Rhythm Workshop: If 6 Was 4

Investigate this Jimi Hendrix-esque riff in this "Rhythm Workshop" lesson.
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A few months ago, after we began investigating shuffle rhythms, one particular riff—reminiscent of Jimi Hendrix and Mitch Mitchell’s “Jam Back at the House” (a.k.a. “Beginnings”)—has repeatedly invaded my subconscious. It’s an insistent, one-bar 6/4 figure that straddles the line and crosses over into 12/8 and 4/4, and fits right into our ongoing rhythmic explorations.

We begin at 120 bpm (nice and slow for now) with the repetitive bar of 6/4 quarter-notes depicted in Ex. 1. This sets the eighth-notes, played two to the beat, at 240 bpm. When we maintain the same tempo and subdivide the same eighth-notes into sustained groups of three, we get the 12/8 dotted quarter-notes in Ex. 2, which now equal one-third of the eighth-notes, or 80 bpm This three-against-four polyrhythm is essential to the riff and its transformation from 6/4 to 12/8 to 4/4 and back. Use any single note or chord to drill both rhythms until you can comfortably alternate between them for one bar each.

The first stave in Ex. 3 establishes the riff’s repetitive 6/4 rhythm motif—nine consecutive eighth-notes, an eighth-rest, plus two more eighths. The second stave transitions to 12/8, where the same eighth-notes are now grouped in threes. Stave 1 uses straight eighth-notes, and stave 2 has a shuffle feel, but both rhythms co-exist simultaneously. Stave 3 re-designates the dotted-quarter-note pulse as quarter- notes in 4/4 with each beat divided into an eighth-note triplet. (Though written differently, this sounds identical to stave 2.) This shuffle feel accommodates the fourth stave’s pair of rhythmic “hiccups” that occur on beats three and four. Next, in stave 5, we lose the triplet feel and transition to a straight-eighth/sixteenth groove with a muted “chick-a” in each of the first two beats, a sixteenth-based hiccup on beat three, and two staccato eighths on beat four. (Tip: You can morph back to the original 6/4 figure by retracing your steps, i.e., playing staves 5 through 1.)

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Now, let’s up the tempo and apply some groovy notes and chords to the previous rhythms. Ex. 4 superimposes the 5, b7, and root in the key of E over the straight-eighth 6/4 rhythm from the first stave of Ex. 3, while Ex. 5 shows the 12/8 shuffle conversion à la stave 2. (Tip: For total authenticity, sub a 4th-string/5th-fret G for that low E during every other repeat.) Ex. 6 features the same riff in 4/4. Repeat bar 1 three (or more) times, and then cut the riff short with a stop on beat three and use the F9 chord hit on beat four of bar 4 to transition to the stop-and-start shuffle feel in Ex. 7. (Note how bar 2 of this figure is identical to stave 4 in Ex. 3.) Finally, we make the transition to straight eighths and sixteenths in 4/4 via the funky chordal figure shown in Ex. 8. This also provides the perfect platform for a blazing solo—try improvising E blues/rock lines on the first two beats and answering them with the chord hits on beats three and four. Keep in mind that all of these rhythms are interchangeable and you can always work your way back to your starting point. Find yourself a savvy drummer and have a ball!

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