Rhythmic Awareness: Grouping Subdivisions

June 12, 2012

WHILE WE SPEND MUCH OF OUR TIME working to develop a strong sense of melody and harmonic depth, it’s worth remembering the oft-overlooked champion of that which helps us develop a strong phrase, an epic solo, or the perfect bass line: rhythm! All the right notes in the world wouldn’t amount to anything without a strong pocket or robust rhythmic phraseology.

When it comes to being a well-rounded musician, rhythmic mastery is just as important (and elusive) as harmonic mastery. Because of this, it’s important to improve our rhythmic vocabulary and challenge our own internal clocks. Let’s first dig into a few exercises to develop your ability to feel various subdivisions. I strongly encourage the use of a metronome here—preferably, one that allows you to play the various rhythmic subdivisions.

Example 1 is a fun little exercise that helps us focus on any side of a 16th-note subdivision. With four 16ths per beat and four beats per bar, this first exercise simply has us shift our notes by one 16th-note each bar. Here, we use a C major scale starting on a low E and traveling up two octaves (Remember: C major starting on E is also known as the Phrygian mode.) Example 2 takes the same concept and applies it to eighth-note triplets by simply adding a rest every other triplet. The result is an alternating pattern of playing the first and third beats of the triplet and then the second. This is the C major scale.

Example 3 is where things start to get tricky! I’m a big fan of taking a subdivision (here, eighth-note triplets with beats subdivided into three parts), and playing them in another grouping. In this case, I’m taking a three-stroke subdivision, but alternating them into groups of six and four strokes per note. This is a great way to explore the various ways in which you can accent a beat, and will have you placing notes in freshly unfamiliar ways. Example 4 is simply Ex. 3 with every alternating third and fourth note removed. Any time I can think of a way to make something just a little more challenging when practicing, I do.

Next time, we’ll take a look at how to approach subdividing “odd” meters such as 5/4 and 15/8.

Portland, Oregon-based bassist and educator Damian Erskine has toured and recorded with a long list of greats, from Gino Vanelli and the Peter Erskine New Trio to the Jaco Pastorius Big Band. Visit him at damianerskine.com.

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