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jbblurJohn Bonham’s fill at the top of the second track on Zeppelin IV has long been a point of confusion for many drummers, including myself. A few years ago I figured out what’s going on in the fill, and then it came up in discussion at last night’s rehearsal, so I thought I’d mention it here.

The trick is understanding that Bonham doesn’t start on a downbeat.  The very first accented snare and sloshy hats hit… it’s on the “& of 3” count, not “1.”  There’s no count off or anything to warn the listener that this is so, therefore many people hear the first accent as a downbeat followed by another accent on the “& of 2.”  In actuality, the fill starts with a pick-up notes and then a downbeat – so the SECOND snare/hats accent is on the “1.”

To try and play it, just count yourself in and remember to make the first few hits pick-up notes.  The fill is four bars long, but the four bars don’t start until the SECOND snare/hats accent.  So it will sound/feel like this:

1, 2, 3 PA-pa-pa-PA…”

The first “Pa” is accented (all caps) and lands on “& of 3,” the next two hits fill the gap on “4” and “& of 4,” and then the 2nd big accent is on the downbeat.  It just repeats from there a couple times and then he syncopates it a little.  The whole thing is really obvious and feels very cool once your orientation on the downbeat is correct, and the counts leading up to the hits will help with that.

Now check out Bonham doing it for real (and he’s even using the amber acrylic kit).

Sorry I didn’t write much last week. Busy week.

My question for today has to do with whether you guys think fills should be consistent. By using the word “consistent” in reference to “fill,” I by no means intend to imply that your fills would ever be inconsistent in the sense of being sloppy in their execution or badly timed. I am instead wondering about whether or not the fills in a given tune (pop/rock tune, that is) should be the same in every performance of that song. For instance, it is generally expected that a rock drummer will be consistent with the GROOVES in a song (a certain groove for the verse, a certain groove for the chorus, etc). Every time you perform that song, the grooves should be the correctly played and correctly placed. But should the FILLS be that way too?

Many drummers in rock history have established themselves with “signature” fills… fills that function almost like a melodic hook in the song (e.g. Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” intro fill, or the standard Motown fill on “Ain’t To Proud To Beg”). But at the same time, most of my favorite drummers seem to regard fills as an improvising moment, playing different fills at every performance (John Bonham, Steve Jordan, Stewart Copeland, Manu Katche… to name a few).

I realized a few years ago that the “improvised” approach was my default approach when I played a short tour with a band that some of my friends are in called Pivitplex. I played on all the tracks from their 2006 release “The King In A Rookery,” and about a year later they were between drummers and called me for some subbing. I re-learned all my parts for the songs and showed up to the first gig and everything went great, except afterward the guitarist was commenting that I hadn’t played all the fills verbatim from the record. I was really surprised that he had expected me to – I certainly never planned on it. He wasn’t mad or anything, because I played fills that were in the same vein as the ones from the record, so everything sounded fine. But the fact that he was so familiar with the album, combined with the band requiring their previous drummer to learn the fills exactly, meant that he had all the album fills memorized and noticed when I didn’t do them exactly the same. It turns out that he defaults to a “do-the-same-fill-every-time” strategy, while I default to a “copy-key-fills-but-improvise-all-the-rest” approach.

I have since had a few gigs where I’ve needed to do the fills EXACTLY, and it’s hard. I guess it just challenges the memory a lot more. But then again, drummers who don’t usually improvise seem to find improvised fills to be difficult as well.

For those who don’t know, the “less is more” principle revolves around the idea that if you do something too often, you cheapen it. This, in my experience with music, is true. And helpful. However, a common follow-up to this principle is that musicians shouldn’t play very many notes in general… that your playing should always be simple and spacious. In this logic, “busy” playing of any kind is discouraged – in the name of “less is more.” That conclusion is one that I disagree with.

