Apr 24, 2018

Squeezing Five Into Three: The Riff that Keeps on Giving

A few years ago I was asked to compose a song entirely on drums without any input from a guitarist or bass player.  It was an experiment to see what the drums might inspire in someone writing guitar as Loincloth were trying to wrap things up for what would be our final album, 'Psalms of the Morbid Whore'.  I could appreciate the experimental idea behind it but I felt like our writing process, which was even more nuanced and micro-analyzed then Confessor's, would render most of what I might come up with completely unrecognizable.  Plus, I was well aware that my composing style was in such stark contrast to the composing style of the person asking that it would slow things down at a time when there was mounting pressure to get things ready to go into the studio.  What I offered instead was a chance to explore some basic polyrhythmic exercises that I had wanted to dive into for years.  They say patience is a virtue, and in this particular case waiting for the right time to try to process these exercises into riffs worked out wonderfully.  Three years later I am still chipping away at the tip of this riff iceberg.
The original polyrhythm I had wanted to explore for years was in a riff I wrote for a Fly Machine song called "Drowning".  It was the riff we used for the chorus and the lead in that song.  A few years later Confessor used the riff again in the song "Hibernation" on our album, 'Unraveled'.  It was a very simple guitar part made up of five repeating notes.  In the Fly Machine song I hit the ride every three notes during the lead.  It was all I could do at that time to play it right long enough to record.  If any of you remember going over fractions in school you know that the lowest common denominator of three and five is fifteen.  That means that you have to play the five note riff three times in order for your ride pattern, which falls on every third note, to line up with it again.  Voila!  You too could be the proud parent of a bouncing baby polyrhythm.  It sounds more complicated than it is but you do have to ignore a lot of natural 4/4 timing instincts in order to explore polyrhythms.  You continually want to play what "feels natural" but that will throw you off of your pattern and then... chaos!  Chaos may sound cool on the surface, and it works wonderfully in dystopian and post apocalyptic movies, but it is an ugly, ugly thing to see unfold on stage.  It ain't too pretty in real life either, by the way.

At last count this polyrhythmic exercise has provided the framework for one Loincloth song, is in the process of becoming one of my favorite Confessor songs, has given me enough riffs for an equally creative sister song, and has left me with another dozen or more riffs, all of which I find really interesting for one reason or another.  Some of those riffs are quintessential Confessor/Loincloth riffs.  It takes awhile to learn the "feel" of a pattern like this one, and even longer to get a guitarist accustomed to its flow since polyrhythms are a drummer's thing and not at all a guitarist's area of expertise.  The ride pattern being every third note makes it a waltz, but the riff doesn't follow the flow of a waltz.  Therein lies the difficulty in learning how the riff "feels" as you try to learn it and play it right.  

The Confessor song that has materialized out of this journey down The Polyrhythm Path is turning into one of the more unique songs we have ever written.  It has a very natural flow that falls at very unnatural points of the waltz.  Marcus and I decided to wait until were able to play our ideas fairly well before presenting them to the other guys.  If we were floundering around while presenting these ideas they would not have gone very far.  I totally get off on playing these patterns.  Drumming creates a more physical relationship with what you are playing and I feel the dance within the numbers and the different rhythms.  There is a great deal of satisfaction in being able to ignore instincts long enough to learn how to play something so different, and it just so happens that this is simple enough to be able to use it effectively in what we do as a band. 

As a drummer, I could listen to very simple guitar approaches to these patterns and be endlessly entertained by the musical mathiness of it all, but guitarists almost always want some sense of melody so I have to balance what I love about these exercises with what I think the band will accept.  It's the timeless "Overton Window for Radical Polyrhythms" conundrum that all great societies have to overcome.  You guys know what I'm talking about.  Your metal uprising could go from birthing a Renaissance to ending up like the French Revolution with one false move.  It's dicey to say the least.  My goal is to create a new language within music, but the next radical polyrhythmist might use my work to punish those he or she deems "visionless".  History is full of these stories.

