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by Casey Scheuerell
Altering Rhythmic Subdivisions:
If you have ever heard a great soloist on drumset,
timbales, or tablas, you've experienced the excite-
ment of hearing complex cross-rhythms, permuta-
tions, and other rhythmic "tricks." The soloist super-
imposes new time signatures and phrases, stretch-
ing and compressing the time—all the while main-
taining where 1 is in the original pulse. Master
drummers always understand the relationship be-
tween what they are playing and the original beat they are playing
from. When they "go for it," they are drawing from years of
learning the drumming language.
One of the most common questions I am asked is, "How does
one go about developing this polyrhythmic type of playing?" As a
basis, we must have a thorough understanding of the mathematics
comprising our rhythmic system. Luckily, most of the math re-
quired is relatively simple in theory. We must learn to add (+),
subtract (-), multiply (x), and divide (•*•) rhythm. You don't need to
be Einstein, but you do need to be dedicated to understanding the
system and committed to making anything drawn from it feel
natural and musical. Great drummers never sound contrived or
stiff, as musicality and feel are the priorities.
basic subdivisions in 4/4 time—five-note subgroupings of 16th
notes. If you are unfamiliar with this method of playing, I hope this
will give you a starting point from which you will want to look
further. The following exercises are a study in structural analysis.
These are not meant to be licks that you play, although you may
find them useful as such. To be an "original" you will have to
come from you.
Let's begin by looking at one bar of 16th notes. A common way
of playing these 16th notes is to divide them by four, creating four
equal subdivisions that contain four 16th notes each (16^-4=4).
When we accent the first note of each subdivision, we hear a
quarter-note pulse. We will be referring to this quarter-note pulse
throughout these exercises. It is our place of origin—like one's
home address—and we must know where it is at all times.
Try counting the structure aloud while clapping your hands on
the quarter-note pulse. Be sure to say the accented syllables louder
than the rest.
Clap:
You will notice that the accents shift down one 16th note with
each quarter-note beat. First we hit the downbeat of beat 1, then
the "e" of 2, the "&" of 3, and the "a" of beat 4.
If you play this slowly on the snare drum using alternate stick-
ing, while playing your hi-hat foot on the quarter-note pulse, you
will hear the five-note grouping create a secondary accent scheme
that "floats" over the primary pulse. This is the beginning of a
polyrhythmic phrase.
In a moment, we will look at a simple way to take the phrase
over the bar line, but for now let's look more closely at this very
interesting bar.
While the previous example can be orchestrated in a variety of
ways, I'd like to show you a little sticking trick Gary Chaffee once
showed me. Most of you are familiar with the traditional five-
stroke roll sticking of RRLLR or LLRRL. Let's just turn the sticking
around, putting the single note first followed by two sets of doubles
(RLLRR or LRRLL). Now we simply "plug in" this sticking into our
555 1 subgrouping. We still have one note remaining—the last
16th note. Let's put that in the left hand, which conveniently takes
us back to the top of the pattern for the repetition of the bar.
An alternative way of dividing those 16th notes is to use the
number 5 for our division (16-^5=3, with one note remaining). By
accenting the first note of each "subdivision of 5" and placing the
remaining note at the end with an accent, we have a phrase that
looks like this:
By changing our sticking we have greatly enhanced our per-
formance possibilities. Our double notes can become ghost notes,
and our single notes can be easily accented on various sound
sources, emphasizing the beginning of each subgroup.
When this becomes playable and comfortable for you, the fun
part begins—orchestration, which is where creative thinking comes
into the picture. To help you get started, I'll give you a couple of
examples. Begin by using bass drum and cymbal crashes on all the
Photo by Rick Malkin
single notes and playing the ghost notes on snare drum. Keep the
hi-hat foot playing the quarter-note pulse.
These groupings are also great for coming up with groove ideas.
Here's one I often use: Place your right hand on the hi-hat and left
on the snare drum. Play the bass drum in unison with the right
hand accents. I've also added a bass drum note on the "a" of 1 to
help establish a "pocket" of time.
Finally, the over-the-bar example I spoke of earlier: It isn't nec-
essary to play the leftover single notes at the end of the bar. Our
phrases can be played as follows:
A. 5 5 5 1 (original)
After learning each line individually, try playing phrases A through
D as four consecutive bars. You will hear phrases that don't sound
like they are starting on the downbeat of each bar. In fact, by
playing all four bars consecutively, you can now play 11's, be-
cause beginning on the "e" of beat 2 in A through the downbeat of
D, the phrase reads 5 5 1, 5 5 1, 5 5 1, 5 5 1. Lo and behold, four
groups of 11 notes each. This might be easier than you thought.
Hopefully you are still with me and have enjoyed this rhythmic