Lessons in Listening
By Steve Anisman
Originally published in Modern Drummer Magazine
December, 1997 and January, 1998
December 1997 Issue, Pages 128-129
One of the things thats hardest to teach and easiest to forget is the importance of developing good listening skills. As drummers, we tend to think of practice as something we can do only with drumsticks in our hands, but if were serious about becoming better musicians, serious time and effort has to be put in to the process of understanding our history, our future, and the ideas and techniques of other drummers. The best way to achieve this is through listening actively - trying to understand what makes a drum part good, the components of a solid groove, how the drummer makes the song and the other musicians sound better, and finally - how we can apply these lessons to our own playing.
The first thing students need to understand is how drummers interpret the passage of time. Drumming is about pulse, which is an idea that often gets lost while students busy themselves learning technique. You can get flashy if you want, and you can play triple-flamacues up the yin-yang, but youd better have a very clear idea in your head at all times about where the pulse is. You have to be able to feel the flow of the music or youre useless to everyone, unless you are just drumming to amuse yourself. Good time and a solid sense of the pulse is, for a lot of people, a talent, but it is one that can be learned. The way to learn it is to listen very hard to people who are better drummers than you are, and to try to understand how it is that they communicate the pulse of the music to the listener, and more importantly, to the rest of the band. Also, working with a metronome can help.
One of the hardest concepts for beginning players to understand is the idea of placement. When people use the phrases ahead of the beat, behind the beat, and on the beat, placement is what theyre talking about. Every musical situation has a beat, made up of a series of precise times when each quarter note (or sixteenth note, or triplet, or whatever) occurs. The band instinctively knows when the beat is happening, and everyone ends up agreeing on when that precise moment is, in a kind of subconscious way. Remember that these moments are coming every few milliseconds - this is what makes the flow, or the pulse. Every member of the band gets to make a decision as to when they will play their part, in relation to that precise moment. Some people like to play their parts behind the beat. This does not mean that the player is playing slower than the rest of the band. The player is playing in perfect time, and his pulse matches the pulse of the rest of the band precisely. It is just that this players pulse clock got started a millisecond or two after the first note of the beat, and every note that this player plays is a little bit late, technically. But it can sound awesome - this is sometimes referred to as someone with a fat groove, or a lazy groove. The drummer from Little Feat is the king of this style, and it ends up being a very relaxed, comfortable feeling that he gets across. Notice, however, that he never drags - that would mean that he was slowing down, which he is not. People often assume that the beat is something dictated by the drummer, that the drummer is by definition playing on the beat, and that if they play ahead of the drummer they are automatically playing ahead of the beat. In most situations, this is true - the drums set the rhythmic foundation, and the other musicians adjust to it - but it is not true of every situation.
Some other guys like to play ahead of the beat. Not to belabor the point, but this would mean someone who is thinking of the beat as happening a millisecond or two before it actually does. This gives a very driving feeling to that players part, and it can sound excellent. Omar Hakim demonstrates this concept really well in Shadows in the Rain, and you may notice that other members of the band (like Kenny Kirkland, the keyboardist) occasionally take his bait and come ahead of the beat with him. It is really a mental exercise to play along with Omars drumming on this song, because you have to keep constantly pushing yourself to drive the music. When guys talk about pushing the music, this is exactly what they mean. Jazz drummers tend to play ahead of the beat.
Finally, you have guys who play right on the beat. Unless they end up doing something extremely musical, it can end up sounding mechanical, like a metronome or a drum machine. Neil Peart is famous for being precisely on the beat almost all the time, but he gets away with it because he plays some cool stuff, and he and the band have incorporated this as a distinctive part of their sound. Even he has been known to push a little bit during fills.
As with any idea, moderation is the key in teaching these concepts. Students may decide to experiment in band situations, trying to dictate their place relative to the beat, and this almost certainly will lead to an uncomfortable groove, which the other members of the band will only be able to attribute to the bad drummer.
