Playing drums can be confusing. You already know this. Simultaneously using all four limbs to play four separate rhythms: it is not easy!
But it is satisfying – and you already know this, too. In fact, it’s satisfying because it’s so challenging. After all, who wants to spend ages doing something which clicks too easily?
That might be fun for a little while, but it won’t keep us going for very long—there’s no sense of accomplishment to be found: no growing to do. We start drumming because we’re captivated by the primal, energetic music created by other drummers, from the local bar to the big stadium.
We keep drumming because we want to untangle and master all the challenges that we run into in the process of learning. Each new fill and every tricky groove that we master gives us a spark of achievement and a little smile of satisfaction.
Learning to drum is an extremely rewarding process. And the good news?It’s a lifelong journey – there’ll always be new challenges to overcome.
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The Biggest Challenge?
Perhaps the biggest challenge for most musicians, is finding a good balance between making music that people will enjoy listening to and making music which is fun to play.
Years ago, my first drum teacher told me that he had recently been playing a lot of wedding gigs. He’d been getting kind of bored with playing endless disco covers, so – as each gig drew on—he would throw in an occasional, intricate bar of drumming to confuse the (slightly drunk) wedding guests.
He told me that he’d chuckle as they tried to keep dancing, despite having completely lost all sense of the pulse for a while.
And okay, maybe that’s not the best way of doing things, but let’s be honest: it probably looked hilarious!
So new challenges are fun. And when things come too easy, life can get a little boring. Luckily, there’s a new challenge before us today.
We won’t be able to use the following ideas in every song, but the overall concept is super fun to try out. If we master the basic ideas here, they’ll trickle down into our grooves and fills. They’ll become an an extra tool in our toolbox, helping us to play things which are interesting to play and to listen to – as long as we pick the right moments to use them.
Let’s get down to business.
Polyrhythms are a murky concept in the mind of many drummers. They’re often spoken of, but they can be a little misunderstood.
A polyrhythm is created by playing two or more contradictory subdivisions at the same time as one another. One might usually do this by playing a different subdivision with each hand, or, say, between the right hand and the right foot. Playing straight eighths and triplet eighths at the same time then, would be one way of playing a polyrhythm.
Sometimes people talk about simultaneously playing contrasting time signatures, too—4/4 and 3/4, for example. That said, these are often termed as ‘polymeters’—depending on who you talk to. By contrast, two clashing subdivisions are always known as polyrhythms when played at the same time as each other.
It really depends on the context as to whether we’re talking about polyrhythmic subdivisions or time signatures, but quite often the end result can sound the same to the listener.
Here’s a classic example of a polyrhythm; it’s called a 3:2 (three-over-two) polyrhythm.*
*[It can also be called a hemiola, but I always think that sounds like a strange medical condition so I steer clear—you do what you prefer!]
In the example above, you can see that we have continual triplet eighths played with the left hand and straight eighths played with the right. You can listen to the audio clip to hear how it sounds in practice.
As you already know, triplets have a very specific feel. So do straight eighths. When we play them together, we get an interesting clash of subdivisions, and this friction creates a separate, different-sounding rhythm.
Below, we have another common example. This one is a 4:3 polyrhythm. It comes up often in certain African styles of music, and as such, it’s usually played in 12/8. In this example, we have four dotted eighths. These are played over three quarter notes.
By listening to the audio clip for both polyrhythms, you’ll hear that both of these examples resolve back to beat one with each rotation.
Take a moment to look back at the 3:2 polyrhythm. Dwell on these separate rhythms a little longer. Play the straight eighth notes for two bars with your right hand. Once you’ve done that, play the triplet eighths for two bars with your left hand.
Now play the two together.
Hear how they contradict and complement each other, creating something which clashes and enhances all at the same time.
This is easily comparable to the clash of salty and sweet taste which is often found in popcorn, or sweet and sour flavors used in Chinese food. The clash is the x-factor ingredient. This is exactly what polyrhythms are all about.
What Polyrhythms are Not
You might have read everything above and thought:
“Huh! Seems kind of easy: I can play straight eighths with my right hand and straight quarters with my left hand, and bingo! – there’s my polyrhythm!”
Well, sadly it’s a little more complicated than that. To properly be called a polyrhythm, our two subdivisions must contrast and clash.
