Keith Carlock Technique Workshop

Keith Carlock

Keith Carlock is one busy drummer — not in the sense that he plays a lot of notes, though he surely can. We’re talking about his schedule. He works a lot, with a lot of great musicians, and if you wonder why he happens to be so popular it’s the very same reason that all great drummers get to work — the secret is his groove.

His impressive drumming can be found at The 55 Bar in New York City, where he and boundary-stretching guitarist Wayne Krantz often push the improvisational envelope. Or you might run into him across town holding court behind guitarist Oz Noy. Carlock also gets the “big” road gigs with names like Sting, Steely Dan, Grover Washington Jr., and Donald Fagan, just to name a few.

Plenty of recorded evidence exists of Carlock’s deep pocket. Besides sessions with both aforementioned NYC guitarists, Carlock has also become a familiar face on the Nashville session scene and recently recorded with Faith Hill. Perhaps his biggest claim is to be one of a select few drummers who can say that they’ve recorded with Steely Dan. And it’s a lofty list, indeed, including Jeff Porcaro, Steve Gadd, Rick Marotta, and Bernard Purdie. That relationship must be working since he is also on Donald Fagan’s last solo album, Morph The Cat.

But it takes more than a solid groove to score prized gigs and earn the envy of drummers around the world. It’s also a matter of a drummer finding a particular voice on the instrument. Nobody ever made it into the history books for being generic, and Carlock has established a strong personal drumming identity that shines through no matter what musical environment he works within. We hear a style that fits in well with contemporary music combined with a solid pocket and phrasing that pays homage to Carlock’s southern Mississippi roots.

It’s all good stuff. So we tracked him down at Oakland’s Paramount Theatre to pick his brain during Fagan’s Morph The Cat Tour. Squeezed in between sound check and a nap on the bus, Carlock gladly shared ideas about technique, licks, grooves, and soloing concepts. Here are some of his insights.

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Grip

Keith Carlock

Fig. 1

Keith Carlock

Fig. 2

Keith Carlock

Fig. 3

Keith Carlock

Fig. 4

“My approach to hand technique is to let the stick rebound by itself. I play more finger technique than anything else — the little strokes are all finger. I’m not playing the down stroke, stopping it, and lifting it back up. It’s basically a bounce. I’m pulling the sound out of the drum instead of digging in. I really think about the rebound and try to stay relaxed.

“In the left hand, I use the fingers for little notes, like ghost notes [Fig. 1], but with a little whip motion in the wrist and the fingers I can get more power for accents. To get even more power for backbeats, I can use the arm like a whip [Fig. 2] — I’m still letting the stick bounce though. Then I’m catching it in my fingers because there are usually going to be some ghost notes after it. I have this thing where the momentum of that first stroke is allowing the stick to bounce, and I catch and dribble it with the fingers. I’m never really grabbing onto the stick.

“With the right hand, I use the thumb-up approach, French grip, I think it’s called [Fig. 3]. The fulcrum is between my index finger and thumb. I use the same vibe with finger strokes on the cymbal and hi-hat. As I get louder, I start to use more wrist and then arm [Fig. 4]. I’m really not hitting harder — it’s the velocity behind the weight.”

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Ghost Notes

“When you’re working on snare ghost notes, you want to really make sure the bass drum lines up properly and it doesn’t flam. You want to get into a motion that stays the same so it’s a consistent feel. Sometimes I’ll fill the whole measure with ghost notes [Exs. 1—4]. I trust that my eighth-note is good and solid and that all the sixteenth-notes are lining up properly. It’s really about the time. It varies with the vibe of the tune though. No matter whether it’s straight up sixteenths or the more loose New Orleans in-between kind of feel, they really have to line up.

“You also have to make sure your backbeat stands out. I have a pretty loud backbeat. I hit it pretty loud, and it’s a rimshot most of the time. That gives me a lot of crack and sound so my ghost notes can be a little higher than usual and the contrast is still cool. The height of the ghost notes really depends on the dynamic level. The point is to really keep them low. Again I don’t stroke these with the wrist. That would sound rigid and be hard to do. It’s really about using the bounce. I’m really not playing them. I’m just catching the bounce and using my fingers.”

DRUM! Notation Guide

Keith Carlock

Good Natured Hi-Hat

“When I play with Wayne Krantz or in any more open and improvisational setting, I try to think of ways to play grooves without necessarily playing 2 and 4 on the snare and 1 and 3 on the bass. I want it still to groove and be danceable without always having to do that thing. One way I do it is to try to keep something constant like a jazz drummer would with the ride cymbal.

“Sometimes I think of the hi-hat as taking the place of the bass drum [Ex. 5] in a rhythm. You can start to replace what you would typically play on the bass drum [Exs. 6—10], so the bass and hi-hat are working together and breaking up the time, but it’s still a groovy thing. I like to give the hi-hat something more to do than just eighth-notes all the time. On ’What I Do’ from Donald Fagan’s recording, I do something like that. I do that dotted-eighth thing a lot.

“Or you can alternate the bass and hi-hat [Ex. 11]. Having that constant eighth-note on the cymbal is what makes it feel like it’s still grooving, whether or not the bass drum plays on 1 each time. The possibilities go on and on. The feet are just working together to break up the time, but it’s still a groove.”

DRUM! Notation Guide

Keith Carlock {pagebreak}

Groove Soloing

“In the soloing I do, a lot of the phrasing comes from Zigaboo [Modeliste] with The Meters and that kind of playing. It’s a big influence on me. I’ve taken those grooves that I used to listen to so much and just tried to make them my own. I break it up between the limbs and approach it like a jazz drummer with the ride cymbal being something constant and the other limbs breaking it up and comping or soloing. But I’m thinking more in sixteenth-notes than in a jazz triplet.

“Here’s a four-bar groove and four-bar soloing example [Ex. 12]. Sometimes I’m thinking in the way that they end phrases on the & of 3 [Ex. 13], and sometimes playing the snare on 1 is cool [Ex. 14]. That’s the way I approach soloing. I come up with something like that and let it repeat and build as I improvise around and it takes me someplace else. I think it’s more compositional and musical. It could go a million different places, but I don’t know how to tell you where it will go.

“Sometimes instead of a traditional drum fill, I’ll use this kind of phrasing between the kick and snare for a fill. It keeps the groove going because you’re not changing and playing something on top. Listen to The Meters or Tower Of Power with David Garibaldi and that linear way of playing. There are several guys that have that thing happening. Just listen to all types of music to get this type of vocabulary inside you so it comes out naturally and it doesn’t have to be thought about. It comes out from repetition and playing with people a lot.”

DRUM! Notation Guide

Keith Carlock Keith Carlock

Great Lick

“I get asked about this a lot. I suppose it’s my one lick. I think of it as an accent. It’s two bass drum strokes and then two single strokes in the hands [Ex. 15]. Then I put a roll in between. The tricky part is keeping the roll going. I might think of a phrase like this [Ex. 16]. Or I sometimes use it in six [Ex. 17]. It’s kind of like that Elvin [Jones] thing. At least that’s where I got the idea. I’m not thinking of the exact notation. The notes just squeeze in there at the right time. I guess I do it a lot, but that’s because there’s so much you can do with it. Sometimes I just slide it in at the last moment like it comes out of nowhere.”

DRUM! Notation Guide

Keith Carlock