Saturday, 14 March 2020

All In A Day's Work

When I was a just starting out, I lived in the big city where I could see great players every night of the week. I idolized nearly every local player of that time. They were all excellent, but one in particular stood out, and he became a bit of a mentor to me. He was an established world-class musician when he arrived in town, and he was able to quickly fill his schedule with studio work. I could see him play most nights at one of the jazz clubs (which were more plentiful back then). He and many others wanted to dig into some jazz after a day filled with jingles and TV themes.

There were also after-hours clubs, some of which open the stage to all comers. So guess who shows up at one of those after-hours clubs. I'd seen him play just a few hours earlier at my favourite jazz club, and here he was again, playing, after a day of recording and a 4-hour jazz gig (good thing he was still young).

I began having lessons in a private rehearsal studio. It was pretty funky: a set of drums, a couple of cymbals, a few music stands, and 5 layers of carpet on the floor. It turned out that this studio was maintained by my then hero and friends. They would get together and play whenever possible. Why? To keep in shape, to work on new stuff, and to play 'their' music.

OK, full day of studio work, jazz lounge gig in the evening, sit-in at the after-hours club ... and it's still not enough! Well, some of us really are that obsessed with playing, but 8 or 10 or 12 hours a day? Sure, because sometimes it's the only way to get in the game and to stay in the game.

Even though my hero was highly skilled and well connected, he knew he had to get out there and play if he wanted to keep his edge, both technically and career-wise. Plus he just plain loved to play. Commercial studio gigs can be great work, but your other skills -- your jazz chops, your double pedal speed -- may suffer. So the jazz gigs and casual sessions make it possible to stay in shape.

You get better at what you do, and if you hope to be a player, then you've got to play and play and play ... and then play some more.

Thursday, 13 February 2020

Release Your Inner___________________ (insert drummer of choice)

I was listening to a Daniel Glass podcast and I was able to relate to a lot of what he had to say. The gist of his message was that a drummer should at times be part actor. By that he means that when playing, for example, a cover tune, the drummer may have some responsibility to play it 'just like the record'. (I can't imagine playing a Jackson Browne tune and not trying to channel Russ Kunkle at least a little bit!) Daniel goes on to make an argument for reframing the situation as an opportunity.

I have my own interpretation of this. You see, I don't really want to play like the drummer on the record. That's not why I play. I play to add my spin to the music, and I can't do that if I'm copying someone else. Copying is a very important part of the learning process, but to copy someone else's style as a matter of course to me seems contrary to the whole business of making music. I rarely play exactly what was on the recording. I prefer to emulate the 'spirit' of the original artist and use that as inspiration for my own interpretation.

In a cover band, it's not really necessarily to ape the original drummer. Still, the audience is expecting to hear their favourite tunes they way they've come to know them, so things ought to sound more-or-less correct in the drum department. When playing a well-recognized tune -- especially one with 'signature' drum parts -- then I think we have an obligation to pay homage to the original.

In a tribute-style band, the goal is to replicate the experience of the original band. That means the tunes, the outfits, the stage presentation ... everything … should be true to that experience. And so the drum parts need to be virtually identical to the original. But even then, there can be room for your personal touch.

What Daniel suggests, and I fully endorse, is that you step inside the other artist's skin for a few minutes. He even goes as far as to suggest you imagine yourself as that drummer to help you emulate their style and energy. The goal is not to replicate the drummer, but to approach the tune the way you think they might. And when a chance for a cool groove or fill comes up, you can ask yourself, "What would Daniel Glass do?" 

Thursday, 23 January 2020

Hi-hat Quick Start Guide

“Congratulations on your new hi-hat stand -- you are about to enter of world of endless sonic variety. And with a modicum of care, your hi-hat stand will give you years of reliable service and enjoyment.”

That's a sentiment that could accompany every hi-hat sold. Yes, the hi-hat is truly a marvellous invention. Originally a means of imitating orchestral crash or clash cymbals, in the hands of early jazz drummers the device quickly revealed its musical versatility. Today's hi-hat stands are marvels of ingenuity, but did you know that most of what you see on a modern stand has been around almost from day one!

Let's begin with the stand itself. Usually 3-legged, they often have some sort of ‘spur’ in the base to help prevent creep. When setting up, make sure the main post and all feet are firmly on the floor for stability and to engage the spur(s).

At the top of the stand is a cup lined with a metal washer and a felt or rubber cushion to hold the bottom cymbal. There's also a cymbal tilter. This is to help avoid air lock . That's when the cymbals go "fttt" or even stick together. You can also use the bottom cymbal tilter to refine your sound. Note that the heavier hi-hat cymbal usually goes on the bottom.

The cymbal clutch is pretty simple: a wing screw to hold it on the hi-hat's central rod, knurled nuts to adjust the cymbal tension, soft washers to prevent rattle, and another nut to hold it all together. Try keeping the top cymbal slightly loose. Too tight and the cymbal will not respond well; too loose and it will sound ‘splooshy’ and may rattle.

Some hi-hat stands have adjustable tension springs. This is very handy for tailoring the feel of the pedal to your taste and to your cymbals. Heavier cymbals will require more spring tension than thinner, lighter cymbals. A more physical player may want to feel more resistance from the pedal.

Set your hi-hat cymbals about 3-6 inches (8-15 cm) above the snare with a gap of one to two inches (3-5 cm) between the cymbals. This should give you plenty of travel for stomping and also for nuanced playing. Then fine-tune the height, the gap, the spring tension, the angle of the bottom cymbal, and the tension on the top cymbal until you find what’s right for you.

As for maintenance, be proactive. Keep an eye on the various parts and fix or replace early rather than too late. Otherwise your hi-hat stand needs virtually no maintenance. So I guess your main task now would be to discover its many sonic capabilities.

For a bit of fun and inspiration, here are a few links to check out:
     Dave Black:
     Max (not Obama):

Saturday, 28 December 2019

No Bad Drum Heads

There are today a lot of companies making drum heads, ranging from the global standards -- Remo, Evans, etc. -- to boutique makers such as Earthtone and Kentville. And of course, every maker offers a variety of styles, sometimes to the point of our total bewilderment.

The good news is that there is very little chance of getting a bad drum head. Most of today's heads are manufactured to close tolerances using precision tools and machinery. So a head from a reputable company will do the job it was designed to do.

OK, quality and consistency? Check! Then things get a little weird.

That's My Brand
We look to brand names as a sort of guarantee. If I've settled on head X from company B, then when it's time to replace, a newly purchased head X will be virtually identical to the one I'm replacing. That applies across all brands and all styles, and that's why we tend to 'join' a particular brand. That said, brand loyalty shouldn't be an end in itself. I have a favourite drum head maker and a favourite model, but I use all sorts of different heads. Plus I know I can start with or go back to my standard any time and know that I will get the result I'm partial to.

All for Nought?
Say all you want about shell composition, bearing edge topology and whatnot, it's up to the drum head to translate all that technology into a sound that represents you. Good drums will be delivered with quality heads that the drum company thinks will do a good all-around job. It's a good starting point, and you may not have to look any further. But often this isn't the case. Why? 'Cuz we're all different.

More Trial and Less Error
Let's say I buy a new set but they came with heads I can't stand. No choice but to replace them with my regulars. Now, if those heads don't work either, what then? Toss 'em onto the spares pile and try something else. I'll find the right head for those drums eventually, but it might take a bit of testing, and perhaps a few purchases.

Make the Investment
If my usual heads don't work, then I'll concentrate on one drum, say the small tom. Those heads are typically under $20 these days. So for about $100, I can try four or five different heads. Once I've got the sound I'm looking for, I may then commit to a full set. Ponying up $100 or more for drum heads that I may end up tossing aside seems like an expensive way to achieve my goal. But if the kit cost two or three thousand dollars, it's a pretty cheap solution. Even if I strike out 3 or 4 or more times, I still think springing for those heads will more than pay for itself in the long run.

