It’s happened to all of us. A song comes on the radio, and you tap your foot along with the music. A few beats later, you suddenly discover that something is very wrong. Your foot wasn’t on the downbeat after all. Count 1 has suddenly appeared someplace else, far away from where you thought it was, much like a Criss Angel magic trick. This has happened to all of us, momentarily inducing that terrifying feeling we get when we’ve leaned too far back in a chair, hovering on the brink of disaster.
Here’s an even worse scenario. You’re on a gig, and someone calls a song you don’t know and says, “The intro’s kind of weird — just listen,” and the next thing you know you’re playing a beat displacement that would make Vinnie Colaiuta or Gavin Harrison proud. Drummers live in quiet, quivering dread of these humiliating moments. Worse still, we all know that if anything goes wrong on stage related to the timing of a song, the drummer gets blamed no matter who’s really at fault.
Some songs have this effect on the listener entirely by accident. It was just a musical illusion caused by assuming or perceiving a pattern to start on count 1, or any other count, when it doesn’t. Other songs throw the listener off with an unusual accent pattern that suggests the phrase begins somewhere it doesn’t. Some songs have this effect due to a mistake made during the recording that was later kept, simply because it sounded good. Some songs deliberately use this technique to intentionally mess with your head. Those songs are just plain evil. Bands like The Police, The Rolling Stones, Van Halen, and Led Zeppelin have so many songs that begin this way, it almost sounds like no one really knew where 1 was, and it just kind of coalesced into existence by musical consensus during the song’s recording.
We’ve collected a few well-known and some not-so-well-known examples of these songs and tried to decipher how and why this deception occurs. Hopefully, this admittedly incomplete sampling of tunes can serve as a primer that may help you survive a train wreck onstage and achieve “oneness” with your band.
One incredibly useful technique that can help make you a master of meter is to simply count. It wouldn’t surprise me to learn there are cave paintings of Cro-Magnon drum teachers instructing their students to count out loud while using saber-toothed tiger bones to pound on mastodon hides. Many drummers hate to count. Go on, admit it, you’re one of them. But it works well, works quickly, and always has. Plus, counting can help you get your bearings until you can just “hear” it. For these examples, we’ve written out the drum part along with the part responsible for this deception. It’s a good idea to listen to the originals and count along with them. It’s a great ear/brain training exercise.
While writing this article, I noticed that intros like these are a bit more rare today than they were 20 or 30 years ago. That would be the BPT epoch: before ProTools. Our desire to correct all our best mistakes may put many of these wonderful intros in a time capsule to be forgotten. I hope not, since I think that’s one of the reasons that all these songs are unique and interesting. It’s the imperfections — deliberate or otherwise — that let you know it’s human.
“Rock And Roll” by Led Zeppelin
Every rock drummer has to play this classic song sometime, and most screw up the intro. The common mistake is to play the first note on count 1 and then add extra notes to the end of pattern to make it add up to 4/4. The intro is all in 4/4, and starts on the & of beat 3, though some drummers prefer to think of it starting or ending with a measure of 3/8. It definitely helps to count it out. Most drummers don’t know that John Bonham based this intro very, very closely on — or perhaps just plain stole it from — Charles Connor’s intro to Little Richard’s song “Keep A Knockin’.”
“All Along The Watchtower” by Jimi
This intro is really out there. It might sound like it starts on beat 1 to you. It could just as easily sound like it starts on beat 4 to you, too. I’d bet it sounds like it starts just about anywhere other than where it does, on the & of 3. Of course, it doesn’t help that Mitch Mitchell is the drummer. He’s sort of a jazzy and rudimental version of Keith Moon. Wonderful, impulsive, quirky, inspired, completely unpredictable, and a definite part of the Hendrix charm. There are three distinct groove and feel changes in the first ten measures. You’re going to need a GPS system to find your way through this one.