A polyrhythm is the term used to describe two or more simultaneous pulses which overlap in a regular way. Developing an understanding of simple polyrhythms will help all musicians, but particularly drummers, better understand, recognise and play different rhythmic subdivisions, and bring interesting elements to they’re playing.
The simplest polyrhythm, and the topic of this series of posts, is the 3:2, pronounced ‘3 over 2’. The 3:2 polyrhythm is a pulse of 3 beats overlapping with another of 2 beats. A practical example of the 3:2 polyrhythm is the quarter note triplet played over a quarter note pulse (see: Find the quarter note triplet).
To be precise, the rhythm above is really a triplet played in 4/4 time – the interplay between between the quarter note pulse and the triplet notes will ‘sound’ like a 3:2 polyrhythm (or polymeter), but in order to be viewed as a 3:2 polyrhythm, we must explicitly acknowledge that there are two meters occurring simultaneously at different tempos. Below, I have written the 3:2 polyrhythm more explicitly as overlapping meters of 2/4 and 3/4.
In order to play this polyrhythm, we must be able to count either pulse whilst playing the other. To get comfortable with this, try setting up a 2 beat quarter note pulse with your foot, and play the quarter note triplet with one hand over this (see: Find the quarter triplet). Now count the original pulse (1,2; 1,2; 1,2 etc) on top. Once you feel comfortable, try switching to counting the 3 beat (triplet) pulse instead. This will take some practice, but eventually you’ll be able to count either pulse at will. One tip to help achieve this is to accent the pulse you’re trying to count whilst suppressing the other. So, for example, if you’re trying to count the 3 beat pulse over the 2, play this pulse loudest, and try ghosting the other. It will take time, but with practice the idea will become second nature.
Once you can count both pulses, practice playing the polyrhythm with different limbs. For instance, if before you were playing the 2 beat pulse with your right leg, and the 3 beat pulse with your left, try switching round. A particularly useful combination is playing the 3 beat with the bass drum and the 2 beat with the hi-hat. To help with the coordination for this, try the exercise below:
A nice musical application of the 3:2 played between the feet takes the above example and doubles up the hands to play 16th note triplets (single strokes). Played in the context of a 4/4 groove, playing the accented notes on the ride cymbal explicitly emphasis the 3 pulse over the two. Rather than thinking about these accents a quarter note triplets in a 4/4 pulse, I count the 3 beat pulse of the 3:2 polyrhythm (1,2,3; 1,2,3 etc).
At slower tempos, the accents can be played around the tom toms to produce melodies. You can even flip the beat around, and emphasise the 2 in the context of a 3/4 groove – take the idea and play with it. Some other ideas for experimentation involve using different stickings (paradiddle-diddle is a group of six for example) and breaking up the 3 beat bass drum pulse.
In order to bring the 3:2 polyrhythm into your ensemble playing, in a 4/4 context, initially practice counting the 3 whilst your playing. As you become practiced at this, gradually begin playing figures on this second pulse, retaining a grounding in the 2 pulse (really this is 6:4 of course, but we generally reduce the fraction).
For a more advanced exploration of the 3:2 polyrhythm, see 3:2 polyrhythm – II