10 Ways To Sound Like Bill Bruford

Bruford’s facility with odd meters has come to define much of his work. This can be somewhat attributed to his often brutally discerning choice of collaborator. But it’s also very much the result of his status as the first rock drummer to explore odd meters while working within the format of a “pop vocal group,” as he described Yes in his 1982 instructional drum video. Evidently one of the first of its kind, Bruford And The Beat features the drummer explaining the genesis of his famously off-kilter groove from the hypnotic title track off King Crimson’s 1981 album Discipline (Ex. 4a). Inspired by a left-handed Swiss triplet, the phrase comprises 17 sixteenth-notes — which would make the time signature 17/16 — tethered to quarter-notes on the bass drum. Think of this as a measure of 4/4 with an extra sixteenth-note tacked on the end. Because of this extra note, the right foot won’t fall on the first downbeat of the phrase for another four measures (i.e., it will take four measures before those extra sixteenth-notes add up to another quarter-note). Another great example of Bruford’s gift for odd grooving is from “In The Dead Of Night” by uber-virtouso prog unit U.K. (Ex. 4b, from their eponymous debut).

It’s only natural to hear Bruford and “polyrhythms” mentioned in the same breath (this is, after all, the man who drummed on the finest output from King Crimson, a group that spent entire LPs exploring the concept). Nonetheless, the association should not be taken for granted. While greats like Tony Williams and Elvin Jones had spent the ’60s coloring their post-bop with these clever rhythmic illusions, Bruford — certainly influenced by the aforementioned — was one of the first drummers to use the technique extensively in the rock idiom. Specifically, he likes to imply polyrhythms by the use of specific orchestrations around the kit within a phrase of otherwise typically subdivided beats. This can be heard a number of times on the King Crimson album Red, particularly in “One More Red Nightmare” and the title track, where he repeatedly outlines a 3:2 polyrhythm with a pattern orchestrated around the toms and ride (Ex. 5). The effect would be lost here if the same rhythm, single-stroke sextuplets, was played on only a single piece of the kit.

Another clever technique in Bruford’s arsenal — no doubt the direct result of frequently playing odd-metered music — is his practice of displacing the backbeat in a groove. A rhythmic illusion of sorts, this has the disorienting effect of making it seem like your LP just skipped. In a live performance of his composition “Sample And Hold,” from a 1979 New York City radio broadcast, Bruford pulls this one a couple of times successively while the rest of Bruford (the band) churn out a dizzying melody with contrapuntal bass (Ex. 6a). Whether these are definite meter changes embedded in the composition or just the playful whim of our tricky hero is not completely obvious. Does it matter, though? We’re left with our heads spinning either way. Sometimes Bruford is able to create the opposite effect by declining to adjust the backbeat while the rest of the group transitions from one odd-metered phrase into the next. This occurs right before the turnaround during the guitar/keyboard “hook” in “Siberian Khatru” shortly before both meet up at the beginning of the new phrase (Ex. 6b).

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