Though I have performed mainly as a percussionist and saxophonist for the last 34 years, I have also been a rock and jazz drummer, and have found one particular technique incredibly useful. I have also found it to be lucrative, as being able to do this one thing in particular has helped me be a more creative and adaptable drummer. This one concept can be summed up as the art of playing melodic cross-rhythms.
Basically, these rhythms are a set of symmetrical hand motions played around the kit in a way that creates an asymmetrical pattern of drum tones. What makes them so interesting though is that they make it sound like you are playing complex rhythms in time signatures such as 5/4 or 7/8… in actual fact you are playing simple, even right/left sticking in 4/4! And, when you do eventually play odd time signatures, this process will help you create exciting fills and riffs with ease.
There are many benefits to studying cross-rhythm, too. First and foremost, it invariably inspires new patterns or licks as well as ideas for new songs, as well as reveals new possibilities for the linear rudiments you have already studied from books such as George Lawrence Stone’s Stick Control For The Snare Drummer, etc. It also is a fun way to practice improvising drum solos and discovering new ways of playing syncopated fills, which helps us auxiliary percussionists create grooves and patterns that compliment the rest of the band. Believe me, you will be happy you did your homework now that in 21st century Canada there are musicians everywhere creating fusions of rock or jazz and the traditional music they grew up hearing from their ancestral homeland. If you are going to thrive, trust me, you will need to be used to cross-rhythms when faced with music influenced by genres such as Greek rebetika, Bollywood, and Mexican corrido, songs by King Crimson, RUSH, Genesis, Frank Zappa, YES, the John Coltrane Quartet, Meshuggah, Eliades Ochoa, and Animals As Leaders… or dances such as the Arabian dabke, the Cuban mambo, or the Argentinian tango, etc.
Using the diagram above as a guide, begin playing single strokes starting on your snare, then move around the three cymbals/toms with your right hand as you move around the two opposite cymbals or toms with your left. As you continue going round and round you will notice that each hand returns to tap the snare drum at different times before they eventually end up tapping together. This cyclic relationship of four to three strokes creates an asymmetrical pattern of drum sounds while your hands remain symmetrical and locked to a single pulse. At first, practice moving your hands in opposite directions along with a metronome, before switching directions or moving your hands in the same direction along their individual circuits. This helps develop muscle control, as well as your aural skills in hearing both the rhythmic logic of the technique and possible variations to write down or improvise with on the spot.
The next stage is to start alternately increasing and decreasing the number of pieces tapped with either hand, either as a predetermined set, or while playing. This helps develop the ability to alter and expand patterns on the fly; a skill highly prized by those that would eventually hire you. As always, avoid overplaying and excessive rhythmic ‘clutter,’ as it muddies the sound.
After you have done this for a couple of weeks, then start applying double strokes on one or two of the cymbals or toms; either as a set of sixteenth notes, for example, if you playing eighth notes, or just let your alternate hand stop for a second if you are using only eighth notes. It does not have to be something you immediately apply to your playing, as this new exercise may not fit the music you regularly perform at the moment. But it will build your musicality and dexterity, and soon you will be able to expand both your musical palette and playing simultaneously. Having done this begin applying what you have studied in such books as Stone’s (paradiddles, flams, etc), or his Accents and Rebounds For The Snare Drummer, or Ted Reed’s excellent Progressive Steps To Syncopation For The Modern Drummer. Even studying a single paradiddle variation around the kit as a cross-rhythm will reveal many possibilities for improvisation and composition.
At this point in your development, it is good to start setting up your rig or kit to accommodate three or four different sets of cymbals, etc, that you can move back and forth from. On my own kit, for example, I have smaller items mixed in and around the snare, and have a mental map of the various sets and circuits I want to play. Thus, if I want to create a different melody, I just have to start a different circuit without shifting my body, or arms. This process takes advantage of the sonic possibilities of your cymbals as well, as you can expand the pattern by tapping two different areas on a single one, e.g., the edge or bell. Dry, heavy cymbals, for example, which create a longer sustain and slower response, are good for making a nice ‘ping’ while you create soft tones with 6” to 8” splashes.
The final stage in your elementary study of melodic cross-rhythms is to now add your feet if you are using a drum set. Nothing fancy needs to happen; a simple, alternating left-right bass drum and hi-hat pattern will be all you need to start practicing and experimenting. The point is to make music, so don’t worry if your coordination is not as good as you would like it to be. If you are warming up properly and practicing regularly, you will soon be finding new and exciting ways to use your existing technique as part of this process, and will be happily on your way.