As far as teaching groove, Steve Smith basically nailed it on the head years ago in an early Modern Drummer interview. He had been known (and still is) as a jazz musician, and when he got hired to play with Journey (remember that?), he tried to figure out what made good rock bands sound good. He figured out that groove comes almost completely out of a commitment to the quarter note, that if a drummer maintains and communicates an awareness of each passing quarter note, the band will be able to groove. Kenny Aronoff later narrowed this focus even further, making his primary commitment to the backbeat (2 and 4). You need to be confident that you can feel every quarter note (or backbeat, or whatever you choose) if you want the rest of the band to be able to relax enough to create a good feel every time.
The last point youll want to stress to your students has to do with the role of a good musician. There are times when it is important or fun to show off and to be flashy. Generally, though, a good musician thinks of it as his job to make the music sound good, and this is done by being generous and supportive to the other players in the band. Being flashy almost always kills the groove, but if you maintain the groove above all else, the other players have a good foundation, they can be flashy, and the band will sound impressive. Students need to know that it is not just the drummer who makes the groove happen - Steve McKinstry (the owner and engineer at Salmagundi Studios) believes that the drummer plays good time and the bass player makes the groove happen - I believe that its the way that the drummer and the bass player lock in that makes for a good groove. Anyway, that means listening to the bass player and the other musicians and being considerate enough to let them do their thing.
All of these concepts present unique challenges to teachers who want their students to be better musicians. The way that Ive found to make things clearer is to make tapes for my students. The tapes are filled with the tunes that I think most clearly demonstrate whatever concept Im trying to get across. It may help to write a short paragraph or two to remind the student what to listen for. The tapes are for listening to, in the car, before a practice session, or during a lesson. This practice can benefit you as a teacher, as well - if you keep your ears peeled for good examples of the things that you think are important, youll find yourself noticing things that you might have missed if you were only listening casually.
Ive chosen a short sample list of songs that I think help to illustrate the points in this article, and Ive included information on the drummer, the band, and the album. Ive also included sample commentary for each song, to keep a student focused and listening actively while each song plays. Be sure to remind your students that applying this level of analysis in a band situation will lead to disaster - these are things to notice and understand while listening and practicing. When playing with other musicians, you have to trust that your studying will show itself in better drumming - its an old lesson that you need to learn everything, practice hard, and think about everything that you practice, but when you play, you should just forget it all and try to make your bass player happy.
Anyway, on to the songs. I've tried to limit myself to "classics" that have withstood the test of time - feel free to use other examples when making your own tapes. Try to figure out where each drummer (and later, where each of the other members of the band) is playing in relation to the beat. Try to figure out how they are communicating their respect for the quarter note. Try to figure out how they enable the other members of the band to sound good. Listen to when (and if) they take any opportunities to show off, and try to figure out how (and if) they got away with it. Try to figure out what it is that these drummers - some of the smartest musicians I could think of - are doing that makes the music feel so good.
Back to Top of Page
January 1998 Issue, Pages 146-152
Black Cow, Steely Dan, Aja, Paul Humphrey
Force yourself to play this song note for note all the way through, and see if you can keep the groove as wide open as this guy does. Its not a showy part, but he nails it. A thought to keep in mind when playing along with tapes: if youre playing the part right, you wont be able to hear the drummer on the tape, but your drums will sound like his - when you hit your tom, it will have the same timbre as the drummers on the tape. This is obviously because it is the taped drummers tom youre hearing, but if youre really locked in, you wont be able to tell the difference, and things will sound very cool.
Fantasy, Earth Wind & Fire, The Best of Earth Wind & Fire Volume I, Freddie White
These guys, George Clinton, Stevie Wonder, Sly & the Family Stone, James Brown, and a few other people virtually invented groove. It started as funk, with the emphasis is on the downbeat, meaning the 1 or the first (and sometimes third) beat of every measure. Its the beat where you tap your foot. If you are listening to EWF and not tapping your foot, theres something wrong with you. They make sure that you know the location of every quarter note.
Spain, Chick Corea, Light as a Feather, Airto Moreira
A different kind of groove, a Latin jazz groove called a samba. Look it up, its very important and will make you a better drummer, and most people dont know about it. Its that fast boom chickaboom chickaboom thing. Other important Latin concepts are the clave (klah-vay) and the guaguanco (wah-wahn-coe), which is just a variation of the clave. Listen to how far ahead of the beat the drummer is, and how he manages not to rush. Latin drumming is a very important part of good drumming, and you will have a huge advantage over your competitors if you understand Latin rhythm. Find a good teacher. Listen carefully to the drumming - its mostly pretty straightforward, with not too many flourishes. He only stretches, meaning that he plays extraneous, flashy non-groove stuff, very rarely, and he always comes back to the groove. Hes not showing off, hes just doing his job, but the band and music sound phenomenal, and he manages to communicate that the music is somehow percussive and Latin to the listener. Most importantly, he makes everyone else sound great.
