Tempo Mental

Tempo Mental

by Steve Vai

Written in 1983 for a music magazine, but never published.

It was the summer of 1978. I had just turned 18 years old and had sent some transcriptions to Frank Zappa. He responded by putting me on salary to transcribe tons of music, everything from lead sheets to orchestral scores. The bulk of the work was guitar solos, some with their accompanying drum parts. Frank played all the guitars and Vinnie Colaiuta was the drummer. These guys used to take it out to lunch, experimenting a lot with rhythms and odd phrases. My task was to transcribe the stuff the best way I thought possible.

The tracks were recorded in several different manners. On some occasions, the band played together live. Sometimes FZ overdubbed his solos in the studio. One interesting thing that Frank did at times was to take a drum track from a certain time and place and then take a guitar solo from yet another time and place and lay them on top of each other. Frank released a book of some of these guitar solos and drum parts. It’s called “The Frank Zappa Guitar Song Book”.

While transcribing the material, I was often confronted with situations that led me to reach into the intuitional areas of my imagination to come up with various notational devices and constructions that I had never seen before. I soon discovered that many contemporary composers were then (and are still) using these notations.

In this article, I would like to show and explain some of these concepts and devices. Besides being of great educational value, this will also help to clarify the ambiguity behind some of the notation in the transcriptions found in “The Frank Zappa Guitar Song Book”.

A polyrhythm is just what it says. Two rhythms, or “feels”, happening at the same time. Most people reading this have a good understanding of the basic triplet. This, in essence, is a polyrhythm. It’s three 8th notes being played against two 8th notes. Some more basic examples follow…

These rhythms could be played rubato (fluidly) or non-rubato (very strictly and evenly). Both ways have their own advantageous effects.


The concept of putting an odd number of attacks in the space of one beat holds true for putting an odd number of attacks over two beats.

The first number (5) shows the number of beats to be superimposed over the space provided. The second number (2) designates the number of beats upon which the first number is to be superimposed. The note value that follws shows the type of note value for the previous number. So what this actually says is “five notes in the space of two quarter notes”.
To see where the beat falls mathematically, you would have to subdivide as follows:
Here’s a rhythm of five notes on two beats. We know where the first beat falls, but we want to find out where the second one does, too. We need a common denominator for the two.
Double the 8th notes to 16th notes. You need even amounts of beats on both sides of the beat.
By subdividing and putting five units of measurement on both sides of the beat, you can now see that the second beat will fall on the upstroke of the third 8th note of the quintuplet. The same thing will hold true when you divide any odd number of attacks over two beats.
There’s a similar concept involved in dividing a polyrhythm of an odd number of attacks on three beats evenly. First, you need a common denominator between the two. Then you need even amounts of units on each beat. 

What this example is saying is: seven in the space of three quarter-notes evenly.


We know where the first beat falls. The common denominator between seven and three is twenty-one.
By writing out twenty-one units and grouping them in sevens, you can see where the beats fall. By dividing the units into seven groups of three, you make a triplet out of each of the seven attacks.
Another way of seeing the subdivision is like this.
As you can see now, there’s a pattern that you can use to figure out any polyrhythmic situation. These shown are the basics. 

Polyrhythms Inside of Polyrhythms

You can go so far as to subdivide notes inside of polyrhythms.


Play the quarter-note triplet the way you normally would, but when you get to the second quarter-note, play a triplet on it. Then continue to the last quarter-note of the triplet normally.
This is an example of a quintuplet (five units in the space of one quarter-note) with three 16th notes in the space of the last two 16th notes of the figure. So you would execute this by playing the first three notes as if they were five notes in the space of one quarter-note, and at the end, play a triplet over the last two 16th notes.
As you may imagine, you can really go to town with this type of thing. The following examples are taken from some of the songs in “The Frank Zappa Guitar Song Book”.

Although some of these examples may seem ambiguous (and/or terrifying!), they can be played accurately if understood and practiced. When you have a basic pulse and you superimpose altered rhythms on top, you set up a certain flavor in the piece that cannot be expressed in any other way.

Metric Modulation

Some composers use metric modulation when they write. It’s an effect that can give the piece an accelerando or retardation feel.

What this means is that the 8th note from an 8th-note triplet of the first bar is now equal to the 8th note of the second bar.
Here, the 16th note from a septuplet of the first bar is now equal to the 16th note of the second bar.

Off-Beat Rhythms

Another notational situation I came across was hearing rhythms go by that didn’t start on the beat. Some examples of this are as follows:

These examples could be rewritten using odd-time signatures, possibly making it a bit easier for some people to play. But if there were a strict pulse being used, then the way I notated it would likely be the best.

Discontinued Polyrhythms

Another fine effect is a rhythm being displaced by a disconnected polyrhythm. It’s almost as if a metric modulation occurs in the bar, but the overall time it takes to play the bar is the same.

This bar starts out with two quarter notes (that’s one beat). During the next figure, the first two 8th-notes are played as 8th-notes of an 8th-note triplet. The time then resumes to normal so that by this point, one and 2/3 beats have gone by. The 16th-notes are played normally, making two and 2/3 beats played. The next 8th-note is played as an 8th-note from an 8th-note triplet. That brings the tally to three complete beats thus far. The remaining part of the bar is played normally.

Another (and what I feel to be simpler) way of notating this follows:

When using this type of notation in a composition, there would have to be some type of explanation of the beginning of the piece. Here are some more examples of this:

This is another way of writing example #1:

Another situation comes about when you have a metric modulation inside a bar followed by the tempo returning to its original time, leaving some unaccounted time to be dealt with. In this example, you have two 8th-notes, then two 8th-notes from an 8th-note triplet. That makes one and 2/3 beats played so far. Then you play four 16th-notes in the original time, making two and 2/3 beats. The next bracket indicates to play two 8th-notes in the place of one quarter-note (bringing the tally up to three and 2/3 beats) plus one 8th-note from an 8th-note triplet.

What the bracket indicates is to play two notes evenly in the space of one and 1/3 beats.

Some more examples of this follow. These examples take place in 4/4 time, but you can take this concept and mutate it for odd-time meters, waltzes, sambas, etc.

As you can see, these things take a lot of practice and good understanding. The best way to attempt to execute them is bit by bit.

Here’s one for all you maniacs:

You might say, “Why, Steve?”
And I might say, “I don’t know”.
You might say, “Who’s gonna play it, Steve?”
And I might say, “I don’t know”.

This is extreme for today…but maybe not for the computers of tomorrow. [Note: this article was written around 1983 or 1984].

Another technique I use is that of overlapping polyrhythms. This can get kind of sticky and is best used when there’s no definite time signature going on.

One way of executing this phenomenon is to play the first five 8th notes as if they were equal to the 8th notes of an 8th-note triplet.

You can also rewrite it to look like this:

Another way of approaching it would be to play the first two 8th notes as 8th notes of an 8th-note triplet. Then play the next three in the space of one and 1/3 beats. Another way of writing it would be:

Some more examples of this type would be:

You can find examples of this in “The Frank Zappa Guitar Song Book”, although they are not quite as extreme.

Among the stranger things I’ve transcribed for Frank was the notation of actual speaking voices. An example of this follows: