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Rhythm Rules: Polyrhythms 101

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Let’s take the bass line from Fig. 2 and think of it as quarter-notes. In Fig. 4, the phrase on top consists of quarter-note triplets, giving you a cool 3:2 exercise. Try to count the quarter-notes aloud. Lenny Breau uses this feel quite frequently. (This is also a great way to cue a drummer to do a metric modulation in three.)

Now for an extra challenge, let’s add a third layer. Starting in the fifth measure of Fig. 5, we accent every fifth eighth-note in the melody line. This gives us a 5:3:2 rhythm. Fun! Before attempting the three-way polyrhythm, you may want to first isolate the phrase of five eighth-notes against the quarter-note triplet, and then against the quarter-note pulse. Use your right-hand pinky to pluck the high A on the 1st string. Ben Monder and Ralph Towner are among the creative guitarists who often use these types of rhythms.

Perhaps this exercise seems needlessly complex, but the idea is to get you to feel multiple meters at once. You’ll find that improvising melodic lines against a moving bass line becomes a lot easier after you master these studies. There are many advantages to practicing these types of rhythms and there are endless combinations of ideas to try.

It’s very easy to expand upon the ideas in this lesson. Pick a rhythm or two (or three) and go to town. The best thing about these rhythms is they don’t require a guitar to practice them. I often find myself tapping out various rhythms on my steering wheel while caught in some of New Jersey’s famed traffic. They have also prevented me from losing my mind in a number of painful college classes. (I might not be able to say the same about those sitting next to me, however.) When you feel confident with any of these ideas, try incorporating them into a song or jam. But make sure to save the more obscure rhythmic combinations for the right atmosphere—perhaps your weekly restaurant gig isn’t the best place for this stuff.

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