Saturday, January 18, 2020

Dealing with it: bad time

We'll see if this becomes a regular feature: dealing with it. If anyone has thoughts, ideas, frustrations in real life playing situations, mention them in the comments, and maybe I can write something about it.

Today let's talk about people with bad time, or who play in a way that interferes with good ensemble time. Players who make everything you play sound bad— or at least it feels that way. On a forum somebody had a novel approach to dealing with this:

I have found that playing with musicians who have bad time is far more difficult than playing with ones that have really good time. I wonder if there’s an app that has a setting for bad time programmed in so you can practice playing with players whose time is very poor. If there’s not one, I wonder how hard it would be to create one, or modify an existing one.

That is an astoundingly bad idea, and it's not how performance works. The world is not a playalong track. You are an actor in this thing we call reality— you are a co-creator of the musical time, together with the other musicians on stage. Just as what they play influences you— to want to die, or live— what you play should influence them. Understanding that is the first step towards dealing with it constructively.

First you have to know what is actually happening. Time issues I have encountered include:

Habitual rushing
Some players just like to rush, especially when soloing, and if you listen to them too closely, you'll rush along with them. This has caused me a lot of problems, because I place a high value on listening.

Dragging at phrase endingsOne group got way too sensitive about phrasing with each other, turning a groove music situation almost into a rubato chamber music situation.

Rushing on easy stuff and dragging on hard stuff
Vocalists do this a lot.

Dragging generally on ensemble passages
Horns so focused on playing together with the other horns they lose the thread.

Inaccurate rests and figures

Badly timed countoffs, pickups, intros, and solo breaks
They're not really thinking about the tempo they're counting off. Or they're vocalizing it badly. Intros and breaks played by people with weak rhythm, that sets up what comes after it poorly.

Deliberately “floaty” time
Horns or vocalists.

People trying to be hip with their “feel”
People who listen to too much hip electronic music and not enough actual groove music.

Unsupportive bullshit 
As people get more into chops they tend to forgot their actual job, and play too much of the wrong stuff. Their time may not even be bad, but what they play is such noncontributive musical clutter that it compounds other players' time issues, and gets in your way in dealing with it.

It's partly a problem of getting people to listen. For advice on that we have to go back to the very beginning of this blog, where I reposted an answer Joey Baron gave in a master class— from a transcript I found on usenet a long time ago. The question was how do you make the band listen? 

Um, drown them out? No, well, you can't make somebody listen. You can try to hint, you can do things like with the dynamics— seriously, you could drown them out— you could lay out, you could do something with the time, like take it into a different feel, you could jump up and down and make funny noises— I've kind of tried all of those and they all work. It just depends on the context, who you're playing with. But you can't make someone else do something, but you can try, and those are ways. If you're playing in a funk groove and it's a constant backbeat going on, and the soloist is going on and on and on and on and on and just you feel like, wait a minute it's like this is turning into like, they should get a rhythm machine or a sequencer, instead of... 
You can do things like: don't affect the intensity of the groove but just don't do a backbeat, like in hiphop stuff— or in the stuff that's all about mixing— a lot of times, they'll just mix out the backbeat with the rest of the track is going on. That's a big change, if you're not listening. I mean you'd have to be deaf not to notice that kind of stuff. In a more subtle situation, like if you're playing jazz or more softer type of music, you know just change the texture. If you've been playing on the ride cymbal for a while, play on a closed tight sound, change up the sound, do something to kind of wake people up or something?

You can also:

Learn to ignore them
You have to have some time independence from the other players. If they're playing bad time, what kind of information are you hoping to get by listening to them?

Independence is necessary even with good players. Not everyone improvises perfectly rhythmically accurate stuff 100% of the time. They (we) need to feel that the time is not going to go to hell just because they rushed one line. That push and pull creates energy.

Focus on the one other solid player
Often that's enough to make the gig tolerable, and maybe even worth listening to.

Make sure you're playing in a way the others can follow
Don't play unsupportive bullshit all the time. If you're way too into your patterns and ghost notes and linear funk grooves, you may be making the problem worse. In dealing with a bad time situation, I moved towards a more 70s way of playing funk, which is more chunky, with the full 8th or 16th note grid stated strongly. That's actually a better way of playing all the time.

Develop a high level of confidence in your own time
How are you going to know what to do if you don't even know what's going on? Read my post on things that helped me improve my time awareness, and have more confidence in my time.

Be realistic
On the internet especially I have noticed drummers adopting some highly unrealistic ideas about what good time is, and adopting some extreme practice habits in service of that. Time squishiness is inherent to human beings playing music. Through a lot of playing experience and a lot of listening (to non-quantized, non-click track music) you learn what actual professional tolerances are.

