This is probably the simplest way to run backing tracks at any gig with a minimal amount of equipment. Although an iPhone is pictured, you can use any device capable of playing any digital stereo music file. I’ve used this setup everywhere, from small clubs, to live performances on national TV. Although it’s not ideal for bigger venues with stereo PA systems, it works great in a pinch when you have to deal with budget, setup time, or equipment size limitations.
Playback: Mono, limited by device’s built-in digital-to-analog converter
Audio Fidelity: depends on the file type (mp3, wav, AIFF, etc.)
Ease of Setup: *****
Ease of Editing: *
(1) iOS or other device with a headphone jack capable of stereo audio playback (not included in price estimate)
(1) DI box
(1) Personal mixer with at least 3 mono line level channels
(1) Stereo Y-cable or splitter cable
(1) ¼” cable, balanced or unbalanced
(1) Headphone extender (optional)
Prepare your backing tracks so that the Left side of the stereo mix is just click track/cues and the Right side is just backing track. In other words, when you bounce down your backing track to mp3, put everything you don’t want the audience to hear on the Left side and everything you do want the audience to hear on the Right side.
Plug Y-cable into 1/8” headphone jack on your iPhone, iPod, iPad, or other device capable of mp3 playback.
Plug the (Right) ¼” end of Y-cable into DI box input jack.
Plug the (Left) ¼” end of Y-cable into a channel on your mixer. Label this channel “Click” on your mixer
Run the ¼” balanced or unbalanced cable from the “thru port” on your DI box to a second channel on your mixer. Label this channel “Trax” on your mixer.
Introduce yourself to the sound guy/gal or monitor engineer and politely ask for a feed to plug into a third channel on your mixer labeled “Mon”. Make him/her aware of your mono DI for Front of House playback.
Connect your in-ear monitors or headphones to the headphone jack on your mixer using the optional headphone extender.
If you’re using a smart phone for playback, unless you want the crowd to hear that phone call from your mom, make sure you turn off the “phone” functions during your performance. On an iPhone this is accomplished by putting your phone in Airplane Mode.
If you’re using an iOS device, your iTunes app will automatically advance to the next song in your playlist. I recommend using a backing tracks app such as BackTraxTM by Aisle Pro Software or LiveTrax ProTM by Monakrome. These apps will stop playback at the end of each track and automatically cue up the next track. They also include very large buttons for playing, stopping, and advancing through your setlist.
Leave your device plugged into a power supply so you don’t have to rely on your device’s battery life.
Along with beat placement, dynamics, and tones, the amount of swing in a groove is an element that has a tremendous affect on how a groove sounds and feels. When we first learn about swing, we tend to categorize a feel as either “swing” or “straight”, where a “straight” feel means all 8th notes or 16th notes (depending on the groove) have an equal space between them, and a “swing” feel means the notes that land on the &’s should line up with the 3rd note of the triplet subdivision. I think a lot of us learn swing this way because, truly, it’s a great way to teach that feel. However, as you advance as a player it’s crucial to understand there are actually different types of swing, and you should be able to recognize how they each impart a different vibe. While 8th note swing is crucial to jazz swing and blues shuffles, 16th note swing really shines in backbeat-based grooves. I chose to focus on the often overlooked 16th note swing groove.
I’m going to demonstrate 5 different swing feels, from straightest to swingest and point to some songs you can check out to hear these feels in context. Below each feel category is a YouTube playlist with some of my favorite songs and drummers demonstrating different 16th note feels.
Here’s the basic groove I’m using in the video. There’s an 8th note hi hat pattern in the first 4 bars, then a short fill into a 16th-note hi hat pattern. Aside from some embellishments, the kick and snare stay the same throughout. Notice how the 8th notes on the hi hat in the first 4 bars don’t reveal the swing feel. This is because the 16th notes define the feel in this groove. Only the kick and snare notes that land on 16th note subdivisions (“e” and “a”) reveal the swing feel until the hi hat only goes to 16th notes. The key is to develop consistency through practice and really get comfortable with a feel before you bust it out on a gig. If you can’t hold these feels consistently throughout a song, you run the risk of sounding like you don’t know what you’re doing. Believe me, I’ve been there.
