Not all riffs need to live in a comfortable space. Some of the most iconic jams rely on adding or subtracting a few beats to create that perfect, yet uneasy feel.
• Learn how to count in non-standard time signatures.
• Understand how to combine measures with different time signatures.
• Create riffs that sound “incomplete.”
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Music has an underlying pulse—a force that makes you want to tap your foot. This beat is what you dance to, and it helps keep you in time and drive the music forward.
While there are thousands of types of music all over the world, popular Western music is typically based on repeating groups of four beats. This holds true for 90 percent of popular music, be it Deep Purple’s “Smoke on the Water,” Lady Gaga’s “Poker Face,” or Bach’s Air on the G String.
To demonstrate this underlying four-beat pattern, I’ve recorded myself counting this pulse over an excerpt from my album Out of the Ashes by Hellcat Molly. There’s no theory needed at this stage, just listen and count along.
Now pick five of your favorite songs and see if they also have this feel. Not only is it extremely common, it’s important that you’re able to identify it.
This underlying pulse is what’s known as a time signature. Often you’ll see what looks like a fraction (4/4) before a line of notation. Let’s break that down. The number on the bottom tells you which note value gets a single beat. If it’s a 4, then it’s a quarter-note, 8 is eighth-note, and so on. The top number tells you how many of those notes will fill up a measure. Here are some examples:
- 4/4 = 4 quarter-notes per measure
- 5/8 = 5 eighth-notes per measure
- 11/16 = 11 16th-notes per measure
When the top number is an odd number, such as 5 or 7, the pulse is commonly referred to as “odd meter” or “odd time.” Our focus in this lesson is how to deal with these odd-meter time signatures that are a staple of progressive bands like Pink Floyd, Rush, Dream Theater, Symphony X, Dixie Dregs, and Mahavishnu Orchestra. Some songs are written entirely in an odd-meter time signature, some include a measure of odd meter here and there to create an effect, and some bands write music with so many time-signature changes that counting them can give you a headache.
Dream Theater’s “The Dance of Eternity” is one of the most complex and challenging songs in the group’s catalog. Here’s a short clip of former drummer Mike Portnoy walking through the odd-time sections near the end of the song. (There are 108 time-signature changes throughout the entire piece.)
To give you an introduction to different time signatures, I’ve written 10 examples in various feels to give you an idea of what’s possible. Ex. 1 is an old Hellcat Molly riff I’ve not played in years, but it’s a good example of something in 4/4 that has some syncopation to give it an odd-time feel. You’ll note the recording here is stripped back. This will allow you to focus on the pulse.
The next idea (Ex. 2) takes inspiration from Pink Floyd’s “Money,” which is all in 7/4, meaning there are 7 quarter-notes per measure. This could be counted as either “one, two, three, four, five, six, seven” or “one, two, three, one, two, three, four.” Pro tip: Usually when dealing with odd-meter time signatures, it can be beneficial to break them up into groups of three or four.
Ex. 3 is inspired by Symphony X’s Michael Romeo. He’s particularly fond of riffs in 7 as they feel like two measures of 4 where the second one isn’t quite finished. This creates an interesting and jarring feeling. The intro riff on “Dehumanized” is a good example, or the intro solo on “Out of the Ashes.”
You’ll note that in this riff there’s a little more syncopation. Compared to the previous riff, this one interacts with the time a little more, which helps to disguise an odd time signature. That’s always the end goal—to make an odd time signature work and not inject it into the music simply for the sake of complexity.
If you’re not paying attention, an odd time signature should go completely unnoticed. I’ve been listening to the theme for a U.K. show called The Bill for 20 years and just recently noticed that it’s in 7!
Inspired by the introduction to Dream Theater’s “Erotomania,” Ex. 4 is a riff in 5/4. As you might expect, locking into the groove is as simple as counting “one, two, three, four, five.” To my ears, 5/4 has a feeling of dragging because it’s a beat longer than you expect. This example uses a cool Emadd9 pattern, taken from E Aeolian (E–F#–G–A–B–C–D), but also uses the b5 (Bb) for a bit of grit.
Ex. 5 takes its influence from Rush’s classic “YYZ”, which is a great little riff in 5/4. Make sure you put the bends in the right place to give it a blues-rock vibe.
So far we’ve talked about time signatures where the bottom number is 4, meaning the pulse is based on a quarter-note, but time signatures based on eighth-notes are common in prog rock too. Ex. 6 is a simple, clean riff consisting of seven eighth-notes. This could be counted in several ways. With 7/8, I usually stay away from simply counting to seven because that’s easily confused with 7/4, so I count it “one, two, three, four, one, two, three.”
Another way of dealing with this is to count it like it has a quarter-note pulse, but an incomplete one. Take a listen to the example to hear this method in practice.
Another riff in 7/8, Ex. 7 incorporates more 16th-notes and syncopation. This really has a feeling of an incomplete bar because it’s just one eighth-note short of being the bar of 4/4 you expect. There are two ways to learn something like this: One is to listen and copy—which is great for the ear—but the other is to read and interpret. The latter is much harder, but gets to the root of understanding the time.
Here’s another Dream Theater-inspired riff (Ex. 8) that moves between 11/8 and 10/8. What you’ll find when you’re counting time signatures this long is that it’s easy to trip up on the syllables in numbers. One-syllable numbers work great, but when it comes to seven or eleven, it’s easy to get tongue-tied. As I mentioned before, breaking the count into smaller groups helps a lot. For the 11/8 try counting “one, two, three, one, two, three, one, two, three, one, two” and for the 10/8 measure say “one, two, three, one, two, three, one, two, one, two.” I’m tapping my foot every time I count “one,” which gives an irregular pulse, but that’s the desired effect.
Another intriguing sound results from combining 4/4 and 7/8, as in Ex. 9. This yields even and odd sets of eighth-notes and adds to the impact of the feeling of an “incomplete” measure. John Petrucci often uses this idea, though you may see it written as 15/8 (4/4 + 7/8). I prefer to write things in time signatures that are easy to read—even if it means having more changes within the notation.
This final example (Ex. 10) takes its cues from Dixie Dregs and Deep Purple guitar ace, Steve Morse. It features a mixture of open-voiced triads, syncopations, passing chords, and shifts between 4/4 and 7/8. It also has a Latin vibe to it, but definitely isn’t Latin, and what’s more progressive than that? To play this, I palm-muted the low strings and used hybrid picking to attack the notes on the 2nd string.
Have fun with these ideas, and then go out into the world and see if you can discover some examples of odd time signatures in the music you love. If you tap your foot in 4 and suddenly something feels off, chances are you’re on to something.