Groove Freedom: “Funky Drummer” Permutations 1Welcome to the second installment of articles based on my new book, Groove Freedom. I wrote this book for myself as much as I did for my students. There is nothing quite like the feeling of having one hundred percent freedom inside a particular groove. It’s a beautiful thing to know that it’s completely up to you to decide where the kick drum gets placed, where the accents show up, and what the overall feel should be.

In the first lesson (June 2014), I recalled a situation where a music director wanted me to play Clyde Stubblefield’s famous groove from James Brown’s “Funky Drummer.” He didn’t want “Funky Drummer” note for note, though. Instead, he wanted a groove that was based on the tune and had a similar feel. The problem was that I knew only how to play Stubblefield’s pattern verbatim. I had never truly fellowshipped with the groove; I had never spent the time it takes to work out different variations. As soon as I had to change one little thing about it, everything fell apart. I figured that since that groove—as well as my failures with it—inspired me to write my book, I’d also use “Funky Drummer” as an example of how you can develop freedom with any pattern.

The concept is simple. Start with an ostinato (repeated pattern), like the hi-hat and snare part of “Funky Drummer.”

Groove Freedom: “Funky Drummer” Permutations 2

Then add the bass drum, which will go through three different permutation cycles that shift over one 16th note every measure. The second exercise will be single-note bass drum patterns starting with one measure with the kick on the downbeats, then one measure with the kick on “e,” then one measure on “&,” and finally one measure on “a.”

The third exercise follows the same permutation pattern with two 16th notes. The fourth exercise uses three 16ths. You might be surprised by how isolating the kicks in this way will flush out your weak links within certain grooves.

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Groove Freedom: “Funky Drummer” Permutations 4

Groove Freedom: “Funky Drummer” Permutations 5

The Heat Check

This section is designed to test the skills that you’ve built up through the permutation exercises. The Heat Check comprises ten syncopated bass drum patterns made up of downbeats, e’s, &’s, and a’s. If you were able to play all of the previous exercises, then you have the physical ability to execute everything that follows. The only thing standing in your way is your ability to hear the new patterns. Practice each one slowly. If that means playing it one note at a time, then do so. Practicing so slowly might sound random at first, but soon your ear will kick in and you’ll be able to hear the groove in its entirety. Then you’ll be able to take advantage of your well-deserved groove freedom.

Groove Freedom Part 2: “Funky Drummer” Permutations 6

Groove Freedom Part 2: “Funky Drummer” Permutations 7

Mike Johnston runs the educational website, where he offers prerecorded videos as well as real-time online lessons. He also hosts weeklong drum camps at the facility each year.