1. No Swing
This is pretty self-explanatory. The spacing between the 16th notes is perfectly even or very close to even.
Note, however, that a human drummer playing a straight 16th groove can still feel a lot different than a drum machine playing the same groove. Compare the drum machine groove on The Human League’s “Don’t You Want Me” with Jeff Porcaro’s groove on Boz Scaggs’ “Lowdown”, and you’ll appreciate the differences. Although the patterns are almost identical, the two grooves feel very different. There’s a stiffness to the hi hat 16ths that works in “Don’t You Want Me”, but probably wouldn’t work as well in “Lowdown”. The kick and snare in “Don’t You Wan’t Me” are right on the beat, while Porcaro lays the snare back for a wider pocket. The point is, there’s more to the concept of feel than simply the amount of swing. Fun fact, “Don’t You Want Me” was actually the first song featuring the Linn LM-1 drum machine to go to Number 1 on the Billboard Hot 100.
2. Loose Straight
This particular feel fascinates me, and drummers don’t seem to talk about it much. I call it Loose Straight because it’s useful when you want to loosen your straight groove with a little hint of swing. You want to play a 16th groove, but put a little sauce on it, so to speak. The result is a mostly straight feel that doesn’t come across as stiff. It can be useful in the folk/Americana/classic RnB world where there usually aren’t as many programmed elements in the music and more room for a human feel. It’s also all over classic rock thanks to drummers like Ringo Starr, Levon Helm, Jim Keltner, and Jim Gordon.
If you just listen to one song from the playlist below, check out Jim Keltner’s playing on John Hiatt’s “Thing Called Love”. I’ll deviate here from the 16th note discussion because it’s such a good example of Loose Straight. The tambourine is playing an 8th note pattern that defines the feel of the track – not quite swing, definitely not straight, and grooving as hell!
The conga part in “What’s Goin On” is another great demonstration of Loose Straight. In the live version I posted in the playlist, there’s a piano and conga breakdown between 4:00 and 6:30 where you can really hear the Loose Straight 16th note subdivisions in Eddie “Bongo” Brown’s conga part.
3. In The Crack
This type of feel on a drumset, at least in a funk context, may have originated in New Orleans, with drummers like Zigaboo Modeliste and Johnny Vidacovich, fusing parade beats and Mardi Gras Indian rhythms with jazz. The result is a super greasy, dirty sounding groove. It’s a little looser than James Brown or Motown funk, but it’s not quite a triplet shuffle. People also use words like “swampy” and “slinky” to describe this feel.
4. Triplet Swing
As I touched on above, Triplet Swing is the type of swing most of us learn first, albeit in an 8th note context. If you play an 8th note shuffle, but put the backbeat on 3, you get a half-time shuffle, also called a 16th note shuffle. Notes that land on the “e” and “a” beats should line up with the 3rd note of an imaginary 16th note triplet. If you fill in the middle triplet subdivisions with ghost notes on the snare you get what’s known as the Purdie Shuffle, played by Bernard Purdie on Steely Dan’s “Home At Last” and “Babylon Sisters”. Variations of the Purdie shuffle were played by John Bonham on “Fool In The Rain” and Jeff Porcaro on “Rosanna”. The evenness of the triplet subdivisions gives this feel a rolling quality. Check out how triplet fills always work in this feel because the groove is based on triplets. Mitch Mitchell’s playing on “Little Wing” is a great example.
5. Tight Swing
Lastly, if you take Triplet Swing and compress the shuffle a little bit, you get what I call Tight Swing. In other words, the “e” and “a” beats are pushed closer to the next downbeat. The pattern approaches a doted 16th note, followed by a 32nd note, but it’s not quite that tight. Check out the skip beats on the bass drum in Questlove’s groove on D’Angelo’s “Devil’s Pie” and Brian McLeod’s groove on Ziggy Marley’s “True To Myself”.
In my next post, I’ll go into detail about how I practice these different swing feels. Stay tuned!
I was surfing YouTube for some practice inspiration and came across Nate Smith’s videos. Nate, who goes by The 80/20 Drummer, has loads of great videos where he analyzes other drummers and sort of dissects unique aspects of their playing that us drummers can put to use in our practice. That’s exactly what he does in the video below on Mark Guiliana and, specifically, Mark’s approach to practicing metric modulation. Mark is one of my favorite drummers, and I think a big piece of Mark’s originality comes from his phrasing as he moves between different time feels and subdivisions.