Jessica, The Allman Brothers Band, a decade of hits 1969-1979, Butch Trucks & Jaimoe
This one is a big huge swinging southern rock groove. You can hear that the whole band is thinking about, and contributing to, the groove. The nature of this one is to give all of the eighth notes an almost equal weight, with a slight emphasis on the backbeats, with a constant hint of a flowing dotted quarter note added for flavor. It sounds very seamless and very musical, and if you dont listen very carefully it might sound like theyre just having fun. Im sure they were having fun, but they also listened to the other musicians. Notice how they pick up on the little rhythmic statements the other members of the band are making. Everyone gets quiet together, everyone gets loud together, the drummers emphasize the cool rhythmic figures of the soloists, which makes the soloists sound better, and it makes the band sound more like a cohesive group. Notice, however, that although the drummers are trying to pick up on what the other band members are doing, they never forget to keep the pulse moving. And the time never shifts. This is a masterpiece of southern rock groove.
Dixie Chicken, Little Feat, Dixie Chicken, Richard Hayward
A really fat cool Cajun/funk groove. Listen to how the drummer locks in with the cunga player (Sam Clayton). Even though the snare drum makes a brief, percussive sound, the fact that its being played behind the beat makes it sound fatter, like it takes up more space each beat.
Escape, Journey, Escape, Steve Smith
Yes, it was cool in the 70s, and it sounds a little dated. This is one very smart drummer, though, and what he figured out is still as true today as it was then. This is an interesting contrast from the last song - he has his snare drum tuned loosely in this song, but he plays ahead of the beat, so somehow it sounds more percussive. Anyway, listen to the little things he does to highlight the quarter notes - little high-hat swishes leading into the bass drum and snare beats, little ghost note drags on the snare leading into the downbeats, the insistence on hitting something on each quarter note, even when the band is playing syncopated parts. This is something he must have learned as a jazz drummer, and its called setting up figures. This means that you dont just let the horns (or the band) just hit random syncopated notes in space - you find some way to tell them exactly where the beat is by playing something that helps to clarify it, and this helps everyone hit the punches together. You want to do this in a musical way, which you only learn through practice. And, of course, though listening.
Swingin at the Haven, Branford Marsalis, Royal Garden Blues, Ralph Peterson
Ralph Peterson is swinging here with Branford Marsalis and Kenny Kirkland (both previously heard on the Sting cut). Swinging is a very particular kind of grooving, and takes lots and lots of listening to jazz music to understand. This is one of my favorite examples - others include Elvin Jones playing with John Coltrane on the A Love Supreme album, anything Max Roach or Art Blakey ever played on, and any of Oscar Petersons groups. [Click here for "the big list"] The essence of jazz drumming is in the right hand - you can always tell if a drummer swings by listening to what he does on the cymbals. The right hand should lead the rest of the body, but the right hand should be responding to the rest of the band and to the groove. Good jazz cymbal playing imitates a bass player playing a cool bass line.
Rosanna, Toto, Toto IV, Jeff Porcaro
The Purdie Shuffle, originally invented by Bernard Purdie. Again, Jeff starts with perfect time, and plays a well-spaced shuffle, with cool syncopations in the bass drum. The thing that really makes this kick is the use of ghost notes in the space between the shuffles - each shuffle uses two of the three notes in a triplet - the first and the third. Jeff barely brushes the stick against the snare drum during the other note, and this is called a ghost note. Try playing this groove with the ghost notes and then without them - theres a world of difference, even though the ghost notes are barely audible on the album. He used a very similar groove on The Lido Shuffle (remember that one?) with Boz Scaggs, and it sounds great there, too. By the way, if you open the shuffle up a little bit, youre moving towards a reggae groove - you need to emphasize the 3 and do a few other things, also, but thats for another lesson...