Wednesday, 4 December 2019

Lost In The Shuffle(s)

There are many different types of shuffle rhythms available, and each one was 'purpose built' for a particular style of music. Note that your basic shuffle is often written as dotted 8th & 16th notes, but it's rarely played that way. Strict adherence to 1(e&)a 2(e&)a 3(e&)a 4(e&)a tends to sound mechanical or choppy, and just not swinging. Counting 1~uh 2~uh 3~uh 4~uh leaves you free to interpret and fine tune the feel of a shuffle.

The secret to a shuffle that grooves is to micro-manage the skip beats, the 'uh'. Different moods and energy levels can be created by moving the skip beat closer to or further from the beat. In fact, the skip beat can vary all the way from practically 8th notes to 32nd notes plus everything in between. That said, the most effective shuffle patterns tend to be based on triplets.

Here we have a baker’s dozen of better-known shuffle rhythms (in alphabetical order).

2-beat - This may not seem like a shuffle as at fast tempos the ride tends to be quarter notes, so the rhythm is an 'implied shuffle'. It's sometimes easier to interpret a 2-beat as 2/2 time. E.g. “Roll Out the Barrel”.

Chicago Shuffle - Here the shuffle rhythm is maintained on the snare, accompanied by steady quarter notes on hi-ht or cymbal.

Country Shuffle - A generally triplet-based rhythm with a relaxed, almost loping quality somewhat similar to a Jazz Shuffle. Think "Happy Trails".

Double Shuffle - This shuffle is played with both hands, one on the snare and the other on hi-hat or cymbal, and it's quite energetic. Check out "How Sweet It Is To Be loved By You".

Flat Tire Shuffle - Here the down beats are played on the bass drum and the snare answers with up beats. Have a listen to "My Baby Just Cares For Me".

Half-time Shuffle - Sometimes called the Purdie shuffle or Bonham shuffle ("Fool In The Rain"), the rhythm is simpler than it sounds. The lead hand plays a double-time shuffle on the hi-hit while the snare and bass drum play a basic 8th note rock rhythm mingled with triplets.

Jazz Shuffle - A straight forward shuffle that's almost always triplet based even at faster tempos. It's also a great fit for a Country Shuffle.

Lame Duck - This calls for a samba-type rhythm on the bass drum while the snare plays a simple back beat.

Scissors Shuffle - Here the skip beat is handed over to the hi-hat foot, with quarters on the bass drum.

Slo-mo Shuffle - This is useful when the tempo is very slow and you want to suggest double time without actually going there.

Stick-shift Shuffle - This one is played more like a dotted-8th-&-16th to produce a driving, machine-like quality that suits funk and certain blues styles. "Chicken Shack" is a good example.

Texas Shuffle - The bass drum plays 1 & 3 and the snare completes the full shuffle pattern. The cymbal plays a shuffle or just quarter notes.

Train Beat Shuffle - Not really a shuffle, but it often has a shuffle inner feel. The basic pattern is based on 8th notes in cut time, with accents on 2 and 4. Can sound remarkably like a steam locomotive, as heard in "Orange Blossom Special". Sometimes the accents are placed on 1 and 3.

Want a PDF copy of the rhythms? Send me an email.

Friday, 11 October 2019

All Diets Work

It’s true. According to recent scientific studies, all diets lead to weight loss. However, some diets are good for you, some are not so good, and some can actually hurt you. Some are straight-forward, while others are too hard to understand or difficult to follow. No matter … they all work. And here’s why: When we diet, we pay close attention to what we eat and how much we eat. When not dieting, we’re not as observant. So if we want to lose weight, attending to what we eat and how it might affect our lives is a good idea.
The same might can be said of drum exercises. They all work because they all get your hands (and feet) moving. But, like diets, not all exercises are equal. Some will transport your playing to the next level, while others won’t have much impact on your actual playing, and some may send you off in the wrong direction. A few can even cause damage. (Fortunately, damaging routines are pretty rare.)

If you've found that your practice schedule has become bloated or seems unproductive, here’s a simple litmus test to eliminate the ‘bad foods’ from your drum diet.

1. Is it useful?
Can I relate the material to the music that I play? If I can’t think of a tune or a place in a tune where the material would be a good fit, then I'll likely take it off my schedule.

