To accurately follow the structure of the song, paper helps. Paper is good. Eventually, the song may be memorized, but first it will be on paper, in some fashion. There has long been a sad superstition in drumming that reading music can dull the excitement of the performance. Not true. But it isn’t necessary to write out all the notes, either. The point of the formally notated chart is to communicate to the musician what needs to be played. Same with a cheat-sheet, or a hybrid shorthand chart. The point of a chart is to communicate, and the point of learning songs is to be prepared.
Pelton, who has loads of schooling and experience, could write out all the notes if he wanted to. Sometimes, certainly, he has to read detailed and formal charts. But he isn’t a stickler for formality. “There was a film date I did a while back, and everything was written out, almost like classical music. So in a situation like that the ability to read well can really pay off. But that’s not to say that you can’t make a living playing drums with no reading skills.
“Knowing basic song forms is important, for example understanding how a blues form works, knowing it’s a form — that can be a real breakthrough for players. Any drummer that understands form and how the other musicians are operating within it will do better with the music.” Pelton explained that understanding the chord structures that go along with basic forms is also very helpful, and he says, “Having a sense of form, as a drummer, is crucial to setting up a song, because it frees me from the details and allows me to focus on getting a groove going with what falls under my hands and from my body naturally. The fact that I know what the form is means that I can set up the tune with grooves and changes in parts that are appropriate musically.”
And the parts that are appropriate musically will relate to the form. For example, in System Of A Down’s “Chop Suey,” drummer John Dolmayan makes musical choices to rest, to play aggressively, to play a half-time feel, to play a double-time punk beat, all in relation to the different sections of the song. And his choices mark those sections for the other musicians as well as for the listener. His drum parts are exciting because what they say fits so well with what the other instruments are saying. A drummer playing “Chop Suey” needs to put all the parts in their right places or the results will be lousy.
DRUM! also chatted with Kenny Aronoff, and asked him, “Why not just memorize the song?”
“Some people have incredible memories,” said Aronoff. “But that’s a hard thing to do when it’s a long song with no repeats, and they want you to remember what you did on Monday and now it’s Friday.” Aronoff plays sessions with lots of different people all over the map, and is a master of both formal charts (he can read violin concertos on marimba, for Pete’s sake!) and also his own style of cheat sheets. He also believes that paper is good.
“I might learn a lot of songs in a week. I once did three records in eight days, one in Minneapolis, one in Indianapolis, and one in L.A. That’s about 30 songs.” And not a lot of time for memorizing.
“I just did an album with Tony Iommi and Glenn Hughes, and one tune was ten-and-a-half minutes long, with five movements, tempo changes, ritards, completely different beats in different sections. I never would have been able to memorize it in the time I had, but with a chart I could just follow it. I wrote all the sections out, made my chart; we recorded it in two takes.
“Remember: when you build a fence, you put the fence posts in first, then you fill in the fencing. That’s the way I write charts,” Aronoff says, and we could interpret that to mean first mark the double bar lines. Map out, however you like, the sections of the song, then begin marking the minutiae. You can also see in Aronoff’s chart example that he uses a combination of standard rhythmic notation and his own shorthand to guide him through the song. He can write these charts out quickly and accurately.
“Sometimes I just use notebook paper. First I try to get the sections: this many measures verse one, pre-chorus, chorus ... at the very least, the amount of measures for every section, and I’ll write out the basic beat for each section. I show the changes in the beat. If it goes to open hi-hat, I write ’open hi-hat,’ if it’s closed hi hat, I write ’closed hi hat.’ I might write on the chart, ’Ringo Fill,’ ’Nirvana style,’ ’Keith Moon,’ whatever. I put an arrow for drum fills. If it’s a specific drum fill I write it out. I can write every note and I can read it — breakdowns, rests, ’don’t play here,’ — so I can play the whole song.”
Both Pelton and Aronoff blend cribbed notes with traditional notation and also word-cues — like the “Keith Moon” on Aronoff’s chart (Pelton has “Charlie Watts” written on one of his) — that feed cues to the amassed musical information in their head. Seeing “Keith Moon” on the chart only means something if Moon’s work is familiar, just as seeing “Basie Style” on a big-band chart only helps if you’ve studied Basie. The shorthand of song charts is a blend of general reminders and specific reminders, and it helps to have a large mental library of notable bands and drummers and their distinctive traits. That way, when cribbing those country tunes, the drummer can write “Ray Price Shuffle” on the paper and know what it means.
In rock, pop, and country music, the verses and choruses are the most easily remembered parts of the song. They are often framed by clever bridges, turnarounds, and riffs. Knowing the band is playing the verse does not necessarily prepare the drummer to guess the next section, as sections vary in lengths such as double verses, half-choruses, a six-bar bridge, or maybe one extra bar before the chorus. The drummer needs to know the road map of the song. That’s why the first thing Pelton and Aronoff do is to count the number of measures in each section. Counting prevents surprises.