• Develop basic polyrhythmic
• Learn how to superimpose
different rhythms to make a
• Understand how accents can
imply different time feels.
Click here to download the sound clips from this lesson.
For years, I have been fascinated by how
my favorite players—Jim Hall, Bill
Evans, Ben Webster, Doc Watson, and so
many more—were able to play solos that
propelled forward so effortlessly. Of course,
what makes a great solo or composition is
the convergence of harmony, melody, and
rhythm into a unified narrative. However,
there is something special about the way
these players use rhythmic diversity to shed
light on the inner workings of any given
piece of music and give it an extra jolt of
excitement. In the case of rhythm, I feel
this can be traced to the quarter-note. In
this lesson, I’d like to explore the world of
rhythmic development, syncopation, and
introduce the foundation of polyrhythms.
One of my favorite things about the
way time works in the musical realm is that
any given pulse has two sides. There is the
attack and the absence of the attack—or
the space between. One way to practice
experiencing the full attack/negative space
of every pulse is to set the metronome to
roughly 30 bpm—or lower, if possible—
and start playing a pitch or scale (for this
lesson, let’s say C major) with one note allocated
to each click. In Fig. 1 you can see an
example of this.
At first, this may feel like you are playing
musical darts, trying to pin down each beat
as it passes by. However, with daily practice
you’ll start to feel like you can predict when
the next click will come. The goal with this
is to eventually transition from following
the metronome to playing alongside it. Do
this for several minutes or until you feel
settled into the pulse.
The next step is to add the eighth-note
subdivision, so that for every click, you play
two notes, as you can see in Fig. 2. This is
often easier because there is less time between
notes. One thing you can do to help insure
your notes are filling their full spectrum is
to use your voice to make a sound between
each note. By verbalizing a “click” or some
kind of sound on the offbeats, the notes you
are playing will start to lock in even stronger
with the metronome pulse.
Now let’s add some eighth-note triplets.
After practicing this for a few minutes
or until it feels steady, switch back to the
eighth-note subdivision for a few bars, then
back to triplets, and continue alternating
for a few minutes (Fig. 3). You may find
this forces you to envision the other subdivision
prior to playing it, simply so you
don’t lose the pulse during the transition.
This can feel like a tedious practice, but if
you can spend 10 minutes a day on it for a
week or a month, it will help greatly to lay
a strong rhythmic foundation that grooves
no matter how complex the rhythmic development
Next let’s look at syncopation. Start by
playing sixteenth-notes—that’s four notes
for every click. Then begin accenting every
fifth note, so after accenting the first note
of the exercise, you will accent the sixth
note, then the 11th, and so on. Check out
Fig. 4 for an example. This can sometimes
be easier if practiced at a faster tempo, but I
encourage you to stay with the slower tempos
until you can speed up without losing
a good feel. No matter how intricate the
phrasing, the groove should always be an
integral part of your awareness, and should
you need a reminder, you can reset the feel
by playing quarter-notes.
Once you feel comfortable syncopating
every five beats, try breaking the five into
two. In Fig. 5, you can see this concept
using eighth-notes and sixteenth-note rests.
It sounds a lot more confusing than it actually
is, but this can provide a cool way to
abstract the concept of groupings of five
even further. Smaller subdivisions tend to
make things feel quicker, where as larger
subdivisions will give your lines a sense of a
larger development over time.
At this point, I’d like to shed some light
on the concept of polyrhythms and how
to go about decoding them. I was always
mystified by how players could superimpose
other time signatures over 4/4 or 3/4. It
was even more mystifying how they could
switch between the time signatures with
ease and fluidity. So given the techniques
we’ve been practicing thus far, let’s examine
how to play 4 against 3.
The simplest way to start is by playing
sixteenth-notes with the metronome on or
around 60 bpm. We can start Fig. 6 by syncopating
every third note. Once this feels
comfortable, leave out the in-between notes
and only play the syncopated beats (beats 1,
4, 7, 10) After four syncopations, your note
should line up with the metronome. You
are now playing 4 against 3!
Things get really interesting in Fig. 7,
where we play the quarter-note in the bass
on a low C. Try moving the left-hand structure
through the C major scale while maintaining
the polyrhythm. This basic formula
should help you to find other polyrhythms.
To summarize: Start with sixteenth-notes,
syncopate the number of beats you want to
superimpose, then leave out the in-between
notes and the two tempos should eventually
meet up at regular intervals.
Going forward, I encourage you to
practice “filling” the bigger quarter-note
with other subdivisions including 5,
6, and 7, as well as figuring out other
polyrhythms via the syncopation study.
Between these two practices, you will
develop a stronger sense of rhythm from
a grounded perspective, and also be able
to see that at any given moment, multiple
dimensions of rhythmic activity exist and
are waiting for you to explore.
is one of those rare musicians who
feels equally at home in acoustic and jazz circles.
He has been a member of legendary vibraphonist
Gary Burton’s group since 2004, and
also regularly collaborates with pianist Taylor
Eigsti. Lage’s latest album, Gladwell, reflects
his wide-ranging musical interests and talents
by incorporating chamber music, American folk
and bluegrass, Latin and world music, traditional
string-band sounds, and modern jazz. For
more information, visit julianlage.com