ModernDrummer: Progressive Drumming Essentials. The videos on the site go into the basics of odd time signature, polyrhythms and polyrhythmic grooves. The actual article in print form (from the magazine) shows everything in charts to make things easier to dissect and follow along if you’re interested, but the videos themselves are very, very cool in their own right.
Just recently came across this Mike Portnoy interview on Drum Talk TV. Very cool interview where he talked about odd time signatures and groove.
From around the 10:33 mark:
I spend so much time playing odd time signatures and a lot of people ask me about that, and these are 2 schools of thought.
There are people who play odd time signatures that know exactly what playing in 15/8 is and playing in 19/16 is – There are people that technically know that stuff. Then there are people like in Soundgarden that play in 7 or 5 all the time but I would probably venture to guess they don’t even realize it, because they’re playing by the way it sounds, or the way it feels, and there’s something to be said for both. Now I”m at the point where I could feel pretty much any time signature. I don’t have to count it out. I can recognize it, just from the feel and the sound of it. But it’s also nice when you can count it and you do understand it. Because once you understand it, you can dig a little deeper and you can start breaking up the phrasings into different combinations and things like that – which is something I’ve always done. I think in the early days, the most important is to sound and feel right, you know, rather than it being a mathematical equation on a piece of paper.
I think when it comes to groove, first and foremost, to me, is it’s always about the kick and snare. Everything else is just icing on the cake and back in my old Dream Theater days, I used to think more about the icing on the cake, and I would spend a tremendous amount of time with the nuances. As time went on, as I grew older and as my tastes changed I realize those nuances are nice, but at the end of the day it’s about being the anchor and the groove and what is a kick and snare doing and a lot of times now, if I’m writing with the winery dogs, like the first album and as well as the new album that we’re currently making, we wrote both albums at Richie Kotzen’s house and he has a drum kit there that is literally kick, snare, ride and hi hat, and that’s it. No toms, no splashes, or chinas or anything. Kick, snare, ride, hi-hat and I’ve written now two Winery Dog albums, you know, writing the songs on a kit like that. Because at the end of the day, that’s what the groove is. Kick, snare, and then either the hi-hat or the ride. A good song, and a good groove and a good drum beat and a good performance is based around that. Everything else is icing on the cake. The icing is nice, but you’ve got to have a good cake first.
This is eye opening for me. I think as a non-drummer, it simplifies the writing process for me greatly. Knowing that I can set the foundation of what I’m looking for in my demos with just the kick and snares (even for odd time), I can ball park the feel of it with just those two in my programming, and let the real drummers do their thing when it’s time for the real thing. I can move on and concentrate on the parts for the other instruments. I’ve been doing that more so without knowing it, mainly because of my limited knowledge of drums, but it turns out that the strategy was valid!
(…Continued from Part 2)
4/4 and 6/8 can be “odd” too
Nothing is preventing you from taking what may seem generic 4/4 (or 8/8), and make it sound interesting as well. A bar of 8/8 could be seen as 3+3+2 (triplet feel with a missing beat at the end).
A 6/8 bar could be seen as 4/8 + 2/8 (a 4 on the floor feel but with 2 eighth note beats missing).
A 9/8 could be seen as 4/4 + 1/8 ( a regular 4/4 feel but with an extra eight note) – rather than a 3/8 treated all with that triplet feel.
Making 7/8 not sound so much of the overdone 7/8.
If you recall from the intro of Part 1, where we discussed odd time signature being more common than most people think – here is a super interesting interview with Marco Minnemann on joesatrianiuniverse.com (video) that I recently came across, where he talked about 7/8 being the most common odd meter used, and how he deliberately tried not writing something in 7s but ended up being just that. (There’s an equally excellent interview with Bryan Beller (video) on the site too for those so inclined [, although not so much on our specific topic of odd meters].)
While I have not mentioned poly-rthythm in this blog post, I will end this blog post with this song by King Crimson, where you’ll find all assortments of creativity how the bars are phrased (and constantly changing). “Indiscipline” played by The Crimson ProjeKCT. (Self Promo Disclaimer: I have been very privileged to have both of these drummers, Pat Mastelotto and Tobias Ralph drum on my 2nd and 3rd solo record, respectively).
