Funk Part 3 supplement — James Jamerson


“What’s Going On” might not be classified as funk, but the Unassuming Principle is at work here on many levels, most of all James Jamerson’s bass performance. 

Jamerson, who revolutionized the electric bass and has influenced generations of players, is known for his rhythmic counterpoint and melodicism.  What eludes so many of his imitators, however, is his ability to do all of it without calling attention to himself.

The experience of discovering Jamerson often creeps up on listeners.  They have heard Motown hits for years, and then one day while listening to, say, “Bernadette” or “I Second That Emotion,” they think, “Wow!  That bass player.”  Then they start noticing the Jamerson touch alive in so many other songs.  It’s as if some veil has been lifted from their ears.

What defines Jamerson’s greatness is that his playing sounds as if it is content to live beneath that veil. He is said to have recorded this particular track while lying on his back, staring at the ceiling.  Whether or not it’s true, it certainly sounds as if it could be.  His sound and ideas are channeled from the depths of the groove, a place the spotlight can’t reach. 

James Jamerson Image via

James Jamerson
Image via


Thank you for reading.

Funk Part 3 — The Unassuming Principle

The Soul Train Dancers — peerless evangelists of the Unassuming Principle

The Soul Train Dancers — peerless evangelists of the Unassuming Principle


My interest in funk has been deepened by confronting the difficulties of playing it.  On the surface, the challenge of funk lies in the syncopations and complexity of the grooves.  But listening more closely reveals the biggest trick of all—rendering the complexity with a performance that somehow attracts attention without calling attention to itself. 

It sounds counterintuitive, because funk is well known for its over-the-top presentation, its outright renunciation of modesty—the mugging of the singers; the sunglasses, capes and top hats; the star-shaped guitars; the spaceships.  Yet all of that requires a particular humility.  

Humility to what?

The groove.

I'm not saying funk at large is unassuming.  I'm saying its bad-assed nature is born of something that somehow never needs to call attention to itself.  To play funk, one must keep one’s cool, in the deepest sense of the word, and let the groove do the work.  


Kool and the Gang’s “Jungle Boogie” embodies this principle.  The groove elicits relaxation, coolness.  Indeed, the juxtaposition of the easygoing performance against the vocal fireworks and action-packed arrangement is what produces the larger-than-life coolness of funk bands in general.

Note that as you listen, your joints loosen.  And note how deftly that relaxation is balanced against the song's many points of emphasis.   The band implores “Get down! Get down!” but not from a place of effort and tension.  The singing, like the playing beneath it, loosens us up.

The Unassuming Principle is also embodied in funk's dance moves.  This is video from the Jackson Five’s audition for Motown.  They are covering James Brown's "I Got The Feelin'."  Michael Jackson must be eight years old here, and the expressive power of his voice is already astonishing.  The singing embodies the Unassuming Principle, and so does his dancing.   If you are as dazzled by his moves as I am, see if your bedazzlement might be located in his absence of effort.  He’s not trying to be funky; he simply is funky.  The relaxation of his entire presentation suggests "How could it be otherwise?"  

He’s not calling attention to himself, and yet all of our attention is on him.  That is the beautiful mystery of the Unassuming Principle.

Thank you for reading.

Funk Part 2 supplement — Earth Wind & Fire’s “Shining Star”


The size of Earth Wind & Fire’s ensemble, with two guitars, multiple drummer/percussionists, multiple vocalists, and horns, demanded a careful ear for arrangement (which is why so many of their imitators fell short of Earth Wind & Fire’s greatness).

What’s interesting to note here is that the primary puzzle pieces of the verse (the drums, the bass, and the guitarist strumming a repeating pattern in the right channel) also accommodate the second guitarist, in the left channel, who improvises a one-note accompaniment.  This gives the piece more looseness, more of the spontaneous, improvised flavor of jazz.   Amazingly, ample room remains for the vocals. 

Such careful arranging is one of Earth Wind & Fire’s trademarks, and very difficult to pull off.  Credit is due not only to the players but also to the judicious ears of their producer, the great Charles Stepney.

Legendary producer Charles Stepney Image via

Legendary producer Charles Stepney
Image via


Funk Part 2 supplement — Tito Puente's "Oye Como Va"

One of the 20th century's musical giants, Tito Puente.  Image via

One of the 20th century's musical giants, Tito Puente.  Image via


The Puzzle Principle holds across musical traditions, though it is especially applicable in funk because of the sharp angles that define the genre.


This classic from Tito Puente illustrates the Puzzle Piece principle at work.  Note how the arrangement builds, one part at a time, not only tantalizing the listeners but teaching them how to assemble the parts.

