Rock Perspectives

Progressive Drumming Essentials

Part 1: Understanding Odd Time Signatures

by Aaron Edgar

Before we start playing sick proggy grooves in 17/16, let’s start at the beginning and define time signatures. Time signatures tell us the length of a bar, or measure. This is done with a pair of numbers. The bottom number refers to a subdivision (4 = quarter notes, 8 = 8th notes, and 16 = 16th notes), and the top number tells us how many of those notes are included in one measure.

Quarter-Note Meters

The most common time signature is 4/4, where we have four quarter notes per bar. You aren’t limited to playing only quarter notes, though. You can use any subdivision you want, provided that the sum of those subdivisions equals the length of four quarter notes.

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Let’s give some quarter-note meters a try. First up is 4/4.

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Now let’s get away from common time (4/4) by changing the top number from 4 to 5. This means we’ll have five quarter notes per measure. We’ll modify the basic 4/4 groove in Example 2 by simply repeating the last quarter note. This might feel a little strange at first. Your best bet to make it feel natural is to go slowly and count out loud. I also suggest bobbing your head on the beat, because sometimes you can feel a pattern more easily when you’re moving your body along with it.

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Let’s make this feel a little more interesting. Instead of just repeating beat 4 on beat 5, we’ll try a new pattern with snare accents on beat 2 and the “&” of 4.

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I encourage you to experiment further with other quarter-note meters. Some fun listening homework would be to check out Peter Gabriel’s “Solsbury Hill” followed by Primus’s “Year of the Parrot.” Both songs are in 7/4, but they feel completely different. “Year of the Parrot” is angular and syncopated, while “Solsbury Hill” is so natural feeling that, with just a casual listen, you might not even notice that it’s in an odd time signature.

8th-Note Meters

Eighth-note meters are a little bit trickier to pull off. The first time signature we’re going to try is 7/8, which is essentially a bar of 4/4 minus one 8th note. The easiest way to get started with this is to drop an 8th note from the last beat of a 4/4 groove that you already know how to play. Let’s do that with Example 2.

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If you haven’t played in 7/8 before, it’s probably going to feel a bit awkward. The first step in fixing that is to count out loud and accent beat 1. So count the 16th notes (“1-e-&-a, 2-e-&-a, 3-e-&-a, 4-e”), and replace the hi-hat on beat 1 with a crash. Try bobbing your head to the beat as well.

Once you have a handle on that, set a metronome to 8th notes and go back and forth between playing four bars of Example 2 and four bars of Example 5. Repeat that pattern until the odd-time bar feels just as natural as the 4/4 bar. All it takes is relating the challenging part (the 7/8 measure) to something you’re already comfortable with (the 4/4 measure).

Now let’s see how it feels when we spice up the 7/8 groove a little. Try alternating between the following syncopated 7/8 groove and a syncopated 4/4 beat of your choosing.

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12/8 Time

This time signature is generally felt as four groupings of three 8th notes, which is the same as playing triplets in 4/4.

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You can use that same type of feel in odd time signatures. Let’s try 11/8. Example 8 is especially challenging, because we don’t play constant 8th notes with the hi-hats. This
broken pattern helps the groove feel unique and syncopated. Spending the time to make patterns like this feel natural will not only help you play challenging grooves, but it’ll also help solidify your internal pulse so you can make more standard beats feel even better.

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16th-Note Meters

Here’s where the lesson starts to get serious. You can consider 16th-note meters as feeling either one 16th note longer than a quarter-note meter or one 16th note shorter. For example, 17/16 is essentially a bar of 4/4 plus one 16th note, and 15/16 is the opposite; it’s one 16th less than a bar of 4/4.

The first thing to do is to play constant 16ths on the snare or practice pad and count them aloud. (For the final note, say “Five.”) Use singles, and notice that the sticking will reverse on the repeats. Once that’s comfortable, add your metronome to the mix to tighten and refine the rhythm. As in the previous examples, go back and forth between the odd-time example and a similar pattern in 4/4.

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Let’s try the same type of idea with 15/16. Take special notice of the bass drum pattern in Example 13.

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For double bass players, Example 14 is a 21/16 groove to get you started.

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In all of these examples, it’s imperative that you feel beat 1 as beat 1 and not as an offbeat. Work through the patterns slowly, focus on counting out loud, and bob your head on at least beat 1 of every bar.


Aaron Edgar plays with the Canadian prog-metal band Third Ion and is a session drummer, clinician, and author. You can find his book,
Boom!!, as well as information on how to sign up for weekly live lessons, at aaronedgardrum.com.