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Most of us have been there.
We’re playing a song with a great band, and something isn’t clicking. A slow song feels like a dirge, a fast song sounds chaotic and messy, and sometimes our best attempts to fix the problem make it worse.
There are several fixes for these sorts of problems, and we’re going to talk about a key one today, but first, I need to tell you a quick story.
In the early 2000s, pretty much every high school student in the UK had to take a set of cookery classes. At the age of thirteen, I was about to take part in one myself.
Recipe in my hand, with a whole load of ingredients in front of me, I was ready to get stuck in. A young teaching assistant was walking around to each student. She was young and – if I remember right – very pretty.
She walked over to check in with me, and I told her that I would improvise on some aspects of my recipe. I was pretty delighted when she compared me to TV chef Jamie Oliver (himself a renowned improviser). To start, I mixed chicken, some vegetables, flour, and oil. I threw things into the bowl with real flair and imagination.
The dexterity and skill with which I held the whisk as I stirred it all up was reminiscent of the way Jack Sparrow handles a light blade.
My ‘food-art’ seemed to be coming together. I shoved it all in the oven and whacked the stove to high. I left it to do its thing and went off to find some friends, hoping to kill some time by messing around (in truth, they worked way more carefully than I was).
Half an hour later, armed with nothing but my ill-judged confidence, I prepared to pull the best stew in the world from the oven. It was going to be delicious.
Except it wasn’t.
My stew had turned into a carpet of fat and was studded with bits of burned chicken, peppers, and potato. It was awful – sickening, even.
At my school, we had to take our cookery home to share with our family. As I rolled the carpet of sludge into an empty lunchbox, I decided not to share mine. I still think they owe me one for that!
It’s funny, really; I completely wrecked that meal, but the one thing that bugged me was not knowing what I did wrong. Sure, I should’ve followed the recipe, but why on Earth did one food-formula work, while my improvisation failed?
It turns out that I wasn’t like Jamie Oliver at all (big surprise). I was just a kid taking a guess, and it didn’t pay off!
Understanding Drum Feel
As a professional musician, I often see drum students making the same mistake that I did back then. Drummers can follow a recipe, too – by reading drum sheet music or copying our favorite songs note-for-note. Alternatively, we can improvise our own parts.
The problem is, if these creations start to go slightly awry, how can we diagnose the issue? Let’s look at one of the ways now, lest our grooves become as tasteless as a thirteen-year-old’s stew!
Starting With Eighths
When most people start drumming, they usually learn the same basic rock groove (pictured below). It’s an excellent introduction to basic coordination.
It’ll get someone playing along to most songs in their CD collection (or their iTunes or Spotify library). The groove works well because it is balanced and symmetrical. It also works because it sounds pretty good at most tempos – it can fit with a slow song effectively as a fast song.
As drummers develop, we learn about snare independence, kick independence, and other ways to vary our grooves. It helps to have many possible grooves up our sleeve, just as it’d help a car mechanic have a wide variety of tools to suit each job.
Sometimes though, we can fall back on these tools a bit too quickly. We can use far simpler methods to add interest to a song.
Think of a slow song, ‘Someone You Loved‘ by Peter Capaldi, for instance, or a classic like ‘Man in the Mirror‘ by Michael Jackson. If you have the means, try playing our basic, eighth note rock groove to one of these songs (pick another if you prefer).
You’ll probably find that the groove works okay, but it may feel a little sluggish and slow. I know of some drummers who find this when they play at their church; a slow song starts okay, but then feels slower, and slower, and slower the longer it carries on.
The energy starts to evaporate, and even if the song hasn’t actually changed in tempo, it still seems to crawl by at a snail’s pace.
The band may know that things lack energy, but no one knows how to fix it. Bringing the snare mentioned above or kick independence here is tempting, but doing so may clutter things up. The groove can sound too aggressive against the gentler feel of the song.
Instead of adding lots of extra kicks and snares, we can change our eighth-note hi-hat to sixteenth notes. By doing this, we add subtle energy, which pushes the music along without muddying the song.
As the tide undercurrent or one of those moving walkways you find at an airport, some added movement starts to appear within the track, which adds a feeling of impetus and momentum.
No one else in the band has to do anything different. The sixteenth notes on the hi-hat will keep things feeling brisk and shiny.
