Progressive Drumming Essentials
Part 4: How to Feel Odd Subdivisions
by Aaron Edgar
When I was first learning quintuplets and septuplets, I would mentally cut them into smaller groups of two and three. So quintuplets would be felt as “1-2, 1-2-3” and septuplets would be felt as “1-2, 1-2, 1-2-3,” with an emphasis on each 1. The problem was that it always sounded like I was feeling them that way. As much as dividing them up mentally helped me technically, it was a limitation that I wanted to break through.
The focus of this lesson is to be able to feel each subdivision without having to mentally cut it into smaller groups. Breaking away from that process will help you internalize the rhythms as entire figures so that you have much more fluid execution of them.
The first step is counting each subdivision out loud. I use an Indian counting system. There are many variations of this, but the syllables I like to use are “ta, ka, din, ah, gah” for quintuplets and “ta, ka, din, ah, ge, na, gah” for septuplets. These roll off the tongue easily and can be vocalized accurately at very high speeds. It’s imperative to feel “ta” as the dominant note, as it represents the quarter-note pulse. When you’re practicing, vocally accent “ta,” whether or not you’re accenting it on the drums.
The quintuplet variation example above shows each quintuplet note individually. Let’s play quintuplets as singles on the snare and accent the first note, “ta,” on the toms.
Pay special attention to keeping the spacing of the notes even. It’s common to fudge this pattern by playing two 16th notes followed by three 16th-note triplets instead of actual quintuplets. If your metronome can sound out quintuplet and septuplet subdivisions, use that feature to help you space your notes accurately.
Playing quintuplets by themselves is a great first step, but now let’s use them musically. Once you can comfortably execute Example 1, play it into and out of your favorite beats. Here’s one example.
With rhythmic mixtures, such as in Example 2, where we go from a 16th-note groove into a quintuplet-based pattern, it’s important to switch cleanly between subdivisions. Spend some time working on making the switch, just on the snare or practice pad with a metronome.
The quarter notes included on the hi-hat are optional; however, they will help you form a more solid feel for the rhythms, and they’re especially helpful for maintaining the pulse when switching subdivisions.
This time, instead of using the toms, let’s play crashes with a bass drum hit for the second quintuplet notes, “ka.”
Make sure your quintuplet is solid regardless of which note you’re accenting. Once you can play Example 3 by itself, go back and forth between it and different grooves, like we did in Example 2.
Now let’s try the same ideas with septuplets.
In the first example below, we’ll use the second septuplet note, “ka,” and voice it on the toms while playing the remaining notes on the snare.
This time, try accenting the fourth septuplet note, “ah,” with crashes and bass drum hits.
Go through the rest of the quintuplet and septuplet variations in a similar fashion. Experiment with ways to voice each note. You can use doubles, rimshots, flams…the list is limited only by your imagination. Don’t forget to play the variations into and out of grooves. It’s easy to lose sight of how these rhythms work musically if you don’t put them into context.
Double Bass Options
Another great way to internalize any subdivision is to play it on double bass. As with the previous examples, make sure to continually switch back to a common subdivision, such as 16th notes, every two or four bars for all of the following double bass patterns.
Let’s see what happens when we apply different quintuplet and septuplet spacings over double bass. Example 8 has the snare hitting on the last quintuplet while the ride outlines the quarter-note pulse.
In Example 9, the ride pattern is embellished beyond simply playing quarter notes. Pay careful attention to which foot lines up with the ride on the first, fourth, and fifth septuplet notes.
The previous examples are incredibly effective for feeling the subdivision. Hit hard, and bob your head to the quarter-note pulse. It may take many hours of practice, but eventually the patterns will feel natural.
If you want to bring polyrhythms into the fold, you can use different spacings to create some interesting and twisted patterns. Here’s one that includes a five-over-six polyrhythm between the ride and snare. The snare lands on every sixth quintuplet note, which gives you five equally spaced strokes across a bar of 6/4. That’s the five part of the polyrhythm. Make sure you’re feeling the quarter note ride as your pulse.
You can do a similar thing by playing the septuplet spacings in a row to create a pattern with a seven-over-eight polyrhythm. This will give you seven equally spaced snare hits across two bars of 4/4. The additional ride notes introduced in Example 9 are included in Example 11 to help give the pattern a more syncopated feel.
Experiment by playing more than one accent in each subdivision. For example, play both “ta” and “ah” on the toms within a quintuplet. There are thirty-two different quintuplet rhythm variations and 121 variations of septuplets. That may seem overwhelming, but remember that every one of those is made from combinations of the note placements we’ve covered in this article.
Aaron Edgar plays with the Canadian prog-metal band Third Ion and is a session drummer, clinician, and author. You can find his book, Boom!!, as well as information on how to sign up for weekly live lessons, at aaronedgardrum.com.
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