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A few months ago my friend Travis Faust started some great dialogue on Facebook regarding using a click track.  He wrote a blog post about it and emailed the link to a bunch of drummers, and we all replied with comments.  A really great discussion followed, and I meant to post it here when it happened and I forgot until now.  Oh well.

You’ll want to read Travis’ blog post first, then check out the exchange…

Anthony Bloch was first to respond with this:
I think you got the right idea here. A metronome is a really useful tool, but you need to be able to play well without it. I think every drummer has struggled with this issue at one point or another. I still wonder about playing live with a click. I feel like a click can be a baby sitter sometimes in live situations, and takes away from the fun. It’s always more fun to play when the baby sitter is gone, right !? Besides, if your band is really well rehearsed and you have practiced a lot with and without click, you should sound pretty solid live. I’m not saying there aren’t situations where you would want to use a click live – it’s just my general opinion on the matter.  I love using a click in the studio. I almost always use a click when I am working on new material. The fact that you are considering your own time issues means that you are well on your way to improving your time.  Listen to Herbie Hancock’s “Chameleon” and tell me that time needs to stay exactly the same in a song. It’s a groovin’ recording and speeds up like 20 bpm from beginning to end.


Dan Noraker responded next:
I use a metronome as a tool to move toward an ideal of a perfect sense of time, both physically and mentally. We might have a pretty good sense of time internally, but we have to discipline our bodies to respond to that sense of time. I used to struggle a lot with my bass pedal hitting exactly where I wanted it. I would always hit slightly early, causing me to rush. I needed the time reference of a metronome to discipline my body to go through all of the motions involved in a stroke on the bass drum to hit exactly with the metronome. As we get our bodies “calibrated” to respond exactly when we want them to, it also strengthens our internal sense of time.  I made up some exercises that help me “calibrate” my body to respond to a tempo that I think of or hear. It’s usually based on two beats of a pattern, then two beats of rest and I repeat it. I try to cover every tempo possible with each pattern so I don’t rush or drag the odd tempos to get to the comfortable tempos. In other words, If someone counts off 97 BPM, I don’t speed up to 100 or slow down to 96. I practice 97 so it feels familiar. The physical motion to produce 97 is different than 96, isn’t it? So I need to practice that. It’s all in muscle memory.  Now, my end goal is NOT to play everything perfectly even in time, though I want that ability. I want to CONTROL when I play steady or push or pull back, vs accidentally doing it. I want to know exactly where a beat should lie if it were perfectly in time so that I can decide that I want to make a note lay back a little and place slightly after my time reference, whether that’s a click track or in my head. I’ve also found that the closer I get to the magical “perfect sense of time”, the more I recognize where drummers are messing with time, intentionally or not. Whenever I teach lessons after working on time, my poor students get shredded apart on their timekeeping because I’m hyper-sensitive to it. I’ve also found that the more I improve my time, the more I understand what John Bonham is doing, for instance. I can hear where he intentionally places notes a certain way to create a feel.  I once thought that (and was taught by a horn teacher) the metronome didn’t have an important place in making REAL music that lives and breathes, and thus is NOT perfect. But what I’ve learned is that the metronome, used properly, can help us move toward “perfect time” for the means of developing intentional “imperfect time” to the end of making MUSIC.

Kevin Holvig then added this:
Well said Travis! Same to to you guys. This stuff is great to hear. Personally I go back and forth on this. I will play the other side to try to keep this conversation going. I used to play everything without a click growing up and had to make some serious adjustments in my playing when I first got one. It was a rude awakening to some real blind spots in my playing. I had tendencies based on comfort zones in my playing that would cause me to slowly get into comfort tempos. It took a long time to sort through it all. I thought I had it all worked out years ago playing with quarter notes on a click no matter what tempo. I was totally comfortable really slow or fast with quarters. Other bandmates would think I was crazy and would beg for 8th’s at the slower tempos.  As I have grown as a musician I have learned that nailing the quarters right on is not the goal. There is so much space in between those notes that are up for interpretation. In recent years I have done a ton of different exercises with clicks at all different tempos and have learned to get much deeper inside of the time. The goal here is not to become a machine but to be freed up by the total understanding of what is “inside the time.” Like Dan was saying, it’s unbelievable how sensitive you become to time if you are knee-deep in perfect time all day. I believe that freedom to breathe comes from being able to be dead on first. Try to play the same exact feel with all different sub-divisions. This a starting point to understanding what your tendencies are. You might seemingly be totally comfortable with quarters on a click and never realize how much you’re playing pinball with the click. As soon as you can make everything sound the same with 8th’s or straight 16th’s then you are honed in that much deeper to understanding your feel. Then turn off the click and let it breathe a bit and start to make it all feel the same. Actually, I just got back from a gig where I was the only one with click because we were all using wedges. I think that’s my favorite set up right now for the exact thing we’re talking about. I can let myself drift along with the musicians a little more when I’m the only one with click. It’s their job to keep good time too, but they’re playing to my groove. We go without the click when it’s just not musical to use one. Example, half the song is just guitar and vocals=no click. It gets ridiculous and that’s where it is nice to not be stubborn about click use. However, if everyone has click, I feel an obligation to keep a consistent reference point for everyone. I don’t want them to have to periodically choose between me and the click. I wanna all be on the same team. For what it’s worth this obligation goes up even more when playing worship stuff with rhythmic loops and guitar delay.