Think of it this way:
A bar of quarter notes can be neatly divided into eighths. It’s easy: you just split the quarter note in half. A bar of eighths can be divided into sixteenths.
Easy again: you just split the eighth note in half.
A bar of quarter notes can also be divided into sixteenths. You just split the quarter note into… well… quarters!
Now consider this:
- A bar of quarter notes can be neatly divided into eighths.
- A bar of quarter notes can be neatly divided into eighth note triplets.
- A bar of eighth notes cannot be neatly divided into eighth note triplets.
This is what we mean when we talk about clashing subdivisions. Straight eighth notes and eighth note triplets do not flow from one another. You can’t divide one to get the other, as you could if you were playing eighths and quarters at the same time.
So polyrhythms aren’t simple, flowing combinations of notes which feel stable and complimentary. Instead, they frequently feel ‘off-center’ and – to be honest – a bit weird. But by the same token, they’re full of bubbling excitement and friction and energy.
Some More Polyrhythms
Here are some examples of some more polyrhythms we can work on.
5:3 (five-over-three) Polyrhythm
Creating Our Own Polyrhythms
It might be that this little adventure into polyrhythmic playing has stirred your imagination and opened up some possibilities for you. Perhaps you’re thinking of coming up with your own polyrhythms.
If that’s the case, then go do it! But before you start, be aware: this too can be tricky. For example, it’s easy to play straight eighths with our right hand – we do it all the time. It’s also pretty easy to be septuplets with our left hand. Putting these two ideas together isn’t so easy: it can feel a little like trying to square a circle!
Luckily, there’s a formula which can help us out a little bit. (Sorry, but it involves doing a little bit of math!) Let’s think back to our three-over-two polyrhythm as an example.
With the right hand, we can play our triplet eighth notes. With our left hand, we can play our straight eighth notes. To work out how to play them at the same time to create a polyrhythm, we need to find the lowest common multiple of both.
In this case, that multiple is six. Three goes into six, and two goes into six. We can then create a grid from this multiple and map our beats onto that grid.
Here’s our three-over-two polyrhythm, mapped out and ready to go!
We can repeat the same process with a 7:2 polyrhythm:
And with a 4:5 polyrhythm:
And with any other polyrhythm you like! Pretty cool, eh?? Having looked at this, why not try creating your own polyrhythms, using this ‘Lowest Common Multiple’ method?
Taking Things Further
Once you’ve become more comfortable with playing a polyrhythm between the hands, we can take the idea further in a number of ways.
Here are just a couple of ideas:
- Try orchestrating your polyrhythm between the hi-hat and the snare drum
- Try adding a kick drum on beat 1
- Try adding some open hi-hat notes
- Try phrasing the polyrhythms as fills
- Try splitting the polyrhythm between the kick and the hi-hat pedal
- Try adding a ride cymbal and a snare drum over the top of these foot combinations
If you’ve tried these ideas, and you’re itching to explore some more, I’d really recommend checking this video out, recorded by polyrhythm master Pete Zeldman.
Here, he plays a number of grooves which utilize layers of polyrhythms played between all four limbs – and he breaks down each idea as he does so.
Take a look if you’d like some inspiration!
It may also be worth scouring YouTube for a visual demonstration of various polyrhythms. There are a number of pretty good ones, such as this (very soothing) representation of a five-over-four pattern:
The Final Word
Sometimes, all a drummer wants to do is slam out a backbeat and play some big, simple fills. But many of us enjoy delving into some more intricate playing now and then, too.
Polyrhythms give as an extremely effective way to create a ‘layering’ effect in our grooves, as one subdivision sits over another. You can explore these effects all day long in prog-rock, jazz, fusion, metal and really, any other genre that takes your fancy. They’re also really,
super effective when added into solo playing. They create rhythmic tension, and interesting clashes which crackle and fizz with energy and life. Polyrhythms can also be really
stimulating to think about – they can often present us with interesting brain-teasers, which take a bit more concentration to really understand and master.
This article is just a little introduction to polyrhythms, but there’s a whole ocean of possibilities to explore.
Go dive in!
About the Author
Chris Witherall is a pro drummer, producer and songwriter from London, England. He loves talking about music, and helping people to reach their music goals.