There are many ways we can approach writing patterns in odd time signatures. On one hand, we can write unique, choppier feels that match the given meter. This is a common go-to technique for many progressive bands, including my own group, Third Ion. On the other hand, we can write feels that smooth out the time signature. We’ll focus on that method in this month’s lesson.
To even out an odd time signature, I like to simulate a common backbeat. To start, divide the measure in half, and use the partials that comprise one half of the measure as the spacing between two snare accents within the entire bar. For example, if you’re playing in 11/8, you can space two snare accents out by eleven 16th notes, as demonstrated in our first example. Experimenting with where that first backbeat lands can yield many interesting variations.
Exercise 1 places the first backbeat on the fourth 8th note in a measure of 11/8 and the second backbeat on the “&” of beat 9.
Exercise 2 explores this same idea with the snare starting on the third 8th note. With one exception, the bass drum is phrased using groups of three 16th notes to help smooth out the rhythm. We’ll explore that phrasing later in this lesson.
Exercise 3 places the first backbeat on the “&” of beat 3 and employs a funky ride and hi-hat pattern to create a consistent, driving flow. This type of groove can sound hypnotic when played dynamically. Try to achieve a smooth feel, à la modern jazz great Brian Blade.
Let’s explore this idea within 15/16 and 21/16 by utilizing three-note groupings of 16th notes. Exercise 4 demonstrates a choppier 15/16 groove with an 8th-note hi-hat pattern, and Exercise 5 spaces the kick, snare, and hi-hat over a three-note 16th-based grouping. Exercise 5 also creates an illusion of playing in 5/8, which feels significantly less jagged than most 15/16 patterns.
Exercises 6 and 7 demonstrate a similar idea in 21/16. In Exercise 7, we end up with a groove that sounds like it’s in 7/8.
Playing odd rhythms as we did in Exercises 5 and 7 can create an implied metric modulation. Exercises 8 and 9 place these modulated rhythms on the ride over the basic kick and snare patterns from Exercises 4 and 6 (with some slight embellishments). Moving the 16th-note groupings to the ride helps the patterns flow more.
Moving the ride pattern away from beat 1 can also add to the revolving flow of these new feels. Exercise 10 starts the ride on the third 16th note of a bar of 15/16. Once your ride hand is comfortable, try accenting every second note on the bell. This pattern takes two bars to resolve and helps smooth out the rhythm.
The next example demonstrates this type of feel with an embellished pattern that breaks away from the 16th-note subdivision. We’ll start the three-note grouping on the second note of the 15/16 measure. The bass drum notes notated with a triangle are to be played on a higher-tuned auxiliary kick. If you don’t have an extra bass drum, play those notes on a floor tom with your left hand.
You can explore the concepts in this lesson with any grouping of notes that contrasts with the pulse. If you want to create a feel with a five-note pattern, simply pick a time signature divisible by five. Exercise 12 demonstrates this in 25/16, which is one 16th note longer than a bar of 6/4. The five-note grouping is voiced on the ride bell.
Exercise 13 demonstrates a bar of 19/16 with solid double bass in mixed subdivisions of quintuplets and 16ths. The right hand plays a stack on every third partial of the measure while the snare rounds out the pattern. The leading foot switches on the repeat.
This last example demonstrates a 15/16 groove in which the three-note rhythm doesn’t resolve perfectly. The leading foot switches on the repeat.
Practice these exercises until you can play them on autopilot. Every odd time signature is learnable. The more comfortable you become with them, the easier it will be to make them sound natural.
Aaron Edgar plays with the Canadian prog-metal band Third Ion and is a session drummer, clinician, and author. His latest book, Progressive Drumming Essentials, is available through Modern Drummer Publications. For more information, click here.