ideas for players and programmers"
Much discussion has been had about feel amongst all musicians, and the question is extremely applicable to drumming. What is feel? How do we understand it? The best place to start that I can think of is Neil Peart, the drummer from Rush. This guy is most likely technically capable of anything on the drums, no matter how complicated. He is a pure rhythm machine with more then just an understanding of how meter works, but an innate ability to feel different times and ways of counting and with limbs capable of executing anything imaginable.
Terry Bozzio is the same way apparently the only drummer who was able to play The Black Page without editing it first (an infamous piece of music for drumset written by Zappa that FZ used for auditioning potential drummers to check their skills).
Anyway, lets see, does this sound perfect? In my opinion its not, not even close. You can program a drum machine to sound exactly like Neil Peart. Hes missing something very important, call it feel, soul, heart, what you will. Its something intangable whose absence is (again, in my opinion) as much a part of Neil Pearts sound as is his ability.
Now lets contrast the other end of the spectrum . Think of John Bonham, Bonzo from Led Zeppelin. Now (yes flame away) Im probably one of the only drummers in the world who doesnt actually really love Bonham, in fact I dont really care for him or Zeppelin at all, but thats neither here nor there. You cant deny a few things about Bonham - he wasnt even close to one of the most technically capable drummers of his time. And also you cant deny that he had FEEL GALORE. Theres no mistaking his drumming. Why? Peart has all chops and no soul, Bonham has all soul and no chops? I dont think it can be so simple and Bonham really wasnt a BAD drummer either, so this is unfair .again we are back to this INTANGIBLE. Hmm where to go?
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Lets think now then from a different angle forget about chops completely because we agree (I hope) that you can program chops if you understand a step sequencer (remember we were saying earlier that we could program a drum machine to sound just like Peart). So lets take chops, the primary yardstick that we applied to Peart and Bonham earlier, out of the equation, and examine feel/soul/heart, whatever we shall call this intanglibe.
Hmm, feel who has it and who doesnt? Who are the feelmeisters? And whats one end of the spectrum (like no chops was), and whats the other? Maybe we will get to what the difference is in a way that we can use to become better drummers or better programmers? I dont know exactly how far along that road we are apt to get, hoever I believe that we might get some ideas here
The second question is simple .one end of the spectrum is no feel which I guess can be represented by a step sequencer or Neil Peart if the Rush Mafia will allow .and the other end is feelmeister. Cool, on to the second part .
For me there are a lot of ubersoul players, but when you want to seperate everything into drummers whos style you can just taste we start to see a smaller list.
I think that music fans in the know would agree with the following -
* Stewart Copeland of The Police. What can I say here? Taste is what its all about. Listen to some of the off-beat accents he plays. Particularily turn up the fade-outs at the end of songs and listen to the mad improv (Wrapped Around your Finger is a PRIME example. Dig out that song right now and listen JUST to the drumming for an instant lesson in FEEL.)
* Manu Katche - Work with Peter Gabriel and more..just outstanding, you know its him instantly.
* Peter Erskine - Weather Report, Steely Dan live band for their first reunion tour about 10 years ago, solo band etc. Again, if youve heard him once you will always recognize him. Polyrhythm brilliance, a very very subtle touch leaving lots of room for power..
Hmm we are getting some ideas here!
* Tony Williams, jazz legend, Miles Davis band late 50s - mid 60s, Lifetime group in the 70s, hmm I already said Jazz Legend?? Anyway, Ill start to sound like a broken record soon, but insane brilliance. You listen to him and think constantly WTF? Where did that come from WHAT?? OMG how does he think of this stuff?, yet he fits it all in with the most perfect understanding of song, mood, other instrumentalists, etc. For me he is the gold standard that I hope to play by one day.
In fact, that might be a good reference point. In my very humble opinion, theres a very short list of recorded drum performances that Ive always used as a reference/goal point in my own playing. To me they are the perfect embodiment of the ultimate application of the portions of the drummers art: skill, feel, respect for situation & composition. If anyone is really getting into this discussion, I think you would gain a lot from digging out these recordings and listning to whats going on:
* Steve Gadd - on the song Aja by Steely Dan, from the album Aja. I would get flamed HARD if I didnt include this, its THAT important.
* Peter Erskine - on Sightseeing from the live Weather Report album 8:30'. Pure technical wizardry. In fact I bet Peart couldnt pull off this performance. This is what I listen to when I need inspiration, the ultimate example of what is possible in the direction I try to take my playing.
* Tony Williams - on the entire album Four and More with the Miles Davis Quintet, live, 1964. Available on My Funny Valentine Live Plus Four and More 2CD set on Columbia Jazz Masterpieces. Four and More is the second set (after the band had the legendary fight), and is the second CD. The first set is all ballads, the second set is the 1960s bebop version of heavy metal. Its pure aggression in a VERY bebop setting, and for me again is a perfect example of what a group together can be capable, and just how far the art can be taken. Tony is 17 years old on this recording, and is EXPLOSIVE throughout. You can smell the genious coming off this guys recording even 40 years later. Listen to the drum solo on Walkin for the best example of inspiration and how to approach the art in a completely new light.
