Terry Bozzio Master Class

The Ostinato, Double Bass, And Practicing

Terry Bozzio

Terry Bozzio is undeniably one of the top drummers in the world. His incredibly powerful yet technically precise playing and virtuosic double bass facility has made him the choice of Frank Zappa, Jeff Beck, UK, the Brecker Brothers, and his ’80s band Missing Persons. He has recorded with dozens of other artists including Duran Duran and Korn. He’s also one of the top clinicians in the world and is the master at soloing over ostinato patterns and, arguably, at playing polyrhythms of any kind. His latest venture is via the educational Web site Drum Channel, where he conducts interviews and jams with other great drummers.

When I learned he was going to be holding a drum clinic at the Drum Pad outside Chicago, I couldn’t pass it up. The clinic was exciting and he performed some incredible jaw-dropping drumming over some complex ostinatos as well as a jazz drumming demonstration on bebop kit. During the clinic someone asked him how he developed such remarkable facility and how he practiced. His answers were so insightful they struck me as being helpful to any of DRUM!’s readers who want to practice more efficiently. We’ve included a few exercises to help.

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DRUM!: What Is An Ostinato?

“It’s just a repeated musical phrase – that’s the musical dictionary definition,” says Bozzio. “It becomes an accompaniment pattern that’s subordinate to the lead line or melody or rhythmic improvisation that goes against it.”

If you’re thinking ostinatos are just for überdrummers, you’re wrong. Most drum books use ostinatos to develop coordination. In a typical rock beat book you will usually start playing eighth-notes on the hi-hat played over 2 and 4 on the snare drum with a variety of bass drum patterns. The repeating hand pattern of eight notes over backbeats is the ostinato and the bass drum pattern becomes the melody. By varying the melody against the repeating hand pattern you can eventually play just about any foot pattern you like against that hand pattern. Learn a couple of fills and you’re a rock drummer.

Okay, it’s not quite that simple, but you get the idea. Note that the ostinato doesn’t have to be played with the hands. If you’re learning speed metal or samba grooves the foot pattern will become the ostinato and the snare pattern will be the melody. If you’re studying jazz you’ll play spang, spang-a-lang on the ride and close the hi-hat on 2 and 4, creating a right hand/left foot ostinato, leaving the snare and bass to play the melodic ideas. Let’s look at some specific ways you can incorporate ostinatos into your playing.

As Bozzio explained in his clinic, he uses these sixteenth-note rhythms at the beginning stages of developing his coordination over a new ostinato.

Terry Bozzio

Not surprisingly, Bozzio also uses some polyrhythmic patterns that move over the bar line and are based on playing every third, fifth, or seventh sixteenth-note as well. For example, every third sixteenth-note would be measures H, C, and B, and every fifth sixteenth-note would be A, B, C, D, and P. He has another set of triplet rhythms that he uses as well, but for this article we’re going to focus on the sixteenth-note rhythms.

DRUM!: What advice do you have for people working on new material?

“The main thing I try to get across to people is the idea of really slowing down and saying what it is. On a basic level, the combinations for each note would be a right, a left, a together, or a rest. So, if you say a little pattern of that’s right, left, together, or something like that, then you’re telling yourself what it is you’re doing. Then start playing it as you’re saying it … and then you build it up to where you start to hear and feel the two different rhythms. Then you move to the next one. That process really works for me.

“Then, of course, when you have all rests, that’s the easy one. [laughs] I’ve never had any problem with that one or think anyone else does. I mean it’s really endless if you start combining two patterns – you exponentially increase the amount of variations. But I find that’s pretty much enough to get me going.”

At the clinic, Bozzio demonstrated one way to use these patterns with a funky ostinato. His left foot played quarter-notes and his right hand played the backbeat while his left hand played the hi-hat on every e, &, and ah, initially creating an interesting disco groove that quickly got very funky. He played each measure four times before moving to the next one.

Terry Bozzio

One of Bozzio’s signature double bass fills involves playing constant sixteenths on his snare and placing accents on his China cymbals while doubling the notes on his right or left bass drum depending on which hand hits the cymbal.

“That whole concept comes from the accent section of Ted Reed’s book Syncopation. He talks about doing the same exact permutations with a consistent single-stroke sticking (RLRL), and adding the accents to that. He even suggests after you get the hang of this to do it with the right hand on a right cymbal and left hand on a left cymbal. So I just added the bass drum with that. Obviously, with double bass I could mimic what my hands are doing just adding the accent with my right hand and right foot, and my left hand with my left foot. Billy Cobham did a lot of that kind of stuff with his solo records and the Mahavishnu Orchestra stuff. A lot of his stuff was based on paradiddles, like maybe a right-hand paradiddle with a crash on the first note and the left hand crashing on the left paradiddle. Basically, I’m taking his idea and expanding upon that.”

