Polyrhythmic phrases contrast with typical pulses. We can create polyrhythms by playing groupings that don’t fit evenly within a typical subdivision.
For example, let’s examine a 16th-note subdivision (four partials per beat). Playing every third 16th note over three quarter notes results in four equally spaced notes over three beats, which is a four-over-three polyrhythm. In Exercise 1, we’ll explore this with a measure of 16th notes on the hi-hat. Play quarter notes on the bass drum to represent the three-beat pulse and bottom half of the polyrhythm. We’ll play every third 16th-note on the snare to represent the four side of the polyrhythm, which is our contrasting layer.
Playing every fifth 16th note on the snare within the previous kick and hi-hat pattern results in a four-over-five polyrhythm, as notated in Exercise 2.
Each of the previous examples produced four equally spaced notes on the snare over our pulse. In Exercise 1, when playing every third 16th-note partial on the snare, the pattern took three quarter-note beats to resolve. Exercise 2 demonstrated this same concept within a five-note pulse. This formula works for any polyrhythm. It should be noted that these groupings can be used in any time signature, not just in meters in which the polyrhythms resolve evenly from measure to measure.
Let’s explore this same concept within 8th-note triplets. Exercise 3 places every second triplet note on the snare, which results in a three-over-two polyrhythm. In Exercise 4, playing every fourth triplet partial yields a three-over-four grouping.
Now we’ll stretch out our contrasting rhythm’s spacing even further. In this next example, we’ll play every fifth triplet partial on the snare in a measure of 5/4. This results in three evenly spaced accents over five quarter notes, or a three-over-five grouping.
Before we delve into different ways of voicing these rhythms, let’s use this approach to focus on the most useful, or more common, polyrhythms.
We generally deal with 8th notes, 8th-note triplets, 16ths, 16th-note triplets, and 32nd notes for a total of five different subdivisions. When you break it down, any polyrhythm that we create within these subdivisions can be considered a syncopation of the original phrasing. Learning how to feel these syncopated rhythms effectively is key to being able to apply them in a musical setting.
Let’s check out a few more rhythms. Exercises 6 and 7 utilize five- and seven-note groupings within 16th-note triplets, which create six-over-five and six-over-seven figures, respectively.
In Exercise 8, let’s try incorporating two even groupings on both sides of the polyrhythm. We’ll play every fourth 16th-note-triplet partial in a measure of 4/4, resulting in a six-over-four figure. This polyrhythm’s name could be considered redundant, as it’s actually a three-over-two grouping that’s repeated. Notice how the accent pattern mirrors that of Exercise 3. To create contrast, it’s most effective to use odd values within even subdivisions and vice versa.
One of my favorite polyrhythms is eight-over-three, in which we accent every third 32nd note in a measure of 3/4. A great way to get this started is by using a RLL sticking. In Exercise 9, your left hand stays on the hi-hat while your right hand plays every third note on the snare. Once comfortable with this pattern, experiment by moving your right hand around the set for some interesting variations.
In Exercise 10, we’ll play every fifth 32nd note on the snare in a measure of 5/4. Again, let’s assign a sticking (RLRRL) to make the contrasting rhythm easy to follow. Keep track of your right hand by playing one stroke on the snare and two strokes on the hi-hat with left-hand singles in between on a rim or auxiliary hi-hat.
You don’t always have to start polyrhythms on beat 1, and you’ll usually find more interesting rhythms when you experiment with these figures’ permutations. Exercise 11 starts the three side of a three-over-five polyrhythm on beat 2 while incorporating a shuffle rhythm on the hi-hat.
You can also imply the pulse—you don’t have to make it as obvious as we have so far with quarter notes on the bass drum. Exercise 12 embellishes the previous example to make our contrast layer feel musical rather than jarring.
For an extra challenge, try aligning the entire groove, including the bass drum and hi-hat, with the contrast layer. In a three-over-five polyrhythm, we accent every fifth 8th-note-triplet partial, as demonstrated in Exercise 4. In Exercise 13, we’ll restart our kick and hi-hat pattern every fifth partial to replicate a displacement. The third and fifth bass drum notes have been added to make this sound less like a skipping CD.
The final example explores a four-over-seven polyrhythm. We’ll start our contrasting layer—every seventh 16th note—on the “&” of beat 2. For fun, we’ll also play every third 16th note on the kick for a second polyrhythmic element. This second layer doesn’t resolve evenly within a measure of 7/4, so we’ll embellish the end slightly. The combination of contrasting rhythms underneath a quarter-note accent on the hi-hats creates a unique groove.
Try the concepts in this lesson within your own ideas in the practice room. A great place to start is with a pencil and piece of paper. Pick a subdivision, pick your contrasting rhythm, and apply it to the set! Next time we’ll dive deeper into how to apply these rhythms musically.
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.