Shadows in the Rain, Sting, Dream of the Blue Turtles, Omar Hakim
This beat is a variation in the Purdie Shuffle (which you will hear in its original form on Rosanna), with Omar Hakim really pushing this band. This grooves not only because of the place Omar picks in relation to the beat (quite a bit ahead, in my estimation), but also because of the spacing of his notes - there are shuffles with a lot of room between the two shuffled notes, and there are shuffles without a lot of that space. Omar doesnt leave a lot of space - the first shuffle beat comes only a fraction of a second before the strong beats, and makes things feel a little rushed (theyre not, they just feel that way)...
Moondance, Van Morrison, Moondance, Garry Mallaber
It sounds like the drummer is playing the bass guitar with his ride cymbal. Listen to how he and the bassist are exactly together. Listen to how aware they are of the passage of each and every quarter note. Listen to how they never do anything to take away from the importance of a single quarter note, anywhere in the entire song, ever. This is an incredible demonstration of musicality and tasteful drumming. Also important is the nice chick he makes with the high-hat on the backbeats (upbeats, technically, in jazz), and how he also uses a cross-stick to add to the upbeats...
Fembot in a Wet T-Shirt, Frank Zappa, Joes Garage, Vinnie Colaiuta
Vinnie is about 2 thousand light-years ahead of the rest of us in terms of being able to groove. Buy this album and listen to it until your ears bleed, and you still wont be able to understand what hes doing. Just try to play this song the way he does and youll know what Im talking about.
Lone Jack, Pat Metheny Group, Pat Metheny Group (White Album), Danny Gottlieb
This is a light-speed samba - listen to what he does with the ride cymbal. The quarter notes go by so quickly here that you need to pay constant attention. Dan and Mark Egan (the bass player) are close friends in real life, which is probably the only way they were ever able to play this song. They are so locked in to one another that they manage to make room in this track for Pat and Lyle to really stretch out. This recording is an amazing feat. You should hope to have a relationship like this with a bass player once in your life - it will make you sound really really good. Listen to how the drums respond to the rest of the band, how the drums are being used as a musical instrument, how they highlight the playing of the other musicians, how he sits out (doesnt play) during part of the piano solo and then comes in being immediately supportive, and makes the piano solo groove even more when he re-enters, how he complements the guitar solo, how everyone is so together all the time.
The First Circle, Pat Metheny Group, First Circle, Paul Wertico
All of the songs so far have been primarily variations on 4/4 feels - this song is a great example of how these concepts can be applied to more complicated time signatures. The main time signature is 22/8, with parts in 4/4 and the piano solo in 9/8. The thing to notice is that you never notice the time signature changing - the flow just moves you right through it, mainly based on the strength and musicality of the ride cymbal playing. The time is rock solid, the drummer never shows off, but he and everyone else sound incredible - this happens because he is supporting the band, keeping the pulse, and listening to what goes on around him. Also, he probably practices a lot to have chops this good. Normally, the focus would have to be on the quarter note, but in a song based on rhythmic groupings of 2 and 3, that wouldnt work - so Paul redefines the meaning of the quarter note, sometimes letting it last 2 eighth notes, sometimes lasting 3. If you havent heard this yet, its a great education in how to play the drums in a musical way, while still doing your job as the timekeeper. Plus, its a great song.
What Would You Say, Dave Matthews Band, Under the Table and Dreaming, Carter Beauford
This guy, John Molo (Bruce Hornsbys drummer) and just a few other people are defining the new breed of smart drummers these days. (Check out Molos phenomenal playing on China Doll, or his use of 3 over 4 in Swing Street.) In this song, notice how Carter drives the pulse by accenting every quarter note on the snare drum when the song shifts into 3/4 for a few seconds. Notice the rock solid time, the use of syncopation as a device to push the band - particularly his use of the hi hat, as well as the bass drum which is locked in with the bass player. Notice the strength he gives each backbeat, and the confidence with which he plays quarter notes on the bell of the ride. This guy takes a lot of liberties beyond his basic role of timekeeper in this band, but he consistently does it within a framework of being a rock-solid workhorse, so the added bits of cleverness propel the music instead of distracting from it. There are lots of lessons to be learned from this guy, as there are from thousands of other drummers around the planet.
