Wednesday, January 31, 2018

The hard stuff

Do we have to? Because
I'd really rather not.
No one would ever accuse me of being a simplistic or non-technical drummer, but my philosophy has always been Do Easy. I spend a lot of time with a lot of things that are relatively easy to learn, easy to work with in real playing, while being more selective about the harder things I do. This isn't to say you don't have to work at it— it still takes a lot of time and effort. Which is why you want to be smart about the truly hard things you work on.

What I'm doing here is looking at the more demanding areas of drumming literature, and giving you my opinion on whether they are worth the effort.

These thumbnail reviews are totally biased. I like the things that have worked for me, and I don't like the things that haven't. I don't like things I never practiced enough to get what I'm supposed to get from them. The authors get at least 50% of the blame for that— it's their job to design materials that want to be practiced. If a guy like me can't get somebody's book to stay on my music stand, there's something wrong with it.

The New Breed
I've never actually used this book in any serious way. It had it's moment of being the stuff in the late 80s and early 90s, and it's still the primary method for learning funk and fusion timekeeping in the post-Dave Weckl mode. It is somewhat similar to the Reed-based method, in that it involves reading a melodic part— except New Breed is mostly about adding a single drumset voice to increasingly complex ostinatos; using Reed involves learning increasingly complex interpretations. It's clearly an effective method, because it has helped a lot of people sound very good— and Chester as a teacher produced a lot of excellent players— but there also seems to be a certain sameness in players who have used it a lot.

There's also some philosophical stuff in the book I don't agree with at all— mainly, some of the instrument setup things and the emphasis on “open-handed” playing.

4-Way Coordination
I've talked before about my journey with this book. I have major reservations about it, and a third of it is useless to me— and I practice out of it all the time. Our page o' coordination series is inspired by the jazz portion of 4WC. There are ways to use the book productively, but it's best reserved for people who are already fairly advanced players and who practice a lot. It takes some knowledge to be able to derive anything musical from it, and usually it's best to learn independence/coordination through practicing actual usable content.

Gary Chaffee 
In his Patterns series, and a few other volumes, Chaffee has written major systems for developing:

  • 16th note timekeeping and independence
  • triplet timekeeping and independence
  • linear drumming
  • stickings
  • advanced rhythm

The 16th note timekeeping (“fatback”) section is effective, and somewhat brutal. It simply presents all possible 16th note bass drum rhythms in 2/4 with the snare drum on beat 2, to be combined with a variety of cymbal rhythms. It works, and if you're listening to music and forming your own ideas about what you want to play, you should be able to figure out something musical to do with it. If you don't have any feel for musicality, you won't come away from it having acquired any. To me it feels like a pretty cold abstract exercise, and I don't enjoy practicing it. I like my Reed-based funk method better.

The triplet independence portion is based on one-beat fragments, and is even more extreme and unusable than the worst parts of Dahlgren & Fine. Much of it is so dense that the useful tempo range for it is extremely limited. As a jazz method it fairly misses the point of jazz drumming, which is not supposed to be primarily about unending triplets, and not about difficult coordination patterns.

The sticking and linear drumming systems (found in Patterns vol. 2 and 3, and Odd Time Stickings) are very playable and useful, and have been much exploited by generations of fusion drummers, as well as the Gospel Chops school. The major point of each system is that they involve easy 3-8 note patterns, which are combined mathematically into practice phrases equalling a certain number of measures of a certain rhythm in a certain meter. See my many pages of my own linear practice phrases to get an idea of what I'm describing. Chaffee's method of assembling phrases by adding up their numbers of notes has never worked for me, but that's not a problem; in practicing them you figure out your own way of using them.

The rhythm books (vol. 1 and to some extent vol. 2 of Patterns) are invaluable for anyone looking to develop very advanced, Zappa-like odd tuplet rhythms. I practiced those books a lot, and I've found very little need or use for those types of rhythms in actual playing. Most often they sound like mistakes when used in normal playing situations, and they induce other players to make mistakes “correcting” them.

