IT’S A 4/4 WORLD. HOWEVER, MUSIC STYLES SUCH AS LATIN, POP, ROCK, country, and jazz often use other, less mundane time signatures. Consider the psychedelic 7/4 heard on Pink Floyd’s “Money,” composed by bassist Roger Waters (The Dark Side of the Moon, 1973, EMI/Capitol), or the hipster odd-time, 9/8 melody to Dave Brubeck’s “Blue Rondo à la Turk” (Time Out, 1959, Columbia, Eugene Wright on bass), or the trippy, 5/4 “Do What You Like” (Blind Faith, Polydor, 1969) with drummer Ginger Baker and bassist Rich Grech at their rambling, experimental best. Besides these odd-meter hits, there are many other shuffles, waltzes, blues, and ballads in 12/8 or 3/4 that make up a significant part of our repertoire.
The 6/8 time signature is also found in many styles of music—think of “Norwegian Wood,” “Tarantella,” “We Are the Champions,” or one of my all-time favorites, “House of the Rising Sun” (The Animals, 1964, Chas Chandler on bass). Afro-Cuban music also uses 6/8 meter, and there are several variations of the 6/8 clave. As we’ve seen in recent Woodsheds, the clave is a two-bar rhythmic pattern that underpins and determines the character of Cuban and Afro-Cuban music (see Ex. 1).
Every bassist should be comfortable counting, reading, and playing in 6/8. Before looking at some hip bass lines in 6/8, let’s have a mini-lesson on simple meter and compound meter. In simple meter (2/4, 3/4, 4/4), each beat can be naturally divided by two. For example, in the simple meter 3/4, the top number tells us that there are three quarter-notes in a bar; the bottom number indicates that each quarter-note receives one beat, which could be subdivided into two eighth-notes per beat (Ex. 2). A compound meter has a triple division within each beat. I like to refer to the beat in this sense as the pulse, so I don’t confuse the unit of rhythmic measurement with the groove that we feel. This means that in 6/8, you are tapping your foot or feeling the pulse twice in every measure, but there are three eighth-notes per pulse (Ex. 3). To find the pulse in a compound meter, simply divide the top number in the time signature by three. The top number (6) indicates that there are six divisions of time in the measure. The bottom number (8) indicates that the eighth-note is the unit of subdivision. We usually feel 6/8 in two, with two groups of three eighth-notes per bar. The top number of a compound meter is never three, but can always be divided by three.
Mathematical possibilities worthy of your high-school algebra teacher’s consideration can develop when playing, writing, and reading compound meters. Sometimes, 6/8 gets mixed or mutated into 3/4, either by design or evolution. The classic example that combines 6/8 and 3/4 meter is Leonard Bernstein’s composition “America,” from the musical West Side Story. The dual time signature in Ex. 4 indicates that the first part of the bar is felt in 6/8, the second part in 3/4.
This duality of rhythm is also felt in Afro-Cuban 6/8 grooves. Reflecting its West African roots, Afro-Latin music often juxtaposes duple or two-based meter against triple meter. Percussionist Mongo Santamaria composed one of the first successful Latin-jazz crossover pieces, “Afro Blue” (Mongo, Fantasy, 1959, Al McKibbon on bass), which was later made even more famous by saxophonist John Coltrane with Jimmy Garrison on bass (Live at Birdland, 1963, Impulse). “Afro Blue” was originally conceived in 12/8, but can also be felt in 6/8 as Santamaria played it (Ex. 5), or in 3/4 as in Coltrane’s version (Ex. 6). When you play Ex. 5, tap your foot on dotted quarters to establish the pulse that yields the hip, two-against-three groove.
The Afro-Cuban 6/8 style underpins many Latin and Latin-jazz compositions, including pianist Horace Silver’s tune “Señor Blues” (Six Pieces of Silver, Blue Note, 1959). Drummer Louis Hayes taps out six eighth-notes per bar—a basic 6/8 groove—on the ride cymbal, while Silver and bassist Doug Watkins double the bass line, making the loping, finger-poppin’ tempo groove. Example 7 shows a typical bass line on the changes to “Señor Blues.” Not only is the chart in 6/8, it’s also in the key of Eb minor with six flats in the key signature. Get out your reading glasses!
The next time you see a 6/8 time signature land on your music stand, don’t panic. It might be a Sousa march, an Italian dance, a pop-rock ballad, or a slinky Afro-Latin groove. Listen for the underlying pulse, and lay your notes in the pocket on top. Next time, we’ll take a look at all things five: 5/4, 5/8, and 15/8.
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