Keep your ears open, and teach your students to do the same.
Other important examples that Ive used include: Gene Krupa (Sing, Sing, Sing with Benny Goodman); Buddy Rich (I like Norwegian Wood); John Bonham (Fool in the Rain and The Bridge among many with Led Zeppelin); Steve Gadd (Aja with Steely Dan, (Round, Round, Round) Blue Rondo a la Turk with Al Jarreau, 50 Ways to Leave Your Lover with Paul Simon, Chuck Es in Love with Rickie Lee Jones, many others); David Garibaldi ("What is Hip" and "Oakland Stroke" with Tower of Power); Keith Moon (Who Are You with The Who); Manu Katche (Red Rain and Your Eyes with Peter Gabriel); Stewart Copeland (Every Little Thing She Does, Synchronicity with The Police); John Guerin (Help Me, many others with Joni Mitchell); Alex Acuna (Ascent with Lyle Mays, Birdland with Weather Report); Elvin Jones (Resolution with Coltrane); Bill Bruford (Long Distance Runaround, Heart of the Sunrise with Yes); Joe Morello (Take Five, Blue Rondo a la Turk with Brubeck); Neil Peart (Limelight, Subdivisions with Rush); Phil Collins (No Reply at All with Genesis); Jaco Pastorius (Teen Town with Weather Report); there are hundreds of other great examples out there. [Click here for "the big list"] Try to tailor the tapes to your students interests - you might learn something that way, too...
Back to Top of Page
May 1998 Issue, Page 10
"Readers' Platform" Section
Lessons In Listening
I want to compliment you on the two-part "Lessons In Listening" article by Steven Anisman that appeared in the December '97 and January '98 issues. It contained invaluable advice for young and experienced drummers alike.
I played drums for about ten years before the work of supporting a wife and children caused me to drift away from my life as a drummer. I've recently come "back into the fold" of the music world, so I've started reading your magazine again. Mr. Anisman's article really struck a chord with me because I remember how I used to always be either practicing on my drumset or listening to music. I always felt that when I was listening to music it was more than just entertainment. I felt that I was studying. This concept of active listening is really helpful for those times when you can't get to your set and practice.
I found the second part of the article extremely valuable because of the examples given. It is great to have specific songs to go to and have certain things pointed out to you. It's like having a free private lesson that you can use again and again. I also noticed that Mr. Anisman seemed to have made it a point to find examples in various styles of music so that there would be something there for everyone. Very well done.
Back to Top of Page
These are "out-takes" - from tapes made for my students, and originally submitted to Modern Drummer as additional examples. Other than the Stan Lynch, which I later changed my mind and asked MD to include with the article (I thought the Ringo vs. Neil Peart thing was important to the article, but they had already gone to press, so it didn't make the cut), the omission of these examples was by my choice.
American Girl, Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, Greatest Hits, Stan Lynch
Stan Lynch has talked about how he never had any talent, how he just kind of sits back there and tries to stay out of the way, but its not true. His time is incredible, and hes always in the pocket (in the groove), and that, itself, is all the talent anyone needs. Hes from the Ringo Starr school of drumming - figure out what will make the song sound good, play it with good time, and let the band play. The guys who believe this are the guys who get all the studio jobs, end up playing on all of the hit records, and they have all of the high paying touring gigs. The Beatles would not have sounded nearly as good with Neil Peart on drums, as talented as he is - Ringo was the perfect drummer for that band. His drum parts arent necessarily impressive to the untrained ear, but theyre always musical, and the songs sound great. Always remember that good drummers are good musicians, not just good bashers of the drums. Music is not chops.
(Round, Round, Round) Blue Rondo a la Turk, Al Jarreau, Breakin Away, Steve Gadd
Alright - this one is kind of a trick. Weve been talking a lot about quarter notes, and this whole song is about not quarter notes. Its in 9/8 - there are nine eighth notes in a measure, and theyre broken up differently all the time. Sometimes its 12-12-12-123, sometimes its 123-123-123, sometimes its 1-1-123, and in the middle its a latin/rock groove thats just in 4 with a bunch of Gaddisms. He stretches all over the place, and for some reason it works. Be aware that this type of playing is the exception, though, not the rule, and he can only get away with it because hes Gadd. Youre not. He has got the groove so deep in his skin that he couldnt screw it up if he wanted to - life is not like that for us mere mortals. Anyway, this is a great song to learn, and it will expand your repertoire in a big way.