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Snare drummers vs. drum set players

This came up in the Neil Peart piece: the idea of snare drummers as opposed to drum set players. People who play the drums as a single four limb instrument vs. people who are essentially hands players, rudimental players.

In this video (embedding is disabled) Jeff Hamilton distinguishes between snare drummers and cymbal players— cymbalists, if you will. I would say whole drum set players, because there's a lot more to that approach than just playing a cymbal. But the cymbalist label is accurate to the extent that a lot of what you play follows from what you do with your right hand.

This extended quote from Elvin Jones, from his 1982 Modern Drummer interview by Rick Mattingly, became the foundation for my concept of the drum set:

“[The drum set] is one instrument, and I would hasten to say that I take that as the basis for my whole approach to the drums. It is a single musical instrument of several components. Naturally, you've got tom-toms scattered around, and the snare drum is in front of you, and the bass drum is down there, and you have cymbals at different levels. But all in all, just as a piano is one instrument, a drumset is one instrument. That is not to say that the cymbal isn't an instrument. But in order for it to be an instrument you have to use it as an instrument. They are individual instruments if you have them set up that way and you have a tom-tom player and a bass drum player and so on. Okay, then they are individual instruments. It just depends on how one chooses to apply it. So I think that's probably where people get confused. 
In a dance band, or a jazz band—small group, big band, combo— then this is a single instrument. You can't isolate the different parts of the set any more than you can isolate your left leg from the rest of your body. Your body is one, even though you have two legs, two arms, ten fingers, and all of that. But still, it's one body. All of those parts add up to one human being. It's the same with the instrument. People are never going to approach the drumset correctly if they don't start thinking of it as a single musical instrument. 
We live in a world where everything is categorized and locked up into little bitty compartments. But I have to insist that the drumset is one. This is the way it should be approached and studied and listened to, and all of the basic philosophies should be from that premise. If you learn it piecemeal, that's the way you're going to play it. You have to learn it in total.”

It was settled once and for all after I spent about ten years in the 00s-10s working out a lot of snare drum stuff, only to discover it made zero difference* in my actual playing. No matter how much snare stuff I got together, I couldn't sit down at the drum set and just play hands stuff. Or rather I did not, because it's not how I play. I didn't start hacking out snare drum stuff in my solos.

You can recognize the difference if you listen to someone and a lot of rudiments jump out at you, and if you see a lot of hand to hand motions. Banging out accents on the toms, with more worked out crossover licks and whatnot. And more sparse, traditional, and simplistic— or more worked out— use of the feet.

Drumset guys will be guided more by the right hand, and will have more interactive use of the feet, and be more sound oriented. They will sound more melodic (or melodic in a more sophisticated way), and textural, and less choppy, maybe with more worked out patterns between three or four limbs.

You might give a listen to these players, while thinking about these categories of approaches:

Snare drummers:
Buddy Rich
Louis Bellson
Ed Shaughnessy
Philly Joe Jones

Drum set players:
Mel Lewis
Roy Haynes
Paul Motian
Jon Christensen
John von Ohlen
Tony Williams (60s!)
Bob Moses

Obviously it's a complex thing, and often players won't fit neatly into one category. To me the whole instrument approach is more modern and more conducive to musicality, but there are obviously a lot of great drummers who did the other thing. And assessing players is really not the point— we're just looking for something to inform how we think about our approach to the instrument. We'll do some guided listening about it later.

* - Not zero difference; it did give me dynamic control. But for the actual content of what I played, it made no difference.

Saturday, January 11, 2020

Neil Peart

Well, dang. Everyone knows by now Neil Peart has unexpectedly passed away. He was certainly the most celebrated drummer of the past ~ 45 years, maybe ever. A few are more famous, but I don't know if anyone inspired the same rabid following dedicated to knowing every single note of his recorded output. The only time I saw Rush live, in 1991, there was a not-insignificant percentage of the audience air drumming his fills along with him, and clearly knew them all exactly. That's kind of unique.

A historical curiosity about him is that the excitement was generated by things played on records. During the highest point of his career— say 1978-88, there was no YouTube, and none of the current drummer world apparatus. There were records, radio, tours, rock press, and MTV. With Rush it was mainly about the records. You put them on and listened to them a lot, and the music did something for you.

It's almost quaint. A lot of drumming fans seem to have completely moved on from mere music, and are just into worshiping prowess. There is no Spirit of the Radio or Tom Sawyer for any of the famous drum guys of the past 15 years. There was certainly an element of spectacle to Peart's thing, but compared to much of the current thing that is nothing but spectacle, he looks extremely dedicated to pure music.