Note also the Teeter-Totter principle at work in the intro, where the accented riff is backed by steady handclaps, so that the syncopation has a strong-beat framework to help make it pop (and perhaps to keep the dancers moving more easily).

Funk Part 2 supplement — Betty Wright's "Clean Up Woman."

The awesome Betty Wright.  Image via

The awesome Betty Wright.  Image via


This week we’ve been exploring funk music.

In Funk — Syncopation and the Teeter Totter Principal and Funk — The Teeter Totter principle in action. Cameo's "Rigor Mortis" we explored how various funk classics balance strong and weak beats to produce such danceable music.

In Funk — The Puzzle Principle we heard how funk is constructed of intricately designed (and precisely played) parts.  

Betty Wright’s “Clean Up Woman” illustrates both principles.


Note the Teeter Totter Principle in action here.  The other instruments (two guitars, bass, and horns) work the syncopation, but the drums keep a fairly straight framework around all of it.  Note how the groove come to life with the entrance of the drums.  (A more syncopated drum part might weight things too heavily on the side of the weak beats.)

And note the intricate fitting together of the parts (the Puzzle Principle).  As is often the case with funk, the song starts with the parts introduced one at a time.  One guitar, then the second guitar, then the base, and then the rest of the band.  Notice how this is not only fun, it teaches the listener how to assemble the parts in her mind and listen.

Thank you for reading.

Funk Part 2 — The Puzzle Principle

James Brown, master of the Puzzle Principle. Image via alldylan .com .

James Brown, master of the Puzzle Principle. Image via


The classic funk sound that emerged in the late 1960s featured large ensembles and intricate arrangements.  Indeed, one of the rewards of listening to this era of funk is hearing how intricately the grooves have been assembled like puzzle pieces.  The pieces themselves are the simple, repeating parts that the individual musicians play that then fit together to form a dazzling whole.   

image via   Musicians carve up a unit of musical time into pieces and assemble the pieces into a groove.

image via

Musicians carve up a unit of musical time into pieces and assemble the pieces into a groove.

Image via  tangram  In funk music, the shapes combine to form intricate patterns.  Note that the sharp angles and intricate design demand a steadier sense of time out of the players.  Without that, the sharp angles would become blurred and the rhythmic images would makes less sense to the listener.  All kinds of genres, including Rock & Roll, make use of repeating patterns.  In rock, the pieces are generally simpler, in part because rock does not move in the shorter subdivisions of funk and also because in rock, the emphasis is on full-chord riffs rather than single-note patterns that can move quickly but less obtrusively, as in funk.

Image via

In funk music, the shapes combine to form intricate patterns.  Note that the sharp angles and intricate design demand a steadier sense of time out of the players.  Without that, the sharp angles would become blurred and the rhythmic images would makes less sense to the listener.

All kinds of genres, including Rock & Roll, make use of repeating patterns.  In rock, the pieces are generally simpler, in part because rock does not move in the shorter subdivisions of funk and also because in rock, the emphasis is on full-chord riffs rather than single-note patterns that can move quickly but less obtrusively, as in funk.


This approach demands each player’s disciplined adherence to the prescribed part.  Without that, the groove would fill up with notes and thereby lose shape, and in funk, the shape of the groove is everything. 


James Brown's influence will be heard in subsequent examples, so let's start with him.  “Mother Popcorn” illustrates the Puzzle Principle in action.  See if you can zero in on this or that part; you’ll hear it repeat.  This is no loose jam.  The groove's sharp angles would be lost were the players to stray from their parts.  

Furthermore, note how each part leaves a lot of open space.  The guitar, for instance, is playing single notes instead of chords, which is typical of funk.

JB w new birds.jpg

Indeed, even when the parts are combined, ample space is left for James Brown to stretch out with his singing and punctuate the band groove with percussive shouts of his own.  This is a product of his insistent attention on the arrangement.


Sly Stone’s “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)” is driven by the interplay between the bass and guitar, the drums providing the framework that clarifies the nature of that interplay.  (This is the Teeter Totter Principle in action.)  One of my favorite details of this groove is how Larry Graham’s bass part finds a low, sustained E every other round of the pattern.  It calls pleasing attention to the architecture of the groove.


The above video captures an excavation of the groove, as the band reunites in the studio to hear the tracks in various combinations.

Image via

Image via


This sixteenth century gate from India illustrates the principle at work in classic funk music—composition out of simple, repeating patterns that combine to produce the effect.  Note how pleasing and necessary the repetition is.  The intricacy of the design demands it, for without the repetition, the effect would vanish, just as a funk groove would lose definition if the players strayed from their parts. Note also the reliance on sharply drawn lines, which are analogous to the precision demanded of funk players.