To sum up Nate’s exercise, you take a bar of ¾ time and subdivide it with 16th notes so that you have 12 16th notes per bar. From that bar of 12 16th notes you can derive different time feels or pulses just by grouping those 16th notes into groups of 6, groups of 4, and groups of 3. Groups of 6 feels like 2 pulses per bar; groups of 4 feels like 3 pulses per bar; and groups of 3 feels like 4 pulses per bar. If that explanation gives you nightmare flashbacks of middle school math, just watch Nate’s demonstration. If you prefer to think about it in terms of actual note values, groups of 6 are dotted quarter notes, groups of 4 are quarter notes, and groups of 3 are dotted eighth notes. The point is, these different groupings give the illusion of a pulse that speeds up and slows down, but the underlying time is constant.
Nate’s exercise is a 4-bar phrase in ¾ time, with each bar divided into groups of 6, groups of 4, groups of 3, then back to groups of 4. You can play a simple pattern on the kick/snare/hihat at the speed of each grouping pulse. The challenge comes when switching between grouping pulses. When I tried practicing this, I found it difficult at first to feel the pulses without counting. So I used Ableton Live to program some loops to help me out.
The first metronome in the playlist below is a 2-minute loop of Nate’s 4-bar phrase, with accented notes defining the pulse groupings and unaccented 16th notes in between. The graphic is what it looks like programmed in Ableton. Each vertical line is a 16th note. The second metronome is a 2-minute loop of the 4-bar phrase, with only the accented notes. I made versions of both metronomes at 90 and 130 BPM which is why there are 4 videos in the playlist.
These two metronomes are like training wheels. Use them to gauge where you’re pulling ahead and where you’re lagging behind as you transition between pulses. Ideally, after a little practice you’ll be able to feel the pulses internally. I think it’s a good idea to start with the first metronome. Then, when you’re comfortable with that at both tempos try the second. Then, you can transition to a basic 16th note metronome like the one Nate uses, eventually improvising in each pulse grouping for extended periods.
Anyway, props to Nate for coming up with this methodical approach to understanding this aspect of Mark Guiliana’s playing! Check out the 80/20 Drummer YouTube channel for more great stuff.
I know, I know. Ideally, you would never put yourself in a situation that makes you or anyone else look less than perfect on stage. Ideally, you’re so prepared you never have to think about the next song. Ideally, you know every standard in your genre or every B-side from the bandleader’s discography that he hasn’t played in 20 years. Ideally, I’d be playing drums for U2. But the reality is no matter how well you prepare, sometimes you just have to fake it. Here are my thoughts on making the best of a less than ideal situation.
If you’ve been playing contemporary music on stages long enough, odds are you’ve encountered some version of this.
You’re in the middle of a set and someone yells out a song request, or, maybe the crowd is demanding an encore that wasn’t planned. Before the bandleader obliges, he looks at the musicians one by one with a face that says, “Please tell me you know this song.” By the time his eyes make the rounds and land on yours, you’re already sweating, your heart’s racing. You saw the guitar player and bass player nod. You know the keyboard player toured with the artist who originally recorded the song, so he knows it. Sure, you’ve heard the song on the radio a couple times, but you’re not sure about the kick drum pattern and if the breakdown happens before the bridge or after the guitar solo. What do you do? You could be completely honest and forthright about your level of confidence in your ability to crush this tune, but there’s no time for negotiation. In this moment you either know it or you don’t, and if you don’t, you’re the one person standing in the way of a fan or a client hearing their favorite song. You don’t want to be that guy. While you weigh all this in your head, you feel the eager gaze of your band mates and the energy of the impatient sea of eyeballs in the crowd converging into one giant Imperial death ray that’s going to blast through your drum set and make what happened to that Spinal Tap drummer look like a sunburn (Mick Shrimpton, R.I.P.). So you give the nod.