He's also more effective than any those players. There are millions of idiots who can play the drums fast, relatively few who can play effectively. I never regarded Peart as very sophisticated strictly as a drummer— compared to his better non-rock contemporaries, he's pretty retrograde. But what he plays is extremely effective. Listening back to Tom Sawyer for the first time in many years, all of the things I thought were rather gratuitous actually make compositional sense, and bring a lot of energy to what is basically a stilted little composition.

You can see that he did play the drum set as a complete instrument— another way he's closer to my heart than many other drummy players: he was not a snare drummer. With those guys you can always feel the pull towards playing more crap on the snare drum. Peart does some of that in his solos, but he's clearly not a member of that tribe— he has too many other things he wants to show off. He actually has some interest in rhythm, and in the full instrument.

Also quaint is that he got people interested in essentially band instruments, concert percussion instruments— it was a big deal that he had some crotales up there, a glockenspiel, some cowbells. A lot of drummers of the 70s played huge drum sets with a lot of pointless extra percussion, but Peart actually featured the instruments in the songs.

I don't know if we're too cool for all of that now, or what. We've got Moeller, which is better than music. Certainly the current drum-pornographic thing doesn't leave much room to get excited about playing a glockenspiel. 

A few thoughts about his playing legacy, anyway. But the first thing I actually thought about when I heard about this was that I was glad he was able to rebuild a family after the tragedy he experienced at the end of the 90s, with the deaths of his daughter, and then partner. He seemed like a basically healthy amiable goofball, and he was appreciated.

Friday, January 10, 2020

Listening to Kenny Clarke

Let's do a little guided listening. I caught this on Portland's excellent jazz station, KMHD— If you don't have a good station locally, and you probably don't, you should be streaming KMHD live 24/7. The tune is Bags' Barney Blues, played by French saxophonist Barney Wilen, with Milt Jackson (on piano), Percy Heath, and Kenny Clarke.

This recording should tell you some things about playing the ride cymbal. Like, the interpretation you use does not have to be consistent all the way through the tune. Clarke plays with a strong quarter note pulse throughout— not with the accent on 2 and 4 many associate with bebop. You can also hear that he varies how he plays the “skip” note— sometimes he plays it with a triplet feel, with all the notes at a roughly even volume, sometimes he plays a dotted-8th/16th feel, with a very soft skip note. His comping is mostly played with a triplet feel, and the cymbal rhythm agrees with that— he's not playing triplets with his left hand with the dotted-8th/16th rhythm with his right.

Whatever he was doing leading up to it, at phrase endings Clarke often plays the triplet feel very emphatically, while dragging a bit, clearly conducting the time. Listen to his beat 4s. He's really bringing up the rear timewise here— he's way on the back of the beat, while Wilen plays very much on the front of the beat. Wherever Clarke is trying to take it, he succeeds, and the tune ends a little slower than it started. In his smooth way, he's playing assertively, acting as conductor of this tune.

With his comping, you can hear a lot of what I once called “the Kenny note”, which is actually a regular punctuation in swing drumming: a snare drum punctuation on the & of 3 in the second or fourth measure. As pure independence, it's an easy place to start when you're inventing a vocabulary for comping on the snare drum. We also heard a lot of that from Max Roach recently. In general, most of his comping happens at the end of the measure, and end of the phrase.

Sunday, January 05, 2020

RLB intro page

This is based on a page I wrote in 2012— I was using that with a younger student, and marked it up so heavily that it was unreadable. So here's a clean version of what we were doing with it. We've got the RLB linear pattern played 1-3 times, in some rhythmic variations/inversions, to help get the coordination, and to learn to not just see the pattern one way. It also ties in somewhat with the hemiola funk pages, which I was using with this same student.

Play the right hand on the hihat or on a tom tom. Play the left hand on the snare drum or a tom tom. Then move them around. Play the patterns repeating, as indicated; also play them one time, fast, with a long pause after— mainly 2-16, and 20-22.

Get the pdf

Saturday, January 04, 2020

New gear rules

I'm getting a little punchy from working on this new book, so I just started writing rules about gear.

Consider the following to be LEGALLY BINDING. Failure to comply may result in a SUBSTANTIAL PENALTY:

• No rubber practice pads. Everybody has to use the pieces of crap that Remo pads have become.

• No more 10" tom toms, unless it's an 8 and 10" concert tom, like Ndugu Leon Chancler. Mounted someplace difficult to reach, so you have to really have a purpose in using them.

• No deep bass drums. I'm tired of looking at them. And they all have to be 18" or 20". Quit screwing around.

• No snare drums that sound like static. Do you talk in a squeaky voice? Listen to some 70s records.

• No more punchy tom toms. Life is not a YouTube video. Get a different sound. Listen to Billy Cobham.

