Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Charting songs for drums

As a gigging drummer in Nashville, I get a fair amount of calls to play or record that require me to learn songs quickly. I don't always have enough time to learn them the right way, through listening and repetition and rehearsal, so years ago I started to devise a way to chart songs so that I could get up and running quickly with new tunes.

A few years back I found an article from fellow drummer and blogger Jeff Consi called 'A Drummers Guide to Learning New Music' in which he posted a link to a drum manuscript that I started using to chart tunes. I found that Jeff's chart was perfect for songs that I was roughly familiar with, but that sometimes I needed more space to really write the info I needed to perform a new song and perform it well, and I usually needed more space to write out the song structure in my own charting scheme.

I didn't know if my system was great or if it was similar to what others were doing, but I knew it worked for me. I opened my October 2011 issue of Modern Drummer to find a great article by Mark Schulman entitled 'Drum Charts Made Easy'. I was surprised to find that his charting system was nearly identical to mine with a few minor exceptions. His article reenforced my confidence in my own system, so I took some of the ideas that I loved from Jeff's manuscript and some of Mark's ideas and created a drum chart outline built around my needs and ideas.

Here's My Chart which you are welcome to download (File - Download original), print, and use. It's designed to be a legible and logical system for charting single songs. Here's how I use it...

There's no getting around a first listen-through of the tune to identify the feel, time signature, and what the various sections sound like (verse, chorus, bridge, etc). After the first listen I'll fill in the tempo in the BPM box, the 'ride key' (Jeff's idea to identify if the ride pattern is 8ths, 16ths, disco, shuffle, etc. and save you from writing that out every time), the time signature, and I'll write out the basic groove on the staff lines. On the second listen through I'm filling in my chart. Under the 'section' column I'll write I for intro, V for Verse, C for chorus, etc, and in the 'length' column I'm filling in the number of measures or bars in that section. The notes area gives me room to write dynamics and mention any stops or patterns or changes from Ride to Hats, and things like that. As I encounter hits or important phrases I'll write them out in the staff paper and put a symbol next to them (such as a star) and then I'll put that symbol in the notes section where that part occurs. I'll often hilight stops and starts in green and red to make sure I don't miss them.

This system is working great for me. Just the other week I got a call to learn 3 tunes for an R.E.M. tribute show in a matter of days (very busy days at that!). Above is a quick shot of those tunes put into my charting system so you can get the feel for what I'm talking about.

I would recommend charting a song or two that you're familiar with to get the hang of it, but once you're up and running I think you'll find your charts to be an invaluable tool as a gigging musician. Let me know what you think!


Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Attack of the Metronome

Drummers know that practicing with a metronome is the key to learning to keep good time. We all hear the pro's talk about how important it is to practice with a metronome, but I find that it is much more infrequent that I hear anyone give much insight on HOW to do it effectively.

A few years back I was studying shuffles with groove master Zoro when he showed me his 'Time Machine' which was an exercise geared towards learning different shuffle feels and maintaining the groove. I loved it and learned a lot from it but it was definitely a higher level exercise, and is geared specifically towards shuffles.

I used some of his ideas and developed my own exercise, Attack of the Metronome, for practicing with a metronome and learning to shift between different time feels and still keep the groove and maintain the tempo. Attack of the Metronome is designed for beginners and pro's alike and the concepts can be applied across a wide variety of musical styles.

Feel free to download the exercise and read it, work through it, share it with your friends, use it for your students, whatever you want. Once you get it up and running start adding simple fills between lines. That's where a lot of drummers struggle to keep time. You may also switch from hi hats to the ride when switching lines as the different sound and feel between the two tends to throw people off as well.

One thing is for sure, however you choose to use Attack of the Metronome, you'll be a better time keeper and a better drummer for it!

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Drumming in the Pocket

As drummers we hear a lot about the elusive 'pocket' and make a lot of claims about it as well. I was watching Stanton Moore's 'Groove Alchemy' and was inspired by his section on the DVD and in the book about the backbeat. It helped me realize that I spend most of my time learning complicated new grooves, but probably put too little work into the foundation that the grooves are built upon - the backbeat.