The first thing is, don’t panic or telegraph that you’re not confident. You don’t want to send the message that the foundation is cracked before you even start building the house. Worse, the hesitation could come out in your playing. If you’re unsure about basics like the tempo, feel, or form, take a few seconds to ask someone. The bass player is a valuable resource because, like you, she’s clued in to these elements and will know how to communicate them. “Medium shuffle with a half time reggae bridge, end on beat 4.” She just saved your butt.
But what if it’s too late to ask anyone because the guitar player has already started the intro? Here’s something I’ve learned the hard way. You’re going to have to nail the tempo and the feel even if someone else starts the song at the wrong tempo. If it’s too slow or too fast, the singer won’t be comfortable. It’s the drummer’s responsibility to find that magic tempo and keep it there. Even if the singer starts the song on guitar and realizes it’s too fast when he comes in with the verse, it’s your job to help everyone slow down to a better tempo without letting the audience know what’s going on. So, as one of my drum buddies says, use your big eyes and big ears. You can tell a lot from the singer’s body language. Is his heel moving up and down to the tempo he’s feeling? If he’s playing guitar can you see his strumming hand or at least his strumming elbow? Can you hear the singer pulling ahead or laying back with his timing? Usually, the vocals dictate the tempo, and the rhythm guitar, a percussive keyboard instrument like piano, or any other instrument playing a syncopated pattern will indicate the feel. Often, the strumming pattern on a rhythm guitar or the bass line will dictate where the kick notes should land. The clues are yours if you know where to look.
Another thing you’ll have to nail is the form. Your dynamics, fills, and instrument choices within the kit depend on your knowledge of the form. Lucky for us, there are only so many different song forms and harmonic progressions that get used over and over again in popular music. This type of ear training can take some practice, but it basically comes down to listening for repeating patterns in the chords and musical tension. Is it a 4-bar chord progression or 12-bar? Let the harmonic tension indicate transitions from a pre-chorus to a chorus or from a bridge to a breakdown.
When it comes to fills, I would keep it on the safe side. Try to put your fills in the transitions between sections and remember it’s usually better to not do a fill than to do one in the wrong place.
Here’s how I would navigate my way through the song.
Intro – Assuming the drums don’t start the song, use this time to search for clues about tempo, feel, and even the pattern of the groove you’ll play. Listen carefully and come in strong.
Verses – Play confidently, but stay out of the way of the vocals, and keep it relatively light and simple. You can do some subtle groove variations between vocal phrases.
Pre Choruses – Build the intensity a little. Maybe you open up the hi hat slightly, or make the kick pattern a little busier.
Choruses – Ride or open hi hat, louder, but not necessarily peak volume. Save your peak intensity for the final chorus or outro.
Re-Intro – Whatever you played during the intro, there’s a good chance you’ll have a chance to play it again over a short instrumental section after the first chorus.
Bridge – Play something different, and again, let your ears guide you. Sometimes all you need to do is change the kick pattern slightly to communicate a change. Or, you could change the sound source your right hand is playing to the floor tom or the edge or bell of the ride.
Breakdown – Not all songs have them, but if they do it’s either a loud breakdown or a soft breakdown. In a loud breakdown, you usually can’t go wrong with a build on the toms (think “Hit Me With Your Best Shot”). In a soft breakdown, you might want to keep time on the hi hat or add some light cymbal color (think “Whole Lotta Love”).
Solo – Play something the same. If there’s a solo section in the song, it will usually be over the chord progression from either the chorus or the verse. Let that dictate what you play. For example, if you played a 4-on-the-floor groove through the Chorus, and you notice the chords under the solo sound like the chorus, keep playing that 4-on-the-floor groove over the guitar solo.
Out Chorus – Often a double chorus is played at the end, or a tag line that gets repeated. You should be at peak intensity here. Use visual cues for the ending.
Ending – Visual cues are crucial, but also rely on your knowledge of genre cliches. If it’s a classic country song, be ready to end on beat 3; a blues, be ready for the “and” of 2. If it’s a rock song, you might ritard into a big held-out ending on beat 1.
The more we play and listen to music, the more this all becomes part of our musical intuition. When we’re performing music we don’t want to be thinking too much about what we’re doing. Rather, we want to be able to instantly and subconsciously draw from our experience, especially when we get thrown a curveball like an unfamiliar song.
