Aronoff & Pelton Share Tips For Learning Songs

Using “Chop Suey” as an example again, we could count out the measures in each section, and we see that the main parts, the repeating parts, are not always presented in the same length. Sometimes four bars, sometimes eight, sometimes 16. They need to be counted. And there’s that one bar of double-time feel and, later, one bar of rest, used as links between main parts. This slight variation in the presentation of the three really cool main parts keeps the listener interested and adds that lovely dynamic tension.

This clever jumbling of the song’s building blocks is common in good songwriting, and it is imperative for drummers to be able to recognize both the standard arrangements and the clever variations that go into great songs. Songs will make sense more quickly to the player who is familiar with several variations of common song forms and can write them down quickly. Sometimes time is tight. The drummer might have to learn fast.

“On the Sheryl Crow thing,” Pelton says, referring to the singer-songwriter with whom he has performed on recordings and TV shows, “she might just sit down and play it through. And some artists don’t want to sit there and play it through ten times, so understanding form will help you get through that.”

Aronoff gives another example. “In Nashville they move very fast,” he told us, “Usually you hear a song twice before you record. On the first run-through someone will start writing a chart, using the Nashville numbers system, then play through it one more time to make sure the chart’s right, then they photocopy it for everyone, then you record. So you have to do a lot more memorizing. You have to pay attention.” Nashville producers may be anxious to get the tape rolling, but Aronoff has a good pitch in defense of his careful charting. “If someone is antsy, then I let them know, ’When I get this thing done, you won’t have to stop for me. You’ll never have to stop because I don’t know the song.”

These guys write what they need, be it a lot or a little. “I’ve gotten really good at writing charts,” Aronoff says, “If I had the time, I could write out every single note I hear on the demo. I don’t even go out and do a take until I have the chart exact, so that I can play through the song perfectly. I know all the sections, all the beats, so if I make a mistake it’s because I’m reading wrong. That chart has every measure, every beat.”

Pelton says, “On the SNL band, we have an actual book, over seven- or eight-hundred tunes, but the charts are real detailed, transcribed from the record.” Pelton didn’t write those charts, which were most likely hired out to arrangers. Apparently they are more detailed than is needed for the application. “What I did on those is I actually put my crib notes over the charts,” Pelton explains. “So I at least know what the form is, and any other kind of notes that might help me play the chart, but I’m not reading every sixteenth-note Garibaldi played on ’What is Hip?’”

The point is to equip yourself with whatever you need and to eliminate distractions. “As anal as this all sounds, you know, the legal pad and all the notes, I will say that it’s also important to be able to let go and just play as organically as possible, like a jazz drummer,” Pelton adds. “I was a jazz major in school, and that whole thing is not all about one specific part, whereas in pop music it can be the same exact part over and over. It helps to be able to go 180 degrees both ways. There’s no rules in this.”

We asked Aronoff if he learned to write charts in school. “Nobody taught me how to do this, I just learned it on my own,” he said, and gave some guidelines for new chart-scratchers. “Just listen to records, and write down what you think each section is: this is the intro, here’s the verse, the pre-chorus or what they sometimes call the release, the section after the chorus — just make your own vocabulary, and then count measures. Just keep it basic in that regard.”

Pelton says, “Everybody comes up with their own language, their own shorthand, but it’s about coming to grips with the ability to learn stuff fast because it will save the day.”

With experience on their side, Pelton and Aronoff, like all great players, can adapt to the amount of information needed (or allowed) for the job at hand. One example is the “human drum machine” scenario. “Some artists,” Pelton says, “want to hear the same thing every time, every take, and they appreciate the ability to give them what they want more than one time in a row.”

“Some artists will play you a demo of their tune first, and nowadays people can make some really ’fleshed-out’ demos. So maybe they just want a live drummer to cop what they’ve programmed. Some artists have ’severe demo love’ and they’re not interested in what you have to bring to the table, so the ability to transcribe exactly what they’ve programmed can save the day, as opposed to doing take after take and hoping you’re going to land on something they like.”

Another example is the “no notes allowed” scenario, where paper is seen as too sterile and too darned organized for real rock and roll. “Some artists,” Pelton says, “see you with notes and charts and they feel like they’re in math class, feel like it’s the furthest thing from rock and roll.” So what do you do if notes are verboten? We can imagine him smiling into the phone. “I might write a note on the snare drum, saying ’the bridge is only six bars long.’ There’s different ways you can have crib notes. There’s been times when I’ve done TV shows and you don’t get a lot of rehearsal and don’t have a lot of time to memorize the stuff. I’ll paste a notebook card on the bass drum so that at least if I have to remember something tricky, form-wise, it’s down there.”

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