Premier Guitar features affiliate links to help support our content. We may earn a commission on any affiliated purchases.

Digging Deeper: Polyrhythmic Fundamentals

Chops: Advanced Theory: Intermediate Lesson Overview: • Develop basic polyrhythmic techniques. • Learn how to superimpose different rhythms to make a “4-against-3” feel. • Understand how accents can imply

Chops: Advanced
Theory: Intermediate
Lesson Overview:
• Develop basic polyrhythmic techniques.
• Learn how to superimpose different rhythms to make a “4-against-3” feel.
• 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 may become.

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.

Julian Lage 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