What if you love the idea of running your backing tracks from your iPhone, iPod Touch or iPad, but you need your tracks to play in stereo and sound really good? The headphone jack on your iOS device can be a great option in a pinch, but it only puts out 1 stereo track (or 2 mono tracks if you utilize a splitter). You need an external soundcard, also called a digital-to-audio converter (DAC) or external audio interface. In the past few years lots of companies have introduced audio interfaces for the iOS device to the market. Many of them have 2 outputs, and that’s fine if you want to run mono backing tracks. However, if you need to send a stereo backing track to the house AND a click track to yourself, that puts you at 3 output tracks.
My favorite iOS interface at the moment is the Native Instruments Traktor Audio 2. I love the Traktor because it’s super compact (fits in the palm of your hand) and super affordable ($100 retail). Though it’s geared toward the DJ market, the Traktor does have two independent 1/8” TRS outputs, for an output track count of 4. One limitation to the Traktor is that it has no audio input preamps or analog-to-digital conversion. In other words, you can’t record with it; strictly playback, but for running backing tracks, that’s all we need in order to get the job done. If you want to purchase something you can also use for recording, the Apogee Duet is a great option.
You’ll also need an iOS app that allows you to assign your stereo mix and click to separate outputs. ShowOne by One Zero One Audio is a fantastic app designed specifically for playback of mono or stereo backing tracks and click/cue tracks through separate outputs. At only $8.99 for the full version it also comes with a bunch of really handy features like automatic click track syncing, voice countoffs, and setlist management.
Audio Fidelity: ****
Ease of Setup: ****
Ease of Editing: app dependent
(1) iOS device such as Apple iPhone, iPod Touch, or iPad
(1) iOS compatible audio interface with more than 2 outputs
(1) Personal mixer with at least 4 line level channels
(1) stereo DI or (2) mono DI’s
(5) 1/4” cables, balanced or unbalanced
(1) set of in-ear monitors or headphones
Prepare your backing tracks within your playback app so that you have a stereo mix and a click track routed to individual outputs. Use outputs 1 and 2 for the left and right sides of your stereo backing track and output 3 for click.
Connect your iOS device to your interface. Some interfaces may require adapters from Apple 30-pin to Apple Lightning.
Run a ¼” balanced or unbalanced cable from Output Channel 1 on your interface to the input jack on the stereo DI box labeled “Left”.
Run a ¼” balanced or unbalanced cable from Output Channel 2 to the input jack on the DI box labeled “Right”.
Run a ¼” balanced or unbalanced cable from the left thru port on your stereo DI to the left side of a stereo channel on your mixer labeled “Tracks”.
Run a ¼” balanced or unbalanced cable from the right thru port on your stereo DI to the right side of a stereo channel on your mixer labeled “Tracks”.
Run the ¼” balanced or unbalanced cable from Output Channel 3 on your interface to a channel on your mixer labeled “Click”.
Introduce yourself to the sound guy/gal or monitor engineer and politely ask for a feed to plug into the channel on your mixer labeled “Mon”. Make him/her aware of your DI’s for stereo front-of-house playback.
Connect your in-ear monitors or headphones to the headphone jack on your mixer.
Put your device in airplane mode when using it for playback.
If your interface uses TRS outputs to combine pairs of output channels (the Traktor Audio 2 does this), use a stereo “Y” cable to split these channels instead of the two ¼” cables in steps 3 and 4 above.
Some interfaces are bus powered, meaning they use your iOS device as a power source, and they will thus drain your iOS device’s battery very quickly. So make sure you use an external DC power supply to power your interface.
This rig is based around a hard disk recorder like the Alesis HD24 (pictured). With this setup, you have the stereo playback resolution and output options of a computer/high track count audio interface, but without some of the hassles that come with laptop based systems. However, you have the added step of importing your audio files from your computer into the HD recorder. You will also need to set up markers in order to indicate the start points of each song. Although editing and even changing setlist order can be a little cumbersome, the reliability and roadworthyness of a rackmount hardware unit can offer valuable piece-of-mind.
I suggest looking for a used hard disk recorder. Why used? This is 1990’s technology. If you can find one of these new, it will cost over $1,000 and you’re better off with one of the other options at that price point in my opinion.
