What happens when the rug of the rhythm gets pulled out from under you?
• Understand basic rhythmic elements and how to manipulate them.
• Learn to transform “vanilla" phrases into something more interesting.
• Never get bored playing over a vamp again!
Todd Rundgren's A Wizard, a True Star is probably the greatest example of the synthesis of epic '70s prog-rock grandeur and high-minded pop songwriting. Rundgren sets the vibe with the dramatic opening track “International Feel," which begins with a slow, pulsing synth that builds into a pummeling drum in the first verse. But it's at the end of the first chorus where Rundgren really sells it. The hard-hitting 4/4 groove is pulsing along when he drops the last two and a half beats of the phrase, making for a surprising and bombastic entrance to the first line of the song's second verse. If you don't know it's coming, it's a thrilling gesture that'll have you going back to count beats and figure out what happened. And if you are a superfan of the record–such as myself–it's the kind of thing you point out to friends when you're trying to prove how cool Todd is. Check it out below around the 1:28 mark.
I've always been a fan of any sort of rhythmic move that defies a listener's expectations and shakes things up a bit. Captain Beefheart was known to rally against the tyranny of common time and talk about how his music was attempting to break listeners out of their “catatonic state." Beefheart was talking about more than just rhythm, but it's a noble mission to keep in mind. I've found that some of the things that stick with me the most is when the rug of the rhythm gets pulled out from under me!
These moments are something I'm always attempting to achieve in my own compositions and arrangements. In order to learn how to do that, I'll often disassemble something I've composed and reassemble the rhythms until they feel just right. Often, I'll have a piece that I think is finished and stumble upon a new idea that completely changes the feel and speaks way more to my own musical interests than the original material.
Changing the length of a phrase (à la “International Feel") is a pretty straightforward way to add rhythmic surprises to an arrangement. Have a phrase with space at the end? Chop it off! In Ex. 1, we see a common way to play the melody to the folk song “Worried Man Blues" in 4/4. In the next 16 measures, we see the same melody, but instead of having a long note at the end of every 4-measure phrase, I've shortened it to be two beats long.
Exploring the rhythmic relationship between a melody and the chord progression (whether we're talking about strumming chords, a bass line, a drum groove, or something else going on in the rhythm section) can yield some fun ideas. In Ex. 2, I've changed the rhythmic relationship of the melody to the chords for the song “Red River Valley." The chords are now in 3/4, while the melody remains in 4/4 in the same amount of time, making a 4:3 ratio of melody to chords in each measure.
It's a classic move to change the time signature of a song. In Ex. 3, we're back to “Worried Man Blues," this time in 7/8. I've cut each measure of the song by an eighth-note. I didn't have to be too creative to do that, I mostly just shortened the longer notes in the melody to make each measure fit into the 3+2+2 feel.
The accents in an odd meter, like the 7/8 from the last example, are uneven. We can vary the length of accents in other ways. In Ex. 4, taken from one of my compositions, “Flitzer," each line starts in 6/8 with accents every three beats on 1 and 4.The rhythm section (the rhythm guitar in the audio example) responds with a series of six evenly accented quarter-note hits. In this case, I think of each measure of 6/8 like a measure of 2/4 with a swing feel, which makes the quarter-notes in the last measure of each line feel as if the song is speeding up.
A common arrangement of Duke Ellington and Juan Tizol's “Caravan" is to play the A section with a Latin feel and play the B section with a swing feel. I'm also pretty fond of Grant Green's version of “I'm an Old Cowhand" from his record Talkin' About! where the trio uses this move to great effect. Another way to create this same kind of rhythmic juxtaposition is to put different sections of songs in different meters, such as writing a verse in 4/4 and a bridge in 3/4.
I like to take this a step further and divide things up more closely. Ex. 5 is the lead sheet to “Red River Valley" that I used when my band, Desertion Trio, recorded our album Twilight Time. I like the feel of the melody in 3/4, but I also like to elongate the fills at the end of the phrase and play those in 4/4, so I kept both ideas.
This concept can be applied to a vamp as well. I love playing a solo over one-chord vamps, but I've found that there's only so many 4/4 jams in A minor that I need to have in one set of music. But there's a solution! I like to extend that 4/4 vamp into a four-measure phrase and mess around with the rhythm. Whatever is going on with the rest of the song will benefit by waking up the solo section a bit and keeping listeners, and the band, on their toes. Ex. 6 is one way that I've broken up an otherwise repetitive groove in 4/4.
On Jerry Douglas' country-fusion shred-fest, “Cavebop," the resonator maestro pairs a fast swing A section with a B section that shifts between time signatures much like Ex. 7. The first phrase consists of three measures that alternate from 6/4 to 4/4 to 6/4. The second phrase moves those around, to make for two 6/4 measures followed by a measure of 4/4. The third phrase is the same as the first before returning to a 4/4 for the last phrase.
Ex. 8 is a simple melody I wrote as the seed for one of my own compositions. I initially heard it in 4/4 but thought it felt kind of stiff and it wasn't really moving me. I decided to reconstruct it and worked through various rhythmic ideas, stretching some of the melody notes and squeezing other ones together until I felt the phrases made more sense.
Ex. 9 shows the final result of this yet-to-be-named tune that now feels a lot more exciting to me as a composer and keeps me on my toes as a soloist.
Now, it's easy to overthink this and make your composition sound like a math problem. That's where craft and taste come in. And you can't really teach the taste part of the equation. I would encourage you to seek out interesting rhythmic ideas and create with them. It doesn't have to a be a full-on prog-rock production. Even a simple riff could be inspiring. So, go forth and create—just do it in a rhythmically interesting way.