Then I responded with my input:
“Freedom to breathe comes from being able to be dead on first”… well said Kevin.  “I want to CONTROL when I play steady or push or pull back, versus accidentally doing it. I want to know so well exactly where a beat should lie if it were perfectly in time so that I can decide that I want to make a note lay back a little and place slightly after my time reference, whether that’s a click track or in my head”…. spot on Dan.  In my experience, the click is a guide and a very important one. It exposes hidden flaws, helps with consistent energy, and builds one internal time. What I will add to the discussion is what my buddy Chris Morrissey said once. He was practicing walking bass with a click just on 2 and 4. He said he was trying to make the click “disappear” (we all know what he’s talking about there), but his point was to not freak out when that happened. I know for me, when I feel the click disappear because I’ve totally buried it, I instantly panic and look for it again, instead of trusting my own time. THAT is what it comes down to for me. When I trust myself, whether with a part or with my time feel, I play far superior to when I don’t trust myself. So building that trust… that’s the game. Then I play confidently regardless of the click’s presence.  Disclaimer: This ABSOLUTELY hinges on style/genre. Travis is right… you do not use a click in Jazz. The music is such a conversation in that environment, you can’t have someone in the conversation who “isn’t listening” to everyone else.  One final point point: Like Kev said, I use clicks live all the time when we aren’t using in-ears, meaning I’m the only one who can hear it. I turn it off and on during the tunes, much like, as I said, a guide. That way we always end up playing the tune at the same tempo as last gig, but the other guys can breathe on my time and lean against it naturally. If things lean too far I just can the click. Cool example… Jeremy Sanoski has a lot of moments in his tunes when he plays by himself – just guitar. At this point, we’ve played the tune so often at the tempo I dial it in at, that when he goes solo at those moments I often don’t even need to turn the click off, and he stays right with it for 8 bars or more, totally blind. But of course it feels normal because he can’t ever hear the click at our gigs, only I do.

Tim Zhorne closed it out with this:
The only thing I might add to all the great comments is this: all the the tools, technique, gear, and knowledge we acquire are a MEANS to an end, NOT the end itself. The end goal, of course, is to make MUSIC. Click tracks we use for practice, studio or live, loops we play to, etc… they all have their purpose and importance, but hopefully with the overall goal in mind that MUSIC and the connection that music makes with our audience and (hopefully) with each band member is our goal, whatever the context, worship or otherwise.  We all recognize the fact that great music existed before the click track, loops and protools… as well as after. HOW we make this happen is the part of our journey that makes each style and context we play in a worthy and unique endeavor. It’s also what makes each project were apart of so much FUN! We’re required to intelligently consider what’s BEST for the music at hand.

Hey guys, thanks for all the feedback on my transcription post. Here’s my response to the points brought up in the comments.

I think you all understood my main point: transcribing is only a bad deal because it tends to make us think that the notes on the page are the main thing we need to understand in order to play like the pros.  It seems like all of you are on board with me there, so if we can keep in mind that there is more to learning this instrument than simply writing down what others have played, then everything will be fine.

In other words, I agree with all of the comments regarding the helpful aspects of transcription – as long as one constantly keeps in mind that music is about FEELING and EMOTIONAL IMPACT.  This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately.  The essence, the bedrock foundation of music is that it moves people.  Music has a tangible and physical impact on listeners, and the experience is profoundly emotional at the same time.  The intellectual aspect of music (the part where you analyze and map out what someone is playing) really has nothing to do with music itself.  It is merely a way to understand the physical and emotional experience that music brings.  Now, of course understanding what you’re experiencing can be helpful in many ways, but I don’t think it changes the experience itself.  That’s why critics, professionals, and “music civilians” alike will all respond similarly to a powerful piece of music.

