Monday, July 31, 2017

When they say they have drums

All right dude I told ya we had
a sweet drum set for you, here you go
They don't have drums. You're going to get burned. Always.

Pardon me— I just had a couple of annoying gig and rehearsal experiences— most recently one where I was told there would be drums “aplenty.” Bad sign.

I think the worst situation I ever found myself in was on a gig in Germany, where the club was supposed to provide a nice jazz set, and it turned out the only drums in the building were part of a Sonor student set, with a 24" bass drum, a 10" tom, and a 12" tom, and that's it. Another good one was arriving for a month long engagement at a 4-star hotel in Hong Kong, and finding a battered set of Pearl Exports that wouldn't have been out of place in some kid's garage in Kentucky.

Let's briefly go over what you need to bring to situations where people claim they have drums for you. We're assuming you're bringing your cymbals, sticks, and a drum key no matter what. 

Absolute minimum, flying by the seat of your pants, rollin' the dice: 
— Hihat clutches in the two standard sizes. Odds are 50/50, maybe 60/40 against the hihat stand having a clutch. And it sucks getting stuck without usable hihats. 
— Cymbal felts, sleeves, and washers. These will be absent. We don't want metal touching our cymbals while we're playing. Wingnuts are up to you— companies have gotten propriety with their wingnuts, and whichever ones you buy probably won't work. You can play with the cymbal on the thing without a nut.

Normal faith in humanity, a tad unrealistically so; bring the above plus: 
— Snare drum
— Bass drum pedal
— Throne
— Cymbal stand (they're always going to be short one)

A sane level of paranoia. What you actually have to bring; the above plus: 
— Another cymbal stand. 
— Snare stand (extreme paranoid types will bring two snare stands in case there is no tom mount, or the tom mount is defective)
— Hihat stand
— Duct tape, screw driver, pliers, WD-40
— Rug
— Basically everything but tom toms and bass drum. 

You can decide for yourself what level of mistrust suits your personality; how important the gig or rehearsal is, and how big of a hardship it will be when they don't have the exact item you decide not to bring. It's very hard to get out of the house without cymbals, snare, and a stand case. Usually I would have to have seen the drums— recently— to bring less.

Some people get weird and panicky about having spare heads, but that's never been a problem for me. I think the only reason to bring heads is if you routinely break or damage heads, and you're going to need to leave some new ones for the next guy. 

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Groove o' the day: Betty Davis - Shut Off The Light

Fairly funky thing here... fairly compared to nuclear war, maybe... the opening groove from Shut Off The Light from Betty Davis's Nasty Gal album. Drums are variously credited as being Nicky Neal, Semmie Neal Jr., and Buddy Williams on bass drum— sounds like there was an overdub in there later in the tune. We already have a transcription of the title track from this album credited to Semmie Neal, so we'll stay with that here too.

The cue in the pickup measure is keyboards, and drums are in on the & of 1 of the first full measure. There are no tom toms or cymbals other than hihats anywhere on the track.

Get the pdf

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

EZ “harmonic” independence

Fairly EZ. EZ compared to the thing it's based on. This is something that came out of practicing the harmonic independence section of 4-Way Coordination by Dahlgren & Fine. Looking at that book makes you go crosseyed after the 8th or 9th hour, so this is a nice change of gears that should help acquire at least the easier patterns out of that book.

The essence of that part of 4-Way Coordination is to play Stick Control-like sticking patterns with your hands while playing different Stick Control-like patterns with your feet. It's kind of a goofy idea, so just think of the exercises as coordination conditioners, rather than as an actual way of playing.

We could try to create similar patterns just using Stick Control, but it would require way too much mental effort for my taste. It's easier if we use our old friend Syncopation by Ted Reed. If you're far enough along in your studies to be messing with Dahlgren & Fine, it will be easier to use Reed.

We'll use the Syncopation section of Reed to make a pattern for both feet: the right foot plays the written part (ignoring the stems-down part, usual), the left foot fills in the remaining 8th notes. You should start with the one-line exercises, but for the examples we'll use our usual excerpt from Reed.

So this:

Becomes this:

To that we'll add some simple sticking combinations with the hands, in unison with the feet. We'll do the same orchestration on the drums as with my last Dahlgren & Fine post on this subject: hand notes in unison with the bass drum are played on a cymbal, and hand notes in unison with the hihat are played on a drum— snare or tom tom.

