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!