Playback: Up to 23 channels (plus click) 24bit 48 kHZ
Audio Fidelity: *****
Ease of Setup: **
Ease of Editing: *
(1) Hard disk recorder such as Alesis HD24 (pictured).
(2) DI boxes or (1) stereo DI (your own). Label them “Left” and “Right”
(1) Personal mixer with at least 4 mono line level channels
(5) ¼” cables, balanced or unbalanced
(1) Headphone extender
Prepare your backing tracks in your DAW so that you have a stereo mix and a click track.
Import your tracks into the HD24 such that the first two output channels are your stereo backing track, left and right respectively, the third and fourth channels are duplicate outputs of your stereo backing track, and the fifth channel is your click/cue track. You can use the additional output channels if you are sending multiple stems to the house.
Run a ¼” balanced or unbalanced cable from Output Channel 1 to the input jack on the DI box labeled “Left”
Run a ¼” balanced or unbalanced cable from Output Channel 2 to the input jack on the DI box labeled “Right”
Run a ¼” balanced or unbalanced cable from Output Channel 3 to a channel on your mixer labeled “Tracks L”
Run a ¼” balanced or unbalanced cable from Output Channel 4 to a channel on your mixer labeled “Tracks R”
Run the ¼” balanced or unbalanced cable from Output Channel 5 to a channel on your mixer labeled “Click”.
Introduce yourself to the sound guy/gal or monitor engineer and politely ask for a feed to plug into the channel on your mixer labeled “Mon”. Make him/her aware of your DI’s for stereo front-of-house playback.
Connect your in-ear monitors or headphones to the headphone jack on your mixer.
The high output track count on the HD24 and units like it make it possible to create an extra left and right output for your backing tracks that you can use to send to yourself for independent control of the track level in your own in-ears. This will allow you to ride the level of the tracks in your mix without affecting the level going to the house.
If anyone else in the band needs to hear click/cues, you can use one of the available outputs to duplicate that track and send it to that player or to the monitor engineer.
The HD24 is a 3-space rackmountable unit. You can house it in a soft rack case such as the Gator GRB 4U, with the mixer and DI’s on top. To decrease setup time, bundle the three cables that connect the HD24 to your mixer using cable ties, and bundle the two cables that connect the HD24 to your DI’s. Label the ends of each cable.
To be extra slick, you can get a rackmountable mixer, a rackmountable DI, and a rackmountable power supply, and house everything in one rack. This option could work for van and bus tours and church installations, but will likely be too big and heavy to fly.
I like making my own playalongs for practicing drums. I’ve always loved the groove in Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Goin On”, so I sampled this loop from a 2 1/2 minute vamp during a live performance of the song from I think 1971. The band seems to be made up of members of The Funk Brothers, the same Detroit session players who recorded the original track. One of those guys is Eddie “Bongo” Brown’s, Motown’s conga player. The congas were on the left side of the stereo field, so I took the left side, bussed it to a mono track, and added some EQ and compression to bring out the subdivisions in the congas.
I like playing drums over this loop because Eddie’s a badass, his playing is a big part of the Motown rhythmic feel, and there’s no drumset to play over. As you play along. you can try to replicate the original drum part, create your own grooves over it, or just use it as a sort of metronome. I like practicing rudiments and coordination exercises over loops like this that have some human subdivisions and a lot of feeling. In fact, ditch your click for a while! If you can play your Stick Control and Syncopation stuff inside Eddie’s pocket, you’re well on your way to becoming a more musical drummer.
“As a member of the legendary Funk Brothers, Eddie “Bongo” Brown was the primary studio percussionist during the heyday of Motown Records, serving as a crucial element of some of the most enduring and transcendent soul music ever produced. Born in Clarksdale, MS, in 1932, Brown was raised in Memphis, learning to play virtually every hand-held percussion instrument but particularly excelling on the bongos and congas. After relocating to Detroit, he worked the local nightclub circuit before joining the fledgling Motown label in 1962, infusing the nascent Motown sound with elements of Latin rhythms. Funk Brothers bandleader Earl Van Dyke once estimated Brown played on “at least 97 percent of all the music that came out of Motown.