I have never heard anyone play around with polyrhythmic patterns in a heavy, primitive way.  Prog bands used to come up with mile and a half long, noodling riffs that allowed for the drums to play a pattern removed from the guitar part until they finally match up, but I always lost interest somewhere near the half mile marker.  I enjoy the challenge of learning those riffs, but I find them impractical for what I'd like to do in a band.  Noodling is a no-no.  Rule number 213 in my book, Lessons for the New Sheltopian Existence:  "No one in the history of mankind ever had their ass kicked by a noodle."  I much prefer the immediacy shorter riffs with smaller numbers and the intrinsic punch that my simple approach exposes in overlapping polyrhythms.  It's a tough concept to sell to someone held captive by six strings and the limitations of music theory.  My own musical horizons are far broader.  That's because I don't know what the hell I'm doing!  Ignorance can be emancipating.  I have never understood why a Book of Rules would ever prevent someone from exploring something new in a musical setting.  Unlike other situations in which setting aside The Rules for the purpose of seeking new experiences will get you arrested, the musical landscape should be ever changing with no territories off limits.

Currently, Confessor are working on another song that is an expansion of my "Five Over Three" exercise.  I always wanted to write a beat that used three numbers to create polyrhythmic tension.  In this case the hi hat is on the threes, the bass drum follows the fives and the snare is on every seventh note.  The snare and bass drum line up after every thirty five notes but because the hi hat is on the threes you have to play the pattern three times for it to finally line up.  Back to math class for a second; the lowest common denominator of three and thirty five is one hundred five.  If any three note pattern doesn't line up with another pattern the first time time it will line up every third time by definition.  Believe it or not, a one hundred five note idea proved way too long and complicated to make a quick point.  I feel like I have illustrated that perfectly with the length and lack of clarity in this post.  That's how multi-leveled my genius is.  I can bore you with long riffs, and then bore you even further by writing endless blog posts about those long riffs.  That's why I decided to slow the exercise down for the Confessor song and focus on the spaces created by overlapping the five note and seven note patterns.  You lose the poly-feel by playing it slow but gain a great riff Metallica fans would be proud of.  It's still a way of exploring the unique "wave signature" that dividing space into fifths and sevenths creates. I was able to shorten the riff to make it more palatable but sadly, I can't give you the last four minutes of your life back.  You never know where the inspiration train will take you, but it is a ride I'll go on again and again until I can't anymore, or until I get arrested seeking new experiences.  

Editor's Note:

The Loincloth song that my pattern turned into was called "Sigil of Five Horns".  We called it the "five note song" while we were working on it and the final title is a nod to part of the polyrhythm.  We added some small things here and there to dress it up, but it does play around with my original pattern throughout the track.  For the ending we based the counter rhythm on a four note hi hat pattern instead of a three note pattern.  Doing that made it an easier riff to bang to for the listener.  Once the headbang inside the riff was established and the beat kicked in I decided to play the hi hat traditionally to keep the momentum up.  I could come up with super heavy, polyrhyhmic patterns all day long but I don't think I'd be very popular with my bandmates anymore.  Hell, I may not be now but screw it, right?  As we say around the house "FTA!"  You can use your head to figure that one out.


  1. The way you speak about drumming is very inspiring. It's been all work and very little drumming for me for a while now. And I've never been unhappier with my playing as I am now. I have been playing a bit the weekends (2 or 3 gigs a month maybe?) and doing a bit of recording for a friend but it's not really practice. It's time to set up a little practice kit and do something productive I think...

  2. For what it's worth Keith, I am in a similar boat. Marcus and I have been able to practice maybe six times a month for awhile now, but we haven't played a show since 2014 and I feel like I need to get back into shape. Remember, you have your feet and hands with you everywhere you go! You friends are always in danger of an impromptu drum solo when you can start slapping away on your knees anytime you want. It can be hard to maintain enthusiasm when you feel like you are spinning your wheels. One thing that I'll do sometimes to keep up my ability to improvise is to play drums along with the vocals of songs instead of mimicking the actual drums. It forces you to use your left hand more and emphasize things in a way you aren't accustomed. It also allows you to be yourself while playing along to the music you love instead of simply regurgitating what the drummers do. Just a thought. Pick any song you have loved since you were a kid. You won't have to focus on how it goes because you have known it your whole life. As much as I despise rap, their vocal approach is almost always percussive in nature. The Beastie Boys are good ones to play "drum vocals" with. Throw in some fluff while you do it once you get comfortable. You'll probably play things you never thought of before. It's a way to step out of your comfort zone, or to create a much larger comfort zone. This public service announcement has been brought to you by "Soulless Gingers for a Better World".