Unless you’re playing in a technical prog-metal band, you may find it difficult to apply odd rhythmic ideas to songs without getting deathly glares from your bandmates. Although I wouldn’t suggest that you start cramming polyrhythms and septuplets into pop covers on your next wedding gig, these types of musically taboo rhythms can be used nonintrusively if you’re playing with open-minded musicians.
There are some precautions to consider when playing unusual figures in a musical setting. Clashing with other rhythms is rarely a good choice. If the band is playing 16th notes, don’t start shredding quintuplets. Also, avoid stepping on the vocals. Save polyrhythms and odd subdivisions for sections that feature space or for figures and phrases within the music that support your rhythmic choices.
Think about how odd rhythms affect the sound and feel of music. Rhythms that contrast with the pulse have a tendency to add tension, especially when accenting those figures. However, using subtle sounds to voice odd phrases can steer this tension toward mystery and intrigue. It’s important to keep this in mind when considering what type of musical vocabulary to use. You don’t want to yell when the conversation calls for a whisper.
You’ll have far greater success when playing odd rhythms if you explore them thoroughly rather than cramming a few memorized licks into an inappropriate space. My favorite way to explore odd figures is by first applying them to a four-on-the-floor feel. By practicing this way, you’ll learn how the rhythm works within the pulse.
In Exercise 1 we’ll play a four-on-the-floor bass drum pattern. Your right hand plays 16th notes on the ride while also playing backbeats on the snare. With your left hand, play every third 32nd note quietly on a second ride or other subtle cymbal sound. Practice this beat until the bass drum and snare feel solid underneath the funky yet consistent ride pattern.
In the previous example, the rhythm resolves evenly even if we displace each voice in the figure. Once you understand this phrase, feel free to modify or extract certain pieces of it and apply those figures to new feels. We’ll explore this concept in the following examples.
Exercise 2 demonstrates an embellished 16th-note groove and applies beats 5 and 6 from Exercise 1 to the end of the phrase. Exercise 3 orchestrates the same figure from Exercise 1 on the toms as a fill. Also try playing these figures at the end of a four-bar phrase.
We can also play the ride rhythm with the hi-hat foot, which frees your right hand to play more expressively. Try playing the following right-hand pattern on a bell that’s resting on your snare. If you don’t have a bell, quietly playing your ride works as well.
Playing the hi-hat foot in odd groupings is another great way to subtly incorporate challenging rhythms. While revisiting our four-on-the-floor framework, let’s play every third 16th note with the hi-hat foot. Count out loud, start with the ride and hi-hat foot, and slowly add the bass drum and snare once everything feels comfortable. If your hi-hat foot independence needs work, check out Gary Chester’s classic book, The New Breed, to whip it into shape.
Exercise 6 places the previous hi-hat-foot rhythm into the second measure of a two-bar phrase. In this variation, the hi-hat adds a cool, funky four-over-three flavor without being too rhythmically intrusive.
The next two examples place every fifth 16th note on the hi-hat pedal. In Exercise 7 the full pattern resolves evenly in 5/4. In Exercise 8, we’ll leave out the first beat of the 5/4 phrase and embellish with an additional hi-hat note to round out the pattern on the “&” of beat 4. This results in a funky left-foot pattern.
To start incorporating quintuplets into musical phrases, proceed with additional caution. Make sure these patterns don’t clash with what the other musicians are doing.
Playing rolls that lead into accented notes can create unique statements. Exercise 9 places a quintuplet single-stroke roll on the hi-hat leading into a snare backbeat. If played subtly enough, the roll works equally well when voiced on the snare.
The final three examples employ quintuplets as fills within grooves. These figures create tension going into a transition, resulting in a release when you solidly land back on beat 1. Exercise 10 places single-stroke quintuplets on beats 3 and 4 of the second measure. Play this with a loud, aggressive bass drum to ensure that the quarter-note feel doesn’t waver when transitioning from 16ths to quintuplets. Exercises 11 and 12 explore additional sticking patterns in similar phrases.
These are just a few ways in which we can explore unique rhythms in a subtle way. Once you’ve mastered the previous material, create your own variations using individual pieces from Exercises 1 and 5. Keep in mind that if the phrases you’re playing aren’t effortless, they’re likely to sound jagged, which can result in those deathly glares from your bandmates. If it doesn’t feel funky to you, it won’t feel funky to anyone else!
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.