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Good Times, Odd Times: A Guide to Unusual Note Groupings

By Gordon Joly (Own work) [CC BY-SA 1.0], via Wikimedia Commons

You don't have to be a math major to escape the predictable and inject some excitement and variety into your lines.

Chops: Intermediate
Theory: Intermediate
Lesson Overview:
• Develop fluency with odd-beat groupings.
• Learn how to shape a line using different combinations of triplets, quintuplets, and sextuplets.
• Discover the limitless possibilities that appear when you start to twist the rhythm. Click here to download a printable PDF of this lesson's notation.

When we guitarist learn a new scale or arpeggio, we'll typically get it under our fingers using the tried-and-true process of playing through the new material using groupings of three (Ex. 1) or four (Ex. 2) notes at a time.

Note: Because we're focusing more on rhythmic ideas in this lesson, we'll keep the melodic material simple by using the G minor pentatonic scale (G–Bb–C–D–F) to illustrate these concepts.

Click here for Ex. 1

Click here for Ex. 2

I'm sure most of us have simplified the rhythmic side of our workouts to focus on where the notes lie on the fretboard. And in fact, those two exercises are useful, not just for building chops, but also for developing new melodic ideas.

However, it's inevitable that after a while these two exercises can start to sound predictable and stale. So how can we extend their shelf life? There are many ways, of course, but in this lesson we're going to explore the idea of playing less predictable rhythms. By doing this, we can disguise the “exercise" and give ourselves the ability to apply these notes to more situations.

For starters, take another look at Ex. 1. Since each cluster consists of three notes, our ears naturally expect the exercise to be played in a triplet rhythm. (Think of it this way: “tri-puh-let.") A great example of this is Jimmy Page's descending pentatonic lick during the fadeout of Led Zeppelin's “Good Times Bad Times." Listen to the whole track below, but the lick we're referring to happens around 2:02.

This classic, essential lick has stood the test of time, so let's make it usable in more situations. Often, one might want to use this idea of grouping notes in threes, but the tempo might be too fast for us to realistically execute it. That's where playing the idea in eighth- or 16th-notes comes in handy. By opting for a more practical rhythmic subdivision (Ex. 3), we can still use the idea—even if the most logical rhythm to pair with the approach is a bit technically out of reach.

In this example, I've taken the exercise that divides the minor pentatonic scale into groups of three, but instead of playing the lick in a triplet rhythm, I'm playing it using 16th-notes. I've also strayed a little from the regimented, exercise-based format and added a few notes from outside the pentatonic scale. Specifically, I've borrowed the 2nd and 6th scale degrees from G Dorian (G–A–Bb–C–D–E–F). I've also added a few bends to make the line a bit more creative and melodic.

Click here for Ex. 3

If we can take groups of three and play them in an eighth- or 16th-note rhythm, then it stands to reason we can also do the opposite. In Ex. 4, I've taken a four-note grouping approach, but played the line in 16th-note triplets, or sextuplets. Once again, I've stayed away from simply playing the exercise straight up and down, opting instead to take a more creative approach to the line.

Although this example shows you how to make a difficult exercise more manageable by reworking the subdivisions, be wary of attempting this idea at too fast a tempo. At warp speed, 16th-note sextuplets can be pretty hard on your picking hand.

Click here for Ex. 4

Now let's take this concept a little further. If we can play rhythms with three, four, or six notes for every quarter-note, then why can't we play five notes? In Ex. 5, I'm grouping the notes of a G minor pentatonic scale into clusters of five. These can be tricky to feel. To help you get used to it, think of the word “U-ni-ver-si-ty." Count 'em: five syllables. Try saying it in rhythm with a metronome for a while before you even play anything on your guitar. This pattern is tricky enough, but the rhythm's odd number can be hard to grasp for not only the player, but the listener too. That's not to say you shouldn't play groups of five—quintuplets are super hip.

Click here for Ex. 5

In Ex. 6, I'm playing the same exercise of five-note groupings, but playing them in a triplet rhythm. There's still a small caveat with this approach, though. Since you're playing a five-note grouping in a rhythm based on three, the math doesn't quite add up. What do I mean by that? Well, since the rhythm and the groupings don't match up, it would take a long time of cycling through the groupings of five before you'd find a grouping that again started on the downbeat of a measure of 4/4 in a musical, logical way.

Click here for Ex. 6

So instead of playing an endless stream of quintuplets and potentially losing track of the downbeat, try capping off a line with a different grouping at the end to make the phrase conclude more naturally. Check out Ex. 7.

Click here for Ex. 7

Here, I'm playing a repeating pattern or ostinato that's grouped in sets of five. I play the grouping of five a total of four times, and then tack on a variation of the grouping that only contains four notes. By doing this, I even out the passage so it starts over on a comfortable downbeat. Feeling these odd groupings juxtaposed with a rhythm that they don't normally correspond with can be confusing, so I recommend playing a repeating pattern over and over that's easy to feel with a beat. Also, to help you feel the pulse more naturally, put down your guitar and just count out the numbers of each grouping against the click.

Once the pulse feels more comfortable, you can start experimenting with moving around a little more. In Ex. 8, I play this same pattern as before while ascending to different parts of the neck.

Click here for Ex. 8

Music isn't always about being comfortable or logical, so if you want to play odd groupings that rarely or never end at a predictable place, then by all means do it!

In the next example (Ex. 9), I apply the same concept to a 16th-note rhythm. The passage contains two groupings of five, and then a grouping of six, and then the groupings repeat all over again, but with different notes. Now that we've established the fundamentals of the concept, I'm straying away from regimented fingerings in an effort to craft more musical lines.

Click here for Ex. 9

So that's pretty cool, albeit kind of nerdy and cranial, right? Right. But we're not done yet. Let's take it a couple of steps further.

Remember how in the last few examples, we combined different groups to fill a predetermined amount of space? Well, you can take the grouping that's different from the others in the set—in this case, a grouping of four—and put it anywhere in the passage (Ex. 10). No matter where you put that grouping, the passage will end in the same cozy spot because it still contains the same number of notes. In this example, I stuck the grouping of four in the middle of the series.

Click here for Ex. 10

Okay, let's do one more variation (Ex. 11). Let's start with a group of seven. On top of that, to get it to make sense in 4/4, let's add a group of four and a group of five. Also, we will be in the key of Bb major to mix it up. (It's basically the same as G minor, but I won't tell anyone.)

Click here for Ex. 11

And there you have it. Be patient as you absorb these rhythmic ideas and then find ways to incorporate them into your music. Above all, have a good time pursuing these new sounds!