One-, Two-, and Three-Note Permutations 1Welcome to the first of three articles based on my new book, Groove Freedom. I wrote the book for my own practice after realizing how limited I was in certain grooves—in other words, how little “freedom” I had. Playing a groove is one thing, but having absolute freedom inside that groove… well, that’s a different thing altogether, and it’s something that I want for myself and for all of you.

Here’s an example of how I found this deficiency in my playing. A music director wanted me to play Clyde Stubblefield’s famous groove from James Brown’s “Funky Drummer.” No problem. I’ve worked it out, I’ve practiced it for hours, and I can play it like a loop. Now, when the director wanted me to change the kick pattern a bit to give it more space and less low end…problem!

I didn’t have freedom in this groove. I knew it only as an exact replica of Stubblefield’s pattern. As soon as I had to change one little bit, everything fell apart. I realized this was a huge weak link in my drumming armor, and it needed to be fixed. I decided to adapt ideas from books that I grew up with, like David Garibaldi’s Future Sounds and Gary Chester’s The New Breed, as well as modern books like Benny Greb’s The Language of Drumming, to help me overcome my lack of true freedom with all grooves.

The concept is simple. Start with an ostinato (a repeated pattern), like a basic groove between your hi-hat and snare. Then add a variable, which in this case is the bass drum. The bass drum will go through three different permutation cycles, shifting over one 16th note every measure. The first exercise will be single-note bass drum permutations. Play one measure with the kick on the downbeats, one measure with the kick on the “e,” one measure with the kick on the “&,” and one measure with the kick on the “a.”

The second exercise follows the same permutations, but this time it’s with two 16th notes. The third exercise uses three 16ths. If you’re anything like me, you might be surprised by the way that isolating the kicks like this will flush out weak links in certain grooves.

I chose a hi-hat/snare groove that should be familiar to most drummers, simply so you can get used to the system. At this moment, understanding the system is far more important than the notes on the page. Play through the exercises so that you can internalize the concept. If it’s easy for you, just wait until the next article, when things get a bit spicier. If it’s not easy and you need time to work it out, then you’re like me. Just be happy that you’re finding this out in your practicing and not in a high-pressure audition!


Here’s the hi-hat/snare pattern that we’ll be using to build bass drum freedom underneath.

One-, Two-, and Three-Note Permutations 2

In the beginning, treat each measure as its own separate exercise. Once you have each measure down, try playing the entire sequence.

Single Notes

One-, Two-, and Three-Note Permutations 3

Double Notes

One-, Two-, and Three-Note Permutations 4

Triple Notes

One-, Two-, and Three-Note Permutations 5


This section is designed to test the skills you’ve built up through the permutation exercises. There are ten syncopated bass drum patterns made up using the downbeat, “e,” “&,” and “a.” If you’re able to play all of the rhythms in Examples 1–3, then you have the physical ability to play everything on this page. The only thing standing in your way is your ability to hear the new patterns. Take each one very slowly—even one note at a time if necessary. It will sound random at first, but soon you’ll be able to hear the groove, and then you’ll be able to take advantage of your well-deserved groove freedom.

One-, Two-, and Three-Note Permutations 6

One-, Two-, and Three-Note 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.