Improvising in complex time signatures
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.
Always know which key you are in, and make sure you know where each of intervals from that key are on guitar neck.
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!
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! ;)
Listen to that riff. Listen it enough so you have it 'under your skin'.
After you've done all of that, lets get to the actual thing. Here is how I work with complex measures.
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.
Play just one note over it. Try out all the intervals. See which fits where.
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.
Now try bending from note to note.
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.
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:
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:
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'll be able to download at the backstage. Work with this, and jam out lots of kickass solos! See you on the next article!