Chops Builders: Hemiolas, Part 1
by Bill Bachman
Three against two—or two against three—is nothing new when you think about the relationship of the downbeats in 6/8 versus 3/4. The two fit together mathematically, and you can go back and forth between them to change the feel quite easily. Below is an example of 2:3. Try singing the melody from West Side Story’s “America” along with it.
That polyrhythm is extremely useful and could turn into a study of its own, but I want to take the concept a step further and examine three-against-four and four-against-three groupings. If you add 16th-note subdivisions to the previous example, and turn the twos into fours, you can create a four-against-three pattern.
To turn the 4:3 pattern into a 3:4 pattern, change the time signature so that the group of four is now outlining the pulse. (The group of three was outlining the pulse in the previous examples.) In other words, instead of having three groups of four (twelve 16th notes), we’ll have four groups of three (twelve 8th-note triplets). In this context, the accents form a half-note triplet, or a 3:2 hemiola, in the second measure.
Now that we’ve defined the 3:2 hemiola, let’s have some fun with these groupings of four notes within triplets. We’re going to begin by having the first accent start at a different spot within the first grouping of four notes. It’s crucial that you understand where the downbeats occur at all times. Don’t allow yourself to detach from the pulse and just play the sticking/accent pattern in the hope that you land safely back on beat 1. In order for these rhythms to become useful musical vocabulary, you must understand your downbeat orientation every step of the way. Practice the exercises along with a metronome or recorded music, and be sure that you can comfortably tap your foot while counting quarter notes aloud.
Now that we have some very useful accent patterns, it’s time to add a couple of rudimental variations. While there are dozens of rudiments that we could impose upon these accent patterns, let’s look at two very handy ones that use diddles.
First we’ll add diddles to the accents. When playing the accented diddles, make sure that both beats of the diddle are accented. The first note will be a free stroke played mainly from the wrist, and the second stroke should be a downstroke played mainly from the fingers. Be sure not to attack the accented diddles too high or too hard, or you won’t be able to match the second beat’s velocity and volume with that of the first. The low taps should be played low and light and should favor finger control. Maximize the stick height and volume differential between the accents and the taps for the most musical contrast. Here’s Example 1 played this way. Repeat the process with Examples 2–4.
Now we’ll add diddles to the taps only. The accents should be played as strict downstrokes in order to bring down the stick height of the diddles for maximum dynamic contrast. Play the low diddles loosely, using finger control. I like to call this the drop/catch technique, where the hand drops the stick down for the first stroke and then catches it in the palm on the second. The process of catching the stick in the palm with the fingers adds some velocity to the second stroke, which helps it to match the first stroke dynamically.
You may be wondering: How am I going to apply these hemiola patterns to the drumset? There’s the obvious option of orchestrating the patterns around the kit so that the accents are played on toms or cymbals. But the bigger picture is that if you understand these rhythms and can feel them naturally, new vocabulary based on them will develop spontaneously as you experiment on your own. The patterns can be used in short phrases for an unexpected rhythmic twist or in longer phrases where you want to trick the listener into a false downbeat orientation. (These types of extended phrases are what the fusion great Gavin Harrison calls rhythmic illusions.) A deeper understanding of progressively more complex rhythms will lead you to more creative and more musical ideas, which is always a good thing.
Bill Bachman is an international drum clinician, the author of Stick Technique (Modern Drummer Publications), and the founder of drumworkout.com. For more information, including how to sign up for online lessons, visit billbachman.net.