Terry Bozzio

More experienced drummers may not find that one too difficult. Here’s another double bass idea that’s more challenging. It’s based on playing constant sixteenths between the bass drums and the snare with a simple eighth-note cymbal pattern. This one uses “natural” footings, that is, the weaker counts are played on your non-dominant foot – the left foot for us righties. If you saw DRUM!’s Thomas Lang transcription of the song Loki (June 2010), you’ll notice he often approaches double bass playing this way. You can combine these to create backbeat-oriented grooves as seen in the bottom line.

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I wondered if Bozzio approached double bass playing with this footing method but instead he approaches it like some other drummers who came originally from a jazz background, such as Gregg Bissonette.

“Normally, I lead with my right. If it’s a consistent pattern like dugga-dugga-dugga-dugga I lead with my left, because I’m used to playing with my left foot on the hi-hat on the beat and just adding the right foot in between. When I was playing jazz, coming kind of from Tony Williams, it was very natural for me to do that (LRLR) on a consistent pattern and leading with my right if it’s a broken-up fill type pattern.”

Terry Bozzio

“I think depending on how deep you want to get into this, finding a way that works for you and being consistent with it is probably the best way to accomplish something you can use in a practical sense. On the other hand, when I warm up I always try to practice the opposite way so it works my mind and kind of gets me used to leading with my opposite foot while doing the same type of figures. But I hardly ever use them that way. I don’t have the confidence to use them in the moment, but if I keep practicing them, someday that will internalize and come out in my playing.

“There are a couple of aspects to this. One is, if you’re playing double bass on a single pedal on a single bass drum it doesn’t really matter. The sound is going to be the same so whatever’s comfortable and the strongest, do it that way. If you get into two tuned bass drums that have a distinctly different melodic pitch, then you’re going to sometimes want to lead with your left foot because that’s the melody or the sound that you want. Right/left on my kit is going to go down/up in pitch and left right would be the opposite, and there’ll be times where I’ll want to end a fill and go hand/hand and then left/right with my feet so it ends on a lower note. So you kind of need to practice both ways. You know, in all honesty I don’t lead that much with my left foot for fills.”

DRUM!: So do you mainly play heel up or heel down?

“It depends. Fast double bass things going between hands and feet I play heel up. A consistent double bass pattern leading with my left foot like eighths or a double bass shuffle I play heel up and pretty much everything else I play heel down, mainly for balance purposes. If you’re playing an ostinato it’s really good to have your heels planted so that when you rip around the toms you don’t lose your balance and screw it up. Most of my time-keeping screw-ups that are prevalent in everything I’ve recorded, ever, have to do with those kinds of balance issues. I think if I sit down and really concentrate on a 3-piece kit I could probably lay down a pretty good pocket.

“I do a tribute to ’Spanish Key’ by Miles Davis off the Bitches Brew album and its got my right foot on a D bass drum way off in right field and my left foot is on a hi-hat and I’m playing a samba rhythm. If I’m leaning too far right or too far left and playing melodically on the low or high toms I can screw up and pull the time – and it bugs the hell out of me. But I’m trying to do something that isn’t normally done. My right foot would be heel down and my left foot is bouncing up and down on the hi-hat heel up.”

DRUM!: How’s your pedal tension set?

“Loose. I have DW 9000 and it’s pretty much just at the point where if it was any looser the movement of the spring back and forth would have slop rather than just being at the point where it will stop the beater in position.

DRUM!: Beater angle?

“The angle is about 45 degrees, or cheating a little bit toward the bass drum. If it’s a little bit closer you can get a little bit faster that way.”

DRUM!: How do you practice?

“I’ll be repeating this until the day I die: When you practice you should try practicing something you don’t know how to do. Some people do things they know how to do and they call that practicing and they wonder why they never get anywhere. I think it’s important to stretch your mind and not just your muscles. When I’m warming up I try to practice things I don’t know how to do that stretch my mind and coordination as well as my body. So just don’t do paradiddles and then move to something else because you know paradiddles. Your mind probably went to sleep while your muscles were getting warmed up.

“When you practice anything new you can’t expect for it to be easy or simple or for you to get it right away. You have to take your time, put your ego on the shelf, and start like an absolute beginner because you should be working on something you really don’t know how to do and that’s the only way to do that. Some things are easier because of the work we’ve done in the past, but most new things are just like starting over. You can remember how difficult it was to do a double-stroke roll or a paradiddle or hold your sticks right or coordinate your first complicated beat. Those things were difficult and you didn’t get it right away. Why should it be any different? [laughs] Well, for me, almost 60 years old, if I’m trying to do something I don’t know how to do? You got to get in the habit of going through a little bit of pain. Trust me, it’s like exercising: You don’t like it; you don’t want to do it; but if you do it you’ll feel better. And you’ve kind of got to go through a little bit of pain and effort and self-pity [laughs] to get through the part that hurts to get to the part that feels really good. And that’s growth, you know?

For more information on these techniques and ideas, Terry Bozzio: Melodic Drumming And The Ostinato, Vols. 1, 2, 3, have been rereleased on a single DVD that’s available at drumchannel.com.