AWB’s “School Boy Crush” is a good example of how funk grooves typically embody the Puzzle Principle and the Teeter Totter Principle in action.  The groove is constructed from individual simple, repeating patterns (the Puzzle Principle), and these patterns combine weak and strong beats in danceable proportions (the Teeter Totter Principle in action).  In fact, each part takes turns on both sides of the strong/weak-beat teeter totter. 

A final thought.  A likely source for this approach might be the compositional insights of African drumming tradition, where the individual musicians play simple, repeating parts that interlock to stunning effect.  Here's a glimpse.


Thank you for reading.

Funk Part 1 supplement — The Bar Kays' "Shake Your Rump to the Funk"


If you are dancing along to this funk gem, note what happens during the first ten seconds of the song.

0:00-0:02     drums accent the full-band riffs
0:03-0:05     drums play backbeat
0:06-0:08     drums accent the full-band riffs
0:09- . . .       drums play backbeat

This same sequence repeats at the 1:56 mark.

Do you notice how much easier it is to dance with the backbeat in place?  When the drums join the full-band riffs, it creates a temporary imbalance because the strong-beat framework is eclipsed by the accented syncopated notes (the second, fourth, sixth, and eighth notes in the nine-note riff pattern).

ba-PAH ba-PAH ba-PAH ba-PAH BAH

This is the teeter-totter principle in action (and an example of the fun one can create by challenging the dancers).

Note that this arrangement move relies on the drummer Mike Beard's smooth transition from the accented riff to the backbeat.


Thank you for reading.

Funk Part 1 supplement — Cameo's "Rigor Mortis."

In the previous post, Funk—Syncopation and the Teeter Totter Principle, I discussed how funk music plays with syncopation.  The great funk artists have an ear for how to balance the emphasis of strong and weak beats.  Cameo, for example.


The introductory bars of  “Rigor Mortis” present an interesting challenge.  The vocal and instrumental melody emphasize an extended series of weak beats. 

I don't see why you won't groove, won't have this dance with me.
Rigor Mortis won't sit, just sit there and you'll see,
The music sounds to good for you to look and act this way.
Just free your mind of all your thoughts and you will surely say, “Yeah!”

(I've bolded the syllables falling on the downbeats, which are strong.  The remaining syllables fall on weak beats.)

What helps the groove pop is the fact that Larry Blackmon’s drumbeat is holding down the strong beats.  He frames the context for the syncopation.  Drummers, take note.

Hall of Fame funksters Cameo.  Image via .

Hall of Fame funksters Cameo.  Image via


Thank you for reading.

Funk Part 1 — The Teeter Totter Principle

When we listen to music, our ears organize things rhythmically.  We instinctively place emphasis on some beats and deemphasize others.   Were we unable to make these distinctions, we would not be able to grasp rhythm.

Syncopation happens when rhythmic emphasis falls on a weak as opposed to strong beat.  Syncopation can thereby enliven a rhythm by simulating what happens in our bodies when we dance.  We might land on the strong beats, but our joints are flexing on the weak beats, so emphasis there keeps our bodies in motion.

You might think of syncopation as analogous to hot sauce: It can be added in varying amounts, with varying effects.

Funk music, aimed as it is at dancers, provides countless illustrations of what I call the teeter-totter principle, the balancing of the tradeoffs that come when we make a particular groove more or less syncopated.  



This is a classic track from the Whispers, with drumming by one of my all-time favorites, Wardell Potts Jr.

Note the handclaps that enter with the singing.  They fall on “two” and “four” of each four-count measure, aligning with the words thusly:

When times get tough, I want to . . .

Now, try clapping (or patting your knee) on “one” and “three.”

When times get tough . . .

You may notice how this switch saps the groove somewhat.  The shift to clapping on “one” and “three” changes the balance of strong-beats to weak.


Think of the groove as a teeter-totter.   At one end sit the strong beats and at the other, the weak beats.  When balanced, the riders have an easier time moving up and down.  But when we start shifting weight to one side, the work for the riders increases.  The work will appeal to some and not to others.


In “The Best of My Love” by the Emotions, the hand claps in the song come on “two” and “four” of each measure.   If you were to clap along on “one” and “three,” the groove would not suffer as much as in the case of the Whispers track.  That’s because the song's melody emphasizes weak beats:

Doesn’t take much to make me happy
And make me smile with glee
Never, never will I be discouraged
‘Cause our love’s no mystery

If you were to pat your hand on “one,” “two,” “three,” and “four” of each measure, you’d notice that Sheila Hutchinson’s vocal line hits all of the moments when your hand is raised.  The song has a tad more syncopation built into it.  Even so, this groove and the Whisper’s groove hit a sort of iconic funk/r&b sweet spot.

While it may be natural to suppose that syncopation  make a song danceable, it’s interesting to consider the tradeoffs that come with each added bit of syncopation.  


