How to Discover New Ideas via Written Notation, Part 1

We’ve all felt stuck in a creative rut at one time or another. One of my favorite ways to break away from my usual playing habits is to take whatever I’m working on and write it down on paper. That process transfers the rhythms from more abstract physical sensations and sounds to static graphic representations. Breaking context in that way allows me to analyze the relationships of the notes from a different part of my brain. Once I do that, it’s easier to rearrange and modify the patterns into new ideas.

Example 1 contains our source material: a simple, familiar groove. Feel free to use a favorite beat of your own if you prefer.

One of the easiest ways to shake things up is via displacement. Let’s start with the bass drum. Leaving the hand pattern alone, shift the bass drum part in 16th-note increments. That will give you fifteen new versions of the original groove. The best way to do this is to write out the hand pattern sixteen times, and then write in each shifted bass drum rhythm underneath. The next two examples show a couple of the displacements that I liked best. Example 2 pulls the bass drum rhythm back by five 16th notes, and Example 3 pushes it forward by six.

Some of the displaced beats will sound awesome, while others will sound bad. It’s useful to write out and play through the whole spectrum, though. When you learn to recognize what types of interactions connect with you from a visual standpoint, you’ll develop a more intuitive feel for how to shake things up when you want to reimagine stale, familiar beats in more interesting and creative ways.

Let’s look at one of the displaced versions of Example 1 that probably doesn’t sound so great at first. The kick drum has been shifted so that it starts halfway through the measure.

Even with this choppy-sounding beat, all is not lost. Adding a kick note on beat 1 goes a long way to making it sound more musical.

Modifications shouldn’t be saved only for the variations that you don’t immediately like. Even the patterns you enjoy can take on a life of their own when you add embellishments and dynamics. Example 6 modifies the ride cymbal pattern over Example 2 to better complement the new kick/snare pattern.

I’ve found that by going through this process of physically writing things down on paper, the new beats are partially learned before I even try them on the kit.

Thinking Outside the Box

To really shake things up, you can explore rhythmic ideas in a modular fashion with graph paper. Start by notating a beat on graph paper so that each vertical line corresponds with one note of a chosen subdivision (for example, 16th notes). Then write a counter rhythm on a separate piece of graph paper. Having the counter rhythm on a separate sheet allows you to shift it from one subdivision to another beneath the original beat. This lets you see how rhythms interact quickly without having to write out each variation separately. We’ll use this concept to explore how an eleven-note cymbal rhythm (Example 7) interacts with a funky kick and snare pattern (Example 8).

By sliding the eleven-note rhythm across the bar, you can see how the accents interact with the kicks, snares, and spaces of the primary beat. You’ll find a lot of interesting rhythms this way.

Example 9 begins with both rhythms starting on beat 1. Examples 10–12 show a few displacements of the ride pattern. (The starting point of the eleven-note pattern is indicated with arrows.)

To kick things up further, experiment with two- or four-bar phrases so that you can see how the counter rhythms fit within longer timeframes. Next month we’ll apply this visual approach to metric modulation.

Aaron Edgar plays with the Canadian prog-metal band Third Ion and is a session drummer, clinician, and author. His latest book, Progressive Drumming Essentials, is available through Modern Drummer Publications.