Rock Perspectives

A New Perspective

Displacing Two-Over-Three Polyrhythms

by Aaron Edgar

This month we’re going to vary the basic phrasing of polyrhythms. Typically, both sides of a polyrhythm begin together on the first note of the rhythm. We can vary this by displacing one or both sides of the rhythm. We’ll focus on a two-over-three polyrhythm in 3/4. Dotted quarter notes comprise the two side of the rhythm, and quarter notes comprise the three side.

Exercise 1 displaces the two side by starting it on the “&” of beat 1. Notice that we still have two- and three-note groups of equally spaced notes within the same time frame.

The two side can be displaced by one more 8th note to start on beat 2. We can also displace the three side by an 8th note so it starts on the “&” of every beat.

Increasing the subdivision makes this concept especially interesting. If we double the subdivision from 8ths to 16ths we can create the same polyrhythm, but with the added option to create versions that have no point in which the two sides occur simultaneously. Exercise 2 demonstrates this concept by starting the two side on the “e” of beat 1 to create a linear polyrhythm.

I try to practice unique concepts like these within the context of a groove. This allows me to really feel how the rhythms work with or against the pulse, which is imperative if you want to apply what you’re practicing musically. In the next few examples, we’ll play 8th notes on the hi-hat, the two side of the polyrhythm on the snare, and the three side on the bass drum.

Exercises 3 and 4 demonstrate the two other positions for the two side in which it doesn’t occur simultaneously with the three side.

Exercise 5 displaces the three side by a 16th note to the “e” of each beat.

Exercise 6 displaces both sides of the polyrhythm. For an interesting variation, try accenting the “&” of each beat on the hi-hat.

In Exercise 7, we’re going to embellish the groove slightly. We’ll start the two side on the “&” of beat 1 and our three side on the “a” of beat 1. There’s also one additional bass drum note on beat 1. Accenting the “&” of each beat with the hi-hat adds an upbeat feel.

In the next example, we’ll use the ride bell to represent our three side while playing the two side on the snare starting on the “a” of beat 1.

We can also take a New Breed–style approach by using the three side of this polyrhythm in an ostinato and leaving one limb free to play variations of the two side. In Exercise 9, the bass drum plays the three side on the “a” of each beat with an additional note on beat 1. With your right hand playing the ride cymbal and your left foot playing the “&” of each beat, your left hand is free to play each displacement of the two side. Here’s the ostinato.

Here are the six placements of the two side of a two-over-three 16th-note polyrhythm. Exercise 10 demonstrates the fourth placement.

Beat 1 and the “&” of 2.
The “e” of beat 1 and the “a” of 2.
The “&” of beat 1 and beat 3.
The “ah” of beat 1 and the “e” of 3.
Beat 2 and the “&” of 3.
The “e” of beat 2 and the “ah” of 3.

Next we’ll apply the rhythm to a more challenging pattern. We’ll use an ostinato that includes a snare on the “&” of beat 2 played with the right hand. The left hand plays the two side between a pair of bells or other small effects cymbals, as demonstrated in Exercises 11 and 12.

Going Beyond

We can also create unique variations with this polyrhythm by using 16th-note triplets. In 3/4 time, this subdivision contains eighteen 16th-note-triplet partials. The dotted quarter note is equivalent to nine 16th-note triplet partials, while the three side takes up six partials (which equals a quarter note).

Exercise 13 places a basic two-over-three phrasing over a 16th-note-triplet double bass pattern. The three side is played on a China cymbal as quarter notes, and the two side is played on beat 1 and the “&” of beat 2.

Exercise 14 places the snare on the third partial of the 16th-note triplet on beat 2 and the last note of the 16th-note triplet on beat 4.

Also try displacing the three side within the 16th-note triplets. Exercise 15 moves the three side to the “&” of each beat while starting the two side on the second 16th-note triplet partial on beat 2.

As daunting as these examples may seem, always try to make them groove. Don’t lose sight of musicality when diving into the polyrhythmic rabbit hole.

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