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(I am asking this question because someone just posted a question which misused the term "polyrhythm", and subsequently, on realizing the mistake, edited the question to reflect their real question -- thus orphaning a good answer about developing facility with polyrhythms!)

Polyrhythms are awesome. I want to be able to do that in playing guitar. How do you suggest I approach learning to play polyrhythms?

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The history of the question is of little interest to the reader. Why not post it in a comment, put it below the actual question or remove it completely? –  Édouard May 2 at 10:24

3 Answers 3

Do the math. Practice by tapping your hands on your legs. Start with 3 against 2. Move on to 4 against 3. You do this one by breaking it up into 12, so:

|     |     |     |
. . . . . . . . . . . . 
|       |       |       

So, count the periods, tap the top bars with one hand, and the bottom bars with the other. Now, how do you do, say, 5 against 3? Well, 5X3 is 15. So now, you put 15 dots, and tap every 3 dots in one hand and every 5 dots in the other.

Do it slow enough so you don't make mistakes. Keep at it, and you'll start to get the feel. How you do them on the guitar, though, is someone else's answer. I'm a pianist. :)

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I was raised pianist! And I can still remember the instant in which I developed hand separation. I was about 7yo and playing "My Country Tis of Thee" in lesson. I had been struggling with "one hand does something but other hand doesn't, but then it does come back in", and then suddenly, I was doing it and I could control my hands separately, and as far as I am concerned it was completely freaking magic. I have no idea how you get your brain to do that other than "just keep trying, if you throw yourself against it long enough the wall will fall". –  Codeswitcher May 1 at 20:20
Seems like you need to get it into your head before you can get it out of your instrument, so first tap it out with your hands, thinking percussion, before trying to play it on guitar. –  VarLogRant May 2 at 12:58

BobRodes answer is great, giving you both good suggestions for the kind of polyrhythms to get started with, and a good approach to trying them out (with universal instruments; your hands and legs!)

Below is a simple approach for playing these kind of polyrhythms on guitar: play the bottom notes with your right-hand thumb; the top notes with your right-hand fingers. I've just written a few examples of polyrhythms, but you could come up with loads. Obviously, you would want to try some more interesting chords!

enter image description here

In essence, there is nothing very complicated about these polyrhythms. They are simply two simultaneous pulses at different tempos, created by setting two different note values against each other. But they do create really interesting rhythmic effects, especially once you start to create more complex rhythms, by also using multiples of the top or bottom note values.

It can take a while to work out how to play these kind of polyrhythms though; you might find it useful to enter these rhythm patterns into a DAW or notation software program, so you can listen to how they sound.

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I'm not sure I agree with your last statement, Bob. They sure look like polyrhythms to me. :) Except the second-to-last one, which appears to have uneven values in the lower voice. –  BobRodes May 2 at 13:10
Yes, I think I'll change this later, if for no other reason than keeping it simple. The bottom notes of the second to last one are all four quaver triplets long, BTW. –  Bob Broadley May 2 at 13:41
@BobRodes Thanks for your advice, I've updated this answer. –  Bob Broadley May 2 at 18:11

I've spent years figuring out this problem. The best way to do it i've found is to learn songs which feature the polyrhythms in question. I'll start with a great video by Guthrie Govan that I Looooooove for understanding odd note groupings.

Check out Steve Vai's Tempo Mental page on his website. that will give you a fantastic in-depth guide to the extremities of polyrhythms, and even a way to pratice(notating speech)

The Bone alphabet by Brian Ferneyhough is way, way out of the playability zone for the majority of players, but the extreme depth of polyrhythms listened to for a while gets your mind in the zone that it can consider polyrhythms

The Black Page by Frank Zappa is a similar piece, along with the majority of Frank Zappa's Music (but be warned, no 2 albums are the same, It's a very difficult soundscape at times)

As far as books go, the book I use is Polyrhythms:The Musician's Guide by Peter Magadinni. It takes you through playing the basic pulses of any polyrhythm up to 13:4. It also includes more complex rhythm patterns within your polyrhythms(for example a 3/4 pattern over a 4/4 pulse).

And at the risk of self promoting, I've also written a few articles on Odd Time Signatures that may help.

Hope that helps. Polyrhythms are a wonderful tool once they're natural, but until then you gotta grind it out!

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As a pianist, a couple of pieces that come to mind are Chopin's "Fantasie Impromptu" which is full of 3 against 4, and also 3 against 2 in the middle section, and Debussy's "Isle Joyeuse" which has a 5 against 3 (and in some places, the 3 has a dotted 8th plus 16th in the figure, too, making it partly a 5 against 12) section in the middle. The Chopin piece is primarily long 16th note passages accompanied in the left hand by triplets. –  BobRodes May 2 at 13:20
Cheers for the Magadini book tip. Got it yesterday, and have learned some new stuff already. –  Meaningful Username May 16 at 14:08
Nice one! Great thing about this way of learning is that you can do it anywhere, all you need are feet and hands. –  Alexander Troup May 16 at 14:10

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