Let me start by explaining what a polyrhythm actually is. A polyrhythm consists of two or more rhythms being played at the same time. It could be two or more rhythms played by separate limbs on different sound sources or it could be two or more rhythms played by separate limbs on the same sound source (the Snare drum for example).
The key aspect of the polyrhythm though is that the two or more rhythms being played are different to each other, i.e. the two rhythms don’t line up with each other.
It is this aspect of polyrhythms that give them their reputation for being difficult but at the same time very exciting and interesting to listen too. They are also great fun to play once mastered and can lead your playing in truly unexpected directions.
I need to explain to you first about a little urban myth that has been created around drumming and using polyrhythms. A lot of people say, usually non-drummers who are observing the polyrhythm, that the drummer is actually having to control all the separate limbs at the same time. It appears that the drummer has complete control over their feet while playing a different rhythm with the hands at the same time. The observer might think that the drummer is thinking about all the separate limbs all at the same time. This isn’t quite true and I’ll explain why.
A drummer relies heavily on muscle memory and during their practice routines will try and develop independence with one limb, this limb will be playing a repeating pattern (called an ostinato). Once the limb is able to play this pattern without the drummer having to think about it (the limb is on “auto-pilot” controlled by muscle memory) the other limbs are then able to play separate rhythms at the same time with the ostinato.
The drummer is able to concentrate on the newly added rhythms because the ostinato is repeating automatically. The drummer has taught their body to have one or more limbs play a pattern automatically, using muscle memory, so that they can then focus their brains on other parts of their playing – pretty cool, huh?
Of course, as always, there are exceptionally talented drummers who seem to defy logic with their ability to have total control of their limbs independently of each other.
This 3 over 4 polyrhythm is going to involve the hands learning a set of repeating patterns (ostinatos) on the Hi-Hat and Snare drum while the Bass drum moves independently underneath.
It sounds scary but with a little practice and some careful reading of the exercises, it isn’t as difficult as you might think.
The 3 over 4 polyrhythm we are going to learn is by far the most popular polyrhythm and consists of playing groups of three notes over notes that naturally group into four (sixteenths in this case).
Let me show you what I mean with the first example.
The 3 Over 4 Polyrhythm (Accents)
The hands are playing alternating sixteenth notes on the Snare drum (RLRL) for three bars. Every third note has been accented (loud note) and is played with the corresponding hand. Because the group of three is uneven and the hands are alternating the accent is played with the right hand then the left, then the right and so on.
The 3 over 4 polyrhythm played through sixteenth notes takes three bars for the accent to fall back onto beat 1, which is why the exercise is three bars long. This means that the polyrhythm does eventually resolve itself but takes three bars to get back to where it started from.
Now, this exercise played on its own isn’t really a polyrhythm because the only rhythm that can be heard is the accents on every third sixteenth note. To make this exercise a true polyrhythm (specifically a 3 over 4 polyrhythm) another note has to played every four sixteenth notes, i.e. on beats 1, 2, 3 and 4.
Try placing the Bass drum on every fourth sixteenth note, on beats 1, 2, 3 and 4. The accents on the Snare will move around the Bass drum and a very interesting rhythm (consisting of the accents over the Bass drum) will appear.
PRACTICE TIP: If you are finding it too difficult to include the Bass drum at this point then try using a metronome set at 60bpm to represent the Bass drum. You then only have to concentrate on the hands.
You need to listen, learn and recognise the combination of rhythms that appear when the accents are played over the Bass drum as this combination rhythm will appear in any 3 over 4 polyrhythm.
The next step is to move this accent pattern onto the Bass drum while playing a Hi-Hat/Snare drum ostinato over the top.
3 Over 4 Polyrhythm Drum Beat 1
This is what I was talking about earlier with the one or two body limbs learning an ostinato and then hopefully turning it onto auto-pilot.
PRACTICE TIP: If you are not able to do this yet then you can simply read the bars carefully and line up the hands and Bass drum accordingly. Notice how the Bass drum is alternating between falling with the Hi-Hat and falling between the Hi-Hat, use this observation to help you practice it.
Eventually you would want to be able to not think about the Hi-Hat and Snare at all and just hear the Bass drum move in and out of the beats within the bar. Alternatively, you might want to be able to ignore the Bass drum and then concentrate on the hands allowing yourself to improvise and play around with the hands.
3 Over 4 Polyrhythm Drum Beat 2
This is exactly the same as Drum Beat 1 but this time with quarter notes on the Hi-Hat. This can be a lot harder as the Bass drum has four different places it could fall against the Hi-Hat. Drum Beat 1 had just two positions with the Bass drum falling either on the h-hat or in-between it.
Drum Beat 2 however has the Bass drum fall with the Hi-Hat, just after it, exactly in between two Hi-Hat notes or just before the Hi-Hat. This exercise definitely requires more concentration but if Drum Beat 1 has been mastered then it shouldn’t take you too long to start seeing it come together.
PRACTICE TIP: Be careful not to lose the Snare drum on beats 2 and 4 as this is helping to create the polyrhythm effect. Without the Snare drum falling where it should the polyrhythm effect is lost and you might as well be playing something totally made up.
3 Over 4 Polyrhythm Drum Beat 3
As you can see, this exercise is using another Hi-Hat pattern (ostinato), this time on the first three sixteenth notes of each beat (1e+ 2e+ 3e+ 4e+). Any experienced drummer should be able to play this Hi-Hat ostinato without too much difficulty but the challenge comes with lining up the Bass drum notes precisely.
PRACTICE TIP: Take extra care to ensure the Hi-Hat pattern isn’t being affected by the Bass drum!
3 Over 4 Polyrhythm Drum Beat 4
Finally for this instalment of the 3 over 4 polyrhythm I have given you another popular Hi-Hat ostinato to work with. This Hi-Hat ostinato is played on 1 +a2 +a3 +a4 +a, it’s the “e” of each beat that’s missed out on the Hi-Hat.
To really learn how to use this polyrhythm and for it to become part of your drum vocabulary you have to be able to go in and out of it during your playing.
Try playing 1 bar of drum beat (it doesn’t matter what drum beat you play) and then flow into one of the exercises written above. This will teach you how to go into the polyrhythm from standard drum beats. You could also try putting your own drum fills into sections of the exercises and see if the Bass drum is affected (it shouldn’t be).
Another useful way to train yourself is to start each exercise on a different bar. You could try starting the polyrhythm on bar two or three for example, allowing yourself to learn what it feels like to end a bar with the Bass drum landing in different places. You want to be able to drop in and out of this polyrhythm no matter what sixteenth note the Bass drum starts on or what note it happens to end with. You are training yourself to hear the polyrhythm from different “angles” if you like.
ADVANCED PLAYER: Try playing other Hi-Hat ostinatos over the top such as eighth note upbeats on the “+”. You could attempt to play paradiddles and doubles through sixteenth notes while maintaining the Bass drum polyrhythm. In fact, any hand pattern you could think of could be used instead of the ones I have given here.
Try improvising with the Snare drum a little to give the bars some extra spice and interest. If you have some favourite ghost-note Snare patterns then try these over the top.
If you want more polyrhythmic ideas then check out the lesson called Hi-Hat Polyrhythm (Third Sixteenth).
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