Monday, November 12, 2012

Lessons From A Really Old Drum Tune

When I was a youngster and just getting interested in drums, the bar had been set -- likely unknowingly -- by a drummer named Ron Wilson. Wilson played with a band called the Surfaris and their single hit record was a drum feature called Wipe Out. After a creepy witch-like voice cries "Wipe Out", Wilson tears into it with 16th notes on the tom tom. The band joins in with a one-figure blues riff, and the rest is rock and roll history.

Although drums are a vital part of all modern music, it's rare to see them front and centre. So Wipe Out gets a nod for putting the drummer out there. But there are other features of the tune that are worth noting.

The basic rhythm pattern for Wipe Out is pretty simple -- one bar of straight 16ths and one bar of syncopation -- but its implications are far reaching. That bar of straight 16ths provides a lot of forward motion and quite a bit of primitive rhythm. The second bit is a structure that has been found in music for hundreds of years and is showing no signs of fatigue. There's an accent on the downbeat, another accent in the middle of the second beat and a final accent on the fourth beat. The effect is a bit like three beats where there ought to be four. Quite provocative (and also part of the important clave rhythm of Latin music). If we were to count out the pulses in 2/8 rather than 4/4, the first bar’s rhythm would come out as | 12 | 12 | 12 | 12 |. The next bar would flow out as two groups of 3 plus a group of 2 (3 + 3 + 2 = 8). Thus: | 123 | 123 | 12 |. Look around and you'll find this figure -- 123 123 12 -- almost everywhere. (For the theoretically minded, the structure is called a hemiola.)

According to Pat Connolly, bass player for the Surfaris, Wipe Out was inspired by a paradiddle ‘drum cadence’ that Wilson was working on for his high school parade band. If that's the case, then it's entirely possible that he was playing paradiddles throughout, and the easiest way to get that Wipe Out rhythm is to use groups of 2 and 3, i.e. single and double paradiddles:

    Singles:  RLRR | LRLL | RLRR | LRLL
    Doubles crossing the bar line:  RLRL | RR  LR | LRLL | RLRR
    More singles:  LRLL | RLRR | LRLL | RLRR
    And finish with doubles:  LRLR | LL  RL | RLRR | LRLL

The tune itself is 12-bar blues in its most basic form. The first 4 bars is a riff played on the tonic. The next four bars are the same riff, two bars on the fourth and two bars on the tonic. The final four bars wrap it up by playing the first bar of the riff on the fifth, repeating that on the fourth, and then finish on the tonic. Thus, the basic blues changes:

    1 | 1 | 1 | 1
    4 | 4 | 1 | 1
    5 | 4 | 1 | 1
And there you have the basic form and changes for 12-bar blues.

Interestingly, Wipe Out is one of the most recognized pop music drum tunes of all time, and has been featured in more than 80 movies.


Friday, November 2, 2012

A Simple Fix

Drummers are fortunate these days. There are so many makes and models of drums available that there's something for everyone. But the real good news is that drum quality is at an all-time high. Many brands offer a bewildering away of choices, often starting at entry-level prices (and then heading off into the stratosphere). And some of these lower priced drums are diamonds in the rough.

The main differences between modestly priced drums from good makers and their more expensive siblings are the quality of the raw materials and the attention given to the drum during assembly. An easy way to keep costs down is to skimp a bit on parts and labour. What this means is that less expensive drums can often be improved considerably with very little cost and effort.

I recently bought a used snare drum produced by one of my favourite makers. These drums are solid, but are the company's second lowest tier. Looking closely at the drum, what I saw was a high quality, well-finished shell, decent enough hardware, budget snare wires, medium quality heads, and a snare butt plate that's probably going to fall apart before long.

The first thing I did with the drum was remove the heads and snares. A quick check of the bearing edges and snare beds showed that they were well done. No need for attention there. Next I got out my socket wrench and tightened all of the components attached to the shell. If the tension casings aren't snug enough -- and they weren't -- the drum won't stay in tune. (In fact, the reason the drum was for sale was because the original owner complained it wouldn’t stay in tune.)

I like to lightly sand the bearing edges with very fine sandpaper -- just a few swipes with 600 and 1000 grit to polish them. This makes it easier for the heads to seat themselves. Then I give the bearing edge a light coat of paraffin. 

And now let's reassemble. 

I gave all of the tension bolts a wee drop of general-purpose oil. Never use grease here as this can promote loosening. I opted to keep the snare head, but replaced the batter head with a top quality one. When tightening the tension bolts, I keep them as even as possible, counting turns -- half-turns actually, where 1 twist =1/2 turn.

I set aside the snares to use on another drum and installed a better set. While doing this, I had a look at how the snares are attached. It's surprising how much difference a change of string can make here, and it’s a good idea to experiment with different strings and straps. I discarded the original plastic straps and used the fine string that came with the new snare wires. When installing the snares, I positioned them so the butts are at the same distance from the edge of the shell on both sides while under tension.

And that's all there is to it. This is a small bit of maintenance that you can do with any drum, and it's pretty much guaranteed that your drums will sound and feel better, and that they’ll stay in tune longer.