Do you know how to count music in odd time signatures? Guitar teacher Joe L. breaks down the basics that guitarists need to know about playing in unusual times…
Timing is something that most guitarists have to pick up early in playing music. Playing in time is very important; it may be the most important quality and skill you can develop and improve upon as you continue learning to play guitar.
If you’re looking at a piece of music, the time signature is the two numbers that look like a fraction at the beginning of the piece. These numbers tell you how to count time in the piece you’re going to play.
The two most popular time signatures are 4/4 (1-2-3-4) and 3/4 (1-2-3-1-2-3). People can naturally follow along with these time signatures, but what happens when the timing is different?
Many newer musicians can get lost trying to play along with others who are playing in an odd time like 7/8. But there are some simple tricks you can do to play in time with strange grooves.
Time Signatures in 5
For example, when playing in 5/4, you can count (1-2-3-4-5), (1-2-1-2-3) or (1-2-3-1-2). By doing so, you will break down the structure to the timing, and you can then split it into two parts: 1-2 and then 1-2-3 (or the other way around: 1-2-3 and then 1-2).
You’ll find the groove in there somewhere (depending on how the music that you’re playing goes) by recognizing where the accent is (the beat that gets stressed or emphasized) in the song. You can get very imaginative when breaking the rhythm down, such as (1-2-3-4-1). Here are some examples of popular songs in 5.
“Halloween Theme (Main Title)” (from “Halloween”) by John Carpenter
“Mission Impossible Theme” by Lalo Schifrin
Time Signatures in 7
In 7/8, you can break the rhythm down into (1-2-3-1-2-1-2) or (1-2-1-2-1-2-3). You can also use (1-2-3-1-2-3-1) or (1-2-1-2-1-1-2). Again, listen for the accent notes to figure out how to break up your counts.
Get creative on how you can break these rhythms down; my examples aren’t the only methods. Below are a couple of popular tunes in 7.
“Dreaming in Metaphors” by Seal
“Die To Live” by Steve Vai
With other times, such as 11, you can break them down in multiple ways, for example (1-2-3-4-1-2-3-4-1-2-3), (1-2-3-1-2-3-4-1-2-3-4) or (1-2-3-4-1-2-3-1-2-3-4).
A suggestion to getting better playing in odd times is to use a metronome in the time you’re trying to learn. Or, you can look up drum tracks in odd times online, and play with them until you start finding yourself feeling the rhythm and playing in the groove.
These unusual time signatures aren’t found too often, but when they are used, they can be the most recognizable pieces you’ve heard.
Before you try to tackle these odd times with chords and scales, try muting the strings and work it out until you feel these grooves. It helps a lot to tackle only the rhythm first before trying to incorporate the chords.
Once you feel comfortable strumming in odd time signatures, you can then start adding in chords and scales to really start jamming! Good luck!
For more help learning the basics of guitar, taking lessons from a private teacher is the best way to improve. Find your guitar teacher now!
Joe L. teaches guitar lessons in New York, NY. He has been teaching guitar for 15 years and in his teaching he focuses on breaking down music theory to make learning music easy and accessible for all his students. Learn more about Joe here.
Photo by Jen Gallardo