Given that rhythm is the playground of drummers, polyrhythms seem to have a particular resonance. The possibilities of two against three, three against four, and beyond are continually explored in jazz, rock, and other styles. For many a drummer across different genres, discussing polyrhythms often brings to mind Peter Magadini. “Polyrhythms occur when two or more parallel meters—polymeters—are played at the same time, sharing the same basic tempo,” Magadini explains. “Then when the polymeter itself is subdivided, those subdivisions become polyrhythms.”

Magadini wrote the book Polyrhythms: The Musician’s Guide in 1967. The fiftieth anniversary of the book, long considered a classic among drum methods, offers a chance to reconsider its influence—and that of Magadini’s subsequent offerings. Polyrhythms for the Drumset followed his first foray into the subject, then came the Jazz Drums DVD and two Learn to Play the Drumset instructional books; the latter have been reorganized and expanded as a complete text in the recently released All in One: Learn to Play the Drumset.

Yet there’s more to the author than his academic works. As a drummer Magadini has toured and/or recorded with Diana Ross, Mose Allison, George Duke, Bobbie Gentry, John Handy, and Don Ellis, among others. In addition, he’s released critically acclaimed albums under his own name. Just as a polyrhythm layers multiple rhythms against each other, Magadini’s career involves multiple layers as well: The roles of author, student, teacher, drummer, and producer are all interlocking aspects of Peter’s polyrhythmic life.

Like so many players, Magadini began drumming as a student. “I started in fifth grade,” he says, “and never stopped.” Growing up, he first studied with Don Bothwell in Phoenix before relocating to New York City and studying with Roy Burns at the Henry Adler Drum Shop. “My wrist and finger control really developed with Roy, who also taught me the Moeller system,” Magadini says. Other influential teachers included master timpanist Roland Kohloff of the San Francisco Symphony and the New York Philharmonic, and Jon Wyre of Nexus Percussion and the University of Toronto, where Magadini obtained his master’s degree. Studies with tabla master Pandit Mahapurush Misra at a UC Berkeley summer program provided much of the groundwork for Magadini’s polyrhythmic explorations.

Collectively, these lessons provided the roots for Magadini’s drumming and teaching careers. Though he’s now considered a master drum instructor, Magadini says humbly, “What we learn from students is just as important as what we already know. Goals are different for different people, and I enjoy seeing people being creative at a musical instrument. One thing teaching does for me is keep my playing young. Before I teach something, I need to know about it, and I have to understand a concept backwards and forwards in time.” Thus Magadini examines both the roots and branches of an idea, an approach that permeates his drumming knowledge.

Magadini began teaching drums early in his career, a pursuit synchronized with performing. Some students were taught from the ground up, while others sought him out for specifics as his reputation grew. All in One: Learn to Play the Drumset captures Magadini’s overall approach. “I once had a tough student that just couldn’t get it,” Peter recalls. “I said to myself, I can’t let this kid fail, and I was forced to think about teaching differently. I broke everything down and built it up, and that became the basis for Learn to Play the Drumset. So All in One is about playing the drums and contains what I teach students 90 percent of the time. Only one page is devoted to polyrhythms.”

Yet prior to this experience, Magadini authored Polyrhythms: The Musician’s Guide. “When I was attending the Indian music class, I would stay after with Mahapurush Misra,” Magadini says. “He would show me polyrhythmic ratios, putting three against four, six against four, nine against four, and so on. We’d play together—me on the drum pad and him on the tabla—and go into other time ratios and improvise.

“I didn’t invent this stuff,” Magadini continues. “East Indian rhythms and West African drumming were where it was at with polyrhythms. Everything to do with the concept could be found in [those genres]. The problem was how to get there—there’s nothing notated in Indian music. So I thought, What if I forget about the sounds of the [tabla] and focus on the polyrhythms? We learn rhythms in a monaural way, so the goal was to let go of the basic pulse and hear both rhythms at the same time. Elvin [Jones] was just doing it naturally, but the rest of us have to work at it.”

Taking the ratios and applying Western notation, Magadini developed a system “so we can all get there, so we could explore polyrhythmic expression without trying to master instruments of other cultures. I saw that with [Western notation] I could translate polyrhythms by introducing the five basic ‘polymeters’ first—three, five, six, seven, eight, over four beats—and then subdivide those ratios into combinations of 8ths, triplets, and 16ths, which become polyrhythms.”

While publishing his now classic book, Magadini continued teaching and playing. “What I found out was that when I was teaching and practicing polyrhythms,” he explains, “all my students—myself included—could now play basic 4/4 time, or odd meters, with a deeper groove and better feel, because the time playing is now backed up with this understanding. I mean all of it: jazz, rock, punk, funk, metal, Latin, and symphony hall percussion. It doesn’t matter—play what you like; you will just be better at it.

“The most important thing with polyrhythms is that it expands the way you hear time. It’s like being able to shift into other lanes on a highway. It opens and expands your rhythmic comprehension to a much wider perspective.”

Indeed, Magadini has long put his philosophy into practice with his playing career. From 1964 to 1968, he worked with keyboardist George Duke. Moving to Los Angeles in the ’70s, he became Diana Ross’s first tour drummer and played with the John Handy Quintet and the Don Ellis Band, before settling in Canada for seventeen years. There he worked on his master’s degree before becoming a university instructor, while also playing and recording in Montreal’s vibrant music scene. Then, when Magadini recorded his album Polyrhythm in 1975, Duke, by now with Frank Zappa, brought those keyboards along. The result is a classic that demonstrates Magadini’s rhythmic abilities in polyrhythms and metric modulation. And his more straight-ahead playing benefited as well, with the drummer’s 1978 follow-up album gaining much critical acclaim.

Meanwhile, Magadini’s working relationship with singer/pianist Mose Allison—beginning with early gigs at the Lighthouse in L.A. and ending with the drummer producing and playing on Allison’s final live album, American Legend: Live in California—lasted forty-five years. “Mose used different guys in different regions,” Magadini says, “depending on what area of the country he was in.” This album captures Allison in concert, always the epitome of cool, with Magadini framing and supporting the songs throughout.

The multidimensional Magadini covers a lot of ground. As a teacher, performer, producer, and author, he influences the careers and development of musicians, and continues to lead a truly polyrhythmic life.

Study Suggestions

“As a chart-reading drummer,” Magadini says, “there are three things you have to do: Play time, catch figures, and improvise drum fills. You can’t lose the time when you do any of this. I have a whole section devoted to just that in All in One: Learn to Play the Drumset. The goal is to try to have everything be spontaneous. The one thing I stress with my own students, before we seriously get into polyrhythms, is that they concentrate on just being good musicians first.”