The last 20 years has seen the rise of digital audio workstations (DAWs), such as Pro Tools and Garageband. These recording software programs have come way down in price and are now often used in home studios. Loops replacing drummers, plug-ins, and quantizing drum performances to a grid are more and more common.
These technological advancements are now vital to many songwriters, engineers, and producers out there, but it begs some important questions: Yes, loops are easier, but are they better? Is it really necessary for so many pop songs to use quantized drum performances?
While people are composing exciting new projects in the privacy of their own homes, much of what makes it to the mainstream seems incredibly dull. From the drum patterns to the harmonic structure to the melody is lacking the spark found in popular music from the ’60s and ’70s, for instance. Compare a current hit by Rihanna to a past one from Aretha Franklin, and you might see where I’m coming from. Would today’s mainstream pop be helped by human drumming? It certainly couldn’t hurt.
A group dynamic that squanders original thought and risk-taking might be the culprit here. The following list of suggestions will hopefully help you find creative solutions to compensate for these issues and keep the creative fires burning. Keep in mind, though, that artistry is in the eye of the beholder. In other words, what you think is a creative drum groove or lick may or may not seem so to the audience or your bandmates.
A friend of mine recently went to a Thomas Lang drum clinic and had a transformative experience. Lang talked about the huge amount of time that drummers waste noodling around the kit when they could be practicing diligently. It’s hard to deny his point: We could all practice more efficiently. However, noodling around on the drum kit can also be a great way to practice, if done right. Billy Ward, in his exceptional DVD Big Time, demonstrates one of his practice techniques: He noodles around until he discovers something that sounds promising to him, then reproduces and develops it further. Billy Ward is one of the most creative drummer on the planet, so it’s worth giving his method a fair shake.
Practice through noodling also builds spontaneous creativity. When I play a jazz or rock gig, I am often asked to make something up on the spot. Noodling has better prepared me for these moments.
The following is an exercise that combines noodling with organized practicing. The songo is one of my favorite grooves to play and teach.
Start out by playing a basic Songo to warm up.
Now begin to noodle around within the pattern. In other words, alter the sticking, add additional bass drum and/or hi-hat notes, orchestrate the sticking around various sounds sources, and change the rhythmic structure. Here are two patterns fleshed out in this way.