Drumming in Irregular Time Signatures: Examples & Exercises

In this blog, guest-blogger and drummer Wietse Hendriks shares some of knowledge on drumming in irregular timings, like 5/4 and 7/8. Wietse explains how to count along and, most importantly, how to master the skill as a drummer – examples, explanations and drum exercises included below!

First Off

For this blog, I’m going off the assumption that you know the basics when it comes to time signatures and music notation. If you don’t, these articles can help:

If you haven’t yet learned the difference between things like rhythm, tempo and time signatures or how any of it can be notated, have a look at this blog.

While drum notation isn’t very difficult per se, it can be useful to acquaint yourself with some of the most important symbols with our Drum Notation for Beginners blog.

Getting a Feel

Before you continue reading, here’s a brief list of songs that are mainly based on irregular time signatures that you can check out to get a feel for songs that aren’t built on common 4/4 timings.

Peter Gabriel – Solsbury Hill

Pink Floyd – Money

Dave Brubeck – Take Five

Genesis – Turn It On Again

Rush – Tom Sawyer

Want some more inspiration? Here’s a rather extensive list of musical works in unusual time signatures. It’s a lot of fun to look up some of those songs on YouTube or Spotify to try and play along or expand your feel for irregular beats.

Time Signatures in Western Music

Most of the tunes you’ll hear on the radio these days are written in 4/4 time signature, while the rest will usually be based on triples like a 6/8 or 3/4 beat. Easy to play as well as dance to, these time signatures have slowly but surely become the cornerstone of pop music. Travel back a little further in time (and the history of classical music), and you’ll see that not all pieces of music have been arranged in this way. When progressive rock became mainstream during the ‘70s, various bands managed to score hits with songs you couldn’t simply count along to in threes or fours. Some contemporary bands like to go even further and will purposefully use and alternate more obscure time signatures.

An Extra Count

A quarter note beat means counting four quarter notes per bar, which could look something like this:

Drumming in Irregular Time Signatures: Examples & Exercises
Now, if you listen to Dave Brubeck’s ‘Take Five’, you’ll quickly notice that clapping along on every second and fourth count isn’t as easy as expected. That’s because you’re listening to five quarter beats per bar. Here’s what’s happening:

Drumming in Irregular Time Signatures: Examples & Exercises
This means you’re supposed to count an extra quarter note per bar. As seen below, there’s a lot of interesting things you can do with that extra ‘room’.

Going Another Step Further

As explained in our Time Signature, Tempo & Rhythm blog, there are also time signatures that are counted in eighths, like 6/8. Technically speaking, 6/8 is the same as 6/4 so, what most songwriters will do is go for eighths when the count is relatively fast, and go for quarter notes when the counting is slower. In addition, 6/8 beats are usually counted in groups of two (ONE – two three – FOUR five six). Now that you’re aware of this, you can start playing with the number of counts in those bars. Take a 6/8 beat, add another and you’ll end up with a 7/8 beat (which you could see as a 4/4 beat with a single dropped eighth note):

Drumming in Irregular Time Signatures: Examples & Exercises
Note: For this exercise, count the quarter notes on your kick drum. Or, if you want more of a challenge, try to start the beat from scratch at the start of every bar so you’re forced to play an eighth note instead of a quarter note at the end every time.

Practising Drumming in Odd Metres

To get to a level where playing irregular time signatures becomes second nature, you have no other option but to practise and develop a feel for different rhythms. Fortunately, there are various ways to do it:

  • Download a metronome app to your phone, look for one online, or buy a real metronome. What’s important is that the metronome you’re going to use can be set to different time signatures so you can get the timing right (see also: Five Essential Apps for Drummers). Start by counting along with the time signature you’re working on until you have a good feel for it. Then, step by step you can transfer it to your drum kit.
  • Search for songs in an uncommon time signature. Nothing beats playing along to music for practice, and there are ample bands that love writing songs in brilliantly awkward time signatures. See the ‘Getting a Feel’ section above for inspiration.
  • Divide and conquer. Struggling to maintain clear oversight while playing in a less common time signature? Try dividing the part you want to play in groups of two and three. A 7/4 time signature, for instance, can be counted as 1-2-1-2-1-2-3 (check out Dave Brubeck’s ‘Unsquare Dance’.)
  • Use the exercises below. I’ve included a handful of exercises that you can use to familiarise yourself with irregular time signatures. You’ll notice that the exercises gradually get more difficult.

Five Drum Exercises

The following exercises can be changed up and made more difficult as needed. Make sure to use a metronome so it’s easier to hold the rhythm.

Exercise 1 – 5/4 Time Signature

This exercise is basically a quarter note beat that has an extra count to it. So you can practise the fifth note, I’ve added a floor tom strike after every four counts. The fill in the fourth bar includes an extra grouping of sixteenth notes for the extra count.

Drumming in Irregular Time Signatures: Examples & Exercises

Exercise 2 – 3/4 Time Signature

Even though three quarter notes per measure isn’t exactly uncommon, the average drummer will rarely drum this way. That’s exactly the reason why I’ve included this exercise, which can be seen as a 4/4 time signature with one count less.

Drumming in Irregular Time Signatures: Examples & Exercises

Exercise 3 – 7/8 Time Signature

This exercise is aimed at showing you that you can count groups of two and three. Start by playing two groups of two eighth notes and finish with a group of three eighth notes.

Drumming in Irregular Time Signatures: Examples & Exercises

Exercise 4 – 12/8 Time Signature

12/8 time signatures are often used in slow-blues songs and can be counted as four quarter notes, where each count is subdivided into a group of three (4 x 3 = 12). That said, I’ve done things completely differently for the exercise seen below. Each bar includes different hi-hat notes (so quarter notes first, then eighths, then sixteenths) to show you ways you can change things up.

Drumming in Irregular Time Signatures: Examples & Exercises

Exercise 5 – 7/8 and 4/4 Time Signatures

This exercise forces you to alternate between 7/8 and 4/4: a great way to feel the difference between both time signatures.

Drumming in Irregular Time Signatures: Examples & Exercises
How do you feel about irregular time signatures? Feel free to leave a comment below!

See Also

» Reading Music: Rhythm, Tempo & Measure
» Drum notation 101: Tips & tricks for beginners
» Five Essential Apps for Drummers
» How to Make Your Cymbals Last Longer
» Drum Kit Configurations: Try These Variations!
» Reggae Drumming – Rhythms, Sounds and Cues

» Metronomes
» Practice Pads
» All Drums & Accessories

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