The drummer has many responsibilities when reading a chart. They become especially evident in a sight-reading situation. This article deals with some basic skills necessary for the beginning drum-chart reader. I shall touch upon some theory behind the drummer’s function, the basics of a drum chart, practice aids, and the importance of being adequately prepared.
The drummer’s main function, especially in a sight-reading situation, is to play accurate time. Solid time is the largest single factor that holds the band together, and it should never be allowed to falter for any reason. The groove is also extremely important, and should always be played in an interesting and creative fashion in order to enhance the overall sound of the band. However, you must never become so preoccupied with the groove that you allow your concentration to be diverted away from the time or the chart. Don’t hesitate to simplify your playing if it becomes necessary. Playing more simply is an excellent way to maintain your concentration, because it allows you to focus more directly on the time and the groove, as well as the figures.
Regardless of the type of groove being played (swing, Latin, funk, etc.), simplicity should remain the rule of thumb when sight-reading a drum chart. The chart itself can have fills and figures to play, repeats and tempo changes to make, and cutoffs and holds to catch. You should work toward complete control of all of these aspects. However, in order of importance, you should be most concerned with: (1) time, (2) tempo changes, cutoffs, and holds, and (3) figures. It is time that will always remain the drummer’s most important function. Tempo changes, cutoffs, and holds are all related to the time, and are consequently more important than the figures. A misread or omitted figure will never be as disastrous as a mistake in the time.
Often what is not played on a chart can be more important than what is played. Some charts are so cluttered with figures that playing everything would sound too busy. Any chart might be taken at such a fast tempo that playing the figure clearly becomes risky and sometimes impossible. When sight-reading even at a moderate tempo, attempting a particularly difficult figure might jeopardize the time and flow of the music. Another good rule of thumb is: When in doubt, leave it out. It is far better to omit a figure than to lose the time!
A drum chart may be defined both as a rhythmic skeleton outlining the basic form of the music and/or as a road map guiding the drummer through the music. It can range from very busy and cluttered with figures to very empty with only the time indicated. Nevertheless, a large degree of freedom is afforded the drummer in creating the time feel, playing fills, and interpreting the figures. The way you express these things in your playing constitutes your own individuality and the feel you bring to the music. It is vital for you to develop your own style, and equally important to bring that style and musicianship into a reading situation. Music is an art form and must be approached with the appropriate taste, sensitivity, and creativity.
The drum chart that follows shows some features you will commonly encounter on a typical drum chart. No figures have been included in this example. We will examine figures in a variety of contexts and in much more detail in future articles.
The word “swing” at the top of the chart indicates the specific groove to be played. The alphabet letters enclosed in the boxes above the staff are rehearsal letters that function as points of reference. The first measure has time slashes, which indicate that time should be played. The following measures contain repeat signs that tell you to repeat whatever is in the previous measure. In this case, you play time for five more measures, and then play the first ending, which is two bars long. The repeat signs tell you to repeat what falls between them, to start at rehearsal letter A, and play the second ending. Section B tells you to play eight more bars of time. Section C tells you to play eight more bars of time. D.S. Al Coda tells you to go back to the sign at letter B, play to the coda sign eight bars later, and then play the coda at the bottom of the page and stop (Fine).
Understanding the road signs on a basic drum chart is only one of the skills needed for good reading. Proper preparation is also necessary in three other primary areas: chops, grooves, and concentration. You should have the technique to play extremely fast tempo, as well as the control to play extremely slow ones. You should know your basic grooves and as many variations as possible. Being properly prepared in these areas will make it possible for you to give your full concentration to playing the chart as musically as possible.
Getting a good foundation on your instrument requires daily workouts on a practice pad or snare drum. Strength and good hand control are vital to a drummer’s development. There are many exercises and books to help develop this strength and control. The 26 rudiments are superb conditioners. Two books by George Stone, Stick Control and Accents And Rebounds, are excellent collections of exercises. Remember that without strength and control it is impossible to play good time. Your hands must react instantly to the impulses you send them.
Independence on the drumset is another essential skill. Sooner or later, you will run into a chart that has a difficult figure, an extremely fast tempo, or a complicated groove to play. You must be prepared so that, instead of fighting your instrument, you will be able to control it!
The market is flooded with excellent books that can help develop your four-way coordination. Progressive Steps To Syncopation For The Modern Drummer by Ted Reed is a marvelous book that can be employed in many useful and challenging ways. Jim Chapin’s Advanced Techniques For The Modern Drummer is an independence bible. Four-Way Coordination by Marvin Dahlgren and Elliot Fine will challenge even the most advanced of players.
Knowledge of your basic grooves is mandatory. “Swing,” “rock,” and “Latin” are very general headings that can have many different variations. For example, a swing feel will always be based on triplets; however, it can be played with sticks or brushes. Some swing tunes might require a relatively busy groove involving the entire drumset, while others demand only time on the cymbal along with the hi-hat. A swing feel can also be done in various time signatures (3/4, 4/4, 5/4, etc.) and can range from very fast to very slow.
“Rock” or “funk” are familiar terms that are often used interchangeably on a drum chart. Each term means to play a straight 8th-note groove; however, funk is usually much more syncopated. This syncopation is derived by either stating or implying 16th notes. The use of different snare drum and bass drum combinations, as well as cymbal and hi-hat ostinatos, can produce countless variations.
The term “Latin” is a general heading that includes such specific rhythms as samba, mambo, bossa, rumba, etc. Each one of these rhythms has many variations, and you should try to incorporate as many of them as possible into your vocabulary of Latin rhythms. Remember that, in the process of learning to play many variations, you also strengthen the basic rhythm you learned in the first place.
The points I’ve discussed in this article (responsibilities, road signs, grooves) represent only a small part of the knowledge necessary to be adequately prepared when sight-reading a drum chart. Just as you need to practice consistently to keep your chops in shape, you also need to listen consistently to keep your ears in shape. When you hear something new (groove, kick, fill, etc.), study it until you have mastered it.
In my next article, we will look at another chart and how to prepare yourself adequately for the challenges of sight-reading. I will discuss the importance of concentration and include some tips on counting.
Gil Graham has been on the faculty of Berklee College ofMusic for eight years. He is actively involved in the percussion department’s lab program, where he prepares students for ensembles by strengthening their time feel and sight reading skills. This article is taken from his book Beginning Drum Chart Reading written specifically for those labs.