Consider the aptly titled (and oft-sampled) James Brown song, “Funky Drummer.”

Notice how this track immediately assumes a listener’s ability to make her way through a more syncopated landscape.  Listen to the Clyde Stubblefield's famous (and oft sampled) drumbeat at 5:20.  Is it danceable?  Of course!  But will everyone who can dance to the Emotions be able to dance to this?  No, because to do so requires a greater ability to feel the strong beats even when they aren’t played.  Those who can feel the strong beats, however, will feel the full ticklish power of this groove.


Tower of Power’s classic, “What Is Hip,” makes even bigger demands of the listener.  Again, this is merely an observation, not a criticism.  Audiences enjoy having demands placed on them.

If you dance along with the track, notice what is expected of you at 0:52, when the drums and bass combine to emphasize weak beats and leave dancers to imagine the strong beats in their minds. The weak-beat end of the teeter-totter is getting heavier.


Devo’s reworking of the Rolling Stones “Satisfaction,” is so weighted on the side of syncopation, a listener can easily get lost.  As a result, notice the difficulty of dancing.  (This is not to deny that some may be thrilled by the rhythmic play and Devo’s twisted and insightful reworking of the original.)

If one does get lost, it’s because one has become so overwhelmed by the syncopations as to be unable to decide which beats are strong and which are not, which results in our inability to organize things rhythmically in our mind.

The teeter-totter principle does not prescribe any particular weighting between strong and weak beats.  It simply observes that shifting the balance comes with tradeoffs.  And playing with the tradeoffs is what art is all about.

Thank you for reading.

Musical Time Part 5 — Texture

This week I’ve been writing about musical time and how it is shaped.

In “Hearing Musical Time”, I discussed how a drummer’s shaping of time imbues the whole ensemble with a particular personality.  In “Hearing Musical Time Part 2 — Three Springsteen Drummers,” I compared the different sides of Bruce Springsteen brought out by drummers Vini Lopez, Boom Carter, and Max Weinberg.

In this post, I’d like to try something similar with two drummers who played with John Coltrane—Elvin Jones and Roy Haynes.  We’ll have the advantage of being able to compare them playing the exact same song, “My Favorite Things.”  In earlier posts, I’ve focused more on differences in the shape of time and suggested that evenly-kept time resembles a round wheel and uneven time-keeping resembles a more misshapen wheel.  We’ve heard how the variety of shapes creates interesting possibilities.

Here, I’d like to focus more on the texture of a drummer's timekeeping.  On these two recordings, Elvin Jones and Roy Haynes create radically different textures that make a bit impact on the ensemble.

Before listening, we should note that many of the differences between these two recordings stem from the fact that the first is studio recording and the second is a live performance (and live performances are inevitably more upbeat).  Also, each drummer is paired with a different bass player, Jones with Steve Davis and Haynes with Jimmy Garrison.  These are significant variables, not to be overlooked.


Example 1 — Elvin Jones

The awesome Elvin Jones via

The awesome Elvin Jones via


The round subtleness of Elvin Jones’s swing is iconic.  As you listen, pay attention, however, to the delicate dance of his sticks on the ride cymbal and snare drum.  This delicacy allows Coltrane’s saxophone to claim the foreground.

The drumming starts to open slightly around the 2:00 mark, more so after the 8:00 mark.  But as the swing deepens and the sticks and pedals dance more, the texture remains nuanced, especially because the constancy of the ride cymbal.  The texture is wonderfully silken time, and because it doesn’t snag our ears, the drumming allows the listeners ample cognitive space to absorb the solos by Coltrane and pianist McCoy Tyner.

Compare that with . . . 

Example 2 — Roy Haynes

This second recording was a live recording and made almost three years after the first.  It’s also faster.  These facts may largely account for the aggressiveness of this second performance.

Nevertheless, where Elvin Jones’s timekeeping in the first recording is distinguished by the silken dance of the sticks on the ride cymbal and snare, Roy Haynes splashes the time around his entire drum kit.  He disrupts, leaves holes, creates enjambments, and sends the groove tumbling over itself.  The time keeps moving at tempo, but each turn of the wheel emphasizes a different moment within the bar.

In fact, forget the wheel; it’s as if the time keeps breaking over itself like a wave.  The rough and tumble texture of the time gives Coltrane something to fight against.  It feels as if we are watching him surf to shore, crashing through the water, swallowed by a wave and then miraculously resurfacing, swallowed again and then reemerging.

A final thought about this second recording.  Like Elvin Jones, Haynes is a master of shaping time.  Those who thrill at the busyness of his splashes around the drums without noticing the superb shape of his swing are missing something essential.  Consider how difficult it is to do all of this splashing and yet drive the groove so strongly.  As is often the case with drummers, his mastery is hidden in plain sight.

