Palindromes are words, phrases, or sequences that read the same backward as they do forward. They can be numbers (12321), letters (rotator), or sentences (Go hang a salami; I’m a lasagna hog!). Palindromes have even shown up in album titles, such as Miles Davis’s Live-Evil. We can mirror rhythmic patterns on the drums just as easily as letters and numbers, and in this lesson we’ll apply this concept to the drumset.
Let’s start with a simple 16th-note groove in the first two beats of a 4/4 measure. Once we get to beat 3, we’ll copy our initial counts of “1-e-&-a, 2-e-&-a” in reverse order: “a & e 2, a & e 1.” By doing this, the original snare accent from beat 2 won’t fall on beat 4, where it normally sits; instead it will be one 16th note earlier, on the “a” of beat 3.
Single-stroke stickings become interesting when we start mirroring them, and the effect is especially apparent if we utilize two sound sources. Exercise 2 demonstrates this voicing between a cymbal stack or ride and the hi-hat.
Shuffled ride patterns are naturally palindromic. Applying this idea to a shuffle groove results in a unique, mirrored second half without altering the cymbal pattern.
This concept becomes even more intriguing when we start experimenting with different subdivisions. In Exercise 4, double strokes twist their way through mirrored quintuplets and 16th notes.
So far we’ve explored rhythms in which the center notes are doubled, like in the palindrome “doom mood.” By applying this concept to odd 16th-note meters, we can start to find rhythms that reverse from a single center point, like in the palindrome “deified.”
Let’s start in 15/16, which our palindromic shuffle can fit into evenly. Exercise 5 explores this with a single snare accent in the middle of the measure.
We often naturally accent the first note of a shuffled ride pattern. Exercise 6 moves the previous pattern to the ride, and we’ll voice that accent on the ride bell in the first half of the measure. In the second half of the pattern, the accent shifts to the second note of the shuffle.
We can also incorporate flams into our rhythmic palindromes. To start, we’ll play Exercise 1 and replace the snare accent on beat 2 with a flam. On beat 2, our right hand will come off the hi-hats or cymbal stack to precede the snare accent, as usual. However in reverse, on the “a” of beat 3, our grace note will fall subtly after the accent. This may take time to get used to, but the effect that’s produced is unique and interesting. Positioning will make or break the inverted flam, so pay attention to where your arms are located while playing.
Linear patterns also work well as palindromes. The first linear beat I ever learned was from the I Mother Earth song “Used to Be Alright.” In Exercise 8, I’ve started with the second half of the verse groove, which drummer Christian Tanna plays at 0:26. The only difference here from the main groove of that song is that your right hand plays on the “&” of each beat and alternates between the ride cymbal and the rim of a drum. Be careful in bar 2, as this comfortable offbeat motif shifts to the “e” of each beat.
As we discovered earlier, palindromic rhythms take on a unique flavor when we start to mix up the subdivisions. Our pattern from Exercise 8 has twenty-six notes, so let’s try reinterpreting that as four quintuplets and a sextuplet. The difference between those two subdivisions is subtle, so spend time practicing the base rhythm with a metronome before trying to tackle this beat.
Here’s the base rhythm.
And here’s the full pattern.
The pattern within the quintuplet sequence flows in such a unique way that it stands alone quite well as an isolated palindrome.
One thing that translates a little less intuitively is the idea of applying sentence palindromes to rhythm. For example, “A man, a plan, a canal—Panama!” If we build rhythms while only worrying about the order of the notes, we can create phrases that are less obvious but still rhythmically unique.
To do this effectively, we need a rhythm that’s broken up with little spaces between groups of notes. The song “Van Halien” from my band, Third Ion, is written this way using a phrase made from the following groups of notes, each separated by a single rest: 1, 2, 3, 2, 5, 2. The song is written in quintuplets, but at the 0:48 mark it modulates for a few passes into 16th notes in 21/16. This is the version of the rhythm we’re going to experiment with.
Because we’re only playing fifteen of the twenty-one possible notes in that measure, we can apply our beat from Exercise 5 to this new rhythm perfectly. Within this rhythmic framework, trading a couple of the ghost notes for backbeats and moving the original snare to the floor tom will round out the beat in an interesting way.
Finally, since every one of the left-hand notes from Exercise 13 plays on the “&” of each beat, it would be criminal to not cut this down to an even 5/4 and turn all of those notes into backbeats.
In the same way that writers use tools such as haiku, iambic pentameter, and palindromes to aid their creativity and expression, we can do the same with music. Have fun!
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.