Remarkably, he couldn’t even read music — in the Funk Brothers documentary Standing in the Shadows of Motown, keyboardist Joe Hunter claimed that during sessions, Brown simply replaced his sheet music with nudie magazines. As Motown’s focus shifted from producer-driven singles to artist-driven LPs, Brown left his indelible mark on classics like Marvin Gaye’s Let’s Get It On and Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life. When owner Berry Gordy Jr. relocated the label from Detroit to Los Angeles, Brown followed, in subsequent years touring with Gaye and Liza Minnelli. He died from a heart ailment on December 28, 1984, at the age of just 52.”
First thing to realize is your groove will never sound exacly like Keltner’s or JR’s or anyone else’s. That’s what’s beautiful about playing an instrument. I feel it’s ok to imitate your heros if it helps you learn a new skill. Eventually, with enough practice, you’ll internalize this feel and be able to access it automatically when your musical intuition tells you to go there.
But first you need to paint the fence, wash the car, do whatever else Mr. Miyagi tells you to do. It will make sense later. You need to train your body to be comfortable with it and with enough practice you’ll notice the subtle seasoning in your playing, and so will others.
Before you start, record yourself playing a simple “Billy Jean” type groove with 1 and 3 on the kick and 2 and 4 on the snare with an 8th note hi hat to a click. Don’t try to lay anything back, just aim for the middle of the beat. Record 8 bars or so of this. You’ll use this as a baseline to mark your progress.
To help you get cozy with a late backbeat I’m going to use a familiar rudiment, the flam. Your goal is to be able to control just how late your backbeat lands and keep it from shifting.
Grab your practice pad and a metronome. For right handed drummers, play left hand accent flams on 2 and 4, resting on the other beats. The practice pad will help you hear the click better. Find a volume for your metronome such that your left hand accent is about the same volume as the click. This is crucial. Make the grace note land on the beat and the accent follow it. Play around with the tightness of the flam. Start with a unison flam (both hands hit the pad at the same time) and gradually open it until the accent is all the way to the &, then gradually move back to a unison flam. Do this over the course of 16 bars or so. Find a slow tempo that’s comfortable. Use an 8th note click if it helps you stay in time. Be careful not to let the grace note shift from the click.
When you’re ready add ¼ notes on your right hand on 1 and 3. Keep them low like your flam grace note. You want to be able to clearly hear the relationship between the click and the left hand accent. You now have a quarter note groove emerging with a backbeat on 2 and 4. Again, vary the tightness of the flam all the way to the & and back over 16 bars.
Now go to 8th notes with the right hand. Notice that when you start the 16 bar phrase, you have a unison flam on 2 & 4. Around bar 8 when your left hand accent reaches the & you’ll have a unison flam on the & of 2 and the & of 4.
Once you’re comfortable with the above exercises, pick a flam tightness that feels good and try some different tempos, keeping the flam tightness consistent. Listen to how the accent lands just after the click on 2 and 4. Get comfortable with this. Be careful not to let your right hand get behind the beat.
When you’re feeling good on the pad, move to the kit. Do the above exercises with your right hand on the hi hat and left hand on the snare.
Now, with the click running, stop playing the hi hat. Just play the snare with your left hand. Notice how you can consistently play your snare just behind the click. See how long you can hold it there. When you get off, put your right hand back in to help guide you.
Here’s the thing, this flam business is just an exercise to get you cozy with the late backbeat. You don’t really want any flaming between your hi hat and snare in your groove. Experiment with shifting your right hand a little later on beats 2 and 4 so that it lands in unison with your left hand. You’re effectively stretching beats 1 and 3 slightly longer than a ¼ note and shortening beats 2 and 4 to slightly under a ¼ note to catch up to the next downbeat.
Record yourself performing Step 8 and compare with your initial recording. Do you hear a difference in your pocket?
In my last post, I posed the question, what is groove? Now that we’ve identified the key ingredients in a great groove, I want to explore one of these ingredients in more depth – beat placement. On a few occasions, I’ve had people ask me, “Hey can you lay that backbeat back a little?” To which I thought, well…I don’t know. Just the backbeat? And leave everything else on the beat? Sure, on a good day I can play ahead, on the beat, or behind if I want, but I’ve never tried doing more than one at once. And how the heck would I practice that? That sounds hard.
