Improvising In Complex Time Signatures

I'm sure it's not easy to jam when you press play on backtracks, and then you hear some weird 9/8, 15/16, or any unusual x/y rhythm. It's hard to even begin playing something meaningful over that, and this article might help you move from the 'zero spot'.

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I'm sure it's not easy to jam when you press play on backtracks, and then you hear some weird 9/8, 15/16, or any unusual x/y rhythm. It's hard to even begin playing something meaningful over that, and this article might help you move from the 'zero spot'. For demonstration purpose I'll use a riff from my song. But, of course, feel free to implement whatever you learn here on your own riffs and ideas. There are several things you MUST overcome before entering the world of complex time signature improvisation. 1. Always know which key you are in, and make sure you know where each of intervals from that key are on guitar neck. 2. Compose a 4/4 version of the complex riff you're trying to improvise over. Overcome that first, and it will make it much easier to grasp the complex version. This way you'll be able to look at, for example, 7/8 time signature as; 'Ok, I play this as 8/8, except I don't play the last 8th note', or 9/8 as; 'I play this as 8/8, but I add one more 8th at the end'. Though, I can't say this is the best approach on those time signatures, but it helps a lot! 3. Count aloud that complex riff. Count it before you're about to play, because playing and counting together is like drinking beer with milk from the same glass... Well.. you can do that, but you'll probably spoil the beer! ;) 4. Listen to that riff. Listen it enough so you have it 'under your skin'. First I play only one note through whole riff, just to get the feeling on that time signature. For example, let's use the riff from my song 'Imagination'. It's 9/8 riff, in keys; A lydian in first 4 measures and D aeolian in next 4 measures. (Guitar pro file 1) Play just one note over it. Try out all the intervals. See which fits where. (Audio example 1) Notice what intervals create what atmosphere. Write that out and memorize it. For example, you play the ninth, and you feel it's creating this atmosphere of loneliness, and then you play the fourth, and you feel there's something left unsaid, so you'll probably have to resolve it. Write out similar notes about where does each interval guide you to. Also apply vibrato. See what wideness of vibrato works well with that rhythmic composition. (Audio example 2). Now try bending from note to note. (Audio example 3) If you'll have problems with this, work on it until you stop making any mistakes. Now begin combining notes and creating melodies. This step is actually the hardest one. By now, you should have that groove on default. Start, again, by playing only one note. Once you get a grip, make changes on the beginning of a measure, so you get to hear where the measure actually ends. (Audio example 4) This should entertain you for a while. Make as much variations as possible. Don't rush into anything more demanding than applying the patterns you already know on the first part of measure, for now. Try all of your legato licks, arpeggios, string skips, anything really... It is very important that you can 'feel' where the measure will end before it actually does end. That way you can organize your playing approach much more easily. Of course, our ultimate goal is to play over complex time signatures solely on feeling, but it takes lots of practice and analytics before you can get to that level. Next tip will come in handy if you get lost in the groove while improvising, and you want to get back on track without sounding like you got lost. Play what I call a 'melody run'. It is simply a melodic sequence of notes. Try to choose the notes that fit in all chords of your chord progressions, and memorize that 'melody run'. Actually, create at least 10 of them. That way you're more likely to remember one of them once you realize you're lost in the groove. It is important that they're made of note sequences that fit in that time signature and the way that background (riff) is written. So in this particular case, where we have most of the notes written as 8th notes, have that melody run made of 8th notes. Here are few examples: (Audio example 5) As you could realize, it is not important that the melody run is in the same time signature as the riff itself. Time signature of the melody run will get even with the time signature of riff through several cycles. In this case, melody run is in 12/8 time signature: If we play that melody run 3 times (as we did), we have a 36/8 time signature, which is equal to 4x 9/8 time signature. Simple math stuff you don't even have to be aware of while you play. Let's create one more melody run: (Audio example 6) Same thing happened here. You can do that with melody runs of other time signatures, but then they would get even with the riff time signature through more or less cycles. So now, you've got plenty of things to deal with, and I really really suggest you follow up on those 4 pre-steps I mentioned before. All the other things will eventually fall into place. That's it for now, folks! I also have several backing tracks in unusual time signatures you can download from my website. Work with this, and jam out lots of kickass solos! See you on the next article! Official Josip Pesut site Visit the site and enjoy playing Josip's 'Licks of the month'! Subscribe to newsletter to get free guitar lessons!