The unstoppable Roy Haynes, via

The unstoppable Roy Haynes, via


Thank you for reading.

Musical Time Part 4 — Practice

This is the fourth post in a series on musical time and is a revised version of a piece I wrote for the English magazine Drummer.  

Whenever I walk down a hall lined with drum practice rooms, I find that what most drummers are practicing are fills and complex patterns that test their limb independence.  Hardly any of them are practicing their feel, their sense of time.  At the soda machine at the end of the hall, you may hear some of these same drummers gather to complain about how their fancy moves around the drums are unappreciated by their band mates.


The following explores but one small piece of the larger question, "How might one deepen one's sense of musical time?"  I think the methods are applicable to any instrument, but as I am a drummer, I'll focus my attention there.

A quick review—Hearing the Shape and Surface of Time

 In the first post in this series, "Hearing Musical Time," I suggested how a drummer’s feel conveys a sense of musical time, its shape and texture. I proposed that you can think of feel as a spinning wheel, where the beats of the bar are points along the edge of that wheel. A drum machine, therefore, generates a feel that is perfectly round, since it positions the beats in the bar with exact evenness. We humans, however, instinctively lay some beats back and push others forward thereby distorting the shape from a perfect circle into something else, something “imperfect” but more expressive than the drum machine.  (This is not to dismiss drum machines and sequencers, which have great uses.) 

A rounder wheel shape (where the beats are more evenly spaced) provides a smoother ride, a less round shape might have more bounce, and a jagged shape might feel frenetic. Each shape has its advantages and drawbacks. In addition, surface elements such as accents, the volume balance within the kit, and the sound characteristics of the drums and cymbals can sharpen or blur the sense of the wheel shape. Together, the shape and surface of a drummer’s feel make a decisive impact on the musical mood.

Study recordings of great drum feels

The definition of “great feel” is subjective; the drumming on any song that makes you feel good in a deeply physical way can be said to have a great feel. To my ears, almost every classic hit from the canon of pop music has a great drum feel of one sort or another. If a track makes you feel good and the drumbeat is easy to play, you’ve found something worth studying.

As you listen, pay attention to the shape and texture of the feel and how they affect the mood of the track. (You can consult part one to recall how we did this with three examples.) Where does the time lay back and where does it push?  What are the particular sounds coming from the kit and how are they produced?  The more you reflect upon these questions, the more you’ll be aware of them in your own playing. If at first the answers seem elusive, don’t worry. Your hearing will develop over time. For now, try to form a mental picture of what you’re hearing and to appreciate the decisive effect that the drum feel makes on everything else, from the bass playing to the vocal performance.

Begin by studying simple beats

By studying simple beats, ones that don’t test your limb independence or speed, you can devote your attention to more elusive aspects of feel.  I wouldn't start with Clyde Stubblefield’s mind-blowing groove on “Funky Drummer.” Find something simpler so you can focus your attention on the subtleties of even the most basic grooves. 

You could easily spend a month studying the simplest kind of drum beat—“one” and “three” on the kick, “two” and “four” on the snare, and eighth notes on a closed high hat. This is the basic beat on any number of songs, including AC/DC’s “Back in Black,” Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down,” and Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams.” The drummers on these tracks play the same beat but create three vastly different moods. The difference is in the feel, the way they shape the time and give it texture through the particular sounds they draw out of their drum kits.

Drummers obsessed with speed and complex patterns will find that this tries their patience. Alas, those same drummers are often the ones most in need of improving their feel.

With this in mind, here are some practice techniques I've used.

Play along with recordings of great feels

First, a cautionary note: Practice with earplugs, especially when practicing while listening to music through headphones. Cranking the volume on your headphones in order to overcome the volume of the drums will permanently damage your hearing! If you use headphones, find some that offer maximum isolation and keep the volume at a safe level, knowing that headphones are deceptively loud. (Even when the volume level feels safe, you can still damage your hearing, and the risk of damage increases the longer you listen.) All drummers are at risk for permanent hearing loss , so protect your ears and have regular hearing tests.

Back to the subject at hand, playing along with a recording of a great feel is immensely instructive. Play through it over and over. You may notice that your limbs begin to move in new ways. Pay attention to that! Adopt whatever postures and motions that help you to mimic the drumming on the recording.

If you have the technology to create loops, you’ll have an additional advantage because isolating a few choice measures of a great feel enables you to really get inside it. For those without the necessary technology, many hip-hop records have already done the looping for you. The Low End Theory by A Tribe Called Quest is a favorite practice album of mine, with a variety of amazing feels.

When playing along with a recorded feel, give yourself over to it.  Relax; the feel won’t come to you by way of exertion.  After playing along for a while, you’ll begin to feel as if your body is a gyroscope that vibrates with the same feel as the record. What you’re aiming for is the illusion that you are the drummer on the recording. Attaining that illusion requires you not only to synchronize your hands and feet with the playing on the recording (thereby adopting the shape of the feel), it also requires you to pay attention to the accents, the volume balance within the kit, and the sounds of the drums themselves (thus adopting the texture, too). As you move on to another track, you’ll find you need to make changes, sometimes radical changes, even when the drumbeats and tempos of the two feels are nearly identical.

Record yourself and listen back

Use a smartphone or dictaphone to record yourself. You don’t need high fidelity, merely something that allows you to evaluate what you’re doing. Press record, and play a minute or so of whatever feel you’re working on.

Now listen back. The difference between what you thought you were playing and what the tape reveals is sobering, often depressing. Nevertheless, recording yourself and listening back offers you a perspective you wouldn’t otherwise have: the ability to hear your drumming as others do. Take heart; recording and listening to yourself can yield fast results. 

What about practicing with a metronome?

Yes, practicing with a metronome is an important part of developing one's sense of time, but let's understand the difference between playing with a metronome and playing with recordings of great feels.  A metronome tells us where our playing is vis-a-vis perfectly even time.  "Where am I pushing and where am I pulling?  Am I rushing the transition to the chorus?"  It's important to know the answers to such questions, so yes, practice with a metronome to cultivate this awareness.

What practicing with recordings of great feels does, however, is to develop our appreciation for how time might be stretched, even in the tiniest amounts.  What does it sound like and how does a particular shaping of time affect the other musicians and the listeners?  These questions require the study of exemplary feels, and practicing with recordings of those feels inscribes the insights more deeply into our playing.

Clark Terry, via

Clark Terry, via

What Clark Terry said

"Won't playing along with recordings of great drum feels turn me into a copycat?"  Quite the opposite. 

Jazz great Clark Terry advised that the way one finds one's voice is to “imitate, assimilate, and innovate.”   That’s the idea here.  By imitating as precisely as possible great drum feels, you begin to assimilate the insights of the great drummers who play them.  Then you might discover that, for instance, the secret to John Bonham's fills is found in the swagger of his backbeat.  Attention to feel will make all aspects of your playing more musical, and the insights you glean from studying the feels on great recordings can become the basis for finding your own voice on the drums.

Expanding the Conversation

Players of any instrument would do well to study how their heroes shape musical time and to play or sing along to recordings made by those artists.  Imagine, for instance, what a singer might learn by teaching herself to match the phrasing of Roberta Flack's devastating performance on "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face."

And, for example, a drummer can learn a lot about drumming by listening to Carole King's stellar piano groove.  (I certainly did!)  The possibilities are endless but are only available to us when we acknowledge our need to study musical time and those who have mastered it.

Thank you for reading.

Musical Time Part 2 — Three of Bruce's Drummers

This is the second post in a series about hearing musical time.  In “Hearing Musical Time,” we explored the ways in which drummers shape and texture musical time.  I used the image of a wheel.  Perfectly even time, such as produced by a drum machine, might be pictured as a perfectly round wheel.  Human drummers, however, tend to push some beats forward and lay others back, which shapes the wheel differently.  The sounds of the drum set give texture to that shape, sharpening or blurring its effect on the music.

When we speak of a drummer’s feel, we are speaking of these elements.  In this post, I’d like to compare three drummers for Bruce Springsteen—Vini Lopez, Boom Carter, and Max Weinberg.  These drummers present an interesting case study because each played with Bruce during a relatively short stretch of his career, from 1973-1975, and each made profound difference on Bruce's sound.

Example 1 — Vini Lopez on "Rosalita"

Vini Lopez was the first E-Street Band drummer.  His nickname, “Mad Dog,” is an apt description of his drumming.  His wheel is anything but round.

In the first seconds of this track, you can hear how uneven the time is. The band can barely get out of the introduction together and takes about 15 seconds to settle into a groove.  He punctuates his time with lots of kick-drum beats and snare drum diddles, all of which call attention to the misshapen wheel. 

But lest anyone think this detracts from the song, Vini’s manic sense of time and the pushing and pulling it produces is essential to the track’s youthful energy!  Because of Vini, the band fishtails as it takes each turn, swerves across the median and then over to the shoulder of the road.  You can almost hear the sirens behind them.

As with any musical choice, one can’t speak in terms of right and wrong, only in terms of tradeoffs.  In terms of even versus uneven time . . . 

Notice that Vini’s time lines up perfectly with Bruce’s album title, The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle.  When Vini left the band, Bruce’s sound became more assured; it never sounded as wild and innocent as when Vini was behind the kit.

