How to Play Polyrhythms on Classical Guitar

What is a “polyrhythm”? And how do I play polyrhythms when I see them in music?

Rhythm is one of the great elements of music. And we find rhythms at varying levels of complexity.

On the more complex side, we have polyrhythms…

What is a Polyrhythm in Music?

The word “polyrhythm” literally translates to “many rhythms”. Instead of one single meter (such as duple, or triplets), we find more than one happening at the same time.

This can create wonderful effects in our music. It can make a melody more vocal-like while the accompaniment stays steady. It can add musical tension, which can then resolve (which is very satisfying to hear).

Polyrhythms are often notated in two separate lines of music. Most often, the stems go in opposite directions.

polyrhythms on guitar
An example of a polyrhythm: 3 notes in the upper voice, with 2 notes in the lower.
3 against 4 polyrhythm
Another polyrhythm: 3 notes in the upper voice take the same amount of time as 4 notes in the lower.

How to Play Polyrhythms in Time

For any polyrhthym, there is a single correct way to play it. There is an accurate placement of each note in time.

While we may speed up or slow down for a musical effect, there is still a “right” rhythm that is above interpretation.

But getting such a complex rhythm right can be challenging. With more than one meter, how do know where to place each note? The answer lies in the common denominator.

Find the Common Denominator

We learn about the common denominator when first studying fractions. This is the number by which everything is divided.

One simple way to find a common denominator is to multiply two numbers together. This guarantees that both numbers divide into it equally. For example, the common denominator between 2 and 3 is 6 (2×3=6).

When we find our common denominator, we can map the exact placement of each note within the total.

Following are examples of common polyrhythms, mapped using common denominators:

Common Polyrhythm: 3 against 2

A common polyrhythm is “2 against 3”, or “3 against 2”. This means that in the time it takes to play 2 notes in one part of the music, 3 even notes play in another.

polyrhythm guitar lesson
“3 against 2”, or “2 against 3”, mapped using the common denominator

A quick way to remember this rhythm is to use the word “Mississippi” with a pause after the first syllable.

Common Polyrhythm: 4 against 3

Another common polyrhythm is “3 against 4”, or “4 against 3”. In the same process, we can find that the common denominator is 12. When we figure the placement of each part within the 12 equal sub-beats, we can find our full polyrhythm.

polyrhythm 4 against 3
“3 against 4”, or “4 against 3” – mapped using the common denominator

A quick reminder of this rhythm is “ Pass the applebutter”, using the rhythm in the video.

Tip: Start Slow and Listen

When working with a polyrhythm, it’s best to first work on it away from the piece of music. We can take the rhythm out of the context of the piece, and work on it. This simplifies the work.

Using slow practice, and the method above, we can find the accurate rhythm. Then, we can internalize it .

To internalize a polyrhythm, it helps to use the two hands, with one rhythm in each hand. For example, in “2 against 3”, one hand would tap 2 while the other tapped 3.

After we can play the rhythm using both hands, we can bring it to the fingers and thumb of the right hand (most likely). Then play it on guitar using open strings, then finally adding in the left hand.

Because these rhythms are complex, self-recording or videoing is useful. This way, we can use critical listening to ensure we’re playing what we think we’re playing.

Allen Mathews

Hi, I’m Allen Mathews. 

I started as a folk guitarist, then fell in love with classical guitar in my 20’s. Despite a lot of practice and schooling, I still couldn’t get my music to flow well. I struggled with excess tension. My music sounded forced. And my hands and body were often sore. I got frustrated, and couldn’t see the way forward. Then, over the next decade, I studied with two other stellar teachers – one focused on the technical movements, and one on the musical (he was a concert pianist). In time, I came to discover a new set of formulas and movements. These brought new life and vitality to my practice. Now I help guitarists find more comfort and flow in their music, so they play more beautifully.
Click here for a sample formula.

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