If you’ve been playing for a while you’ve probably gotten your lead playing to the point where you can pretty much improvise without thinking too much. This is both good and bad as on the one hand your playing is pretty solid, but on the other hand you’ve drifted into a comfort zone that’s probably holding you back to certain extent. One of the styles of music in which you’re most likely to get into a rut at some point is the blues, though it’s somewhat of a paradox as you don’t really have to do anything groundbreaking, but you don’t want to bore yourself to tears playing the same old licks and runs. When I get into a mindless soloing rut, what I like to do is shake things up with some odd time. You may think odd time signatures and blues don’t mix, and they don’t, but they throw you off enough to come up with some new stuff and force you out of your comfort zone.
How about a blues in odd time to start off with? 7/4 time is not as tricky as it sounds as basically you’re playing seven beats to a bar where you would normally play four. When you come across an odd time signature, the first thing you’ll want to be able to do is to keep your ear on the one. You can do this by counting, and in 7/4 I actually find it easier to count 1-2-3-4-5-6-7. Some would advise against this in favor of counting 1-2-3-4-1-2-3 or 1-2-3-1-2-3-4, or any other combination as long as it adds up to seven. The idea is to count until you get a feel for 7/4, just as you did with 4/4—I bet you don’t count when you’re playing in 4/4 anymore, and if you practice counting until you ‘feel’ any odd time signature, you’ll reach the same point.
Check out the following odd time sleazy blues backing track.
It’s kind of an 8-bar blues in E, which sounds almost like a 12-bar blues but not quite due to the odd time signature. Listen to it a few times and count along in your chosen mathematical combination. When you have a ‘feel’ for it, or can pretty much sense where the one is, try improvising over it. This is the fun part because when you go to play one of your trusty old blues licks, 7/4 challenges you to make it work, or change it up, or completely rethink things. Keep playing though, and you’ll soon come up with some interesting stuff.
Let’s check out the same 8 bar structure but in another odd time signature: 5/4. Again, find a comfortable way to count this so that you start to feel where the one is. You could count 1-2-3-4-5 or 1-2-1-2-3 or 1-2-3-1-2, whichever is more comfortable.
Here’s a groove in 5/4 in G with some nice tension-creating major b5 chords thrown in for good measure.
I actually found it a lot harder to play in 5/4 than in 7/4 because none of my stock blues licks really worked at all, which at the same time is great because it forced me to slow down and really think about what I was playing. So, the idea here is to shake things up a little using odd time to force yourself into new areas of phrasing, new ways of approaching improvisation, or just to think about what you’re playing instead tearing around the fretboard on autopilot.