Dave Weckl: Soloing Around Kicks

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Transition is the name of the CD Dave Weckl released in 2000. He couldn’t have chosen a more appropriate title. The spirit of transformation invigorates the music and musicians associated with Weckl. “The new direction is the new band on Transition,” Weckl explains, “with Tom Kennedy on bass, Brandon Fields on saxes, and Steve Weingart, the new keyboardist, featuring the new compositions.”

Those compositions represent a huge part of the band’s transition. Infectious grooves, memorable melodies, and complex syncopated kicks are performed with characteristic virtuosity from the members. And while they all contribute compositions, the most fruitful source of new material seems to be the band’s collaborations. “The band jam sessions started with the Synergy CD, and have really been a great way to come up with some foundational ideas that everyone has a hand in,” Weckl says. “The process generally is, after getting everyone together and ready to play, I will start playing a groove, one in a list of many that I’ve already determined I want to have on the recording. I usually don’t say anything. I just let the guys come in one by one, sort of whoever has an idea first. Tom and Steve both have perfect pitch, which really helps to make this work, especially when it is just the three of us jamming. I record everything we do, then later we listen, and start dissecting sections that seem to work. From there we will add to or subtract from different melody ideas, and add or create new sections to start to turn it into a song.”

The opening cut, “Wake Up,” is a perfect example. First Weckl came up with the catchy groove, which he describes as “an inverted swinging funk groove.” What? We need a little further clarification. “It’s the shifting of a normally placed beat, accent, or groove to an eighth- or sixteenth-note earlier or later,” Weckl explains. “The whole concept of inverting or displacing beats or grooves has become so second nature to me I don’t even think of them as different or inverted. When I first started messing around with this concept years ago, the tendency was to be a bit too literal with the inversions at times. These days when I use inversions or displacements, they tend to be mixed in with normal beat placement, so I feel they are a bit more understandable and musically appropriate.

“The first and foremost thing to consider though is to try to make any groove musical and make it feel consistently good, whether using inverted beats or not. Most importantly, is the fact that this is nothing really new, and certainly wasn’t my idea to begin with. Great drummers like Clyde Stubblefield and David Garibaldi were using some of these concepts years ago. As far as developing this concept, I actually don’t want to advocate even doing it, to be honest! I think I’d rather try to get kids and students playing really good feeling, grooving, swinging straight beats first.”

“Wake Up” signals yet another type of transition. Previously known for his remarkable drum set technique, Weckl pulls double duty on the track, laying down both drum kit and percussion parts simultaneously. He pulled this off by adding a percussion section to the left-hand side of his kit. “From a physical standpoint, it all started by coming up with some grooves where I used the left hand on the auxiliary snare drum to my left under the hi hat to play some rhythmic patterns that created the desired forward motion. At the same time I keep the hi-hat or cymbal part and snare drum part going with the right hand. This created a very different sound.

“On ’Alegria’ I kept wanting to hear a conga part in the chorus of the tune. That’s when I decided to try to play that part with bongos, as I could put them in the set up fairly easy, over my left snare, next to the hi-hat. While I was at it, I also put up a small Tombek – all from Remo – to add to the color of sound. It was quite another thing to be able to play everything I wanted to hear. My objective was to create the parts I heard with the percussion, while not disrupting the sound and feel of the drum groove. So a lot of practicing was necessary to facilitate that goal. Some of the drum/percussion patterns ended up being of the linear fashion, by simply moving the left hand from what would be played on the snare or hi-hat as ghost notes or subdivisions within the groove, to the percussion array to the left. Some were very specific parts that involved a great deal of independence and motion consistency to maintain the sonic aspect of the grooves and feels.”

While it’s rare, there are moments when Weckl doesn’t play all the percussion. Instead, he plays along with a rhythmic loop on “Like That,” which leads us to the whole question of time. Does he feel restricted when playing to a click? “Playing with a loop or sequence is always somewhat confining,” Weckl confides. “Especially when the music is more apt to want to go places during improv sections, while playing off one another. It is important that everyone hears the loop, so that they can get into the pocket of the loop, too. Having said that though, if you and the band are comfortable playing with sequences, it is not that big of a deal. You simply adjust into that mindset of nailing the loop time-wise, knowing you are not as free to stretch the time as you would be without the loop. And you still need to be conscious of playing with, and off of, your band mates.

