Thinking back to when I first started tackling polyrhythms, five-over-three groupings gave me a considerable amount of trouble. I didn’t have much facility with quintuplets at the time, and a five-over-three polyrhythm has a lot of space between each partial. I vividly recall sitting in a hotel lobby between sets on a freelance gig, tapping on my leg, and counting intently until I finally started to get a handle on the rhythm.
The trick to this grouping—and to any polyrhythm—is to feel how the polyrhythmic layer fits over the pulse. In five-over-three’s basic form, we’re playing five equally spaced notes across a bar of 3/4. The five side of the grouping needs to feel syncopated, and the three side acts as a quarter-note pulse. However, you can displace the three side to different parts of the beat.
To get started with this polyrhythm, play solid quintuplets across a bar of 3/4 time while counting out loud using the syllables “ta, ka, din, ah, gah.” Your voice is an integral part of the learning process and will help you form a deeper connection to the rhythms. Tap quarter notes with your foot and accent every third quintuplet partial with your hands.
It can help to nod your head on “ta.” You have to feel the pulse, and the hands’ accents should feel syncopated. If you start to feel this as triplets, you’re playing a three-over-five polyrhythm, which is the wrong grouping. Go slow enough to maintain the correct rhythmic perspective.
Once you can feel the rhythm correctly, you can start the polyrhythm on different parts of the beat. Exercises 2 and 3 demonstrate the two remaining permutations of the five side of the five-over-three polyrhythm.
When working with polyrhythms that feature more space between each partial, it can be helpful to utilize a sticking that’s the same length as each space. Since we’re accenting every third quintuplet note, RLL and LRR are great choices. Accent the single stroke and ghost the doubles. Using a sticking that you can put on autopilot can alleviate some of your brain’s workload.
We can also apply rudiments to these groupings. Exercise 4 applies Swiss triplets to the five-over-three polyrhythm.
Next we’ll reinforce the feel of the polyrhythm by playing quintuplets with the feet. This allows you to align every partial of the polyrhythm with a powerful bass drum note. Don’t forget to count and bob your head on the pulse. In Exercise 5, the left hand plays a quarter note on the rack tom while the right hand starts the five side of the polyrhythm on the second quintuplet partial of beat 1 on the floor tom. When you’re comfortable with this rhythm, try orchestrating each hand individually around the kit. The leading foot reverses on repeat.
Exercise 6 orchestrates the three side of the previous grouping between a floor tom or gong drum and the snare to simulate a basic rock beat. Playing solid quintuplets on the bass drums and outlining the five side of the grouping on a cymbal stack creates an aggressive polyrhythmic groove.
The following examples explore each permutation of a kick and snare pattern that voices the five with a three-partial grouping: right kick, left kick, and rimshot.
Let’s start with a groove that uses solid quintuplets on the bass drums, as notated in Exercise 7. We’ll also play quarter notes on a cymbal stack in the following examples. Reverse the leading foot on the repeat.
The goal is to maintain the aggressiveness and intensity of the previous quintuplet groove when transitioning into the polyrhythmic variations that are broken up with the snare. Here are the variations.
Exercise 11 demonstrates a quintuplet-inspired double bass shuffle. I play this groove in the bridge of the Third Ion song “Van Halien” from the album 13/8bit. The bridge also employs Exercise 8 as a turnaround in different arrangements as the section progresses.
In Exercise 12, the bass drum begins on an ordinary shuffle starting point and the stack plays a twisted quintuplet shuffle feel. Accent the quarter notes on the stack and play each third partial (“din”) a little quieter. This pair of contrasting shuffle rhythms creates an interesting syncopation when applied to a groove.
Exercises 13 and 14 feature a kick and hi-hat quintuplet shuffle ostinato. In Exercise 14, we play the five side of the polyrhythm on a cymbal stack with the right hand. Work on each exercise separately before alternating between the two.
One of the best things you can do when practicing polyrhythms is to play them in a musical context by incorporating them into grooves. It can be easy to learn an isolated pattern, but if you can’t hear how it’s applied musically, you’ll have trouble playing it in a realistic setting. Don’t forget to alternate between the polyrhythmic groove and something without the polyrhythm that reinforces the pulse. The more comfortable the transitions become between the two contrasting phrases, the more likely you’ll be able to bring these polyrhythmic ideas to the table with a band.
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.