Adding handheld percussion, like shakers and tambourines, to tracks in the studio is nothing new. Producers have long taken advantage of the opportunity to overdub layers of rhythmic texture without necessarily worrying about how it’s all going to be replicated live. Meanwhile, a number of drummers have taken on the challenge of reproducing multiple drum and percussion tracks on stage. Leading the way are Wilco’s Glenn Kotche, studio aces Billy Ward and Jay Bellerose, and living legend Jim Keltner.
In this article you’ll find examples of ways to begin incorporating percussion sounds into your live drumming. These patterns will not only expand your groove vocabulary but will also vastly improve your timekeeping. With practice, you’ll be able to feel the beginning, middle, and end of each pulse, which are more apparent when you’re controlling the sustaining sounds of shakers and tambourines. You’ll also learn to see how fluidly (or not so fluidly) you’re moving your body, especially in the spaces between the notes. This is often an overlooked element of improving time and groove.
In terms of the notation we’re using in the examples, an up arrow signifies a forward shake (away from your body) and a down arrow signifies a backward shake (toward your body). The first three examples do not require you to hold a stick in addition to a shaker in your hi-hat hand, but Examples 4 and 5 do. You may want to try taping a shaker to one of your sticks to make those examples easier to execute. Also, if you don’t own shakers, try making your own by filling an empty pill bottle with rice or beans.
To begin, here’s a simple groove where you’re playing 8th notes with a shaker or tambourine. The tricky part is getting the bass drum note on the “&” of beat 3 to land evenly with the shaker while keeping the shaker rhythm smooth yet articulate.
Now let’s try the same basic pattern but with a shuffle feel. The downbeat shakes (away from you) should feel longer than the upbeats. Experiment with the degree to which you’re swinging the groove by adjusting when you bring the shaker back.
This time, try throwing the shaker forward on every 8th note, while deemphasizing the backward movements as much as possible.
Now give equal emphasis to the forward and backward shakes to create a consistent 16th-note feel. We’ve also added an extra bass drum note at the end of beat 3. Be sure it lines up perfectly with the shaker.
For the next two grooves we’re going to add the hi-hat with the foot. Concentrate on maintaining steady movements with the shaker while you add the hi-hat on beat 2 and the “&” of beat 3. For additional percussive sounds, place a tambourine on the hi-hat or strap some bells to your ankle. Also try this groove with all forward shakes in addition to the front/back movement.
This groove is a swampy, four-limb shuffle that should get you rolling on your throne a bit. Concentrate on maintaining balance and matching your footwork with the feel of the shaker pattern.
In the next three patterns you’re going to maintain a shaker part with one hand while playing a full groove between the hi-hat and snare with the other. Try each pattern without the shaker first.
Here’s a groove in 6/8 time. Check out the open hi-hat on the “&” of beat 5. Make sure it rings through the remainder of the measure.
Here’s a fun groove with a few left-hand hi-hat notes placed on the upbeats. Play around with the dynamics of the snare part. Try them loud, soft, and with different accents. It also sounds cool to decrescendo each note to create a delay effect.
From here on, you’re required to hold a drumstick in the same hand as the shaker. Keep the shaker low in your palm so it doesn’t get in the way when you strike cymbals and drums. Let’s start with our original groove.
Now hit the hi-hat only on the first note of each beat, while shaking 16ths throughout. Try shaking from side to side instead of front to back for these patterns, to make it easier to strike the hi-hat.
In this pattern the shaker hand moves from the hi-hat to the rim of a tom.
Here are three final combinations to try. The only new element is the shaker roll on beat 4 of Example 5A. Just shake quickly and consistently to make it sound like a smooth roll.