A Systematic Approach to Odd Subdivisions

Gary Chester’s classic book, The New Breed, contains thirty-nine “systems,” which are essentially grooves that you play with two or three limbs while the remaining voices work through a series of reading material. This approach forces you to apply everything you work on in a musical context while solidifying your time, independence, reading, counting, ambidexterity, and more.

This idea is scalable to work with any type of material. We can use a similar approach to isolate any type of rhythm or concept by creating our own systems specific to whatever we’re working on. Then, instead of using full pages of reading material, we can isolate any problematic rhythms piece by piece.

A good system needs to outline the subdivision you’re working with while accenting the pulse—in this case, quarter notes—in a way that’s recognizably musical. Exercises 1 and 2 present systems designed for working with quintuplets. They each have solid quintuplets within what is essentially a rock beat in quarter notes underneath. Exercise 1 utilizes the bass drum for rhythmic work, and Exercise 2 employs the right hand on a cymbal stack.

Once the systems feel groovy, get comfortable with each partial of the quintuplet. Exercises 3 and 4 explore the fourth quintuplet partial, or “ah,” within each system. Notice how the space left on beat 3 in each of the systems poses a unique challenge. In the first half of the phrase, there’s a bass drum (or gong drum) on beat 1. Without that accent on the pulse on beat 3, we really feel the space.

Once you’ve worked on each individual quintuplet partial, you can practice all the combinations of those notes as well. There are thirty-two combinations in total, and if you have my newest book, Progressive Drumming Essentials, you can find them on pages 19 and 20. Exercise 5 demonstrates one such rhythm over the double bass system.

Using this idea of outlining the subdivision and accenting the pulse with a backbeat, you can design systems in any style to work on rhythms with any of your limbs. So also try making your own quintuplet system before moving on.

Sticking patterns are a powerful tool when you’re designing systems. On one hand, they bring a little personality to whatever subdivision you’re dressing up; for example, they can make a subdivision sound especially funky between tight hi-hats and ghost notes. They also give you a way to know where every piece of the rhythm sits by how it lines up and interacts with the pattern.

Exercise 6 demonstrates this idea using a RLLRRLL sticking as a system in septuplets. Just like before, there’s a backbeat on beats 2 and 4 and a kick on beat 1. The note we’re isolating on the kick is the fifth septuplet partial (“ge”), which lines up with the second note of the double stroke in the right hand. Using this method, you can easily gain comfort with each septuplet partial, which allows you to experiment freely.

Exercise 7 embellishes our system with a funky kick pattern. Think about the whole phrase musically, and focus on how the bass drum’s notes interplay with the hand pattern. You’ll be surprised at how easily you can make something like this feel good with a little practice. Again, if you want to really dig into this concept, you can find all 128 septuplet rhythms in Progressive Drumming Essentials on pages 45 and 46.

We can even use this idea to work on polyrhythms. First, though, we need to set up a system that’s the length of the rhythm and leaves two limbs free. To visualize this easily, let’s first look at a basic four-over-three polyrhythm. We have a bar of 3/4 time with the bass drum in quarter notes to represent the three side, and we’ll play four equally spaced notes across that phrase on the rack tom to represent the four side.

This leaves our left foot and one hand to put together something that sounds like a beat and gives us a clear framework for the bass drum (the three side) and the tom (the four side) to voice the polyrhythm.

Exercise 10 puts this idea together with our layer of four pushed forward by two 16th notes and the layer of three pushed forward by one 16th note. In this way we can feel this oddly phrased version of four-over-three in a context that has a recognizable groove. In 16th notes, there are twelve different permutations of four-over-three. Striving to make each one of them groovy in this way will result in a clearer understanding of the rhythm overall, and you can start seeing the concept organically manifest in your playing.

In the spirit of the new Tool album, Fear Inoculum, let’s see how this idea works with a much nastier polyrhythm. In the song “Invincible,” the band is playing a seven-over-three polyrhythm in the context of 7/16. Since we’ve already warmed up with septuplets, we can instead fi t this idea into 3/4 time perfectly.

Exercise 11 sets up a scary-looking system with a left-hand stack/ snare pattern over the bass drum, the latter of which lands on the first and fourth septuplet partials. It’s not as hard as it might look, so take it slow and focus on feeling the quarter-note pulse. You can add the splashed hi-hat (in parentheses) to emphasize the quarter note.

If you added the splashed hi-hats in Exercise 11, you already have a layer of three within this context. Exercise 12 adds our layer of seven going up and down the toms over that idea. You might want to try this on just one tom at first. If you focus on where the toms line up—either on or between the notes of the system—it’s surprisingly easy to coordinate. And that’s the true power of this method!

When you get the hang of using systems in this way, they end up feeling like you’re physically playing a grid that you can self-quantize to. Since real life isn’t a studio—and we can’t snap our notes to the grid in real time—we can use this to simulate that with our bodies.

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.