“In this instance the loop is a bit liberating. The loop on ’Like That’ is a fairly complete drum-istic groove, so that allows me to use the approach of complimenting that groove with a slightly different one. This also allows me to play more spaciously, without feeling I have to be constantly supplying all the drum information. Playing with a click is a lot different from a loop – the click won’t be there on the CD, which means that more stretching can occur within the bars if desired, without creating any flams. You also have to be aware that, since the listener will hear you, not that click, your focus needs to really be on what you sound like as you are tracking, not if you are dead on with the click all the time. I found early on in my recording career, when the focus was on the click in that manner, I could hear myself adjusting to it during playback.

“The goal should be to sound and feel completely natural when playing with a click. It takes lots of practice on your own with a drum machine or metronome to become really comfortable doing everything with a click. I actually prefer if the rest of the band doesn’t hear the click, or certainly not as much of it as I do, so that their focus is on the drums for time and feel, not on a time source that won’t be [in the final mix]. On most instrumental, improvisational music, I usually don’t like to use a click. However, at times, especially when the music is new to me, like most of it was on Transition, I prefer to use a click to assist me while performing difficult or different grooves, like with all the percussion. So the time aspect of consistent tempo becomes one less thing I need to worry about. We used a click on everything except ’Group Therapy’ and ’Just for the Record,’ those two songs being looser in feel, and less demanding on me.”

The following transcription from “Braziluba” occurs at 6:58 into the tune. In the liner notes, Weckl refers to this section as “a fun vehicle for a drum solo.” Well, if you or I were to take a ride in that vehicle we might encounter a bumpy road. In the excerpt, Weckl plays in and around a repeated section of kicks (see Ex. 1) by the band with apparent ease and wonderful musicality. It eventually leads to a more open vamp section where he gets to blow.

Weckl compares these two sections: “During any section that has kicks or punches, the drums are usually left alone to play the solo fill, and maintain the time and forward motion that the whole band was helping to provide before. So for these situations, I am conscious to try and keep all that happening. The idea is that the energy level should go up, not down, so my volume and content has to come up a notch from where the hits just left off. But when I solo over a vamp or groove, the approach becomes more spacious, and somewhat looser, as there is something accompanying me, keeping the time, and giving me something to play off of. This allows more of a story to be told, more dynamics to be played, and gives me time to build and climax the solo.”

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That’s nice, but how do we go about getting to the point where we can make those musical choices? “My approach has always been to try to incorporate the hits and punches in with the groove or time being played,” Weckl explains. “Notice I didn’t say that the other way around – the time feel and groove is still the focus, not the hits. First off, the band needs to have something solid to play off of, a time feel that gives them foundation in order for them to play the punches off a pulse. So unless it is a situation musically where it is meant to be a stop-time affect, I try to make the hits part of my groove or fill. But even if I play a fill around the hits, the hi-hat usually keeps pulse, or the quarter-note.

“A great way to develop something to play within hits like this is to sing fills and grooves first, in with those accents. This became standard procedure for me in the studios whenever I sight-read a jingle or movie soundtrack and had to come up with something quickly that made musical and compositional sense. I would scope the chart out for either complex rhythms or hits, and sing them and the groove or fill around them, sometimes even writing in little pieces of what I just sang to help me remember what to do when I got there in the chart.

“Although counting is good and mandatory when first learning about reading and note placement, it’s something one should try to let go of as soon as you are ready to do so. Try to get it into a musical context as quickly as possible, which means singing the rhythms with drum sounds and using your voice. Always remember it’s music, not a math equation, and you don’t want to sound like you are counting. To me, developing vocabulary around the hits is about building facility to play what you want to play at a given moment.”

So now you can go to the practice shed and get your chops together using Weckl’s well considered advice. Or you can cheat and go straight to the transcription on the following pages and steal his licks.

DRUM! Notation Guide

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