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Using Skeletal Rhythms In Jazz

By Paul Wertico

In the March/April '92 issue, I talked about "skeletal rhythms," which are basically rhythms within rhythms. The skeletal rhythm structure is based on the idea that the larger rhythms in any musical sequence will help support the smaller ones. In jazz drumming, where the drummer is responsible for creating and sustaining the tension by different combinations of rhythms and accents, skeletal rhythms can be applied in a number of ways. The goal of skeletal rhythms is to increase accuracy in thinking and playing.

Skeletal rhythms can be used to freshen up tired swing patterns. Look at Ex. 1:


Notice that underneath the standard jazz ride cymbal pattern, there is what could be described as an independence exercise utilizing broken-up eighth-note triplets. Now look at Ex. 2:


Here, we have embellished the original exercise by bouncing certain notes, so instead of a single eighth-note triplet, in its place we now have two sixteenth-note triplets. These consist of the original triplet, and a second additional triplet, creating an entirely different-sounding exercise. By concentrating on Ex. 1 (or you can use any similar independent exercise), just "dropping in" an extra bounce here and there can create a myriad of rhythmical possibilities. Also, by feeling the eighth-note triplets while adding the extra bounce, you can maintain the original feel and make it more interesting. This should give you more mileage out of those old independence books. When using this technique, make sure the triplets are accurate. The original triplet should be in its original place, and the additional bounce should make a sixteenth-note triplet, not just a "pinched" sounding noise.

Skeletal rhythms can be useful in attempting more complex solos and fills. Look at Ex. 3:


Here we have a standard eighth-note triplet feel, but if you look at Ex. 4 and 5, you can see how dropping in some bounces can make a stock fill have much more impact:


Again, focus your attention on the original eighth-note fill, since it's much easier to keep track of eighth-note triplets than sixteenth-note triplets. In doing so, your mind is less likely to be overloaded, allowing for more solid playing with creativity. This is the very essence for using skeletal rhythms.

One of the things I have always loved about certain jazz drummers is the way in which they could achieve a type of "rolling sound". Their time has a loose "circular" feel to it, exemplified by Elvin Jones, supplier of the swing beat in John Coltrane's bands of the '60s. He can do more with triplets than anyone I've ever heard, and his time-feel captures the essence of swing. In order to achieve this kind of sound, one must become familiar with various triplet combinations. One can also apply the triplet skeletal rhythm concept to shuffles, as well as 6/8, 9/8, and 12/8 grooves, in a jazz or rock context. Also, experiment using multiple bounces for more complex rhythms and sounds. And remember, by adding varying accents to the same exercise, you can create depth in your playing.

Images and Information from DRUM! July/August 1992, pages 42 & 43

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