Improving your 

ability to play drums


I just finished a lesson with student and felt compelled to write about something I see and hear time and time again with drummers of all levels who have not learned how to “Play the Song”. In other words, be an accompanist.

Interestingly, most drum instruction does not take this up and that is unfortunate. Stress is given to rudiments, stick control, finger control, styles, licks, etc. The focus is mainly on technique and some aspects of rhythm but not the whole picture.

Examples of some drummers who know how to “Play the Song” are:

Earl Palmer, Steve Gadd, Ringo Starr, Hal Blaine, Jeff Porcaro, John Robinson, Bernard Perdie, James Gadson, Joe Morello, Irv Cottler, Sonny Payne, Louis Bellson, Buddy Rich, Vinnie Colaiuta, and many more.

All these drummers have something in common; they were all chosen to record by producers or bandleaders because of their ability to “Play the Song”. Several have huge arsenals of “chops” but didn’t use them on many recordings or live performances. Some had little in the way of “chops”. The difference was how they “played the song”.

There are three components of music that every musician must learn and be aware of to be able to “Play the Song” no matter what level they aspire to.

Simply stated these are:

1. Melody – the theme of the song. This can be found easily in the lyrics sung in a song. These lyrics of the melody communicated by the singer tell a story and convey a majority of the emotional impact of the song. It needs to be respected. Instruments can also state the melody in any style of music.

2. Harmony – the bending of tones, e.g. chords that support the melody.

3. Rhythm – the patterns of sounds played the through time. Rhythm has several divisions:

a. Time or beats – pulses of a sound lasting from one beat to the next that are either stated or silent. Beats can be steady, speed up intentionally, slow down intentionally, or drift intentionally as in “Rubato” – free time. Speeding up or slowing is OK if it is intentional and everyone playing together agrees on that. Time is the most important aspect of rhythm and must be learned right at the start of a musician’s education. All music is based on time.

b. Meter – counting beats numerically in a bar or measure. Within a space we call a “bar or measure”, a group of beats can be counted as a group of 2, 3, 4 (common time), 5, 6, 7, etc. Musicians need to agree on this so they can all start counting the same amount of beats beginning with the one (the first beat know as the down beat).

c. Sub-divisions of Beats – taking the space between two beats and dividing it into smaller groupings e.g. eights, triplets, sixteenths, etc. These divisions help define styles when put into patterns called “grooves”.

d. Grooves – repetitive patterns usually occurring over one or two bars. The general public and some drummers often confuse this as “the beat” or “a beat”. “Give me the beat” is often said. A groove can consist of a pattern of single beats sounded or can get more complex with divisions of beats within the one or two bars the groove is played. Drummers spend most of their life accompanying other musicians with grooves.

e. Phrasing – these are parts of the melody that usually occur in groupings of two, four, and eight bars sections. The phrases in these sections have spaces at the end of them. These spaces can be as small as one beat of duration and in some case up to four bars (odd bar phrases may contain more than four bars of space).

It is in this area that instruction is lacking for many drummers. Here we hear the uneducated drummer playing over phrases of the melody, stepping on vocalists and instrumentalists with unneeded fills, filling the space of a phase when it shouldn’t be filled or playing something in the space that kills the feel of the song, or filling over another instrument filling (e.g. sax, guitar, piano, etc.). This is where musicality suffers because the “song is not being played” by the drummer/accompanist.

The exact phrases of the melody should be practiced rhythmically as is

e. Song Form – the blue print of the song. Song Form has several components such as intro, verse, bridge, chorus, ending and sometimes there are instrumental sections and featured solos added. It can get involved but knowing the sequence of the verses, bridge, and chorus will give you the basic map of the song.

This is another area of instruction lacking for drummers especially in soloing. Many drummers don’t understand how to solo on the form of the song whether it is a solo on the full form of the song (as in jazz) or an eight bar section in of song. These drummers cannot hear phrases therefore cannot mentally track rhythmically where they are in a solo over a whole song or how long a solo should be that occurs in a section.

In addition to soloing, knowing Song Form helps the drummer know when to accent a downbeat coming in or out of a section (verse, chorus, etc.) to help the band have a point of agreement on where everyone is.

Once your ear is accustomed to the passing of chords in sections you can also know where you are when others are soloing if they are not staying close to the melody.

Mentally tracking the form of a song also allows for dynamics to occur. A simple example is changing the groove from the high hat to the cymbal moving from a verse to a chorus or instrumental section.

To learn phrases and song form I recommend you:

1. Analyze a song by writing down the length of each phrase in the song according to how many bars the phrase lasts. This includes the space of the phrase. Example, an eighth bar phrase may have the melody played for 6 bars and the last two bars are space. Sing these to yourself mentally.

2. Decide where these phrases fit in sequence (verse, chorus, bridge) and write down the form. Verses are called the A sections, Bridges are called the B section, and a Chorus the C section. Put these letters at the beginning of the sections. Usually you will find the song structure to be different combinations such as AABA (verse, verse, bridge, verse), AABC, AAB, AAC, or any combination thereof. Sing the song to yourself mentally and match it exactly to what you wrote down. You don’t need to include the into or ending in this.

3. Play the melody on the drums that crosses all the sections. You will technically be doing this rhythmically as you don’t have definite pitch on the drums but your rhythm must match the melody. Do this until you can comfortably feel each phrase and the whole song. Sing the melody mentally while playing.

4. Take the melody of the phrases and improvise different rhythms within the length phrases until comfortable. This will change the rhythmic structure of the melody. Sing the melody you are altering mentally while playing. You are creating a new melody rhythmically.

5. Improvise by changing the phrase lengths within the sections and rhythmically change the melody anyway you want in these sections. Sing them to yourself while playing. Ensure the amount of bars of the song form DO NOT change. If it is 32 bars, keep it the same length.

This exercise can become more fun as you master it and can allow for an expansion of rhythmic creativity. Rules can even be broken as you layer phrases over each other.

After enough practice it will become clear to you what the song map is. Then when it comes time for you to solo you’ll know what the song form is to solo over.

A drummer is an accompanist first and a soloist second.

All drummers need to know how to become a “rhythmic accompanist” by fully exploring ALL aspects of rhythm as well as the other two components of music.

Get with an instructor who can teach you these concepts and show you how they apply to the drums. If your drum instructor can’t teach you basic melody, harmony, phrasing and song form, take some lessons with a pianist to cover these. In fact I encourage all my students to study some other instruments so they get the full picture.

Then, when you apply these abilities, LISTEN to what is going on around you.

RESTRAIN yourself from showing off your chops until it is time for you to solo!

Don’t play grooves that are too complicated for other musicians to track where the one is.

Keep STEADY time with your grooves.

If there is a space for a fill, ask yourself, “will playing here add to or distract from the song”? Perceive the song to see if it wants to breath in that space. If it does, play NOTHING!

RECORD yourself as much as possible to ensure you are becoming more musical and supportive of the song.

If you are successful in applying these musical concepts I guarantee you will have more fun playing with others, audiences will love it, and you will get more WORK!

Isn’t that what it is all about anyway?

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