as written, improvise your own solo using the scale on other melodic ideas, but stay to the strict confines of this rhythmic framework.
Let’s do the opposite for the next example (Ex. 6). Hold out a long note for the simple beats and then play three eighth-notes for the compound beat. Again, improvise with this until it feels natural. Once you feel comfortable with those ideas try combining them.
Next, in Ex. 7 try playing just pulses for two measures and then a steady stream of eighth-notes for two measures. Improvise the notes but stay to this strict rhythm throughout. As you play the eighth-notes try to accent the pulses of the time signature. You can do this by picking louder or use legato phrasing.
In Ex. 8, we play faster subdivisions of the beat and use 16th-notes for the compound phrases.
Finally, let’s do the opposite by playing 16th-notes during the simple beats and just eighth-notes for the compound beats (Ex. 9). Improvise melodically with these concepts and invent similar examples that adhere to this rhythmic foundation.
These ideas and examples will help you tremendously for improvising over odd time signatures, but let’s look at how these ideas can improve your phrasing and accents. First of all, let’s check out a concept called rhythmic superimposition. I’m sure many of you do this already. An example of this would be playing 16th-notes (which divide the pulse by four) and play a melodic pattern of three notes up the scale (Ex. 10). This is a very common phrasing idea.
Let’s now add our new phrasing concepts of odd times: five-note groupings, seven-note groupings, and nine-note groupings. In Ex. 11, we work through each group using some very Satriani-like legato phrasing. The first section covers five-note groups before moving on the seven- and nine-note groups. Isolate each section and practice with a metronome to help nail the timing and feeling.
Our final topic is accents. Guitarists sometimes try to emulate the phrasing of such legendary saxophonists as Charlie Parker and Sonny Rollins. The great ones rarely play a steady stream of eighth-notes or 16th-notes without adding accents. In Ex. 12 you can play with a combination of different picking styles. For relevance, check out sax and woodwind players from Bulgaria, such as Yuri Yenakov and Ivo Papasov.
Accenting can also focus entirely on your right hand by incorporating techniques often taught by sarod and sitar gurus, where you practice scales in this mixed picking style. Ex. 13 shows a simple scalar lick that works through three different accent patterns. Make sure to follow the suggested picking to help make the accented notes pop.
I hope this has opened your eyes, ears, and body to a whole new rhythmic understanding. There’s a world of stuff in here to practice and inspire you and it will help you in every aspect of your musical goals. Rhythm can be an overlooked area of musicianship and it’s one of the hardest things to teach. But if you are on, if your rhythm is tight, and your sense of groove is defined, your fellow musicians and the audience will feel it.