Ah, the myriad joys and accidental discoveries of symmetrical drumming. For those who read my continuing meanderings on getting my right side to behave just like my left, today we’re going to talk about triplets. Of course, these wouldn’t be your everyday, garden variety triplets ‘cause we’re too screwy for that here at The Chimp Refuge. No, this is going to be special.
For those who aren’t familiar, a triplet is simply the process of stuffing three notes into the space normally occupied by two notes. These might be half notes, quarter notes, etc. Because “normal” notes are based on a halving, there’s no direct way of indicating something that doesn’t “line up” with successive divisions-by-two. Granted, you could have any weird grouping you want (like seven notes in the space of three), but for most forms of classical and popular music, thirds is sufficient, and that’s where triplets come in. (The general term for these things is tuples and a good example of someone who used a lot of weird tuples in his guitar solos was Frank Zappa.)
Beginning musicians are usually taught to count quarter notes as 1-2-3-4 to a common bar. Eighth notes go 1-and-2-and-3-and-4-and, and 16th notes go 1-e-and-a-2-e-and-a-… and so forth. Triplets are counted 1-trip-let-2-trip-let, etc. to get that division by three. Most folks who play a monophonic instrument (such as a horn) don’t need to deal with the next bit, and that’s getting one hand (or foot for drummers and organists) to keep duple time (2s) while doing triplets with the other. So that you can try this at home, I’m going to switch this around a little. Think in terms of stuffing two notes into the space of three. “What’s the difference” you say? Well it’s all a matter of perspective, but this will make the counting easier.
OK, so start a constant pulse with your right hand. Something, anything. Just slap the desktop at a constant rate. Don’t worry if the guy in the next cubicle or your roommate starts complaining. Just tell them that you have a cramp or something. Maybe you just read one of Sarah Palin’s speeches and you’re having a reaction. Whatever works. Anyway, start counting 1-2-3-1-2-3 in time with those slaps. No biggie, right? OK, now the left hand. First, get the left hand to hit the table on the 1. Don’t stop the right though. Left and right should both hit on 1. You now have one note in the left over the space of three in the right. Now comes the fun bit, namely the second left hit. This needs to be spaced precisely in between the counts of 2 and 3. You can do this quite literally by counting 1-2-and-3, but if you’re not a musician, you will most likely make the error of creating four beats (i.e., pushing the and to where 3 used to be). So, to alleviate this problem, you could count everything as eighth notes, 1-and-2-and-3-and, hitting left and right on the 1, the right only on 2 and 3, and the left only on the second and. OK, try that.
Great. So, now you need to get a sponge and clean up the coffee you spilled. If you’re fortunate enough to have avoided that mishap, you probably still have some explaining to do to your office/roommate. I suggest making up some kind of disease, something like “Tourette’s of the biceps” or some such. So is this two-in-the-space-of-three or three-in-the-space-of-two? Mathematically it can be either. It all depends on what the main pulse is. In other words, if the right hand is going along with the main beat of the song, then your left hand is doing two-into-three, but if lefty is following the beat, then righty is doing three-into-two.
Anyway, to get more complicated bits than this, I think it’s easier to forget the whole and counting thing and just find a common denominator. In this case that would be six. So we can redo this as right on 1, 3, 5, and left on 1, 4.
By now you’ve aggravated your work/house mates and made a mess of your desk, and you still can’t see how this is related to symmetrical drumming. Here goes. Drummers tend to have “assignments” for their limbs. A right handed drummer will usually “knock time” (e.g., repeated eighth notes on a ride cymbal) with the right hand. The left hand will hit the main beat, or down beat on 1 while the right foot hits the kick drum on the back beat (3). The left foot goes on the high hat (a pedal-controlled pair of cymbals). It might simply double-up what the right hand does or it might hit both the main and back beats. If the drummer is a little funkified, then it might go on the off-beats of 2 and 4. There’s a bazillion variations, but that’s the basics.
Symmetrical drummers switch things around. You could switch the functions of the hands and play “left handed” or switch the functions of the feet and play “left footed”. You can do both. That makes four possible configurations. I should note at this point that it is difficult for drummers to create kits where there is an opposite-foot high hat pedal. It’s no big deal to get double-footed kick drum pedals, but hats, well that’s a little weird for most folks.
So this is where the fun comes in. The other day I was practicing a straight beat (right handed and right footed) but with my right foot doing triplets on the kick. This is something that I have done many times. No biggie. I then switched this over to left handed. Again, no problem. I went back to right handed and switched to left footed. Complete carnage. No problem with the left foot doing the triplets on the kick, but the right foot kept following it instead of following the ride. Totally spastic. So I slowed it down. No luck. After futzing with this for some time, I finally went back and did a count out. First I did the kick at half rate, meaning the same count out as in the example above (RF on 1, 3, 5 and LF on 1 and 4). To double the speed of the left foot is tricky here because by this counting the second strike lands an uneven distance between the first two right foot beats. So, we double the count to 12: RH/ride does to 1 through 12. RF/hats does 1, 5, 9. LF/kick does 1, 4, 7, 10.
After some effort, that seems to work and it’s just a matter of getting it smoother and faster. Oh, but wait. What about the left hand on the snare? I discovered it was easy to follow the left foot, but not the right. So I decided to try every other hit, that is, LH/snare on 1,9,5. What?? 1,9,5? Yeah, this resolves after two measures, not one. That’s why it was getting spazzy on me. See, there’s this natural inclination to hit on that bit 1 down beat, but the way this is counted, lefty has to skip every other down beat. Fun huh?
And here’s the best part. I have a hard time putting this into words, but once you’ve managed to really absorb a beat like this, you more than “know” it. You feel it. It really is those synapses getting rewired in the brain. And once you get there, lots of other things get leveraged off of it and become relatively easy. Once I got the left footed thing going, I tried to switch over to left handed as well. It was a little shaky, but no big deal. That cross-wiring between that feet and hands had already been done and could now be exploited in a different fashion.