Most of the exercises I hear and read about with relation to feel and pocket deal with a metronome and learning to place the backbeat slightly ahead, right on, and slightly behind the beat. That's definitely a necessary step in understanding feel, but it's more of a technical exercise and doesn't quite give you the feel for what's happening musically. For me, after I understood backbeat placement a little better I wanted to study the masters of groove and see how they used these ideas in a musical context.

I started off by picking my 2 favorite groove drummers at the moment - Al Jackson Jr., and Steve Jordan, and creating an itunes playlist for each of them with songs they had played on. I listened to the tunes I picked and got an idea of how they felt, and then I played through them and paid particular attention to the placement of the backbeat. The key here is to play to the tunes in your headphones and get your snare notes on 2 and 4 to line up with the guys you're studying. That doesn't mean it's pretty close, or it sounds like a flam, rather it means that my snare drum note falls precisely where theirs does to the point that I can't hear the note they played. It's harder than you may think and it takes a good deal of concentration to really nail it consistenly.

Listening is an important part of this, of course. When is the backbeat on top of the beat and when is it behind the beat, and what is the music doing that makes it fit? Take Steve Jordan's playing on 'You and Me' by Solomon Burke for example. He is laid back in the pocket on a laid back song. On the other hand, there is Al Jackson's playing on 'Soul Man' in which he is pushing forward with all his might in a song that begs you to get excited and dance.

Once you've played with the metronome and studied where and how to sit in the pocket from some of your own favorite players, try adding a few simple fills to your grooves. As you go into a fill and come out of a fill, what happens to the placement of the backbeat? Can you stay right in the pocket and keep the feel of the tune through a fill, or do you tend to rush or hesitate? This is key, and to me this is the type of nuance that separates a good drummer from a great one. Give it a shot, it's harder than it seems, but you'll be a more solid pocket drummer for having put some work into your backbeats!

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

A little wisdom from Benny Greb

I was lucky enough to get to see Benny Greb in clinic in Nashville this past Monday evening. The recent floods in our city threatened the clinics feasibility and once they worked that out, it was by a chance cancellation of a practice that I was able to make it out. Thanks to Fork's Drum Closet for hosting the clinic and relocating it, and good luck to Sound Check Nashville (the typical clinic location) as they clean up from the flood waters.

The clinic was really my first introduction to Benny. I have seen the trailer for his DVD, the Language of Drumming and I've seen a couple clips on YouTube, but that's about it. He struck me as a genuine guy and a great educator which makes him a perfect fit for a clinic tour. His playing is really clean and creative and his explanations were understandable and thorough. He had a couple key phrases and examples that stuck with me.

It's not always about what you play, rather it is about how you play. He talked about instructional videos and clinics and drummers that learn new things to play and how too often the approach is "I can play this and that, and go this fast, etc" and the 'how' is neglected. I immediately thought of 50 Ways To Leave Your Lover, one of my favorite Steve Gadd grooves. It didn't take me long to learn the notes and the pattern, but I'm still working to capture the groove and the feel that Gadd has on that tune. I think this approach to fine tuning one's sound is often overlooked and Benny made a great point.

Less is More. Naturally, as drummers we hear the less is more theory with regard to notes and fills on a regular basis. Benny was talking specifically about how you hold the sticks and strike the drum though. He did a fantastic demonstration of how to strike a drum, but more importantly, how the sound is affected when you don't strike a drum properly. Try this on your floor tom: Strike the drum with your whole hand gripping the stick, and then with a loose grip on the stick. Less contact with the stick allows the stick to fly freely, so the tip of the stick spends less time in contact with the drum head and you get a more open, deeper, fuller sound out of your tom. He also pointed out that hitting a drum harder actually raises it's pitch and robs it of some of that fullness. The harder you hit the farther the head depresses, which means it stretches more and the pitch is raised. The difference is really quite astonishing when you try this on your own. He also used the Less is More phrase in regard to how you hold your stick and how that allows it to bounce. Of course one stroke can equal two notes and take less work if you hold the stick properly and loosely and control the bounce. Less contact with the stick and less effort for you results in a better sound and a faster stroke.