21 comments sorted by best / new / date

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    Adrienne Osborn
    This is really interesting. I never thought of approaching a time signature this way before. I don't currently do much in odd time signatures, but the few times I have, they've been a real challenge, and these tips sound really helpful.
    BrianApocalypse
    Good article, and a good plan. Most players who play to backing tracks really do just pick very simple bluesy ones in 4/4.
    gynther flynt
    His tuning might be flat by one-half step.
    That would show in the sheet music, and the D aeolian afterwards would be wrong. No getting over it, he ****ed up.
    darb0114
    A sweet time signature that I started jamming on is 14/16. It gives a really cool feel, kinda a 1.2.123 feel. I really don't see 9/8 as an odd time sig tho
    Gundam pilota09
    7/8 15/16 and 5/8 are difficult signatures but 12/8 and 9/8 are fairly standard if you understand triplets
    zman5999
    Great lesson, but I find that if you view any odd time signature as 4/4+x beats or 4/4-x beats the meter will always sound irregular as an altered 4/4 time signature. Instead it's better to view each separate time signature as it's own entity with its own qualities and characteristics. That way when you write in an odd time signature you're writing something that flows, instead of a 4/4 riff or progression with a little tag on it or with a little taken off the top.
    hockeyplayer168
    "WTF" by Ok Go is a pretty awesome song in a 5/4 pattern. It's not really complicated but it is a great example of various ways to dance around an extra quarter note. Emphasizing the unique beats is the best way to get some flair out of extra or removed values.
    crazysam23_Atax
    xFilth wrote: let's use the riff from my song 'Imagination'. It's 9/8 riff, in keys; A lydian in first 4 measures It's Bb lydian as far as I can see
    His tuning might be flat by one-half step.
    tehREALcaptain
    Decent lesson, but the easiest way to do this (or play a heavily syncopated rhythm in 3/4 or 4/4) is to subdivide the beat--meaning if the riff is timed mostly in quarter notes or eight notes in 9/8, feel the eight note pulse (1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9) or if it is mostyly in 8th and sixteenths feel the sixteenth note pulse (1-a-2-a-3-a-4-a-5-a-6-a-7-a-9-a), subdevision of the beat is effective because it allows you to feel anywhere the note you are playing could go, and makes the rhythmic placement easy and based on basic counting (something most of us do in 3/4 or 4/4 naturally by now) instead of some kind of 'feel it' guessing game, or trying to feel sixteenth notes based on a quarter note pulse.
    josippesut
    xFilth wrote: let's use the riff from my song 'Imagination'. It's 9/8 riff, in keys; A lydian in first 4 measures It's Bb lydian as far as I can see
    xFilth wrote: let's use the riff from my song 'Imagination'. It's 9/8 riff, in keys; A lydian in first 4 measures It's Bb lydian as far as I can see
    Correct! Sorry, I missed that.
    Zeppelin Addict
    great lesson, i can see some of this being of some help to my writing even in common time. thanks \m/
    OXL
    Break it down to the two signatures we all naturally understand: 4/4 or 3/4. At least, this seems to work for me.
    bpgene17
    Quite a help! One of my weaknesses has always been the manipulation of time and rhythm =\
    Draven Grey
    Great stuff, Josip! I write in odd time signatures a lot, and have one particular 9/8 riff that my guitarists have had difficulty with. This will help them a lot! Thanks!
    travislausch
    Finally, a lesson focusing on basic rhythmic methods. Most lessons here are either focusing on specific techniques or melodic things. Ignoring rhythmic phrasing and ability to play in multiple meters is something that's become sorely lacking in musicians nowadays. I have a very hard time finding other rhythmically inclined musicians because everyone else is so concerned with their shreddy melodic techniques and not learning how to GROOVE.
    xFilth
    let's use the riff from my song 'Imagination'. It's 9/8 riff, in keys; A lydian in first 4 measures
    It's Bb lydian as far as I can see