"Feeling when drumming:
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, let’s see, does this sound perfect? In my opinion it’s not, not even close. You can program a drum machine to sound exactly like Neil Peart. He’s missing something very important, call it ‘feel’, ’soul’, ‘heart’, what you will. It’s something intangable whose absence is (again, in my opinion) as much a part of Neil Peart’s sound as is his ability.


Now let’s contrast the other end of the spectrum…. Think of John Bonham, ‘Bonzo’ from Led Zeppelin. Now (yes flame away) I’m probably one of the only drummers in the world who doesn’t actually really love Bonham, in fact I don’t really care for him or Zeppelin at all, but that’s neither here nor there. You can’t deny a few things about Bonham - he wasn’t even close to one of the most technically capable drummers of his time. And also you can’t deny that he had FEEL GALORE. There’s no mistaking his drumming. Why? Peart has all chops and no soul, Bonham has all soul and no chops? I don’t think it can be so simple…and Bonham really wasn’t a BAD drummer either, so this is unfair….again we are back to this INTANGIBLE. Hmm… where to go?

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Let’s 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 let’s 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 doesn’t? Who are the feelmeisters? And what’s one end of the spectrum (like ‘no chops’ was), and what’s 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 don’t 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 who’s 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 it’s 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 it’s him instantly.


* Peter Erskine - Weather Report, Steely Dan live band for their first ‘reunion’ tour about 10 years ago, solo band etc. Again, if you’ve 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 50’s - mid 60’s, Lifetime group in the 70’s, hmm I already said Jazz Legend?? Anyway, I’ll 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, there’s a very short list of recorded drum performances that I’ve 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 drummer’s 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 what’s going on:


* Steve Gadd - on the song ‘Aja’ by Steely Dan, from the album ‘Aja’. I would get flamed HARD if I didn’t include this, it’s THAT important.


* Peter Erskine - on ‘Sightseeing’ from the live Weather Report album ‘8:30'. Pure technical wizardry. In fact I bet Peart couldn’t 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 1960’s bebop version of heavy metal. It’s 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 guy’s 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. It’s 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. That’s 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’.


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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 can’t hurt…you can’t 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, don’t have to be related.


So then again, crap everybody..what’s feel? Here’s what I think….I think that it is the untangible (no shit, sherlock) quality of an individual player’s playing, that makes the sound theirs and theirs alone. I know, this sucks, but hold on, it’s 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….it’s 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, that’s where. It’s pretty simple to put two people down in front of two drumsets and get them to play the same thing…..what’s hard is to have them each develop a unique feel. For drummers ‘feel’ isn’t about a different physical expression of how their body holds or hits the instrument, it’s 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.. Here’s 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 there’s 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 doesn’t play. Silence is a very effective tool in the rhythmist’s arsenal. Fortunately, many modern electronic musicians are learning this truth now thanks to multitrack sequencers and mute buttons(!), but it’s 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, it’s 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 it’s 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. Don’t 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. There’s 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 don’t know if this will help you all with your rhythm, but hopefully it’s given you some ideas to get you thinking about different ways to program drums, play drums, or come up with beats. It’s 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, it’s been a pleasure to write for you.


Cue the drummer jokes now….


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