This is obviously all just a theory of mine, based on observations… and I haven’t completely thought it through yet.  But it’s really helping me to remember the reason why I do what I do.  At the end of the day, when all the exercises/listening/evaluation/analysis/criticism is said and done, I really just want music to MOVE me, and moving others is what I want the music I make to accomplish.

So again, this is where I part ways with the transcription junkies.  I almost never find the experience of music to be enhanced by writing out what I’ve heard.  Sometimes transcription will help me replicate what I’ve heard, but most of the time it just takes my mind off the real issue by forcing me to focus on the “what just happened” question instead of the “how did that make me feel” question.  That might sound overly artsy, but it’s the best explanation I can come up with for what I’ve been learning lately.

To all my church drummer friends… here’s a great blog post by Sovereign Grace Ministry’s Bob Kauflin. His blog always features good insight on music in the church, but this one is specifically aimed at drummers. While this info might not be new, it’s always helpful by way of reminder.

HT: Jeff McCourt

SoundCheck Nashville, a massive rehearsal/storage space for major artists and touring acts in Nashville, was one of the many victims in the record-breaking flood from a few weeks ago. My friend Tyler, for example, lost a substantial amount of gear because it was stored at SoundCheck.

The folks at SoundCheck are still working hard to clean everything up. Check out these photos I found today…

This last pic shows a bunch of Mutemath’s equipment that is now ruined.  Remember those lights down in the lower left corner?

HT: Paul Mabury

I’ve never been the kind of guy who spends a lot of time transcribing the playing of drummers I admire.  Transcription is a big part of instrumental study for many people, but that’s not the case for me, and there’s a very direct and specific reason: Dave King, my former teacher, didn’t like transcription.  That’s all it is.

But it wasn’t Dave’s dislike for transcription that really affected me, it was the reason for his dislike.  Dave accurately identified music as having a primarily emotional existence, and he always emphasized this over anything else in our lessons.  That emphasis often took the lesson content down long, spiraling, and very  “artsy-fartsy” paths, but I always learned a TON.  As I have continued past my lessons with him to teach lessons of my own, I always try to continue the emphasis on the artistic side of things, although I think I probably use less abstract terminology.

Now back to transcription.  Because of Dave’s heavy attention toward emotional/artistic merit, he felt that the mechanical/technical nature of transcribing was misleading.  In other words, simply writing down someone’s playing note for note won’t necessarily give any insight on why their playing feels the way it feels and has the impact that it has.  In fact, transcribing will probably create more problems than solutions if one supposes that transcribing alone is the only necessary component to learning to play like the greats.  Tone, context, time-feel, precision… all of these factors affect the emotional and artistic impact of what you play as heavily as the note-for-note analysis, if not heavier.

My point is this: music has a few different levels of existence.  You can’t fully grasp/understand/appreciate what someone plays merely by copying what they do note-for-note.  The true essence of music is waaaaaay deeper than that.

… for constantly mentioning Steve Jordan on this blog.  He’s the man.  Why wouldn’t I post tons of stuff about him?  The issue is settled.

There’s lots of fresh youtube footage of him lately, coming off John Mayer’s recent tour. Apparently the setlist included a Jordan solo as the intro to “Waiting on the World to Change,” which was of course different from night to night. I may or may not have just spent the last 2 hours watching all the clips I could find.

Here are my favorite ones…

ps… Is it just me or does he look A LOT like Elvin Jones with this haircut?

It’s rare to find a drummer that sings in any sense beyond just a background vocal. And it’s also rare to find a female on the drums.  Of course there are the handful of well-known exceptions to both of these generalities, but “rare” is still an accurate term.

And then you have Karen Carpenter… doing both.  I mean, she doesn’t suck.  Maybe not a significant influence on the evolution of the drumset, but she’s getting the job done for sure.

Let be known that I am a HUGE FAN of posts like this – posts that evoke such intelligent and insightful comments from everybody who reads what I write. Seriously… thanks for all the interaction. Super cool.

I think the best plan in continuing the discussion is to select my favorite quotes from the comments and respond to them. I’ll put the comments in italics and respond to each one individually. Feel free to chime in on the discussion further if you think there’s more to add.

It should also be noted that Pavement, while influential to many bands, was never and still isn’t a “popular” band. The most timeless bands I think have Pavement’s humanness but also Yes’s or Rush’s “otherworldliness” and technical prowess. Bands like Nirvana and the Beatles have this immense accessibility because they straddle that line. That’s a crude oversimplification of why those two bands are what they are, but it still proves my point I think.   – Chris Morrissey

I love the logic of Pavement’s influence contrasted with their popularity.  A lot of you mentioned Pavement’s sound and approach as a rejection of 80’s over-production, which is probably accurate. That rejection, along with other bands of the time, fueled and inspired a massive shift in rock music, but Pavement themselves are left being largely irrelevant to MOST listeners.  My theory is that this irrelevance results from their lack of facility on the technical side of the medium they use to make their art.  (Also, Chris made a great point when he questioned my use of the term “musicianship”… he’s right on… “facility” is a better term.)

