Last month we concluded our two-part introduction to polyrhythms with an example that combined multiple polyrhythms within one phrase. In this lesson, we’ll continue layering multiple polyrhythms to take the previous ideas to an even deeper level. These exercises will challenge your mind and body, and they’ll yield unique rhythms that can be surprisingly funky.
Exercise 1 demonstrates three-, four-, and seven-note groupings played simultaneously. When layering these figures at the same time within a 16th-note subdivision, all three groupings collectively take twenty-one quarter notes, or three measures of 7/4, to resolve. We’ll play every fourth 16th note with the hi-hat foot to represent a quarter-note pulse. Playing every third 16th note on a cymbal stack or ride gives us a four-over-three polyrhythm on top of the quarter-note pulse. And we’ll play every seventh 16th note on the snare, which yields a four-over-seven polyrhythm over the hi-hat foot.
Try not to jump in and read straight through this pattern. Although you can practice this way, it’s a tough road that can leave the phrase feeling rigid, and you might not attain a clear vision of how the groupings interact with one another. Instead, approach these rhythms piece-by-piece while focusing on how each layer individually feels against the pulse, and build the entire phrase systematically. It should feel like a rhythmic solar system, with each grouping orbiting around the beat in different periods.
Let’s start by examining how each piece feels against our pulse. Exercise 2 isolates every third 16th note against the hi-hat foot, which yields a four-over-three polyrhythm.
Exercise 3 isolates every seventh 16th note against the pulse, which results in a four-over-seven polyrhythm.
Practice Exercises 2 and 3 until they feel comfortable. Your pulse should feel as solid as if you were playing a four-on-the-floor groove, and the three and seven layers should feel like funky yet even syncopations over the foundation.
Exercise 4 presents more of a challenging feel by isolating the snare and ride. Count 16th notes out loud and try not to feel these groupings as triplets. If you have trouble with the spacing, play solid 16th notes on the bass drum to provide a partial that each grouping can align with. Each side of the polyrhythm should feel evenly spaced. If you’re hesitating or rushing into the notes, slow down while counting to reinforce each rhythm’s placement.
Once each separate polyrhythm feels comfortable, revisit Exercise 1. Start with quarter notes on the hi-hat foot, and maintain the pulse, even if your hands need to restart. Add in every third 16th note with your right hand and slowly incorporate the snare. Adding one note at a time makes practicing this example easier.
To make this material musical, we need to embellish these rhythms. Let’s start by spicing up our seven-note grouping. In Exercises 5–7, we’ll play a seven-note phrase on the bass drum with two extra notes added on the third and seventh partials of the grouping. The snare will play every seventh 16th note starting on beat 2 of each figure.
Exercise 5 demonstrates the embellished seven-note layer on top of quarter notes with the hi-hat foot. Be careful not to start feeling the pulse shift to the upbeat halfway through the bar.
In this next example, we’ll play every third 16th note with our ride hand to create an embellished seven-over-three polyrhythm.
In Exercise 7, we’ll play the entire 7/4 phrase from Exercise 1 with the embellished seven-note bass drum pattern and displaced snare. Starting with your hi-hat foot, slowly add the kick and snare figure. Humming a bass line along with the kick and snare can help you internalize how this feels as a musical pattern. Once that’s comfortable, add in every third 16th note with your ride hand.
So now we have a three-measure groove in 7/4 with contrasting rhythms underneath orbiting cymbals. Considering the phrase’s current form, you’d have to write a very specific piece of music to make this pattern practical and useful. You could imagine a bass line that works with the kick and snare pattern, add a counter melody on every third 16th note, place some chord changes along the way, and evolve themes that align with both sides of the rhythm.
However, for those of us who live on Earth, there’s a lot we can utilize from this groove to place it in a more typical musical setting. Exercise 7 contains twenty-one beats of rhythmic material with multiple polyrhythms that resolve within a single phrase. But we don’t need to use the entire example. We can pick our favorite rhythmic moments and assemble a new, unique groove that fits into a more common setting. The final three examples apply shortened phrases from Exercise 7 in a musical way.
The last three beats of Exercise 7 make a funky and interesting 3/4 groove, as demonstrated in the following example.
This groove also sounds great with the hi-hat foot on the upbeat, which you can find within Exercise 7 by starting from the “&” of beat 1 in the second measure. Another great option is to pedal 8th notes with your hi-hat foot, which gives the phrase more of a driving feel.
In Exercise 9, let’s take beats 11–14 from Exercise 7 and reorder them. I like how these four beats flow—except for the rest on what would be beat 1 if we played these isolated figures as is. So I wrote a groove that starts with beats 13 and 14 and ends with beats 11 and 12, in that order. The only embellishment is an alternate cymbal stack that’s played with your left hand on the “e” of beat 1.
The final example creates more of a fragmented groove using a sequence of beats 5, 6, 7, 2, 3, 4, 21, and 1 from Exercise 7, in that order. A few bass drum notes and a crash are added to round out the groove.
When applying ideas like this musically, remember that you can always modify the phrase to fit what’s happening. Exploring these types of rhythmic puzzles can be a fun challenge that yields unique source material to spice up any rhythmically adventurous project. It’s possible I’m simply sadistic, but I find these challenges a lot of fun. Enjoy!
Aaron Edgar plays with the Canadian prog-metal band Third Ion and is a session drummer, clinician, and author. His latest book, Progressive Drumming Essentials, is available through Modern Drummer Publications here.