This comment changed how I think about Groove. Up until then, I’d always practiced with the goal of burying the click on every quarter note, making sure my quarter notes were quarter notes and my eighth notes were eighth notes and every kick and snare note lined up with my hi hat, like I’d been taught. I never realized different voices in the kit could be on top, on the beat, or behind relative to other voices in the kit in the same groove. I started listening to some of my heros, and I found this common thread in their grooves. In many cases, there was indeed a slight anticipation before the backbeat!
I tried it. I was hard. And then, a breakthrough happened.
But. before we get into how, let’s explore who, what, why, and where. I made a Spotify playlist with some examples of tracks where the drummer is laying the backbeat back and some comments on the drummers that popularized this feel.
I was recording with some people recently, and the topic came up of keeping the bass drum right on the beat and the snare behind the beat. The producer told me people used to call this feel “California Swing” because of Keltner’s use of it on so many LA sessions that it became associated with the California sound during the 70’s and 80’s. If you’re looking to study Keltner’s drumming, Sergej Randelovic-Runjo’s Jim Keltner Discography is an excellent resource. For now, check out “Fool Who Knows” by Little Village, “Knocking on Heaven’s Door” by Bob Dylan, and “Shangri-La” by Don Henley.
I love Steve Ferrone’s playing with Tom Petty, especially on the Wildflowers album. “Honey Bee” is probably the most drastic example of the late backbeat on the playlist, so it’s a good example to start with to identify what I’m talking about.
JR’s groove on Steve Winwood’s “Take It As It Comes” is great example of his unique lope. When I listen to JR, I can’t help but picture an egg rolling end-over-end. It’s asymmetrical, yet so consistent it becomes hypnotic. Could this be why he played on so many dance tracks in the 80’s? (Side note, isn’t in amazing that real human drummers used to play on dance tracks? Human people like James Gadson, Tony Thompson, and JR.)
Speaking of James Gadson…
A master of the 16th note hi hat groove, Gadson set the bar for R&B drumming in the 60’s and 70’s. Listen to the beat placement on Bill Withers’ “Use Me”, but also check out the pocket on “If You Think You’re Lonely Now”, which was a hit in 1981 off Bobby Womack’s album The Poet.
A busy LA session player from the mid 70’s to early 90’s who died young, Jeff Porcaro left behind a massive legacy of groove. One aspect of Jeff’s playing I love is his ability to put the backbeat in exactly the right place for the song. My favorite example is “Luck Of The Draw”, the title track off Bonnie Raitt’s 1991 album. Jeff is 100% inside the song. Also check out Springsteen’s “Human Touch” and Toto’s “Without Your Love”.
“Groove” is a word we use a lot, but for a term that is supposed to define our main purpose as drummers, we sure have a hard time defining it. Ask five drummers what a groove is, and you’ll get five different answers. When I was starting out on the drums, I thought groove was mainly about choosing the right pattern and playing it with metronomic accuracy. Maybe it’s because the importance of playing to a metronome is constantly drilled into us. The more experienced I get as a player, however, the more I realize the click is just a reference. And by no means does metronomic accuracy equal groove. Otherwise we would have all been replaced by drum machines long ago. I hate the term timekeeping. Calling a drummer a time keeper is like calling a writer a typer. Of course, timekeeping is a vital part of our job, but it’s just the beginning in terms of developing a groove!
Feel is another term that plays into groove. To say a drummer has a good feel is, I think, to say he or she makes you feel something as a listener or feel the intention of the song. Although, Groove and Feel are abstract “right brain” concepts, maybe there’s a way to approach them with the analytical left side of your brain? Doing so could enable you to practice these little details that make all the difference. While performing music is mostly an intuitive, subjective activity, practicing is an analytical, objective activity.
This begs the question, what is it we do as human drummers that makes us groove in a way a computer can’t? Or, why can two different drummers play the same pattern and sound so different? I think it comes down to the aspects of groove that don’t get talked about enough – beat placement, type of swing, sound balance, and sound choices. In the next few blog posts I’m going offer my two cents on these topics and recommend some listening to hear these concepts in action. Then, I’ll guide you through some of my exercises I use to practice this stuff.
(Side note, if you do any drum programming, you can use this stuff to make your patterns sound more human.)