The easiest way to think about a two-over-five polyrhythm is that you have two equally spaced notes across five beats. If we use 5/4 as a foundation, the quarter note naturally implies our layer of five. To play two equally spaced notes over that foundation, we’ll cut a 5/4 measure into two equal pieces. We can’t cut five in half evenly, so instead of thinking about quarter notes, let’s think about an 8th-note subdivision. There are ten 8th notes that we can cut in half perfectly throughout a measure of 5/4.
Exercise 1 puts two-over-five in the context of a beat. Quarter notes on the bass drum represent our layer of five. The snare drum plays every fifth 8th note to give us our layer of two. Ghost notes, a snare buzz stroke, and an open hi-hat embellish the beat. Concentrate on the kick and snare accents to really feel the two- over-five grouping. The best way to internalize these rhythms is to practice them for a long time while zoning out and trying to make them feel natural, funky, and groovy.
The fun starts when we explore beyond both sides of the rhythm starting on beat 1. We can permutate either layer to any partial within the bar. Exercise 2 phrases our layer of five on the “&” of each beat. We’re still playing quarter notes that represent the layer of five—they’ve just been shifted by one 8th note to the middle of each beat. A kick on beat 1 and a ghost note have been added to make this sound like more of a groove rather than a basic polyrhythm underneath 8th-note hi-hats.
Shifting our subdivision to 16th notes allows us to phrase our polyrhythm so that neither layer of the grouping is played simultaneously. Exercise 3 pulls our kick back to the quarter note and starts our layer of two on the “e” of beat 1. The two-over-five kick and snare accents should sharply poke through a subtle chatter of ghost notes between the hi-hats and snare.
Now let’s look at another one of the o beat variations, first without any embellishments. In Exercise 4, our layer of two starts on the “e” of beat 3, and the bass drum plays quarter notes.
Next we’ll try two different ways to embellish this rhythm. The first option offers a minimalistic approach with a ride bell accent pattern that contrasts with the polyrhythm.
In Exercise 6, the bar of 5/4 time implies the layer of five. One of my favorite ways to think of any polyrhythm that has a two-note grouping on top is to think about it like we’re forcing two equally spaced snare notes into the phrase to create a twisted backbeat.
The next two examples explore more o beat 16th-note placements of the two layer over a solid double bass pattern. First start the layer of two on the “e” of beat 2 (Exercise 7) and then on the “a” of beat 1 (Exercise 8).
The best thing about exploring polyrhythms with solid double bass drum patterns is that you play a note under every layer of the grouping, including the spaces. You can think about that foundation to physically quantize the odd groupings.
Polyrhythms take on a melodic feel when we voice them on the toms. Exercise 9 sets this up with our basic version of two-over-five to start. Exercises 10 and 11 start our layer of two on beat 1. In Exercise 10 we shift our layer of five to the “e” of each beat, and in Exercise 11 we’ll play it on the “a” of each beat.
Once you’ve got these rhythms comfortable and groovy, feel free to experiment with snare embellishments to make these sound more like practical patterns. Playing a backbeat on beat 5 is an excellent place to start. If you have a gong drum, you can even alternate the layer of two between that and the snare to create a beat within a beat.
So far we’ve explored only a handful of the forty possible 16th-note permutations of two-over-five, and the full notation of all of the possible combinations is available at moderndrummer.com. By the time you’ve made each variation feel good, you’ll hopefully never feel uncomfortable with this grouping again.
Next we’ll try a few different ways to phrase these rhythms. In Exercise 12 we’ll shift the layer of five to the “e” of each beat with a gong drum on beat 1 to round out the pattern. You can use a floor tom if you don’t have a gong drum, or even play an extra kick on beat 1. Exercise 13 phrases the layer of five with driving quarter notes on a cymbal stack and embellishes the groove with ghost notes. Exercise 14 phrases the layer of five in the bass drum with a three-stroke ruff that lands on the “e” of each beat.
In Exercise 15 we open up a rhythmic Pandora’s box by exploring a two-over-five polyrhythm within 16th-note triplets. We’ll play the layer of five on each beat. We’ll pull back our layer of two by a single 16th-triplet partial to the note before the “&” of beat 3 and the very final note of the bar.
As we’ve seen with this grouping, the layer of five represents our pulse. To get our layer of two, we place two equally spaced notes over that pulse. Next month we’re tackling five-over-two. The phrasing works out similarly, except our pulse is now the layer of two, and we’ll cut that foundation up with five equally spaced quintuplet partials.
Follow the things that fascinate you, and have fun practicing. See you next time!
Aaron Edgar plays with the Canadian prog-metal band Third Ion and is a session drummer, clinician, and author. His book Progressive Drumming Essentials is available through Modern Drummer Publications.