What I do know is that they (Wheat) were capable, at least in the studio and from what I could tell at the 7th Street Entry, of making a Pop record. For them the other records feel like more of a “decision” as far as the imperfections go – the “why take it again when it feels so sincere?” mentality.    – Aaron Ankrum

Aaron’s got a great point here. There are bands that intentionally ignore mistakes and/or “bad playing” because of the sincerity and feel behind the performance.  I hear this from many of the folk and alt-country artists I like: Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Wilco, etc.  However, it seems like many Indie bands use this not-uncommon “loose” feel as an excuse to be loose themselves, when in reality they lack the ability to do anything that resembles “tight.”  This is speculative on my part, but I feel like I can really HEAR the difference between an honest and intentionally-flawed performance, and a just plain crappy one – and I bet a lot of other people can hear it too.

There is something about Indie music that captures me, and the best way I can describe it is that it’s a genre that lives and dies by vibe. If it evokes an emotional response, whether it’s joy or anger, it’s effective. That’s the artistic piece of it. So much of adult pop, modern rock, and CCM is pretty artless. It doesn’t make me feel anything, no matter how good the musicians are.  Of course, the best of the Indie bands are the ones that do both.    – Lars Stromberg

Yes Yes Yes.  Art should affect us on an emotional level, and I think Indie bands know this and try hard to do this.  Lars is so right that a lot of the commercial music world has no real artistic value, despite what the sales might indicate.  But, does a band have to suck at playing their instruments in order to be emotionally powerful?  My gut says no.  The transcendent music that results from BOTH potent art and competent instrumentalists seems to be the best goal.

I agree that poor musicianship does not mean bad music, but it takes a rare chemistry/combination of a group of people to make good music with poor musicianship…and THIS is what I think a lot of “Indie Rock” people forget. Just because it’s sloppy and/or executed poorly with bad sounding recordings doesn’t make it automatically cool.    – Nate Babbs

Nate again brings up the notion that some bands are INTENTIONALLY sloppy in order to utilize the loose feel in accomplishing the sound they want.  But it’s so true that this is far more difficult to actually pull off than one might imagine.  I feel like the Free Jazz world also suffers from this issue.

Maybe I can add one thought to the studio player mentality. I don’t think it’s totally a mindless, come in and play well and put no creativity into it thing. I believe the creativity is coming out in different ways. The effort is put into finding “appropriate fills” that fit the song. Not fills that drummers will appreciate. Also, the feel is creativity on every note to create the right vibe.    – Kevin Holvig

I agree with this, but I think this is only what GOOD session players do.  Not all session players do this.  In fact, this is a big issue because it’s basically the heart of the whole thing.  Every genre and sub-genre has a different game… a different target to aim for.  The GOOD studio player should make sure he gives the music what it needs, while also being true to the nature of art, which is creative.  My main point in this whole topic is to ask Indie bands to do the same thing, but in the opposite direction.  Good art should (in my opinion) be both creative/emotional and controlled/intentional.  The end result suffers when either side of the spectrum is overly stressed.  Which leads me to the last comment quote…

Like people have been saying, there are many great indie bands who find ways to explore new things in music and still be excellent musically. – Danny Warnock

Bingo.

Remember the first groove you learned as a drummer? Boom-boom-crack, kabookaboom-crack… kinda rushing on the extra snare hits in the middle and everything. And when you’re young you always play it with a real stiff 8th note pattern on the ride, because you’re too physically tense from concentrating to play with any feel.

I’m mentioning this because I spent some time listening to Pavement’s Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain yesterday. Pavement played a substantial role in forming the early 90’s underground Indie Rock scene, which became the basis for the broad Indie Rock landscape.

Wow… they suck. I mean, SUCK. Crooked Rain sounds like the demo tape my junior high band made in my basement with the internal mic on my boom box. Drummer Steve West plays the groove I mentioned above on what seems like every track.  Bassist Mark Ibold has probably the worst pocket I’ve ever heard on a major label recording. Guitars are constantly rushing and out of tune. Stephen Malkmus does the “talk-sing” thing a ton, and every time he does it I’m actually relieved because his pitch while he’s trying to actually sing is so terrible.

