Lesson Overview:
• Unlock the mysteries of 16th-note subdivisions.
• Imply 3/16, 6/16, and even 19/16 over metal and rock beats.
• Learn how to layer multiple parts in different time signatures.

Last month we began to wrestle with time signatures like 5/4 and 7/4 [“Obsessive Progressive: Get a Grip on Odd-Meter Time Signatures”], so in this lesson we’ll push past basic odd-meter patterns and see what it’s like to mix in some 16th-note subdivisions.

So, as the name might suggest, a 16th-note-based time signature is one where the measure is built around groupings of 16th-notes. This is denoted with a 16 as the lower number, so 5/16 means the measure contains five 16th-notes. A time signature of 21/16 means there are 21 16th-notes, and so on. Sixteenth-note time signatures are relatively jarring, but they do occur in progressive music from time to time.

Ex. 1 features a measure of 4/4 followed by two measures of 5/16. I’ve set up my microphone and counted along over the first two passes. What you might notice is that I count to five as a grouping of two and three. This is simply a personal choice—I find it easier to say those numbers out loud.

Ex. 2 is something I composed about a decade ago when studying Dream Theater and Mike Portnoy DVDs. It became apparent that one could think of a complicated-looking time signature like 19/16 as a measure of 4/4 (which contains 16 16th-notes), followed by a measure of 3/16.

I picked up my guitar and stopped thinking about scales and just imagined what Opeth might play, and I quickly came up with the basic rhythm in 4/4 and then expanded it with three 16th-notes. On the repeat, it felt natural to play two groups of three, resulting in a measure of 6/16. Combining a measure of 4/4 and a measure of 6/16 is an easier way to conceptualize a measure of 22/16.

After repeating the first two measures, I end the riff with a measure of 2/4 and a measure of 4/4. Listen closely to the counting so you can feel the pulse before trying to play along.

There are endless ways you can experiment with these combinations of quarter-, eighth-, and 16th-note-based rhythms, but I can’t help but feel they can sound a little forced. Another way to apply these ideas can be described as using polymeters. A polymeter is any setting where you’re stacking different meters on top of each other.

Here’s the concept: As we saw a moment ago, a measure of 4/4 contains 16 16th-notes. That total (16) can be reached in many different ways. Obviously, you could do four groups of four, but you could also do 5-5-5-1, 6-6-4, 3-7-6, etc. Using this approach essentially gives you lots of smaller fragments that will work over 4/4. In Ex. 3, we’re using two groups of five 16th-notes followed by three groups of two 16ths.

The 5-5-2-2-2 subdivision in that last example occurred within a single measure, but it gets a little more exciting when you look at playing ideas over longer sections of music. Ex. 4 spans two measures, so we have 32 16th-notes to play with. Here, I went with a 7-7-7-7-4 grouping. This creates a degree of tension as the music feels like it gets away from the groove until it resolves two measures later.

Here’s a more modern metal-inspired idea (Ex. 5) using just the open-E string. The note is played, then the string is slapped with the left hand before you pick the muted string with the right. This measure is divided up as 2–2–3–3–3–3.

Ex. 6 is similar, but now it stretches across two measures. That long stream of threes helps to create a lot of rhythmic tension that needs resolving. Since this is over such a short period, it’s not too jarring. Take a look at Meshuggah’s “Bleed” to see an example of a simple measure of 3/16 played over drums in 4/4.

The next example takes inspiration from Tom Monda of New Jersey-based prog rockers, Thank You Scientist. In talking to Tom about his compositional process, he explained that he thinks of ideas like Ex. 7 as rhythmic tension that needs resolving. There’s no real counting involved, though if you were to analyze it, there’s a repeating idea in 19/16 played three times with a six-note riff at the end that implies 7/16—but that’s not how it’s felt at all. If you listen carefully, you’ll notice the drums are obviously in 4/4, which helps to create this polymetric feel.