(… Continued from Part 1)
Understanding larger number time signatures
A lot of times, a song may have something in, let’s say 13/8. There are many ways the bar of 13/8 could be phrased, but one way could be a segment of 6/8 (which we’re all so familiar with), plus a bar of 7/8. Here’s a simple example you’ll find in “Jacob’s Ladder” (Live) by Rush at the 4:38 mark. It’s phrased as 6/8+7/8 (or think of it as 6/8+6/8 with an extra beat). The feel is really a 6/8 feel, but I have found that extra beat a really powerful tool to keep things interesting in the song. Sometimes that little kick is all you need. This example is a great one because each of the notes are different. Alex Lifeson’s notes on the guitar are just simply mapped one-to-one on each of the different 6 (or 7) beats, which makes this example easier to follow. Of course, you are free to add syncopated elements to your own productions and compositions.
Breaking down each full bar into different portions seems to be a shared perspective and approach. If you ask in person or watch many of the instructional drummer videos out there, like this one with Mike Portnoy. you would notice that being explained too.
In my own tune “Limping Milestone Celebration” at the 3:00 mark, the first 2 bars of 14 is just a break down into bars of 3+3+3+5. (Or you could think of it as having a 6/8 feel but with beats added/dropped in the final segment).
(In reality, there’s really no “separation”. If you think about it, this whole ‘odd time signature’ business is really as a means of transcribing or formally describe what’s going on with the song. Hell, you could even argue all all songs are in 1s (and set up your click track/ metronome in your digital audio recording workstation that way))!
Continue to Part 3
I once had someone asked me what progressive rock was, and one of the things in my response was that it’s a genre in which odd time signatures could quite often be found. He then proceeded to comment, “you mean like 3/4?”
The comment was something I found somewhat amusing, because the widely popular waltz, which has been around for centuries in Western Music, are in 3/4! Watch any Viennese Waltz genre/style of standard ballroom dance and you would see that they’re all 3-beats to the bar. Every musician knows that majority of popular music out there (at least in North America) is either in 4/4 or 6/8. Although one could argue that the feel could be slightly different between 3/4 and 6/8, aren’t the two mathematically related (ok… the same)? (Side note: interestingly enough, at the time of writing this, Wikipedia says the Waltz is a “Progressive Ballroom and folk dance”).
Odd time signature is actually not as rare in music you’re familiar with as one might think. Pink Floyd’s “Money” is in 7s. There are sections of Radiohead’s “Paranoid Android” (at the 3:16 mark) that are also in 7s. The jazz piece “Take Five” is, appropriately named – in 5s. While one may or may not say they’re progressive, we can probably all agree that they’re wildly widely popular. But as a song writer, you may ask: “how I break-free” or freeing your ear/mind into writing in that mode, for purposes of making a song interesting?
How does a working bass professional/legend approach it
I asked one of my favorite bassists Bryan Beller before a gig about a year and a half ago on his approach to writing material in odd time signatures – (BTW: Nicest person in the world who was happy to entertain a fanboy like myself). His response was that he does not consciously think of a specific time signature he would try to write in, but rather come up with a motif/riff first, then come back and figure out what time signature the part is in.
How I first started doing it
Rewind back several years ago, when I was first started messing with this whole song writing thing, I figured I would maybe give it a shot. I had a metronome on my computer and had it play something in 5 (with accent on the downbeat for me to lock in) for minutes until I felt comfortable. Then I started humming an idea/motif that would lock in with it. To me, I found singing to it, rather than playing to it at first, was a little earlier to grasp. On my way out for lunch, when I no longer had the metronome with me, I would tap the idea with my hands and sing (when no one was looking of course…!) – but now with emphasis on additional beats within the 5, to make sure I was really internalize it. I ended up with this little song for my first album. The main motif that you hear at the beginning of the song is in 5, and I think there are a couple of bars later on 14 in the middle at around the 3:00 mark.
The 5 was a lot easier to grasp than the 14, because the number of beats before it repeats is a much shorter. But there’s a catch with the bars of 14 though – or any odd meters that have more than 9 beats per bar.
(Continue to Part 2)