Mixed Up! Playing Odd & Mixed Meters

June 6, 2017

Do you get mixed up when you play something not written in 4/4? Common time is another name for 4/4, and common it is—4/4 has been pounded into our brains and feet for generations. The fat downbeat on beat one, the comfort of thunder-clapping backbeats on two and four—what’s not to like? Other time signatures also feel good, if you spend time learning to relax in those meters. Come on, free your mind and fingers from the 4/4 shackles.

This month, let’s look at a chart I recently played with saxophonist Bob Mintzer. His tune “In the Canyon” uses mixed meters—a combination of several time signatures. Take a listen to our version (see Connect), and hear how Mintzer’s bass line flows. On the first listen you might not notice anything rhythmically odd, even though the meter is changing from 4/4 to 3/4 to 7/4.

Before we tackle the chart, let’s review what the two numbers in a time signature mean. The top number indicates the number of beats in each bar (also called a measure). In Ex. 1, the first three bars are in 4/4 time. The number 4 on the top means that there are four beats in every bar. The beats in a bar can be filled up with any combination of notes and rests, provided they add up to a total of four beats. In bar 4, the time signature changes to 3/4. This means there are only three quarter-notes, or subdivisions of three quarter-notes, in this bar.

The bottom number of a time signature indicates which kind of note corresponds to the value of one beat. In this example, the bottom number in each time signature is 4, which means a quarter-note pulse underpins every measure of the chart. Even when the top number changes from 4 to 3 to 7, the underlying beat remains a quarter-note because the bottom number is always 4. This is important, because the bottom number points to the groove—in this case, a quarter-note pulse anchoring the entire bass line.

Look at the chart without your bass. Tap quarter-notes slowly with your foot while you sing or clap the rhythm of the bass line. The first trap you might step into is the rest on beat three of bar 1. Remember that rests should be in time, just like the notes. If the rests are in time, the line will groove. If the rests are too long or too short, the line will sound jerky and labored.

The second trap comes in bar 2. The quarter-note rest on beat one is also an important component of the groove. To frame the rest on beat one, you have to play the last eighth-note in bar 1, and the two eighth-notes on beat two of bar 2, precisely. If the notes surrounding a rest are precise, you’ll feel the rest as a strong part of the groove.

The time signature in bar 4 changes to 3/4. Now there are only three quarter-notes in the bar (indicated by the top number), and the pulse (indicated by the bottom number) remains a quarter-note. The tendency when we see a time signature change—especially a new time signature with fewer beats—is that we rush the tempo in an effort to not miss any notes. Remain calm! Remember that the quarter-note pulse is steady, chugging down the canyon road at 150 beats per minute.

Besides the change to 3/4, the other tripping point in bar 4 is the quarter-note rest on beat one. The same principle applies here as in bar 2 on beat one: Feel the quarter-note rest as if it were a full-length note. The eighth-notes on beats two and three lead into bar 5, which changes back to 4/4.

The tune’s bridge begins in bar 10, and the meter changes to 7/4. You could subdivide the beats in the bar, regrouping the 7/4 time signature as 3/4 + 2/4 + 2/4. Subdividing might help you keep your place in the ever-changing line of eighth-notes and harmonic changes. Count: 1, 2, 3, 1, 2, 1, 2.

Sometimes I will mark a couple of bars of a part with a particular clave (CLAH-vay, a repeated rhythmic pattern) if I think subdividing might help lock in the groove. More often, though, I’ll read through a part almost as if there are no bar lines. If the note-lengths and rests are correct, the line will be spot on.

How can you get comfortable playing mixed-meter and odd-meter bass lines? The goal is to feel the groove, and not have to actively count. Internalize the pulse, don’t forget to breathe, honor the rests, and concentrate!



For a straightahead guy, John Goldsby has played a lot of odd and mixed meters in his career. Check out his new video lesson series, The Upright Bass Handbook, at truefire.com and johngoldsby.com.

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