Rock Perspectives

Progressive Drumming Essentials

Part 3: Polyrhythmic Patterns

by Aaron Edgar

Last month we learned some of the theory behind polyrhythms, along with how to play these patterns in their most basic form. The next step is to learn how to use polyrhythms in grooves. Doing so will further ingrain them into your vocabulary while developing your pocket and internal pulse at the same time.

Example 1 has 16th notes on the hi-hats and four equally spaced bass drum notes in a bar of 3/4. This gives us a basic phrasing of the four-over-three polyrhythm.

It’s important that you feel the quarter note as your pulse, which is outlined by the accents on the hi-hats. If you’re feeling the bass drum as quarter notes, then you’re actually playing a different polyrhythm: three over four (Example 2). Our rhythmic perspective is just as important as being able to play the notes correctly, if not more important.

Thinking of the bass drum as the polyrhythmic layer, add the snare on every other quarter note to imply backbeats in a 4/4 groove. You’ll need to play the polyrhythm twice in order for it to resolve back to the beginning.

If we add a snare backbeat to Example 2, the result is a three-over-four polyrhythm over a four-on-the-floor triplet groove, with the hi-hat supplying the polyrhythm. 

Now let’s embellish the last two patterns to make them a little more interesting. A combination of singles and doubles turns the three-over-four polyrhythmic groove into a super-funky, triplet-based, four-on-the-floor pattern. Dynamics are key to making this groove sound great. Focus on playing quiet ghost notes and solid, consistent accents.

This next variation uses paradiddles to embellish the hand pattern from the previous four-over-three rhythm. Using different sticking patterns is a great way to voice the numerical groupings of the polyrhythms.

Resolutions: To Force or Not to Force?

More often than not, polyrhythms won’t fit evenly into a single bar of 4/4. This doesn’t mean that we can’t use them in 4/4; we just need to get creative. With Example 6, the first option is to simply take the first four quarter notes of the pattern and loop them (Example 7). When you do that, the polyrhythm occurs in the first three beats of the bar. The final quarter note is an incomplete piece of the rhythm. This is one of the ways we can force a polyrhythm to resolve in 4/4. It should be noted that the final quarter note doesn’t need to follow the pattern, so feel free to embellish it however you’d like.

Another option is to let the rhythm resolve itself naturally in 4/4. Since the main pattern in Example 6 takes six beats to complete, playing the cycle twice takes up twelve quarter notes, which divides evenly into three bars of 4/4.That’s great in theory, but music tends to be phrased in multiples of four measures. Because the groove in Example 6 takes three bars of 4/4 to resolve naturally, we can continue playing the pattern for one more bar to complete a four-bar phrase.

Another way to use polyrhythmic patterns is to treat them as groove-based fills. This can be done with a polyrhythm of any length. Just count how many beats it takes to complete the polyrhythm, and start the fill that number of beats from the end of the phrase.

Let’s demonstrate this fill concept with another polyrhythm that works great in a groove setting: four over five. Example 8 is a basic phrasing of the polyrhythm, where we have four bass drum notes spaced evenly across a bar of 5/4 time.

In Example 9, we’ve embellished that spacing into a syncopated groove.

Since our polyrhythmic groove from Example 9 takes five quarter notes to complete, we can start it on beat 4 of the third bar of a four-bar phrase in 4/4.

When trying to create your own polyrhythmic grooves, be sure to start with the basic phrasing and then embellish it. The polyrhythmic layer can be phrased on any instrument or combination of instruments, like the kick drum, the snare, or the hi-hat played with the foot.

It’s also good practice to transcribe your own ideas to help you internalize them much faster. Seeing how various polyrhythms work in different time signatures will help you gain a much deeper understanding of them.


Aarong 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.