Lastly, he talked a little bit about practicing in a way that teaches your limbs to be able to do anything that you hear in your head. Benny explained that our hands and feet need to have different rhythms stored in muscle memory for us to be able to execute the rhythms that we want them to play. His suggestion was to pick a groove that you like to play and then change one thing...the placement of a ghost note, or the bass drum hit, or where you open the hi hat. Benny has narrowed down the possibilities for note placement to 24 options (and I need to see the DVD, but I believe he goes much more in depth about this on video). His suggestion is to pick one thing (say, the kick drum) and then systematically move that thing to all of the possible rhythmic combination options. I drew up a quick chart for what I understand to be those 24 possible options within a 4 beat phrase so you can run through them yourself. Enjoy!

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Use Your Fills!

If you're anything like me, you probably know a thousand fills and you probably use about 2 of them live. Maybe the rest don't cross your stream of consciousness while you're playing, or maybe they're too fast or too busy. More than likely though, you don't know quite how to use them and it's a matter of confidence that you can pull them off outside of the song you learned them in.

For the past several years I've been studying with groove master Zoro here in Nashville. Earlier this week he showed me a new lick that I dug and he made this suggestion: Now you have a new word, so take that word and learn how to use it in different contexts. Wow! What a simple but beautiful idea, and it triggered me to realize how much time I put into learning and writing new licks and how infrequently I use them in live situations. I can't count how many times I've stepped off a stage thinking "I didn't use anything I've spent the last month working on". So what's the problem? I work on them in the context of a specific song and I never stretch to learn to use them anywhere else. Maybe the song is fast and the fill starts from a ride cymbal groove. So what happens when I'm in a slow song and I'm on the hats? Probably nothing good.

Here's my idea to tackle this problem. I've picked 5 fills that are challenging but achievable, and tasteful enough to be used in most situations. For me it made sense to pick 3 that I learned and 2 that I created myself. Then I created a playlist on my ipod with different grooves that I use frequently - a fast and a slow song in 4:4, a fast and a slow song in 6:8, a swing tune, a shuffle, a 16th note groove, a couple songs where the groove is on the ride, something funky, and something rockin'. My list is tailored to the type of music I'm most likely to be asked to play. From there I'm taking the framework of my 5 fills and stretching them over each of these feels. I'm learning a lot and asking myself questions as I go: What happens when I try to play this one slow...what do I have to add to make this one fit in 6:8...Can I play this one at double speed at this tempo...does this sound musical in this context, etc etc.

The result is that I have a set of 5 fills that I'm proud of and at any given time when I hear them in my head, I can play them with confidence. I know where they need to start to land on 1, and I know what they're going to sound like before I attempt to play them. Once that set of 5 is slammin', I'll pick 5 more. I spent an hour and a half last night picking fills, making a playlist, and practicing and I walked away feeling like a better drummer. I still have work to do to fully master those 5, but I already understand them better and I got a chance to be really creative on my instrument. Try it out - I think you'll be glad you did.

Music City Drummer

Hey friends,

I just wanted to post a quick note about the blog since it's been so long since we've posted. The initial idea behind this thing was to be able to post those moments of enlightenment and inspiration with regard to the drums. We were excited and motivated and looking for reasons to post at first, and recently we've slowed down a bit. We're still here though! And when those inspired moments happen and we feel like we have something that could be useful to our little drumming community, you're still the first to know. I had one of those moments this week so I'll post that shortly - I just wanted to take a moment to explain the hiatus and to say thanks for sticking with us!

Friday, September 4, 2009

Vinnie Colaiuta - Freak...

How many drummers had that "what the heck was that?" effect on you when you first heard them? Vinnie Colaiuta was one of those players for me. Back in the 80's Vinnie kept popping up on wierd recordings. I first heard him on a Zappa album. Next I heard him on a Gino Vinelli album of all places. Then Joni Mitchell and a host of other artists that were not what I would call musically related. I recently heard him kicking the crap out of the big band backing up Paul Anka on his Rock Swings album. The cat can play it all, and in way that seems so effortless.

Vinnie was the first "fusion" drummer I heard that could make the outside things he played sound inside. I would listen to some of the things he played and truly had no earthly idea what he was doing.

We all have heard things on records that we had to figure out. Fills or grooves that drove us nuts that had us needle dropping on the turntable for hours. Vinnie did that to me on a Joni Mitchell album called Wild Things Run Fast. The tune was called Dream Flat Tires. Vinnie played a straight shuffle with bursts of a cool afro-cuban 6/8 feel. Towards the end of the tune he played a cool fill that really grabbed my ear.

I have attached a 5 minute lesson video that breaks it down. Check it out: