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.
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.