The Drummer’s Heartbeat
WHEN I FIRST BEGAN TO play in bands, the drummer was the drummer. He put the beat right where he put it, and that’s where the band sat. I didn’t think about whether we rushed or dragged, I just played my part in time with the backbeat. With a little more experience, I became aware of how different drummers felt to play with, and that feeling translated into a ranking, as in “this drummer is better than that one.”
In 1982, however, along came the LinnDrum. There had been drum machines on the market before then, of course, but as the LinnDrum used actual samples of real drums, it soon became popular—despite its $2,995 price tag. All of a sudden, the records we heard—and, in my case, played on—were programmed to perfection by groove-typing non-drummers. For certain types of music this was cool, but for other genres, it just seemed to sterilize the tracks a bit.
What the LinnDrum’s precision groove did for me was make me acutely aware of what I call “center time.” The Linn’s sequenced beats were right on the money, so I got used to playing perfectly in time with a “drummer” that was perfectly in time. Now, when I played with a human drummer, I found I could separate the perfect beat—the center time—from the drummer’s interpretation of the groove, and determine where his heartbeat lay in relation to that center time clock I’d grown accustomed to playing to.
In the heat of the moment—onstage in Lithuania with drummer/ percussionist Walfredo reyes, Jr. and bassist Dave Marotta. Walfredo can rock your socks off, but has the sensibilities of a seasoned jazz player. he is the catalyst behind some extremely high-level bouts of jamming.
Each drummer you play with has a unique heartbeat and feel. Some drummers feel great laying it back just a bit. Their pocket is just behind the beat. Other drummers play way on top of the beat, but that also feels great. A few have incredible center time, and the beat comes around exactly where you think it would. The trick is to be able to sit in the pocket with each one of those guys.
Now, anyone who uses a DAW (Pro Tools, Logic, Cubase, Sonar, etc.) knows you can nudge your entire rhythm-guitar track a bit ahead or behind the beat after recording it. You can experiment with each nudge until the rhythm locks in, and the groove comes alive in a thrilling way. But, to be a truly in-demand studio or live player, you should strive to establish for yourself a personal “nudge button” that enables you to visualize where the drummer is while you are playing with him. Is he ahead of the beat or behind it? Adjust your right hand accordingly. Lay back when you hear yourself “flam-ing” against the snare drum. Push forward a bit when the drummer is on top of the beat. Sit on it when the drummer plays right down the middle.
Here are three few tips for zeroing in on the groove that have always worked for me:
• Follow the hi-hat. In most types of modern pop music the bass player is usually working off the kick drum pattern. We guitarists should realize that the hi-hat is where the accents are, and by paying close attention to them, a great rhythm part is easy to compose.
• Breathe. Relax your body. Don’t tap your foot. Instead, put that energy into your hands and feel the groove from head to toe. Practice this.
• Listen! Some of my favorite drummers speed up a fraction of a beat just before the chorus, and relax the tempo a bit for the verses. Go with it as it rises and falls with the emotion of the song. That’s music. Nothing feels better.