David Garibaldi
Garibaldi has written a number of books that have become funk drumming canon— most notably Future Sounds. I've been familiar with his ideas since getting my hands on some of his lessons materials and reading his Modern Drummer articles in the 80s, and while they're fun to practice, they never ended up being things I could work with very effectively in my actual playing. You can sound very slick in a somewhat generic busy drummer way if you simply practice the materials a lot, and aren't shy about repeating them in your playing. Clearly a lot of players have done that. But I always come away feeling it's primarily a method for sounding like David Garibaldi— or more likely, like one of many thousands of other drummers who use his books.

But there is good information in them and you should own them. The Garibaldi title I would recommend the most is The Funky Beat.

MORE after the break:

Afro-Cuban independence
There are a number of good method books dealing with very challenging area of drumming— I think Ed Uribe's is the best, and scariest; maybe Conversations in Clave is a narrower, more manageable introduction to it. The good thing about this is that it's based on real music; there is an actual, very heavy, culturally-supported musical tradition behind it, which has a history of usage by real human beings. It wasn't cooked up by a guy in a practice room who happened to be fascinated with complicated drum things— well... we may be seeing a little of that creeping into it in recent years, by which I mean a lot. But at core it's a real, human music— and a collection of styles which which most ambitious drummers will want to be fluent, or at least competent.

Odd meters
This may be the lowest-intensity area of hard stuff we're talking about. It's a good idea to work on your odd meters simply because it forces you to know where you are in a measure of music. Many of us are actually just guessing about that much of the time. If you're largely an instinctive player— which is how I used to be, and still am— this area will force you to learn a kind of mental focus you may not acquire another way. Which also happens to be very useful in playing actual, normal music with normal time signatures. Ralph Humphrey's Even In The Odds is the best, most useful book I've found dealing with this subject. Mitchell Peters's Odd Meter Calisthenics and Gary Chaffee's Odd Time Stickings are also helpful.

Maybe you could take five
minutes to see if things like
this actually lay on the drums
in an interesting way. 
Advanced “hybrid” rudiments
You've seen the lists of hundreds of these things. They're strictly for corps people, especially corps people who are into performing as soloists. You won't use these in normal playing, and I don't believe they're more valuable as conditioning tools than other things you can practice. In general I'm against being too snare drum-centric or hands-centric in your playing, which these things encourage. Just learn your Haskell Harr and Wilcoxon and move on.

Modern “extreme” methods
Minnemann, Greb, Mangini... who else has a book out? We can probably throw some Metal books in here too, even though they're of a slightly different ilk. I'm judging these on very slim evidence, because it's physically very hard for me to look at these books for more than a few seconds at a stretch. I find them to be extremely hard on the eyes, and generally mind-numbing. I haven't particularly seen anything in them that isn't adequately covered by Chaffee or New Breed. Some of them seem to be based on creating athletic workouts based on standard funk/fusion/technical materials, which is completely not what I ever want to do with the drums. I pass.

Advanced polyrhythms
Polyrhythms are extremely important— 3:2 and 4:3 polyrhythms (within straight 8th and triplet pulses) are actually central to being able to play the drums well at all, in my opinion. They're a sort of compound pulse which came to us from African music, without which we'd all be playing marches are whole lives. But I question the value of getting into much beyond 3:2 and 4:3, especially when there are odd tuplets involved— 8th note 5s, quarter note 7s, and whatnot. As with the odd tuplets, in normal music they tend to sound like something is going wrong. They're often not really “readable” to the listener unless you play them in example format with no accompaniment, and you tell the listener what he's hearing, and he is impressed by the statistics of it. In music it just sounds like noise, and I can make noise without working for decades on it.

Advanced concert snare drum literature
Tony Cirone's Portraits In Rhythm is maybe the best known example of what I'm talking about here. I've certainly spent a lot of hours with it and other books like it, and anyone involved in concert percussion or percussion ensemble will need to get into them. For most players seeking a developed practical understanding of snare drum and rhythm in general, your average “intermediate” snare drum book will suffice. I highly recommend Mitchell Peters's intermediate book— his advanced snare drum book is actually useful, too.


Anonymous said...

Hi Todd

I love your blog. Three books worth mentioning along the same lines:

Contemporary Drumset Phrasing by Frank Katz

Advanced Concepts by Kim Plainfield

Mike Kinda Funk by Mike Clark

All three Drummer's Collective guys. Great books

Unknown said...

"Mike Kinda Funk" ???
Mike Clark Book is "Funk Drumming"