IN THIS COLUMN WE WILL BEGIN TO unlock the mystery of playing in odd meters— time signatures outside conventional “Western” meters of 3/4, 4/4, 6/8, etc. To start, we’ll look at one of the more common odd meters: 7/4. I love this meter because the long metric unit of seven beats often feels similar to 4/4, but with a catchy little “skip” in the basic pulse.
To get a handle on the meter’s feel, you should understand that it can be subdivided in different ways by grouping clusters of two and three quarter-notes. To start, count aloud from one to seven. Now break that group of seven into clusters of 2+2+3, and count through each grouping, putting the emphasis on the first beat of each group: one–two, one–two, one–two–three.
Example 1 explores the 2+2+3 subdivision of a 7/4 groove. Note that the grouping of three at the end of each bar is notated with quarter-notes tied to an eighth-note, whereas they are written as dotted quarters in bars 5–8. Generally, I prefer to see rhythmic notation without ties, as it allows you to visualize the subdivided groups within the larger metric grouping. After all, you don’t hear ties, but you do hear the duration of each note played.
The example includes a unique bass figure in bars 4 and 8 to help mark the end of each four-bar phrase.
Example 2 shows the same 2+2+3 subdivision of 7/4 but written with eighths and 16th-notes. (This would be at a slower tempo than Ex. 1.) This bass line actually feels like two bars of 4/4 with a quarternote chopped off. In bar 1, the third subdivision is shown with tied notes, but in bars 2–4 the figures are shown with dotted eighths. With this notation it is much easier to see how the three quarters at the end of the bar are played with four articulations over three pulses using the dotted eighth rhythm. This creates the “four over three” lick at the end of each bar.
Example 3 uses the 3+2+2 grouping of 7/4. In bar 1, notice how the “3” is easier to visually conceptualize in the dotted-quarter rhythm compared to the first subdivision of the rhythm figure, which is written as quarters tied to eighth-notes. In bar 2, the rhythm is written using one dotted quarter and one tied figure. In bar 3 are three dotted quarters, and four in the last bar. If you do the math you’ll find 14 eighth-notes of time in each bar.
Example 4 is a 3+3+1 riff. In bar 1, the first two subdivisions are written as eighths tied to quarters; by bars 3 and 4 you’ll see all dotted quarters, with the last quarternote of time expressed as two eighths. If you add 3+3+3+3+2 eighth-notes you’ll get 14 eighths, which equals the 7/4 time signature.
I use these concepts every time I encounter an odd-meter rhythm—they always work! When you’re transcribing or creating oddmeter bass lines, if you use the subdivision and dotted rhythmic concepts we explored, you’ll quickly be able to decipher the baffling world of odd-meter music.
Note: The material in this article is based on Tim Emmons’s book Odd Meter Bass [Alfred Music], which is the text the Musician’s Institute Hollywood uses for its Odd Meter Bass course.