Rock Drumming System

How To Play A Polyrhythm

Polyrhythms are one of the most technical things a drummer can pull off.  (If done right)   They are not something you can improvise, or make up on the spot; they must be thought out, and practiced through.   To most drummers, polyrhythms are very unclear.  A lot of drummers think that if it sounds unique, off time, or technical, it is a polyrhythm.   This is not the case.  There is a distinction between a polyrhythm, and a regular beat.   This article is designed to explain the difference, and show you a few examples of this kind of beat.

The word polyrhythm is broken down into 2 sub words.   Poly: which means having more then one, or multi; and Rhythm: which is the reoccurrence of a beat.  So the word literally means Multi beats.  Webster defines it as the use or an instance of simultaneous contrasting rhythms. And there, my friends, is the key word – Contrasting.  This is what will set a regular beat from a polyrhythmic beat.   You see, a beat played with two different rhythmic lines may not be polyrhythmic at all.  Take this for example:

There are two different rhythms in this example, but it is NOT a polyrhythm.  This is simply quarter notes played over top of eighth notes, in a common 4/4 time signature.   Take a look at the beat below.  Here we play eight note triplets over top of quarter notes.  It may feel like you are playing two different times, but you are not.

So what makes a beat a polyrhythm?   Having two clearly different rhythms in a beat that contrast each other.   Most polyrhythms consist of two different time signatures, played over top of each other.    The key to this is to make sure both signatures share a common denominator, you will find it a lot easier this way.   For example, try playing a 3/4 time beat over top of a 4/4 time beat. This is a very common polyrhythm, as it is very simple to learn. This would look like this:

With this example, you play the 3/4 beat, in the same time it takes you to play the 4/4 beat.   Start out slow with this one.  Try playing the 3/4 beat on its own at a certain tempo.  Then, after that play the 4/4 beat at the same tempo.  Once you have mastered both at the same tempo, try to add them together.  At first it may be hard to wrap your mind around this.  But once you get the feel for it, you will understand the idea of how these patterns work.  Now, Spice things up a bit by playing different beats in different times together. Try playing around with different time signatures, like 7/4 over 4/4, or even 5/4 over 7/4.   

Polyrhythms are not an easy concept to learn.  It takes time, and concentration to get it.   Do not get down on yourself if you cannot grasp it right away.  Remember to start out slow, by playing each beat on their own, and then add them together.   This is a lot to learn in one lesson, so don’t forget to bookmark this page so you can come back in the future to brush up on your skills.  If you have any questions about this article, feel free to email me!

By: Dave Atkinson

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