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Subdivide And Conquer
SUBDIVIDE! As drummers, I'm sure that you've heard that word before. If you haven't, now is as good a time as any to learn it. The foundation of rhythm and syncopation is based on how mathematical subdivisions fit inside larger groupings of time called the pulse. The stronger your pulse is, the better your time is. The more you subdivide, the more accurate your playing will be. The combination of good pulse and accurate rhythmic execution can help give you that one thing that is required of drummers in almost any musical context-a strong groove! There are a couple of ways in which you can improve your playing by subdividing. In this article we'll look at the most common way.
First of all, there's not enough space here to go into depth about the theories of syncopation and rhythmic structure. That's something you must check out on your own. So let me just start by saying that the first and most basic way to play subdivisions is to play rhythms (such as eighth-notes, eighth-note triplets, sixteenth-notes, sixteenth-note triplets, quintuplets, septuplets, etc.) within a time signature (such as 4/4, 3/4, 5/4, 3/8, 7/8, 5/16, 9/16, etc.). If you're not familiar with the mechanics behind this, let me give you a crash course. If we look at the 4/4 time signature, for example, the 4 on the bottom represents what type of note will be the pulse. In this case it will be a quarter, because that's what the 4 represents. The top 4 tells you how many quarter-notes will comprise a measure. Here it will be four. So within each measure, you must have the mathematical equivalent of four quarter-notes. That means you could play eight eighth-notes, sixteen sixteenth-notes, or any combination, such as one quarter-note, three eighth-notes, and six sixteenth-notes. Any note combination will work, as long as they add up to the equivalent of four quarter-notes. If the time signature is 13/8, then a measure consists of the mathematical equivalent of 13 eighth-notes.
The variety of mathematical subdivisions and types of time signatures is endless. Only your imagination and skill will limit your mastery of rhythms and polyrhythms. However, since much of the music that most of us will be called upon to play will probably involve common time signatures like 4/4, as well as more basic subdivisions like eighth-notes and sixteenth-notes, let's look at those.
If we are playing a beat in 4/4, it is crucial that the quarter-notes be even and consistent in order to give your beat some type of "glue". If you're lucky enough to have a good internal pulse, then your time will most likely sound good. However, to develop that skill, as well as to maintain a steady pulse at difficult tempos, a useful technique is to subdivide mentally. By counting smaller increments of time, you give yourself much more control and also reduce your chances of guessing when the next quarter note will fall. When you start guessing when the next beat is, you increase your chances of falling out of time and losing the groove. That's something that can ruin a great take, so obviously you want to avoid doing that at all costs. Subdividing takes a lot of the guess work out of your playing by allowing you to count and feel smaller spaces between notes. That allows you to keep better track of not only the tempo, but also those little unintentional shifts to one side or another of the beat. This helps your pocket playing, as well as your overall rhythmic feel.
You actually do a version of this when, for instance, you play sixteenth-notes on the hi-hat during a rock ballad. However, the main point is that it is important for you to actually keep thinking sixteenths during the ballad, whether you actually play them or not. You might be playing quarters or eighths on the hi-hat, but by thinking the faster subdivision, you make all of your slower notes more precise.
Subdividing is especially useful when playing slow tempos, where there are big spaces between the beats, and therefore more chances to be inaccurate. If the song you're playing is based on a 12/8 groove, you may want to think eighth-note triplets, or even sixteenth-note triplets if the tempo is really slow. Medium tempos require you to feel the smallest subdivision you can manage comfortably. If the subdivision is too small and going by so fast that after a while you can't keep up, you might tire out and start bringing the tempo down. So it's really important to pick a subdivision you can comfortably play for the whole tune.
Find out what works best for you. Obviously, the more you do it, the easier it will become. When playing faster tempos, usually just thinking the pulse will be good enough, although for extremely up tempos, I'll sometimes feel the beat in half-notes, or even whole-notes, so my mind doesn't overload. We'll look at that approach, and its other applications, in my next article. Until then, try practicing and playing using the concept of subdividing. If you're a pro, I'm sure you already do. If you're not, the sooner you start, the better your results will be.
Images and Information from DRUM! November/December 1991, pages 38 & 40