Portland, Oregon-based bassist and educator
Damian Erskine has toured and recorded with a long list of greats, from Gino Vanelli and the Peter Erskine New Trio to the Jaco Pastorius Big Band. Visit him at damianerskine.comLAST MONTH, WE TURNED OUR ATTENtion from harmonic awareness to rhythmic awareness, looking at a few exercises designed to increase our rhythmic vocabulary. This time, let’s continue that exploration by applying the method of subdivision to “odd” meters. First of all, the only thing that makes a particular meter odd is a lack of familiarity. Playing in 5, 7, 9, or 13 can feel just as comfortable as 3, 4, or 6 if you put the proper amount of time into it.
I often find it helpful to break down odd phrases or time signatures into groups of rhythms I feel naturally. For example, many of us are comfortable playing in groups of two, three or four beats. If 5/4 confounds you, try feeling it as a group of 3+2. Working with a good compound metronome is extremely useful here (one that allows you to set up downbeats in different rhythmic combinations, such as 3+2, 4+3, 5+4, etc.).
Example 1 is a simple line in 5/4 time. You should pretty well be able to feel the 3+2 compound feel here. Even the trickiest of lines can often be broken down in this easily digestible way! Example 2 is an example of how a groove in 15/8 would most likely really be felt (counted). It’s simply a “slow” 4 and a “quick” 7 (which is really 4+3). So, I’m feeling the first half in 4/4 and the second half in 7/8. In other words, it’s 8/8 + 7/8. This may be advancing the concept a little quickly—don’t worry if you can’t play it right away. Just understand the concept and begin to explore the myriad ways one can divide a beat, a bar, or a phrase.
Practice playing the different sections on their own until you can internalize them and begin to combine the different phrases. Quite often when I’m reading or playing in an odd meter, I’ll break down each bar into simpler parts and then combine them. Ultimately, my goal is to internalize the line as a whole, as I’m simply unable to really count and play at the same time. So I practice trying to internalize the groove in bite-size chunks until I can feel the longer phraseology.