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How to Level Up Your Odd Meter Playing

Back in my formative years, I thought I was good at playing odd meters. However, when I had to deal with it in a more professional context, later on, I realized my language and phrasing was limited.

I felt like I had to reinvent my playing and work on my phrases to play in every time signature possible. I started to do that and got better, but still, I felt I was stuck. I never felt the same freedom I had playing over a regular 4/4 tune.

My curiosity grew, and I kept researching and finding ways to improve my odd meter playing. I felt there had to be another way to master the skill of playing different time signatures with ease.

In my search, I asked my teachers and tried things by myself, and I found the best approach, at least for me, to deal with different time signatures and to play them with confidence.

In this lesson, I’ll share my approach to odd meters with you, and it is very simple: Counting out loud.

I learned how to count out loud and play at same time. This is an exercise I still do fairly often. I developed the skill to count and play anything I want without losing a beat.

Mastering this skill was a life changer for me. It expanded my vocabulary on odd meters in general. Having a strong sense of internal time, and being able to know exactly where I am in the bar at every single moment gave me the freedom to start phrasing over the bar line with confidence. 

I felt that I could play any idea that came to my mind without worrying about losing my place in the music.

To develop my counting skills, I started practicing everything I could already play and added the count on top. It was challenging at first, but once I got a hold of it, it became second nature.

The first step is to learn how to count over things you can already play.

After I was comfortable with that, I designed a few exercises to improve further my ability to count and play at the same time.

The first thing I did was to work on all my subdivision while counting in different time signatures like 3/4, 5/4, 6/4, 7/4, 5/8, 7/8:

Ex. 1

The most used subdivisions in western music.

 Ex. 2

Now take each rhythmic figure in exercise one and play them in different time signatures.

 Then you can mix them up.

Ex. 3

Let’s take this Brazilian comping pattern and count it in 5/4

I did that with a bunch of different ideas and time signatures, like 7/8:

Ex. 4 

Now this funky comping pattern and count it in 7/8

Working with 7/8 or 5/8 time signatures can get tricky. In this case, your 8th note subdivision pulse becomes your main one.

Another thing I did to make counting second nature was taking rhythmic readings and using them while counting different time signatures. 

Ex. 5

In this example, I’m taking this 8 bar rhythmic reading and counting 3/4 over it. Feel free to try different time signatures. 

The main goal of these exercises is to develop your ability to play and count at the same time so that you can express yourself with confidence in any time signature. Having a strong sense of time and place in the music will allow you to play with freedom and without the fear of getting lost.

If you can train yourself to do this, you will be able to express yourself with confidence in any time signature. Having a strong sense of time and place in the music will allow you to play with freedom and without the fear of getting lost.

One thing I feel is important to clarify here is that the intent of these exercises is to give you a tool to deal with odd meters, so you can use your vocabulary and ideas over any time signature you wish. 

Also, you have to work on rhythmic patterns on specific time signatures (see: Strategies to Improve Your 7/4 Playing and Strategies to Improve Your 5/4 Playing). You want to have ideas that underline the time signature properly. You want to be able to play on the bar line and over the bar line. A combination of both types of playing is going to create tension and release, which is something that is going to make your playing interesting and feel natural.

I don’t want you to count over every single tune you play. If you can feel the time signature that is even better than counting. However, If you face a situation where you have to perform an odd meter tune you are not comfortable with, having this tool under your belt is going to make you more likely to perform at a much higher level than not having it. 

Feel free to contact me through my social media (Instagram, Facebook) if you have any question or doubt!

Diego Maldonado
Diego is a professional jazz drummer, composer, and educator. He is originally from Venezuela and currently living in New York City. He attended The Collective School of Music and The City College of New York where he earned, with honors, a Bachelor degree in Jazz Performance.Diego has become an active member of the exciting city’s jazz scene, both as a performer and educator, playing with artists such as Will Vinson, Doug Weiss, Kenny Werner, Tim Hagans, Mike Holober, Mimi Jones, Lukas Gabric, Josiah Boornazian, Antonio Mazzei, Brent Vaartstra, Coyote Anderson, among many others.Diego is an Agean Cymbals and Vater Percussion Artist.


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