Bring Your Quarter To The Slaughter
Picture a faster song now: maybe ‘Stitches‘ by Sean Mendes, or – if you’d prefer – a fast metal track. We might find that our eighth-note groove is too cluttered now.
There are too many hi-hats in the groove, and some of them are getting in the way. Sixteenth notes will only make things worse at this point. Taking kick drums and snare drums away will change the groove too much and change the song’s feel too drastically.
Instead of this, using quarter notes on the hi-hat can be useful:
This type of groove is usually harder to play, but if you’ve mastered it, you’ll find it adds a lot of space in a phrase that previously sounded a bit chaotic. This can also be a game-changer when there are fast, complicated rhythms being played on other instruments.
A Quick Aside…
At this point, it’s probably worth saying that – just like the skilled car mechanic – we might find more than one use for each tool. There’s not necessarily a hard and fast rule about which means we must use and when.
The question should always be, “How can I contribute to this song’s overall feel in the most effective way possible?”
Faster songs can sometimes benefit from pacey sixteenths to create maximum energy in the arrangement (and there may be space in other instrument parts to make room for these). ‘Mr Brightside‘ by The Killers would tick this box.
Likewise, several heavy metal drummers use quarter note hi-hat grooves in slow contexts to create a feeling of heaviness and weight in their music.
There’s no absolute formula, then. Music is an art, and that means we’re allowed to be creative. Think of a first date with someone: there is a whole world of possible activities you could try, but the right one will depend on the context and the person.
Some strong, basic principles apply to most first date activities, and we usually learn through advice and experience. It’s the same with drumming – there is a world of possibilities open to us.
Still, some sound basic principles will be very useful for us if we apply them well. We can hone these through advice and experience.
Let’s look at two final examples then (okay -technically three, if you’re keeping score)!
Mixing It Up!
Sometimes we might feel a need to find a middle ground between eighth and sixteenth note hi-hat grooves: the eighth notes feel too pedestrian, but the sixteenth notes feel too cluttered.
Well, here we can play eighth notes on the hi-hat while adding the occasional sixteenth-note figure to keep things lively, without muddying the waters. You hear this sort of thing in a lot of tracks, through a lot of genres.
Changing Our Accent
The last option we’ll consider is a little different but can be effective. Sometimes, none of the hi-hat ideas above will cut it. Most drummers naturally put a slight accent on beats one, two, three, and four, and this can sometimes make the music feel a bit staid and tame.
We can add a degree of movement and ‘bounce’ into a groove by playing eighth notes on the hi-hat, but accenting all of the ‘+’s instead of the numbers.
For a more extreme effect, we can cut the hi hat from the numbers altogether. You’ll notice that both these grooves lose a little bit of their flow, but that they gain a little extra skip.
These grooves are very common in hip hop, and it would fit in with a track like ‘Doin‘ by John Reuben.
The Final Thought
Sometimes, when we’re playing in a band, jamming with friends, or just grooving to a favorite track in our collection, our drumming doesn’t sit right.
The song starts to feel a bit lackluster, and something seems to be missing. The temptation might be to start throwing complicated kick and snare independence around.
The rest of the band may start to turn up the amps, or to play more aggressively in an attempt to inject energy,but this can make things sound harsh and messy.
Changing something in the drum part won’t always fix the problem – another instrument might need to play a different rhythm, or maybe there needs to be morecontrast between the verses and choruses.
But sometimes, a few simple alterations to the hi-hat line can breathe extra life into a track. This can tie everything together with a certain X-factor, which makes everything sit just right.
A Task To Get You Started
As you’re listening to music this week, try to identify what the drummer is doing and try to reflect upon the impact this has on the rest of the music.
Ask yourself if you think another approach might also be practical – consider the options in each song you study.
Try these ideas out for yourself, too. Try the simple hi-hat variations in this article with lots of different songs – see which ones work best.
Remember: there are no hard and fast rules for this. By experimenting and listening to a lot of music, you can start to develop an instinct for which subdivisions will be most effective in each context.
Don’t over-think it, have fun and experiment – unless you’re cooking; in that case, it’s probably best to follow the recipe!
About the Author
Chris Witherall is a pro drummer, producer and songwriter from London, England. He loves talking about music, and helping people to reach their music goals.