• I'm not going to ban every drum head in the world except Remo Ambassadors, but I would be fine if somebody did.

• No more mentions of Gretsch drums made after the 90s. If it's part of a “line” and not just Gretsch drums you don't get to talk about them.

• No more mentioning most brands. You can talk about Gretsch (real only), Yamaha, Sonor, Ludwig, Pearl, Slingerland, maybe Premier. I kind of don't want to hear about Tama any more. Whatever defunct brands you want, Fibes, Corder, Rogers, whatever.

• But no wistfully mentioning defunct brands that were crap in the first place. Maxwin. Royce. CB700. No more mentioning student/middle lines by any company, defunct or otherwise.

• I'm a nice guy for including Ludwig.

• Bass drums are sounding too nice. Put on a CS Black Dot until further notice.


• No more cymbals with really long creative names, no ultra thin cymbals, no dry cymbals, no putting the word “POWER” on cymbals. No more luxuriant cymbals. Play luxuriant.

• I don't ever want to see another Moon Gel. Flick that disgusting thing in the trash.

• From now on no more than 5% of your talk about drumming and music can refer to gear. Get into playing.

Thursday, January 02, 2020

Hemiola funk series: SS-BB / BB-SS

Another permutation on this basic hemiola funk format I've devised, doubling up on the BS, forwards and backwards... wait. I'm deliberately not really giving you a finished concept here— I just wrote this up to see how it played out. It seems like an obvious idea, but it actually doesn't convert into normal funk vocabulary as well as some of the other pages. I'm not hearing it.

If you've been working with my previous pages, there's no reason not to play through this at least one time. The whole point is that none of this is technically difficult, and just because something doesn't really work for me, doesn't you won't get anything out of it. This will be my next publishing project after I finish with the 2019 Book of the Blog, which should be available for purchase next week.   

Wednesday, January 01, 2020

2019 in review

2019 basically = billionaire blood diamond
heir rampages around Los Angeles making up new 
traffic laws to promote downright ugly vanity truck.
Let's take a break from me inching painfully towards completion of the new 2019 Book of the Blog, and take a moment to reflect on the welcome end of 2019, the weirdest year on record.

It was a cool year, actually, if you just ignore every single thing happening in the world on a macro scale. My major project was the new Cymbalistic site. I made a second trip to Germany, making friends, and promoting this site, and the very special Cymbal & Gong cymbals which you should buy. And I visited their cymbal factory in Istanbul, and gained a newfound respect both for the smiths and for Tim Ennis, the company owner. These are not the normal cymbals being made in Turkey— without Tim, nobody would be doing them.

This past year has been my first significant time in Germany, and I loved it for a lot of reasons I'm still figuring out. And Istanbul was really just a magnificent city, with a surprising humanity— given that it's a) enormous and b) a massive tourist destination. I like going different places and seeing things, but the most important thing about travelling is always the people, and I really appreciated the people in Germany and Turkey.

Last year I posted more on the site than I have since 2015. My major writing projects were:

— The hemiola funk series, which will hopefully be a new book in 2020. It has been an interesting journey with those materials. I feel like it will be a very powerful teaching tool.

— Developing a usable independence/conditioning method based on Dahlgren & Fine's harmonic coordination materials. I'm finding it to be good for teaching fills without being overly specific. I've never had a truly satisfactory method for teaching them, and I hate the usual thing of just practicing written out fills out of a book. It's good also for conditioning general facility on the drum set— Kind of like Stick Control for the drum set. It's different than anything I've ever done, and the effect on my playing, as someone who is already a mature artist, has been noticeable and very interesting.

— More EZ materials generally. More and more I've been appreciating the value of simple materials.

I released a print edition of Syncopation in 3/4, which is a really big deal, and I should be advertising it more, demanding that everyone buy it. Every serious student who is doing the real stuff with Ted Reed's book should own it. I have several more book projects in the works, and hopefully we will see them released in 2020. We will not speak of the Book of Intros, but that's one of them.

Time to get back to work on the book. Let's do another post about my wonderful plans for 2020, or I'll just get to work on them.

Happy 2020, everyone! 

Wednesday, December 25, 2019

Happy holidays

Merrry Christmas and whatnot everyone, here's a playlist with all 5 1/2 hours of Scott K. Fish's 1984 interview with one of my favorite drummers, Frankie Dunlop. Put this on while your turkey cooks, or whatever.

Do visit Fish's site. He was one of the main guys at Modern Drummer magazine for many years, and I don't know if people realize, but MD basically created the modern history of drumming by talking to players like Dunlop. Nobody else was interviewing them, and if they did, they weren't talking about drumming. And most of them died before the current explosion of media. But for some guys and a low budget magazine, the literature of drumming as we know it would be much thinner, or non-existent.