Polyrhythms for Guitar

In this article I will break down some technical aspects of polyrhythms, give you tools for practicing polyrhythms, and show some ways to apply polyrhythms to the guitar.

Polyrhythms are a great way to add rhythmic tension to your playing. A polyrhythm is essentially two rhythms played together at the same time. Playing both rhythms results in a composite feel that can make it easier to internalize but it is important to be able to count and feel each rhythm on its own. Polyrhythms are used widely in many styles of music including jazz, blues, country, modern classical music, African music, Brazilian music, Cuban music, Indian music, and more.


Technical Aspects of Polyrhythms

Lets talk quickly about some technical aspects of polyrhythms.  A polyrhythm is written as a ratio like 3:2, 2:3, 5:4, etc. Another common way of referring to a polyrhythm is 3 against 2, 2 against 3, 5 against 4, etc.

We will focus the 4:3 polyrhythms in this lesson.

A first step toward understanding a polyrhythm is to find the least common denominator (LCD) of the two numbers. The LCD is a subdivision where both rhythms line up. We can use blocks to visualize the subdivisions and how the rhythms line up.


Tools for Practicing Polyrhythms on Guitar

It is always important to use a metronome when practicing. I use an app on my iOS Devices called Tempo Adance by Frozen Ape. The app has two settings: subdivision mode and polyrhythm mode(see image below). To switch to polyrhythm mode touch the bottom left corner of the app and a menu will pop up. Simply switch on polyrhythm mode. You can always switch back to subdivision mode for normal practice..


The main screen of the app has two circles of dots. In polyrhythm mode the number of dots in each circle represents how many beats are in one measure. To add beats on either circle touch and move your finger clockwise and to remove beats touch and move your counter-clockwise. The number of beats can also be edited in the same menu where polyrhythm/subdivision mode is selected. The outer circle represents the tempo indicated in the middle circle. This tempo can be edited in three ways: taping on the circle works as tap tempo, touching plus or minus increases/decreases beat one BPM, and holding plus or minus increases/decreases beat by 10bpm. The inner circle of dots represents the polyrhythm agains the main rhythm. If the outside number is 4 and the inside number is 5 then you have a 5:4 polyrhythm.


Visual aides help with internalizing musical concepts. Adding sight to the typically aural experience of music creates a deeper understanding. I like to use Tempo Adv. or videos (like this) with visual aides while first working on a polyrhythm. After I internalize the polyrhythm I try to play it with a simple metronome. In the video for this article you can see each polyrhythm illustrated with a rhythmic grid system.

Great, I understand polyrhythms mentally and have figured out how make them in tempo advance but how do I apply that to the guitar?

How to Practice Polyrhythms on Guitar

Step One- Play each rhythm together on a static note

Be sure to practice this like anythings else- piece by piece. Again, use Tempo Advance polyrhythm mode and a normal setting while practicing to ensure that you have fully internalized each rhythm.

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Step Two- Main rhythm static with polyrhythm descending

To add a bit of musicality to this exercise we can play cells of notes corresponding with the polyrhythm. In this example we will keep a static G and move down the G major pentatonic scale in groups of four. Use tempo advance and a regular metronome setting.

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Step Three – Main rhythmic static with polyrhythm ascending

Same as step three but with ascending four note cells. Practice with tempo advance and a regular metronome setting.

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Step Four – Both voices moving

To add even more variety (read: complexity) we can move both voices in rhythmic cells. The bottom voice will go up the G major pentatonic scale in the grouped as the normal rhythm while the top voice goes down the G major pentatonic scale grouped as the polyrhythm. Be sure to practice with both Tempo Adv.. I think you get it.

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Final Thoughts…

That wraps up this article on polyrhythms for guitar. If you have any questions or comments please leave a message below. Be sure to check out the upcoming video for this article to hear each example in practice and for more visual aides. If you liked this article be sure to subscribe to the Garner Guitar Newsletter to be the first to know about new video lessons, blog posts, the release of my book Beginning Guitar Lessons for All Ages, and more.

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