Last month we created polyrhythmic contrast by using odd spacings within even subdivisions. This month we’ll explore ways to apply these rhythms musically. Since our goal is to create a rhythmic phrase that contrasts with the pulse, we need to focus on the spacing within our subdivision. This raises the question, “How can I voice this polyrhythmic layer?”
Let’s start by voicing the contrasting rhythm on the bass drum. Maintaining a simple hand pattern, such as a typical hi-hat and snare rock groove, is a great way to maintain the pulse against the kick. You can highlight both sides of the polyrhythm by accenting quarter notes on the hi-hat or by playing quarter notes with your hi-hat foot underneath the groove. Exercise 1 demonstrates a three-over-four polyrhythm with the contrasting layer, or three side, played by the bass drum.
Exercise 2 demonstrates a four-over-five polyrhythm. We’ll play a straight 4/4 backbeat through the measure of 10/4.
To make these patterns more musical, we can embellish the contrasting layer of each grouping. Exercise 3 varies the seven side of a four-over-seven polyrhythm, and Exercise 5 embellishes the six side of six-over-five. Each example ends with a left-hand variation.
Another extremely useful tool is permutation. A common misconception regarding polyrhythms is that both sides of the grouping should start together on beat 1. This is untrue—in fact, each side of the rhythm doesn’t need to be played simultaneously at any point throughout a phrase. Exercise 5 displaces the four side of our four-over-five bass drum figure from Exercise 2 forward by one 16th note.
Exercise 6 displaces the four side of a four-over-three polyrhythm forward by one 32nd note. Because we’re playing a 16th-note hand pattern in this example, neither side of the polyrhythm is played simultaneously. You can explore these types of linear polyrhythmic phrases further in my new book, Progressive Drumming Essentials.
Next we’ll play the contrasting layer with our other limbs. Exercise 7 places the four side of a four-over-five polyrhythm on the ride cymbal. Exercise 8 demonstrates a linear four-over-three polyrhythm with the four side played on the snare.
Exercise 9 moves the four side of a four-over-three polyrhythm to the hi-hat foot. Pay particular attention to its interaction with the bass drum pattern.
Combining your limbs can create interesting rhythmic phrases. Alternating one side of a polyrhythm between two voices, such as the bass drum and snare, creates somewhat of an implied metric modulation. The accented polyrhythmic layer makes the main pulse feel like it’s either faster or slower.
Exercise 10 explores this concept within a four-over-five polyrhythm by alternating the four side of the phrase between the bass drum and snare. Exercise 11 alternates the six side of a six-over-five polyrhythm between the floor tom and snare within a funky 16th-note-triplet tom groove.
There are a few ways to handle polyrhythm resolutions. Because we’re making these concepts musical, the semantics of what’s actually a perfect polyrhythm aren’t necessarily important, and neither is allowing the figure to resolve completely on repeat. The point here is to explore polyrhythmic theory in a way that’s conducive to expression and creativity. To do that, after we solidify our core understanding of how the polyrhythmic rules work, we need to examine which rules we can break.
Using only part of a rhythmic phrase can be very musical. For example, a four-over-five polyrhythm takes a bar of 5/4 to resolve, but we don’t need to finish the full figure. We can fit 80 percent of the rhythm within a measure of 4/4 quite effectively. Combining this fragment with permutation and varied phrasing can result in a flexible way to creature unique, syncopated feels that contrast with the underlying pulse.
Look back at Exercise 2 to review a basic four-over-five grouping. Exercise 12 takes the first four quarter notes of this phrase and embellishes it slightly. Exercise 13 varies the last four quarter notes in a similar fashion with one additional bass drum note and paradiddles in the hands.
Bar length doesn’t need to affect your rhythm, though. You can play polyrhythmic phrases in 4/4 (or any time signature) while allowing the grouping to continue over the barline. You can resolve naturally, where the polyrhythm perfectly restarts on beat 1 after however many bars the particular rhythm takes. Or you can force it to resolve at any point, such as four, eight, or sixteen measures later, by cutting straight back to beat 1. This can be done by cutting the rhythm short or embellishing the end for a less choppy transition. The progressive metal band Meshuggah employs this concept in a lot of their phrases.
You also aren’t limited to a single contrast layer. This lesson’s final example utilizes many of the previous concepts while layering multiple polyrhythms.
Exercise 14 is in 7/4, and each limb represents a separate rhythmic layer. Your hi-hat foot voices the quarter note on the “&” of each beat to give us the pulse of each of the following polyrhythms. Your left hand plays every seventh 16th note starting on beat 1, which gives us a four-over-seven polyrhythm over the hi-hat pulse. Your right foot plays every third 16th note for a four-over-three rhythm that resolves twice in the measure with one extra beat left over. Finally, your right hand plays a four-over-five rhythm on the ride starting on the second 16th note for a grouping that also doesn’t completely resolve.
To practice this, start with your feet alone. Next add your right hand while making sure each layer is solid before adding in the snare notes individually.
Next time we’ll explore multi-layered polyrhythms in more depth. For now, work on creatively applying polyrhythmic layers to the kit—and make them musical!
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.