Start with running 8th notes played all with the left hand or all with the right hand:

You can then do one full measure R only alternating with one full measure L only— there's no need for me to notate that. Next do two beats with the R and two beats with the L:

And then one beat of each, RRLL, or LLRR:

And then alternating, RLRL or LRLR— you may find this to be surprisingly challenging:

If you get this far, you may be able to try some other stickings:


Or maybe a few of the more complicated stickings:

RLRR LRLL (the big test)

Beyond that, you may as well go back to 4-Way Coordination. I don't want anyone having a stroke trying to keep track of this stuff. Doing things that demand focus = good, but let's be reasonable.

When you get really fed up, there's an easy derivative exercise making a funk groove out of it: play the feet as I've described, play 8th notes on the cymbal with the right hand, and play the 3 on the snare with the left. Or, what the hey, you could reverse the hands and do it “open-handed”— you already practiced doing the running 8ths with your left hand. We're working on independence here, so why not?

Now, let me be clear: I've been playing the drums a long time, and I've never felt the need to practice this kind of thing— sticking patterns between the feet. I don't see that as an end in itself. It's more a way of practicing some physical coordination you might not do with any other way. And since what we're doing with the hands and bass drum are fairly normal, we're maybe hoping to gain a little more independence with the left foot generally.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

FIGURE CONTROL: 6/4 - Free Design riff

Stretching the concept of my Funk Control series a little bit. Here we're just doing some basic orchestrations with a rhythmic figure, the vamp in 6/4 from Stereolab's The Free Design, which I posted before as a fun practice loop.

The idea behind this and the Funk Control series is to learn all the patterns, play them many times, then do all possible combinations of patterns using the following logic:

A-B, A-C, A-D... B-C, B-D, B-F... C-D, C-E... etc

Play each combination many times, playing each component pattern one or two times:

||: A - B :||  or  ||: A - A - B - B :||

Feel free to move your hands around the drums and cymbals. The cymbal part can be played on the ride cymbal or hihat— obviously any that include open hihat must be played on the hihat. There are some places where the hands are in unison; feel free to play the right hand on a tom tom instead of the cymbal. The part written on the snare drum line in the middle of the staff can be played on the snare, or on any drum.

The first two lines just illustrate the foundation rhythm, and the basic orchestrations from which the other orchestrations are derived.

Get the pdf

Friday, July 14, 2017

Todd's funk shuffle drill

This is a loose collection of stuff with which you can drill a rather busy, modern funk shuffle feel or triplet funk feel, a la Lopsy Lu or The Brecker Brothers' Inside Out:

OK, those examples are 40 years old, but people still play this way— if they're lucky, actually...

And this is indeed another practice method for use with Ted Reed's Syncopation— if you're not practicing that way, you'd better get on it. Talk to your teacher about it, or get some Skype lessons with me— something. This is how you learn to play. The examples here use the very famous first line of the very famous p. 37 exercise (which is on p. 38 of the new edition of the book):

We'll be using the Syncopation section of Reed— pp. x-x— reading the top line only, as is usual for that book. Play the book rhythm on the bass drum, except notes on the 2 and 4, which you play on the snare drum. We want to have a running snare drum backbeat, so if there's a rest or a held note on the 2 or 4, go ahead and add snare drum. Play quarter notes on the hihat or ride. Swing the 8th notes.

Next, do the same thing, but play entire line on the bass drum as written, plus the 2 and 4 on the snare, and the quarter notes on the cymbal. There will be some unisons between the snare and bass now. I haven't notated anything for the left foot here, but when your right hand is on the ride cymbal, you can add left foot on 2 and 4, or wherever you like.

The next few things are based on a very common Reed method, in which the RH/RF are played in unison, and the LH fills in the triplets. I usually move the RH to the snare occasionally to break up any multiple lefts, you can do this, or not:

Do this same method, except accent the 2 and 4 on the snare drum. If there is no snare on 2 or 4, add it:

Do that again, with quarter notes on the cymbal:

And with a jazz rhythm on the cymbal:

You could also do it with a straight shuffle rhythm on the cymbal if you are so moved. That gets to be a whole lot of activity when filling in the triplets, so I only bother with it when playing the simpler version.

As I'm further along in drilling this, I will occasionally go to the alternating-sticking version of the triplet way, with accents on the cymbals. On either the last measure of a line or the last two measures, like a fill. In this style of playing, doing this fill-like thing, I will play the snare drum fairly strongly— for the rest of this drill the snare should be played softly, except for the 2 and 4.

