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!