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!