Disclaimer: I’m being intentionally provocative.  Regardless of everything I just said (which maybe isn’t quite as bad as I made it out to be), I really do enjoy Pavement’s music.  There are elements of their sound and direction that I both appreciate and dig.  BUT… they still suck, and by that I mean the musicianship is terrible.  And I’m not just poking at Pavement either.  The sloppiness I’m describing is widespread in the Indie Rock scene.  Generally speaking, Indie bands sound like amateurs, and I’m writing this post to ask the question why.

Like I said, for the most part I enjoy the music that Indie bands make.  I think most indie fans would respond to my criticism above by pointing out that indie musicians are putting the majority of their effort toward being artistic, original, and creative.  In other words, Indie musicians focus so much on being artists that there’s no time left to be skilled instrumentalists.  I think that means this discussion now becomes intertwined with the “Genre-ism” idea, because it’s unfair of me to judge a genre of music based on how I want it to sound instead of how those from within the genre intend it to sound.  I get that, and like I said before, I really do like a lot of Indie bands, mainly because of the immense creativity that results from the their quest for originality.  The soundscape on a Pavement record is definitely super cool, and the songwriting is often clever and elusive.  I feel the same way about bands like Yo La Tengo, Sonic Youth, the Hold Steady, Andrew Bird, and many others.

So again, to clarify, when I say that Pavement “sucks,” what I mean is that they do not sound like proficient musicians.  I don’t mean that I dislike their music, because that’s not true.  I dig what Pavement does, and the Indie sound as a whole, but I feel like I can still make the observation that Indie bands exhibit (again, on the whole) poor musicianship.

Before I go any further I should bring up the other side of the coin: the session player mentality.  This is something I know a little bit about because I’ve been doing a fair amount of session of work lately.  The session player takes the opposite approach to music from the Indie band: the music doesn’t need to be creative, in fact it really shouldn’t push the envelope too much, but it MUST be performed PERFECTLY.  For instance, a session drummer does lots of typical, stock-option (i.e. boring) grooves and fills, but with incredibly precise execution.  This mindset is prevalent in both the Country and Pop/Rock worlds. I remember being in high school and mocking this kind of music because it was so cookie-cutter, but nowadays I really admire it. I’ve come to realize how challenging it is to attain the level of precision that session players reach.

Summary so far: We have the two sides of a spectrum: 1) the session player, who delivers an unbelievable performance that often lacks any real substance, and 2) the Indie Rock band, who plays creative music with distractingly sloppy execution.  I’m taking time to clarify as I go here because I’m really hoping for feedback on this stuff, so if you disagree with anything I’ve said up to this point then be sure and comment about it.

I want to be unbiased and fair with my assessment of the situation, so just know that I’m not trying to take one side over the other.  Nevertheless, when I really think hard about the two mentalities represented in the session player vs. Indie band spectrum, it seems like the bulk of the accusation against session players can be explained.  Session players are often not very creative, but… um, they’re getting paid to play that way.  Today’s Pop music world is primarily focused on making money through hit singles and videos, and most of the time the content needs to be fairly watered down in order to become a smash success, financially.  Session musicians rarely feel emotional or creative attachment to the music that they’re recording on any given day, but that doesn’t bother them… because they’re just doing a job.  They show up to the studio, learn the songs, play standard and predictable parts with perfect execution, and then go home.  Do they know the stuff they played is watered-down and not very creative?  Of course they do, but a job’s a job.

I wish I could let the Indie Rock scene off the hook in the same way, but it really feels like I can’t.  Will someone actually suggest that Meg White is a skilled and precise drummer who uses bad time feel on purpose?  Am I supposed to believe that Clinic’s bassist could lock down a little tighter but just chooses not to?  Or… could it be that the guys in Pavement know they suck and just don’t care?

I think this last idea might be more toward the truth than anything else.  Perhaps the Indie Rock culture has crafted an environment where low-level musicianship is expected, and it doesn’t matter.  I have more to say about this but I want to get some feedback first.  I’m honestly just thinking out loud here, and I’m totally open to the fact that I’m unaware of an important perspective.

One last clarification: Of course I know that not all Indie Rock musicians suck.  A decent percentage of the players are quite proficient, and I can always really hear the difference.  This makes it even more annoying to me that the crappy players don’t get called out for being crappy.  I mean, what is the deal with that?  Why does the Indie scene pretend that the sucky bands don’t suck?

Ok, I’ll shut up now.  I want to read some comments on what you have to say about it.

Here’s a super cool interview with drummer Ahmir Thompson from The Roots, talking about their decision to join Jimmy Fallon and the implications of that.

HT: my black friend

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