Part 7: Beat Displacement

by Aaron Edgar

Has a song ever caught your ear in just the right kind of wrong way, leaving the music feeling twisted? You knew the musicians were playing together correctly, and you might have even been familiar with the song, but what you felt as beat 1 was somehow wrong.

We can create this effect using beat displacement. It’s primarily used as a rhythmic illusion that shifts the pulse against the rest of the music. We can also use it as a tool for writing new, interesting patterns.

Let’s take an ordinary drum groove and push the beat forward by an 8th note. Our right hand will continue playing straight 8th notes on the ride cymbal, so we’re only shifting the kick and snare notes forward. What was originally on beat 1 will now be on the “&” of 1.

Progressive Drumming Essentials 1

When you’re working through a new displacement, it helps if you think of it as a completely new groove. You don’t want to trick yourself into thinking that beat 1 is in the wrong place. To ensure we perceive this rhythm correctly, use your metronome, count out loud, and play quarter notes with your hi-hat foot.

Once you can play the two rhythms separately, try playing them for four bars each, back and forth. Play quarter notes with your hi-hat foot through both rhythms. To make the second rhythm sound convincing, you’ll need to displace your dynamics as well. Try your best to stay in the pocket.

Now let’s pull the beat backward by an 8th note. As with the previous examples, make sure your accents are dynamically consistent.

Progressive Drumming Essentials 2

If we start on beat 1 of Exercise 3, we lose the bass drum from the beginning of the pattern. Let’s see what happens if we start it on the “&” of beat 4 instead. This can be tricky to feel properly. Be sure to count out loud and play quarter notes with your hi-hat foot. Exercise 4 transitions between Exercises 1 and 3.

Progressive Drumming Essentials 3

Experiment with the five other 8th-note starting points with Exercise 4. Once you’ve mastered each of them, you can challenge yourself to play through them sequentially until you’ve displaced yourself back to the start.

If this is the first time you’ve used beat displacements, spend some more time exploring the concept with your own 4/4 patterns. I find it fun to displace grooves from my favorite songs.

We can get some really interesting results when we apply displacements to less ordinary grooves. To demonstrate this, we’re going to take our first rhythm, embellish it a little, and cut it into 7/8. The more out there your initial pattern is, the more your displaced beats will sound like their own unique grooves—sometimes becoming almost indiscernible from the original. This is why displacement is such a powerful writing tool, as it can yield results you wouldn’t have found any other way.

Here’s a more advanced groove in its basic form.

Progressive Drumming Essentials 4

Let’s try pulling beat 1 back by three 8th notes.

Progressive Drumming Essentials 5

This is a perfect example of the displaced beat resulting in what sounds like a new groove. It’s convincing enough on its own and is difficult to hear as a displacement of the original. Try playing Exercise 5 on the hi-hats for eight bars, then play Exercise 6 on the ride for eight bars. This makes a great contrast that could work beautifully as neighboring sections of a song.

Let’s see how it sounds if we push the previous example forward by a quarter note. This gets especially interesting since there’s no bass drum on beat 1.

Progressive Drumming Essentials 6

Example 7 is an interesting bar of 7/8, although it may be difficult to find a place for it musically. Let’s modify it into something a bit more useful. We’ll add a bass drum on beat 1 and embellish the kick and snare while accenting quarter notes on a cymbal stack. The result is a really heavy, progressive groove in 7/4 with a snare drum that plays a four-over-seven polyrhythm.

Progressive Drumming Essentials 7

Lastly, let’s talk about transitions. One of my favorite ways to transition with a displaced beat is by embellishing the groove. That way it doesn’t always have to abruptly cut from one pattern to the other. Here’s an example of a four-bar phrase using Exercises 1 and 3 with a brief implied shuffle for each transition.

Progressive Drumming Essentials 8

If you want to play displacements with a band, try to get everyone to listen to the click. If your bandmates are reluctant to work with a metronome, play quarter notes with your hi-hat foot so that everyone can stay rooted to the correct pulse.

If you’re looking for an additional challenge, try displacing patterns that don’t have a straight 8th-note hi-hat pattern. This concept can also be applied to fills if you’re looking to spice up your drumset orchestrations.

Aaron Edgar plays with the Canadian prog-metal band Third Ion and is a session drummer, clinician, and author. You can find his book, Boom!!, as well as information on how to sign up for weekly live lessons, at