More About “How” Than “What”
There are many different concepts and methods for developing independence. Most of us spend countless hours working on independence the traditional way, by playing a rhythm with one hand (e.g., a jazz swing ride pattern) while playing another rhythm with the other hand (e.g., quarter-note triplets).
In addition to figuring out how to get the hands and feet to play different rhythms simultaneously, there’s another kind of coordination that needs to be developed: volume independence. Tower of Power drummer David Garibaldi talks about this concept in his classic book Future Sounds, and many others have stressed the importance of dynamic control. The more I’ve worked on this with students, the more I’ve realized how important volume independence is and how much it’s linked to musicality and feel.
Often when we listen to something that sounds great, we focus on what is being played, such as the notes, chops, and patterns. But when we try to play those ideas, they don’t sound the same—something’s missing. Sometimes that missing element is the ability to control the volume levels between the limbs and within the rhythms that each limb is playing.
The problem could be that the volume of one sound, such as 8th notes on the hi-hat, is too flat (all the notes are being played at the same volume), or the volumes of the different elements of the entire pattern (like the hi-hat, snare, and bass drum) are out of balance so that one part is being played too loud or too soft in comparison to the others. Volume independence is what helps the groove of David Garibaldi, Steve Gadd, and Questlove sound so deep, and it’s what makes the time feel of Roy Haynes, Jeff Hamilton, and Mel Lewis so identifiable, with such a hard swing. It’s also what makes JR Robinson and Paul Leim such great studio players—they know how to blend their parts perfectly with everything else on the track.
When you look at a notated drum pattern or a transcription, you might see the marking of accents or ghost notes, but most often there is no indication of the volume relationships required to make the patterns sound like music and not just an exercise. But we want to be sure we’re developing our ability to hear our own dynamics as we work on executing new ideas with our hands and feet.
Let’s begin with a simple 8th-note pattern with no indication of which sounds are to be played louder than the others or where accents might occur naturally. Try playing this example exactly as written, with each of the three limbs at the same volume.
It doesn’t sound very good, does it? Now start adding some accents on the hi-hat on the downbeats. Notice how this changes the feel of the groove, even though you’re still playing the same rhythms with each limb.
Experiment with the volume of the accents and the non-accented notes. How hard you play the notes should be based on the musical effect you want to achieve. The accents can be played with the neck of the stick on the edge of the hi-hat or with the tip of the stick in the middle of the bow of the cymbal. You should also try varying how tightly you hold the cymbals together. All of these variables will have a great impact on the feel and emotion of what you’re playing. Experiment with a complete range of accent and non-accent volume levels. Then try moving the accents to different notes of the hi-hat pattern to learn how that affects the feel.
In this next example, I’ve added a bass drum accent on beats 1 and 3 of each measure and changed the hi-hat accents to occur on the upbeats. This one will be a bit more challenging, because the right hand and right foot are playing accents at different times. This is the first step in developing volume independence. Again, experiment with different volumes for the accents and the non-accented notes to find the levels that sound the best to you.
Let’s move on to a 16th-note pattern. Try playing all of the hi-hat notes in this next groove at the exact same level, and play the bass drum, snare, and hi-hat at the same volume relative to one another. Take the pattern slowly at first.
The groove sounds a little stiff, right? Now add a simple accent pattern on the hi-hat on beats 1 and 3, and accent the snare on beats 2 and 4. Listen to how much momentum and life the accents add to the groove.
Here’s a variation where I’ve added a 16th note on the bass drum, as well as accents on the hi-hat, snare, and kick.
Let’s try the same procedure with a typical Afro-Cuban cascara rhythm (in 2-3 clave). Play this on the shell or rim of the floor tom or on a cowbell. Start by playing it without accents.
Now apply a typical accent pattern to it. Listen to how much more musical the accented version sounds.
Now let’s begin to play around with shifting the volumes of the sounds and limbs as they relate to each other. To begin, try Example 1 again and play the overall level of the hi-hat softer than the volume of the snare and bass drum. Then try shifting the volumes of all three limbs a little at a time until you find an overall balance that sounds good to you. Do the same thing with the other examples in this article, and then move on to some of your own grooves and patterns.
Here’s a different example in a triplet-based jazz style. As before, experiment with the two parts of volume independence. Work with the way the notes are accented in each limb and by how much, and think about how the ride cymbal, snare, bass drum, and hi-hat relate to each other in terms of volume.
As you work with these concepts, remember that the relative volume between the limbs will change depending on the style, the context, and your personal taste. There’s not one correct way to play. The important thing is that you develop the ability to hear and control the accents and volumes of sounds independent of each other. Check out some of your favorite recordings and listen closely to the way the drummers are playing—how they use accents and balance the sounds to improve the music. Record yourself, and compare your playing with your favorite recordings by other drummers. The ability to listen musically is an essential ingredient in being able to play musically. Have fun!
Marc Dicciani is a professor of drumset and the director of the School of Music at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. For more information, visit dicciani.com.