2. Is it achievable and in a reasonable length of time?
I like to do a return on investment analysis on exercises. What am I going to get back from this and how long will that take? If the ROI doesn't make sense, then I’ll move on to something else.

3. Is it “me”?It’s important that what we work on helps us to express ourselves and our personal musical sense. While it might be useful and achievable, does it fit with what I want to do on the drums?  As with a diet, if it doesn’t suit me, there’s not much point in spending time on it. 

There is so much material around these days that there's no excuse for working on stuff that won’t get you to where you want to go. The challenge, then, is to separate the wheat from the chaff to make your practice schedule both lean and nutritious.

Friday, 20 September 2019

Inspiration From The Stars

I picked up a copy of the Sabian publication “Create: 2017 Cymbals & Sounds”. It’s a 40-page full colour magazine provided free by Sabian and distributed through music equipment outlets. It’s really just a catalogue of their various products, but it delivers quite a bit more. The book is filled with information about cymbals: how they’re made, how they’re used, how designs came about, what different features mean. There’s lots of cymbal lore and history too. If someone wanted to quickly learn about cymbals, this edition would be a great place to start. And it’s free! 
 When I was still saving up for my first cymbals, I cherished similar books from Zildjian called “Cymbal Setups of Famous Drummers”. While these publications may be thinly disguised sales tools, they give us is an intimate look into the personal sound choices of the premier drummers of the day. I found it helpful to know what cymbals my favourite players were using to make the sounds I heard on recordings. It helped me to develop a short list of cymbals to investigate. (My current cymbal set-up is very much like the set Joe Morello used on "Take 5", which I find quite interesting.)

But there’s an even bigger dividend that these books can deliver: enthusiasm. I find it hard to not be pumped when leafing through the Sabian book, just as I did with the Zildjian books years ago. I read about the history of the company, the different methods used and how methods have changed over the centuries. I learned about the different sound options that new designs give us, often with commentary from the artist who helped create the cymbal or series.

What I value most about these books is that they make cymbals and cymbal history interesting, and that can lead to enthusiasm. The stories invite us to join the cymbal community and to cherish the rich culture of cymbals -- and that's an exciting prospect. 

My hope for young and new drummers is that they find a vehicle that can help them get excited about cymbals and cymbal lore. And for those of us who are teachers and mentors, perhaps we can help foster and sustain this enthusiasm. 

You can download a PDF copy of the 2017 edition from Sabian:

Friday, 6 September 2019

Today I'm going to teach you ...

I see a lot of instructional videos these days that take the approach that if I demonstrate something and throw in a little (or a lot of) explanation and serve it up online, then I’m teaching. Well, I’ve been a teacher for too long to think that a one-time demonstration on a computer screen will get the job done, no matter how good the demonstration and explanation might be.

Over the millennia, teaching has evolved to accommodate numbers, sometimes to the detriment of the individual. My first-year sociology class is a perfect example: 700+ students in one room. It's impossible to 'teach' a class of 700 people! Yes, you can get the material out there, and most will pick up enough of it to pass an exam. But is this teaching? Taken to the next level, it’s a lot easier, and a lot cheaper, to reach students over the internet.
Great artists study with great teachers, and not in a class room or by video. Always have; always will. It’s one-on-one ...  no exceptions. Teaching is -- or should be -- coaching. I show you, you try it. I explain the philosophy and purpose behind what I’m showing you. I present the material that needs to be mastered and in an order that’s right for you. I reframe it if my explanation didn’t work for you, and reframe it again and again until you get it. I monitor your progress. And I’ll only introduce new material when the student is ready. Too often new material is given as a matter of course, or as a reward for simply showing up,
I've spent a lot of money on lessons and musical education for myself. I've also spent a lot of time figuring things out on my own. And I've been in classrooms and I've sat thru DVD and on-line lessons. What I remember most is the time I spent with a skilled teacher. And while the lessons may have seemed expensive at the time, they paid for themselves over and over because the lessons kicked off an entire chain of insights and accomplishments. I cannot say the same about DVDs and online videos.
I'm not saying that formal lessons are the only way to go, but in my experience, one-on-mentoring and coaching will bring far greater long-term rewards than any other method. It's a gift that keeps on giving.