Example 2 — Boom Carter on "Born to Run"

“Born to Run” sounds bigger than any other song on the album of the same name, and the decisive element may be Boom Carter’s drumming.  Of the three drummers in this comparison, his time is the most even, the roundest.

Because the drum feel is rounder, we actually pay less attention to the drums and more attention to Bruce.  (Whereas, were it shaped otherwise, our ears would be drawn to the idiosyncrasies of the feel and thus the rest of the band.)  More than any other song on the album, perhaps in his entire recorded output, “Born to Run” presents an iconic Bruce.  On “Rosalita” Bruce sounds like a comer; on “Born to Run,” he comes across as star, a rebel heartthrob.  The roundness of the Boom Carter’s drum feel lets the song roll out before him like a wide-open and smoothly-paved road, and Bruce knows just what to do with it.  This is a Bruce with higher production values.  He is not so innocent anymore.

Example 3 — Max Weinberg on "Jungleland"

The drums enter at 1:50, and now we’re hearing Max Weinberg.  Max’s time is not as round as Boom Carter’s and not as wildly misshapened as Vini’s.  But Max’s feel does not lie at the midway point between those two.  He’s off to the side.  His drumming exudes a certain muscularity, a sense of sweat and effort that wonderfully evokes the struggles heard in the lyrics.  The flavor of Max’s drumming has a lot to do with Bruce’s subsequent musical identity.

Compare the clunky tension of “Jungleland” with the relative smoothness of “Born to Run,” and consider what each song might have lost had the drummers been switched.  Max’s rendering of “Born to Run” might have lacked the easy roll and widescreen hugeness that Boom brought to the song, and Boom’s rendering of “Jungleland” might have lacked the drama that Max gives it.

Finally, remember that each drummer is working with and against Bruce’s own sense of time, which is not so round.  Indeed, his singing and guitar playing, like Max’s drumming, evoke the effort-filled lives depicted in his songs.   Listen to his solo performance of “Atlantic City” and see if you don’t agree.  In the very feel of his strumming and singing, you can hear the uphill battle facing the song’s protagonist.



Thank you for reading.  The next post will consider examples of non-drummers shaping time.

Hearing Musical Time

This week, I want to explore musical time with particular focus on what musicians call feel.

The following is a revised version of a piece I wrote for the English magazine Drummer.  As this concerns listening more than playing, non-drummers may find it of interest.

When non-musicians ask me who my favorite drummers are, they are surprised to hear me list names such as Earl Young, James Gadson, and Al Jackson, of whom they've never heard, or Charlie Watts and Ringo Starr, familiar names but not regarded by these friends as maestros.  None of these drummers are known for their flash.  None of them are Buddy Rich, the name some of these friends may have been expecting me to list first.   My favorite drummers hide their mastery in plain sight.

When playing with other musicians, most of what drummers do is to play a repeating beat that shapes musical time for the ensemble and gives that time texture.  On the surface, it's a simple task, and yet the difference between the average drummer’s backbeat and that of, say, Charlie Watts, is vast.  The problem is, it's hard to talk about (which may be one reason why conversations about the best drummers quickly zero in on those with the fastest hands, a more easily grasped concept).

We need to learn how to listen to and talk about feel, which is therefore the very foundation of musical technique, especially for drummers. Drummers who develop their feel not only improve their drumming, they free the musicians around them to better express their ideas.  The right feel brings those ideas to life; the wrong feel obstructs them, which is why bands go through so many drummers.

Here is a short introduction to how I hear and think about feel.

I.  Hearing the Shape of Time

Understanding feel requires deep listening to recordings of great drumming. This listening will be most useful if you first create some mental images to help you hold on to what you hear.

Let’s start with the idea that musical time can be thought to have shape, a wheel that turns at a rate of once per measure. Thus, the beats of the bar represent points along the edge of the wheel.

Here’s where it gets interesting. A car wheel is a perfect circle, but the wheel of musical feel is not. Though drum machines and computers can shape musical time as a perfect circle (the beats spaced with exact evenness), we humans, thankfully, are not so mechanical. We space the beats unevenly, laying some beats back and pushing others forward.  If you lay back slightly on “two” and “four,” you create the sense of an ovalar wheel, one that labors to get to "two" and "four" but settles more easily into "one" and "three."  As you lay the offbeats further back, you elongate that oval. If you were to skitter about with less regularity, you'd create something more misshaped (which can be cool, too).

You needn’t have a precise grasp of this image to get the gist, which is this: Just as a car with oval wheels would move along with a certain kind of bounce, music gains a certain lilt, bounce, or shakiness depending on how the drummer shapes the wheel of musical time, again according to the spacing of the beats in the bar. Whether nearly circular, elongated, or chaotically jagged, each shape has its virtues. Sometimes a jagged wheel is best!  Though the shaping of this wheel is done unconsciously, how the drummer shapes the wheel has a decisive impact on what musical ideas the other musicians express and the mood attained by the listeners.  As you listen to the following examples, see if you can hear how the playing of simple drumbeats establishes the musical mood.

Three Examples

Let’s briefly compare the feels on three tracks: Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together,” the Rolling Stones’ “Tumbling Dice,” and the Beatles’ “With a Little Help from My Friends.” How do these three great drummers—Al Jackson, Charlie Watts, and Ringo Starr— bring these songs to life?


To my ear, Al Jackson’s feel has the roundest shape of the three, closest to being circular because his beats are most evenly spaced. He lays back subtly on “two” and “four,” thus stretching the wheel just a tad and giving the feel a nice pocket. The intimacy of Al Green’s vocal performance on “Let’s Stay Together” benefits from the near-roundness of Al Jackson’s feel, because the rounder the shape of time, the more expressive leeway is given to the singer. (As the wheel shape strays from roundness, the mood becomes more specific, more idiosyncratic.)  The nuance of Al Green’s vocal delivery is thus made possible by the near-roundness of Al Jackson’s time.  (Such vocal subtlety would not be possible if, for instance, a punk drummer rendered the same beat with a clunky feel.)  Still, to the extent that the shape of Jackson’s time varies slightly from perfect roundness, it points the vocal in a particular direction—something softer and relaxed.

On “Tumbling Dice,” Charlie Watts's time is less even, the most elongated shape of these three examples. The slightly more uneven feel creates a mood that is more raucous, one that invites the whole band to dig in.

Consider that the near perfect roundness of Al Jackson’s time on “Let’s Stay Together” would not produce this same effect.  The groove of “Tumbling Dice” has a bit more bite.  Part of that is how the drums are hit (see the next section on Surface) but part of this stems from the shape of the time.  Charlie Watts keeps time with an appropriately drunken herky-jerkiness that perfectly suits what the Stones have to say to the world.

The shape of Ringo’s wheel lies somewhere between the previous two examples.  Again, every difference in wheel shape reflects a tradeoff. Because his time is not so perfectly rounded as that of a session drummer like Al Jackson, Ringo’s feel takes on a more specific personality but leaves more room for interpretation than Charlie Watts does.  (Note that Lennon and McCartney are more nuanced vocalists than Jagger and Richards.  That’s not a value judgment.  Either approach is valid, but it’s worth noting the connection between vocal delivery and drumming.)  By not being so elongated as Charlie’s, Ringo’s sense of time feels more relaxed, less herky-jerky. 

And to complete the comparisons, a rounder sense of time such as Al Jackson’s might be more iconic, but it would remove the distinctive warp of Ringo's time that informs the track.  That warp helps make the Beatles convincingly psychedelic.

Of course, these are all rather crude approximations.  The shapes illustrated above are oversimplifications, but perhaps you get the point.  A drummer's sense of time makes a decisive impact on the music.  Each sense of time comes with tradeoffs, and as you apply the image of a wheel to other listening, you might hear these and other tradeoffs at work.

 II. Hearing the Surface of Time

In addition to its shape, you can think about the surface of the wheel. Just as a car rides differently on rubber tires than it would on wheels of stone, the surface of the wheel of feel has an analogous impact. Thus, as you listen, you should pay attention to such things as accents, the volume balance within the kit, and sound characteristics of the drums and cymbals. These surface elements interact with the shape of the wheel and inflect the feel accordingly.

A crucial element of Al Jackson’s feel on “Let’s Stay Together” is the doubling of the snare drum backbeats with the tom-tom. By giving emphasis to the backbeats, which are  laid back ever so delicately, the addition of the tom calls attention to the subtle stretch of the wheel shape and give the feel slightly more bounce than the snare alone might. The tom’s lower pitch also lends the feel a certain heaviness, perfect for a song about love in crisis.

The “chick-chick” of Charlie Watts’s hi-hat calls attention to the elongated shape of his feel. Imagine the same beat played with the “ding-ding” of a ride cymbal instead. Because the longer decay of a ride cymbal connects the eighth notes together, a ride cymbal would smooth the surface of the wheel and somewhat cloak its distorted shape. As it stands, the faster decay of the hi-hat leaves that shape exposed.

As for Ringo, he is an underappreciated master of touch. The resonance of his loose, chorus rimshots, for example, is crucial to the dreaminess of his feel. Were he to dig in with louder, hacking rim shots, the feel would leave behind its breeziness and take on snarl. To reproduce Ringo’s feel, one would need to reproduce his touch.

Thank you for reading.  The next post will explore these ideas further, comparing the feels of three drummers who played with the same artist.