That adds up to a lot of stuff. You can rigorously play all these things with all the exercises, and it will take maybe 90 minutes to just play through it. If you've played that first triplet interpretation before, you can get through it much faster. Make about a 30-45 minute drill out of it, moving fairly quickly through the easy parts, combining methods, adding your own fills (alternating triplets on the drums or with both hands in unison are always good). We're interested in improvising, reading, and developing musically here, so you don't need to be too picky about getting every detail of the instructions exactly right.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

The hard way

Lately I've been noticing a lot of talk about doing things the hardest way possible— among
drumming students there's a great fear of “crutches” and “cheating.” The path of least resistance offends people's protestant work ethic, or it doesn't jibe with their athletic sensibility of no pain, no gain.

This mindset is all wrong. Craftsmen in every field economize and mechanize, and use whatever tools are available to them to make their job easier, and give them reliable results. Work smarter, not harder, is what they say.

Take a look at an pre-computer cartooning or commercial art how-to book— we had books like that around when I was young— the entire project is based on doing everything the easiest, most repeatable way possible, while keeping the hard parts to an absolute minimum (which is not to say there are no hard parts). You're producing on a deadline, and you can't just draw everything freehand directly from your mind onto the page. They have an entire arsenal of tools and techniques that are essentially cheating, if you have the above attitude.

If I were to apply a pure production mindset to drumming, I would probably be doing a lot  with sequencing, using electronics, triggering, click tracks, quantizing and editing in Pro Tools to make the few things I had to actually play “freehand” absolutely perfect. There are people who do that, and that's their job.

Most of us are not doing a lot of commercial work like that, and we're more concerned with how to create a complete, professional creative performance in the moment. How to economize that aspect is largely the subject of this entire blog, so there's not really a quick answer for that. How you actually engage that mindset gets very particular. Very broadly speaking, though:

Become economy-oriented. This is a great time to re-read William S. Burroughs's The Discipline of DE.

not this
Know what you're trying to do. You're looking for the easiest way to learn to play creatively and appropriately in the moment while listening to the other players, playing the music, maybe reading, and not getting lost, while grooving the entire time.

Understand that it's one instrument played by one person. We have a complex job, playing a four-limbed instrument while doing all the things I listed above, and we need to look for ways to simplify and make the parts work together—there's just one person working the controls, so there's really no choice. Most often, everything is derived from, and reduces to, a single idea. There are a number of ways of accomplishing that, including, but not limited to, all the things we do with the book Syncopation. It's why I harp on that book so much.

Simplify. This doesn't mean you can't play busy, or that you have to play quarter notes the rest of your life. It means, look for ways to sound good with a minimum of technique. My general approach is oriented around exploiting singles and doubles, unisons, and simple multi-limb patterns for example. I lot of drummers use simple ostinatos, as well. Bob Moses's “non-independent” (or “dependent”, he'll say at other times) method is another example of what I'm talking about.

Everything is not a muscle— stop trying to develop playing skills like one. Not all of them, and not all the time, at least. Look into Pilates, Yoga, or Tai Chi for an alternative mindset.

Another book you might want
to pick up.
Be realistic about the hard stuff you practice. Am I ever going to perform this? If not, what exactly am I trying to accomplish? Will doing it this way help me perform? Is it worth the time I'm investing in it? Is there something else I can spend my practice time on that will help my real playing more?

Learn to spot pointless rigor: for example, in a recent online discussion a player was advocating improving time by practicing very slowly without subdividing. I'm not saying this is a pure waste of time, but it's a little like a carpenter trying to build a house without a tape measure— or any measuring device. Maybe after completing that messed-up project he'll be a little better at guessing how long a yard is, but not enough for any practical effect on how he does his work. He's always going to need his tape measure. Likewise, there's never a reason not to subdivide, and never an instance where you'll be deprived of that ability, so there's little to be gained by imposing that pointless handicap.

Learn licks and techniques. This is a common approach on the internet: learning a particular little technique for doing one thing— a certain kind of bass drum lick, an uptempo ride cymbal thing, whatever. I do very little of that; Metal drumming is almost all that. To me it's a formulaic approach to playing which I do not like, but it has its place, and it's a relatively easy way for players to sound impressive regardless of whether they actually have anything to say musically.