* Finally, as mentioned before, Stewart Copeland on his performance in Wrapped Around Your Finger. This is THE example to me on complementing the song PERFECTLY with your playing. Its also a lesson in accents to me, every single time I hear it. I swear, turn UP UP UP the fadeout at the end of the song and LISTEN
So where were we going? Oh yeah, all this is about feel. These guys all have this feel thing. Thats sweet, I wish I was on that list. How do we extract what it really is though? We wanted something empirical that we can use to be better in our own music? Uh oh, sorry! I still think there might be some help in these ideas, perhaps if only letting them prompt you into new ways of thinking about beats.
But I think we can indeed extract a few things here. What makes these guys what they are? They all have loads of technical skill .some probably more then Peart does this have anything to do with their feel? I KNOW that it cant hurt you cant keep steady time without some skill, and you really need a steady grip on time before you can play feel games I think that if we agree that shitty drummers can still sometimes play with feel, perhaps we can take a bigger step and say that feel and chops, while they help each other, dont have to be related.
So then again, crap everybody..whats feel? Heres what I think .I think that it is the untangible (no shit, sherlock) quality of an individual players playing, that makes the sound theirs and theirs alone. I know, this sucks, but hold on, its about to get better this is of course true of all instruments, not just drums, so what indeed creates these characteristics?
Strings have lots of subtlety in how they are played, just ask any violin player. Guitar players have a load of parameters under their control to vary expression, as do wind players. This gives each player their own feel or soul, because there are so many of these nuances on instruments, that almost all players are bound to express a different vibrato, velocity, etc.
So .its the same with drums, but in a different way. With a violin, you will develop a lot of your sound just by learning to hold and bow the instrument. This is not necessarily true for drums. Yeah you can hit them at different angles, in different spots, and at different velocities. You can pull the stick away sooner or later after impact BUT this is not a lot. And hey, we already know about Neil Peart who plays like a GOD but has no feel where to we go next?
To understanding of time, thats where. Its pretty simple to put two people down in front of two drumsets and get them to play the same thing ..whats hard is to have them each develop a unique feel. For drummers feel isnt about a different physical expression of how their body holds or hits the instrument, its about subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) manipulations of TIME. Listeners feel time as music plays, as any baby swaying to music will quickly illustrate. And the drummer has more ability to play with the way that the time of the song is being felt.
Subtle slowdowns and speedups of tempo are a basic trick, but more useful is the subtle shift of the downbeat within the bar, while keeping time constant. This can change the feel of the time, even play tricks on the listners that the tempo is indeed changing.. Heres part of feel. Being able to feel different times or divisions is important. Not just understanding how to count the bar in some funny time signature, but actually being able to FEEL the different signature as naturally as you feel 4/4, to groove to it, dance to it, anticipate the downbeat, etc.
And theres more I keep thinking of that Police song as I write this, and realize (not for the first time) that Mr. Copeland is a great drummer not so much for the notes he plays, but for the notes he doesnt play. Silence is a very effective tool in the rhythmists arsenal. Fortunately, many modern electronic musicians are learning this truth now thanks to multitrack sequencers and mute buttons(!), but its been a very important part of learning to drum for decades. Learn what you can get away with leaving out and then dare to leave out more .
So at this point we are starting to have a very long article indeed, its time to put together a grab- bag of feel tips for people programming drums. Obviously all this is strictly IMHO only, and of course this is by no means an exhaustive list, however hopefully its at least helpful enough to prompt a some good discussion. These come from analysing (or at least thinking about for a minute) various drummers famous for their feel, and looking at what beyond chops makes it what it is.
* You need to vary things, all the time surprise the listner while still doing what you are supposed to for the song. The song comes first! Vary your velocity, your timing, but remember, a little goes a long way. Dont be messy about it! (unless you have enough feel to get away with it see Bonham)
* Feel can be imparted by playing with the time, or with divisions. Theres a LOT of different ways that a bar can be divided.
* Only play a bit of what you could play! Take a 4/4 bar, make some goofy divisions in it, mark each division with a note, remove all but one note, hmm I bet you just found an interesting accent point!
* Accent things sparingly, effectively, and never in predectable ways.
* Grace notes! This is obvious but very effective. Many listners never hear a lot of the grace notes in performances, they can be so close to the beat, but they can work wonders for feel!
So you have a lot to play with. Divisions of the bar, grace notes, feeling the time, playing with accents, playing with leaving notes or parts out playing with velocity, sliding that downbeat ever so slightly before or behind the beat. All good fun, and all adding up to your personal style or feel.
I really dont know if this will help you all with your rhythm, but hopefully its given you some ideas to get you thinking about different ways to program drums, play drums, or come up with beats. Its definately got me thinking about all this stuff once again! If this article helps anyone in their drum programming, or playing, then it has been worth the typing. Thanks for reading if you are still here, its been a pleasure to write for you.
Cue the drummer jokes now .
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