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How To Learn Songs

Kenny Aronoff & Shawn Pelton Share Their Personal Methods For Learning Songs Fast

It’s the drummer’s job to mark the boundaries of the song. No, not like a dog, dog! A drummer is the nimble guide that points out the paths and pitfalls of a journey. Drummers, holding sticks instead of a map, have to signify, with appropriate beats, fills, and dynamics, all the important musical shifts in a song. Even if the drummer’s musical decision is to play a straight beat all the way through, he still has to know the form of the song. The drummer has to know the lay of the land, and that means he needs to know how to expertly learn songs.

The need to learn songs comes at drummers in several forms. Maybe it’s a Broadway show, and there’s a “book” of charts to be sight-read. Maybe it’s a garage band situation, and the drummer is learning one batch of favorite tunes. Sometimes demos are sent in advance of a job, and the drummer is expected to have a good grasp when he or she arrives at the rehearsal or audition. For a tour, a drummer might need to learn an artist’s whole library. On a session with an artist the song might be explained on the spot, quickly, and then the drummer expected to record, right now, tastefully and expertly. Try this one: you’re subbing for Anton Fig on The Late Show With David Letterman, and you need to be able to play a whole bunch of songs without rehearsal, like Shawn Pelton did.

“On the Letterman show there’s no book,” recalls Pelton. “The horn section has one, but not the rhythm section. And they know three or four hundred songs. There’s no drum book, you just show up. And it’s not stuff like ’Midnight Hour’ or ’Celebrate,’ stuff you’d do on a club date. They’ll do something like ’Too Much’ by Dave Matthews, which has a long, involved form, if you really look at it. So I took the time to make notes and form charts so I could show up and do good. A show like that, they’re not going to rehearse with you for a week so you can get up and running on 300 tunes. I wrote out like 70 or 80 form charts for that gig.”

Pelton is the house drummer on Saturday Night Live and a very busy session player in the Big Apple. He gave us more details of his take on the art of the chart. “For me, just identifying how many bars there are to each section is a huge first step. It’s the most basic thing I do. I buy tons of these long legal pads. And everything is in pencil, because stuff changes.”

For the newbies, let’s be clear and say that sections of songs are the distinct musical components of the song, such as “verse” or “chorus.” In formal musical notation, these distinct sections are separated not just by bar lines but by double bar lines. In a way, all the other musicians in the band have but one ongoing musical question for the drummer: “Dude, where are the double bar lines?”

The double bar lines, we could say, are a concept borrowed from formal musical notation. But not all charts are formal, and as long as the chart communicates the idea of the sections, of the double bar lines, it will work. “Some people write it out like they’re doing their own drum chart; I don’t really do that,” Pelton explains. “I make something more like a form chart: how many measures to each section. If there’s particular hits or figures or rhythms I’ll write that down, too.

“And the beat, the basic beat. I’ll write that down, and if it’s different in, say, the chorus, then I’ll write down that, too. I’ll definitely write stuff on the charts that cues me, like ’hi-hat tight’ or whatever. What is the beat to this song? If someone’s learning 30 different tunes, then it would be extremely helpful if they wrote out, globally, the beat of each tune and the form. Then when they get to that tune, they’d at least be in the ballpark, and not off playing some funny beat. I’ll also write down a bpm and I use a metronome. Tempo references can really be a lifesaver.”

In rock, pop, and country music, the drummer plays repetitive beats that usually — but not always — vary from section to section. These sections, divided by conceptual “double bar lines” might also get “announced” by a fill or other variation in the beat. The chart is there to remind the drummer of the beats and the sections and where to put the musical “announcements.”

Pelton, we could say, is talking about notating the musical choices he’s made or been shown so that he can repeat them. He’s talking about selecting the right beat and tempo for the song and marking the “double bar lines” with what he’s playing. Because he does this, the other musicians can rest assured: Captain Pelton knows where we are and he knows what he’s doing. We won’t end up on the rocks. The beats and tempos and fills that he, like any great drummer, chooses to play are completely related to the structure of the song. What is the result if, instead, the drummer just hauls off on the wrong beat and the wrong tempo and does fills whenever he feels like it? Bad drummer. No cookie. Any Keith Moon insanity has to happen at just the right time, and the big fill (if there is one) leading to the chorus has to be in the right place. It all relates to the structure of the song. Great drummers are great guides.

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