Chops Buster: Gavin Harrison’s Hot Licks

Gavin Harrison's Hot Licks

By Brad Schlueter Originally published in the December 2006 issue of DRUM!

Through his excellent drumming books and DVD, Gavin Harrison has made a mission of teaching drummers how to play polyrhythms, beat displacements, and metric modulations, which collectively will confuse the hell out of your bandmates even as you come down on the 1. If you’ve never heard Harrison play, you might assume from the last sentence that his drumming would be self-indulgent and busy, as he endlessly screws around with the beat. You couldn’t be more wrong. Harrison is a great groove drummer, and his playing always feels perfect. He has incredible dynamics and taste, but always enhances the arrangement with enough spice to keep things interesting — a fact proved on every song he plays with Porcupine Tree, a band that blends the introspection of Radiohead or Coldplay with heavier progressive influences of Tool or A Perfect Circle. The following excerpts come from the band’s latest release Deadwing, an excellent recording with the drums up front in the mix. Harrison gave us lots of stellar drumming moments to enjoy. Let’s dig in.


In this song, Harrison starts with another cool funk groove that makes great use of dynamics and hi-hat openings, and ends with a six-stroke-roll fill. At the chorus, he moves his right hand to his ride cymbal, and uses his left hand to play the open hi-hats. This disk has lots of odd-time sections, and in this song, there’s a part that alternates measures of 9/8 and 8/8, though you can just as easily think of the second measure as 4/4. The second time through the pattern Harrison plays a sparser pattern on a sloshy hi-hat, and adds some double bass ruffs to raise the difficulty level even higher.


Harrison plays a simple snare pickup into his funky verse groove. This part feels great because of his perfect time, and tasteful use of buzzes, ghost notes, and hi-hat openings. “It’s basically a heavy Bonham kind of groove,” Harrison says. “I like to add in little embellishments in a subtle way just to keep it moving along.” The pre-chorus and chorus have an unusual three-measure phrase length that somehow doesn’t sound that odd. Notice how he plays the cymbal accents in the pre-chorus, and then fills the same pattern with more bass drum notes in the chorus.


The first time I heard this cool fill, I replayed it about six times. But until I slowed it down, I could have sworn each bass drum riff started with a rest, and only had three notes in it. At half speed I thought I could make out a softer first note that makes the pattern even more difficult. But after running the transcription past Harrison, we had to reverse course yet again. “It does start with a rest,” he clarified. “There are two kick drum notes and one floor tom note before the snare accents. A difficult one to notate. I think it’s quite unusual to start a fill with a thirty-second-note rest, so probably your mind just sticks one in just to keep from going crazy!”

"She's Moved On"

These two fills lead into two different churuses of this haunting song. File these under absolutely incredible!

"The Start Of Something Beautiful"

After Harrison reviewed all the transcriptions in this article, he did something no other drummer had ever done. He asked us to include one more little snippet of the song “The Start Of Something Beautiful.” Hey, we aim to please, so here’s what he had to say about it: “This song starts in 9/8 and moves into 5/8 for the chorus. I’ve always been interested in odd-time signatures when you can make them groove and have a natural flow. When it works it sounds good and you don’t always realize what the time signature is. When it doesn’t work you end up with a jerky complicated uncomfortable feeling, which I try to avoid.”

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