Tuesday, July 22, 2008

On The Beat

A lot of people feel that the drums are the timekeeper for a band. But if that were really true most bands could replace their live drummer with a drum machine and be the better for it.
The drums sets up the groove, which is not just keeping time but producing a sense of forward propulsion that drives the music and makes our bodies want to move.

In keeping time, every division of time gets equal emphasis but when the drums lay down a groove they do so by varying the dynamics and tonal qualities of every note played. Every groove is a rythm – a cycle of increasing tension building to a climax then a release – A mini crescendo and decrescendo.

The fact that drums do much more than keep time was brought home to me this weekend at a rainy outdoor concert in Kitimat when I saw a trio from Alberta. I won't tell you their real name, let's just call them – “The Anemics”. They were bass and lead vocals, lead guitar and rythm guitar. Three musicians but no drummer. Instead, they were using a drum machine.

The problem was, without a live drummer, they sounded anemic. No dynamics – no sense of propulsion. A drummer could have supplied dynamics and energized that band. Believe me, one whack from my snare drum could have woken that lead singer up in a big hurry.

A drummer in a band is like a system within a system. Each of his four limbs plays a different instrument, and it's as if they each have a mind of their own when they play. The left foot keeps time on the hi hat cymbals whereas the right foot plays the bass drum. The left hand plays “ghost notes” and back beats on the snare, while the right hand plays a driving pattern on the ride cymbal. When they all play together the parts interweave into a cyclic pattern of tension and release , tension and release. That pattern gives a feeling of forward movement that propels the rest of the band and the audience.

The bass drum is the foundation of the drum set. It's the largest drum, the lowest pitch and the one that is most felt throughout the body. When I was first taking drum lessons I was taught to use the bass drum as a timekeeper. Military marching bands also use bass drums to keep time. When you keep time with your right foot, by playing each and every beat, it provides a very solid foundation for the two hands. A steady, even bass drum is easy to follow and easy to dance to but it very quickly sounds monotonous.

In “swing” jazz, the bass drum keeps steady time, as the right hand plays a pattern of broken triplets on the ride cymbal, while the left hand plays ghost notes on the snare. In latin music the bass drum forms a regular pattern, called an “ostinato”. African and caribbean music often use the bass drum as the “backbeat” in place of the snare drum as it is used in rock music. Rock music borrowed the ostinato bass drum rythms of latin but used them to set up a regular back beat with the snare.

Modern jazz dispensed with the steady four bass drum and the back beat and freed up the bass drum to improvise and punctuate the phrasing of left handed ghost notes, while the high hat kept time. The phrasing in modern jazz is much longer and more relaxed than in rock music. Some people describe the feel of modern jazz as “spacey” because of the lack of a solid bass drum beat, especially on the “downbeat”, or first beat.

A lot of drummers play “double-bass” by having two bass drum pedals and using both their feet instead of just the right foot. That way you can do bass drum rolls and effects that go well with heavy metal music. I have probably irrational objections to the double-bassdrum. I would never use it myself because I consider the high hat too important to abandon, and I find double bass too much foundation and not enough architecture. I guess that means that I don't like heavy metal music. Although I do like Led Zeppelin, and their late great drummer John Bonham. He got his big bass drum sound with a single bass drum. It was a twenty-six incher, four inches bigger in diameter than what most drummers use.

Because the bass drum is the foundation, if you try and make a major change to the way you play it you can end up messing up your sense of time and the coordination of all the rest of your limbs. Don't mess with the foundation unless you've got a lot of free time and a basement where you can chop wood (ie., drum sticks). If you've successfully rebuilt the foundation, then you can take your drum set out of the woodshed and use it to energize a real band. Rock on drummers.

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