A Method for Internalizing Odd-Time Grooves
Time signatures such as 15/16, 17/16, and 29/16 can bring out anxiety in drummers who aren’t familiar with them. The truth of the matter is that they’re only slightly different from quarter-or 8th-note meters, which are far more common. What’s cool about realizing this is that every single 16th-based meter can be felt as either one 16th note longer or shorter than a meter based in quarter notes.
For instance, there are sixteen 16th notes in 4/4, so 17/16 can be felt as a measure of 4/4 plus one 16th note. On the other hand, a phrase in 15/16 can be felt as a 16h note shorter than a bar of 4/4. Every 16th-note meter can be related to a time signature based in quarter notes in this manner.
That’s great on paper, but actually feeling these meters easily is another story. We’re used to feeling the quarter-note pulse as what our heads bob to in most music—it’s the foundation. This is still the case in 16th-based meters, but as they roll over to beat 1 of the following bar, we skip into it by off setting one 16th note that either precedes or follows the downbeat. The trick is making beat 1 still feel like beat 1 within this context.
Let’s tackle this idea by setting up a groove in 4/4. In the second half of Exercise 1, we’ll play off beat 16th notes on the bass drum. This isn’t just a funky pattern—we can use this bass drum figure to set up beat 1 in the off-time examples that follow. In 15/16, which is demonstrated in Exercise 2, the final note of the previous 4/4 example becomes beat 1 on repeat. In Exercise 3, which is in 17/16, we play that last even 4/4 bass drum pattern for one more 16th note on the hi-hat.
We can use this same idea with less dense grooves. Because 15/16 is one 16th note shorter than a bar of 4/4, we can phrase our kicks on the “a” of each beat within a bar to help feel beat 1 on repeat in the same way that we did previously. Exercise 4 sets up our kicks in this fashion within a bar of 4/4, adding a bell or splash cymbal on the final 16th note of the measure to help beat 1 feel more natural in the related 15/16 example (Exercise 5). Alternate between Exercises 4 and 5, and try to make the final note of beat 4 feel just as solid as the first note of beat 1 on repeat.
Just as 15/16 and 17/16 are either one 16th note shorter or longer than a bar of 4/4, 19/16 and 21/16 relate in the same manner to 5/4. An embellished 5/4 groove is notated in Exercise 6, and we’ll cut that pattern one 16th note shorter to create a groove in 19/16 in Exercise 7. The last bass drum note in Exercise 6 becomes beat 1 in Exercise 7 when repeating this example.
Exercise 8 demonstrates a pattern in 21/16, which is longer than a measure of 5/4 by one 16th note. Once this phrase feels comfortable to you, work on it until the last bass drum played into the downbeat feels like a typical spacing of two 8th notes. Exercise 9 embellishes the previous 21/16 beat slightly with a double bass turn around.
Another great way to internalize these ideas is by using a solid 16th-note subdivision within your groove. In the next three examples we’ll play straight 16th notes over the barline on the hi-hats. You can use the same pair of hi-hats or two separate sound sources, and you’ll achieve the best results for feeling this concept if the sound sources are tight and at least similar.
Exercise 10 is in 5/4, and we’ll use it to jump into a pattern of 19/16 in Exercise 11 and a groove in 21/16 in Exercise 12. Play the left-hand hi-hat notes in the same way you’d normally play ghost notes in between the pulse. Also, feel free to experiment with different sticking patterns, as long as the rhythm stays solid. With two cymbal sound sources, sticking patterns can really make these types of grooves come alive.
Longer 16th-note meters can really drive home the single bass drum ideas we explored in Exercises 4 and 5. Exercise 13 demonstrates a groove in 23/16, which is one 16th note shorter than a measure of 6/4. Concentrate on the bass drum, which plays the “a” of each beat, to transition back to beat 1 on repeat. In this way, when beat 1 enters early by one 16th note (compared to a measure of 6/4), that kick placement already feels natural.
Varying the off beat bass drum phrasing can maintain this effect even in much busier patterns, as demonstrated in Exercise 14. We can group the off beat kick drum 16ths on the “e” and “a” of a beat, or we can space them out by four 16th partials by playing either the “e” or “a” of each beat. In this way, you can tailor a pattern of off beat 16th notes to fit any type of meter.
Exercise 15 further explores our varied off beat phrasing in somewhat of a half-time, 29/16 feel, which is one 16th note longer than a measure of 7/4.
When you’re practicing these or any 16th-based meters, you want to feel like beat 1 doesn’t catch you off guard. Perceiving each phrase as either one 16th note shorter or longer than a quarter-note meter is an effective way to make the turnaround work. The more you practice, the more you’ll be able to hear that difference. The real key is to internalize how beat 1 feels when repeating these phrases.
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.