Monday, 12 August 2019

The Case For Complexity

Bass player 'A' had ended the last song of the set with an exceptionally busy send off. Bass player 'B', who was of a different mind-set, later asked, "Why play something complicated when you can play something simple?" Bass player A replied, "Why play something simple when you can play something complicated?"
Naturally, bass player B was somewhat taken aback and didn't have a response for this. And neither do I. I'd love to be able to lay out a solid, convincing, unassailable argument for keeping it simple.
Simplicity Can be Beautiful
Some of the most moving drum parts I've heard were dirt simple. It might have worked with a more ambitious interpretations, but the simpler one just seemed magical. True, playing simply can be challenging enough, but there are good reasons for not keeping it simple.
Meg White vs. Matt Gartska vs. Max Roach
Different music styles require different levels of busy and different levels of complexity. A thrash metal drummer who isn't busy just won't do, and no one wants the drums front and centre throughout a ballad. Becoming familiar with the milieu will let you know what the standard practices are.
How Dense Can You Be?
I like the notion of musical density. Some music is sonically quite full; other bits are more on the light side. This concept can give some idea of what sort of playing might be appropriate. If I'm playing busy music with busy musicians, then I can stretch out a bit. And if the music is spare, then I may choose to fill it out or I might prefer to imitate wallpaper.
Part Of The Milieu
This goes along with density. Some genres are more dense and thus require more input from all players. Think progressive jazz, prog-rock, fusion, death metal. Power trios benefit from a busy drummer who can help fill things out.
Personal Milestones
The overall busy-ness of your playing changes over time. Most of us go through a honeymoon period, when more is always better. Also, as you grow musically,  you can handle more complex situations. So while we may overplay in the beginning, most of us adapt to the music before too long. We may then go on to learn to deal with more and more complex music.
It's part of the fun
First of all, raw energy is compelling. Pushing the music hard can get the entire room jumping, and complexity can deliver a lot of energy. Complexity is also inherently rewarding. There's the challenge of doing something complicated, and also the resulting buzz.

Friday, 19 July 2019

Some of my Favourite Drummers are Invisible

I was sitting in a club listening to one of my drum heroes when I asked myself what it was that I found so appealing about his playing. I listened carefully as he played through the head, backed each soloist, took a solo, and wrapped things up. His playing rose and fell beautifully with the music, but for the most part, he seemed to be barely there: supportive but unobtrusive ... almost invisible. Some of the very best drummers are virtually unheard of.  When it comes to the needs of music, visibility -- or, rather, audibility -- is often not high on the list. There are high profile drummers we admire who have the ability to disappear as well as get noticed. Vinnie Calaiuta is a great example. When it calls for flash, you couldn't want for more. But look at Vinnie's recording credits and you'll find loads of examples where he takes musical invisibility to heart.

A lot of drummers who qualify as invisible: Hal Blaine, Earl Palmer,  Clem Catini. Even the more flamboyant drummers -- Buddy Rich, Keith Moon, Mike Portnoy -- fade into the background when it suits the music. They all played out front when necessary but were just as happy sitting back and grooving their butts off. What it comes down to is that these players could be anybody during the body of a tune, but when their creative skills were needed,  well there’s no mistaking a Hal Blaine fill.
Being invisible doesn't mean not contributing or not being creative or not being sensitive to the music. Quite the opposite. Being a musical drummer means that you can sense what the music needs and then deliver just the right thing -- no more, no less. You are part of the recipe, the way that leavening is a part of the cake. So when the drums belong in the background, that's where they should go.
I love the supportive aspect of this approach. These drummers sit in the mix in such a way that the music is fully supported and carried along by the drum beat, it's just that it's not obvious and sometimes you have to listen for it. 
Next time you're Listening to any well-produced track, note whether the drummer is sitting quietly at the back or way out front. Which do you prefer? Which is better for the tune?