Thursday, February 18, 2021

The three bloggers: the left foot, the hihat

New series: Fellow drumming bloggers Jon McCaslin (Four On The Floor), Ted Warren (Trap'd), and I are colluding on a series of posts, in which each of us independently write about the same topic. Whatever drumming-related subjects we can think of, where we have common experience, and where it's worth hearing from three guys about the same thing. Hopefully it will be a regular monthly thing. Obviously I'll have to get used to the deadline aspect, as I'm already late with my first post. 

The first group post is broadly about the hihat, and that odd member that plays it, the left foot. It can be a problematic element. I don't consider myself to be any kind of hihat visionary, so I'll talk about it broadly, hopefully inspiring some ideas for developing it beyond ordinary uses, while respecting its limitations. 

Here are Jon's post and Ted's post— I didn't read them before writing this, because I would probably feel bad about how much better they are, and not be able to finish. Anyway, here we go: 

The Hihat
 What is it, why is it? Why? What? Is it?

Ordinary uses

[UPDATE] All right, I read the other guys' posts and got embarrassed for including this. You know what a hihat is. 

What's the problem? 

It's a sluggish instrument; the normal foot stroke is a dead stroke, and it's not easy to develop a lot of dexterity with that. The rebound is entirely mechanical— it comes from a mediocre spring lifting up the 2-3 pound bronze plate, with zero assistance from gravity or physics. 

Maybe we could play complex things more easily using a splash sound, but I think most of us don't attempt that. The technique for that is problematic, too— the impact part of a splash stroke is soft. It's like playing in the air. 

The hihat's normal placement on the left side of the drum set creates a problem for some people; they don't like crossing over to play the it with the right hand. To the point that they'll spend many hours relearning everything backwards just to avoid doing it. Even for those of us who accept that crossover as one of life's little tragedies, it's an inescapable fact that you can't hit nearly as much crap with the left hand while crossing over it with your right. It's true.    

Finally, I have a little difficulty determining a musical role for very advanced uses of it, beyond what I described above. I don't hear much beyond that. 

Concepts/methods for developing it as a musical voice 

Simple awareness. There is a tendency to regard the drumset as a piece of scenery, and our job is to play stuff on it— I sympathize with that. But every part of it is also a musical voice on its own, and each part's presence or non-presence in a piece of music has an effect. As my playing matures, I want to be better at orchestrating effective percussion, as well as just playing the instrument.

So it's good to ask What is this sound? What is this thing? What am I doing? There's no way to work this through except through a lot of playing and listening. Start by with your own ordinary uses of it, and be able to not always do them. Be able to add them or take them away in the course of playing. 

Tone control for the cymbals played with the hands is possibly an underrated use of it— it is a purely personal musical thing, and somewhat difficult to talk about, and to “train” for. The cymbals are very sensitive to foot pressure on the pedal, and varying it can be very expressive— the difference between a mechanical, drum-machine sounding performance, and one that sounds human, and very engaged with the music in the moment.    

Both feet in unison. Either a dry sound or a splash sound. As coordination and as orchestration it's very fundamental, and I like being very fluent with fundamentals. Don't be afraid of things that are this dumb, and work them in occasionally when you don't have other grand designs for the hihat. You might try playing this page with a jazz cymbal rhythm, playing the melody part with both feet together. One other notable recent thing was in the ongoing Chasin' the Trane transcription, where we see a lot of HH/BD or HH/SD unisons from Elvin Jones, on the & of beat 1, or & of 3.  

In unison with the left hand. I don't have a particular musical concept for this, it's more a practice technique using the left hand to discipline the left foot. Some forms of my harmonic coordination system are good for developing this; or you can simply play Stick Control patterns as R=RH/cym+RF, L=LH/SD+LF. 

Choke effects are very useful and effective, but a little mysterious to a lot of students. You can improve them by focusing on the timing of the close, rather than the open. The close is coordinated, the open is typically finessed, and out of time. Practicing both feet in unison improves closes with the bass drum, praticing LH/LF in unison improves closing with the left hand. See my “Funk Control” series for practice methods for each of those— any exercises involving an open hihat.  

With linear solo patterns it can replace the bass drum, for a different texture. Try it with RLF, RLLF, FRRL, or Gary Chaffee's linear patterns. Practicing it in unison with the bass drum on this kind of thing should open up some other possibilities. Given that it is a more technically challenging instrument to play, I think it's a good idea to practice a lot of easy, obvious single-note things with it. 

A big area for exploitation in a funk idiom is to play mixed rhythms with both hands, most famously done by Zigaboo Modeliste with his groove on Cissy Strut. Also done by D.C. Gogo drummers, and Omar Hakim on a John Scofield record. Using natural sticking is the best way to do this, as it easily converts to alternating accented singles, with short roll/drag passages, like what Omar Hakim did this groove with Weather Report.

There we are, now I get to go read what Jon and Ted wrote! 

1 comment:

Ted Warren said...

Nice Todd! Lots to think about here!