Easy guitar theory: 5/4 time

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Odd time signatures can sound a bit, er, odd – actually a pretty useful effect if you want an unusual or left field vibe in your music. 

5/4 is a fairly simple example. Unlike 4/4 time, where you count to four to get the feel of the music, you’ll be counting to five. Confused? Listen to Seven Days by Sting, 15 Step by Radiohead or Jethro Tull’s Living In The Past and count ‘1 2 3 4 5’ to stay in time. You may prefer a ‘1 2 3 1 2’ count though – this way the rhythmic emphasis is always on the ‘1’s, which tends to feel more natural. Read on and we’ll explain all...

5/4 time explained

Generally, music in 5/4 time has two emphasised pulses in every bar: beat 1 and either beat 3 or 4. Of course, you can emphasise any note you like - your music, your rules! But these are the most common approaches. Listen to 5/4 by Gorillaz for a great example of a ‘1 2 1 2 3’ count.

This easy picking exercise will help you get to grips with playing in 5/4. The accents are on beats 1 and 4 so count ‘1 2 3 1 2’ to keep time.

Chords and rhythm

Our tab example follows the three chords shown here. Em7 is a commonly-used barre chord. Just take your second and third fingers off the fretboard to play the sus chord and put your second finger back on to play Em11.

Listen to this rhythm guitar part and try to pick out the 5/4 pulse. Notice that you don’t play every note of each chord at once - so fingerstyle is a good option.

5/4 lead lick

This lick brings out the 5/4 feel in a few different ways. First, in bars 1 and 3 we’ve deliberately not played on beat 1 - de-emphasis is a kind of emphasis after all, drawing the listener’s ear to the beat. Bars 2 and 4 have long, clear sounding notes on beat 4 - again, drawing your ear to the emphasised beat.