Fly Like an Eagle, Steve Miller Band, Greatest Hits 1974-78, Gary Mallaber
This drummer definitely listened to a lot of R&B, and hes got a very cool groove. He also lays down some pretty cool cymbal parts, but thats secondary. There are three main things that he does: 1) He nails the backbeat - that means he lets you know exactly where 2 and 4 are. He does that by killing the snare drum. 2) He syncopates - meaning he hits other notes than 1, 2, 3, and 4 - he hits a lot of the notes in-between, like the extra eighths and sixteenths, and he emphasizes these offbeats. This tends to propel the music forward. 3) Finally, he hits lots of ghost notes, little quiet notes on the snare that dont seem important, but really are. These make a groove sound fuller. Listen to the interplay between the high-hat and the snare - the notes kind of bounce back and forth.
China Doll, Bruce Hornsby, Harbor Lights, John Molo
I heard this and just about lost it. Bruce has come a long way since Thats just the way it is songs. This stuff is hairy, and this drummer constantly blows my mind - hes unbelievably tasteful, but has incredible chops. And listen to this groove! And yes, that is a Pat Metheny guitar solo. This guy is what Dave Weckl meant to sound like, but he never had the taste. This drumming is impressive on its own, but thats secondary to what its really about, which is making the music sound great. This guy is thinking primarily about the song, and the music, and what he can do to make it sound better. I guarantee hes not thinking about impressing teenage girls. The time is like a rock - it never rushes (speeds up) or drags (slows down), not even for a split second. A+. This is a great album, as is his most recent, Hot House, also with John Molo kicking butt.
Help Me, Joni Mitchell, Court & Spark, John Guerin
Never dismiss pop songs, especially ones by real musicians like Joni. This guy basically redefined the potential of the hi-hat with this song, and it was over 20 years ago. He uses it like a bass drum in the bridge, like a crash cymbal in other spots, a disco device in others, and the whole time hes making the music move in a very pleasant way. This is the kind of groove that makes my head sway in time - Im not pounding my feet, Im just kind of being carried along by the pulse, which is really soft and loose. Thats a very difficult kind of groove to achieve, and one that takes a whole lot of confidence to be able to pull off. You have to have a lot of faith in your abilities, your time, and your band members, because you run the risk of just sounding sloppy if the band isnt tight. This is a great track (and also a great pop song).
Ozark, Pat Metheny & Lye Mays, As Falls Wichita..., Nana Vasconcelos (percussion)
There is no drumset on this one, but this thing grooves like you wouldnt believe. There are many days where I just put this on the headphones and go crazy, have a blast, play latin rhythms on the cymbals and try to cop Lyles piano figures and keep the thing moving. This is a major masterpiece in the world of groove, and no drummer in sight. The reason? They are an extremely tight band, and they know each other backwards and forwards, and everyone is ahead of the same beat and the time is solid and theyre brilliant and drummers have a lot to learn from them.
45/8, Pat Metheny Group, Letter from Home, Paul Wertico
I would have picked any one of a thousand other Paul Wertico recordings (particularly First Circle or Third Wind), but there wasnt enough time on the tape. This song is really in 45/8 (the time signature) - see if you can break it down into units like we did before on Blue Rondo a la Turk. There obviously arent quarter notes to lock into here - how does he make it groove like this?
Peg, Steely Dan, Aja, Rick Marotta
Check it out - thats a jazz ride pattern (ching, ching-a-ching, ching-a-ching) hes playing on the high-hat, and a shuffle on the bass drum and snare, complete with the occasional ghost note. This album is full of groundbreaking grooves that later went on to become industry standards, and is the only album to get on this list twice, beating out other essential tunes, like 50 Ways to Leave Your Lover (Paul Simon), Fool in the Rain (Zeppelin), No Reply at All (Genesis), anything by the Police, and a million others, because its important.
Thanks to Jay Gleason for his invaluable help in the editing of this article.