To be sure, there are many environments where a drummer should be careful to not overplay. Most times a simple fill (and not a complex chops fest) is all you need – or a skeletal groove instead of a heavily syncopated one. However, I’ve noticed that POCKET is rarely considered in determining whether someone is playing too many notes, and in my experience that’s one of the most important factors. A busy fill where every note lands dead center in the pocket is normally not a problem for anyone, while a less crowded fill that rushes/drags is accused of being too busy.

SUMMARY: The “less is more” principle is a helpful reminder that you have to choose your moments, but it doesn’t need to be a unilateral prohibition on busy playing. Before you simplify the fill/groove that you’re playing, try landing your notes more in the pocket and see if that doesn’t make the difference in your sound.

I was back in Two Pillars studio again today (Mon), this time working on a Christmas track for a vocalist named Brian Bates. My friend Nate Sabin was producing the track, and he’s a great guy that up until now I have not had the pleasure of working with. Aaron Fabrinni was also there on bass, and Ben Gowell on guitar.

Have I ever mentioned how much I enjoy being in the studio? Love it.

The most fascinating aspect of studio work for me (right now at least) is the HUGE difference that one little change will make. Like… a fill for instance. The placement of one note, just a little behind the beat, makes all the difference. Suddenly the whole fill is cooler – just because one note is played slightly different. Being in the studio always makes me pay way more attention to my live playing, so as to capture those nuances and make that big difference in my live performances too.

It is important to acknowledge the difference between sitting behind the drumset and sitting in the audience. Often the evaluation of what you’re playing and how it sounds will vary significantly between your perspective as the performer and the perspective of the listener. Consider these scenarios:

1) The groove you’re playing is a new groove to you. It’s one that you just learned and you’re excited to find an opportunity to use it. The song you’re playing feels like the right tempo for the groove, so you play it and it’s tons of fun. BUT… the cool new groove doesn’t really fit the vibe of the song, and a more standard groove would have been a much better choice. You, however, are not able to realize this because you’re the person playing the groove and you’re biased.

2) The song you’re playing is slow, maybe 72bpm quarter note. The intensity builds as you move through the end of the verse and approach the chorus, and you start getting excited for what you know is coming next. As a result, you start speeding up… and you don’t know it. The tempo increase feels natural to you in the moment of excitement, and you’re unaware of this because you’re the person playing the groove and you’re biased.

3) Same scenario as #2, but this time you’re doing a great job of controlling your excitement and keeping a steady tempo. Nice. Now comes the fill that transitions into the awesome chorus that you’re so excited about, and you dive into the fill with a descending 16th pattern that seems appropriate. However, at 72 bpm, the 16ths feel very slow and exposed, so you switch to 32nd notes to fill up the space that you think needs to be filled up. But the 16ths actually felt great in the moment, and the new 32nd pattern – as opposed to filling up space – instead feels busy and convoluted. You are the only person in the room that doesn’t know this, because you’re the person playing the pattern and you’re biased.

This perspective thing is a lesson that I’ve learned the hard way, as I’ve found myself in situations where I am afforded the bias-breaking luxury of listening back to a recording of myself. A musical moment that felt great to me when I played it ends up feeling not so great as I listen. When we are stripped of the warped perspective that we have as performers, the reality of how things actually sound becomes so much clearer. As a result of hearing playbacks of myself, I’ve learned to create somewhat of a dual-existence while I play… or at least I try to do this. The one side of me is playing musically as a performer in the moment, and the other side of me is trying as hard as possible to step out of the performer perspective and listen critically as an audience member. I think it’s helped a ton.

There are two tasks in playing the drums (or any instrument for that matter):

1) overcoming the physical difficulty of performing a given groove/fill etc, and…

2) making that performance sound good.

Of course, there are many additional areas of focus for a musician, but these two specific tasks are the subject of today’s post. It is important to understand the difference between these two tasks, and then to make sure that you are putting effort into both.

The first one is obvious to anyone who has ever sat behind a drumset. Playing even the most basic groove requires a good amount of timing and dexterity, and it’s quite a challenge if you’ve never done it before. Because of this, most beginners tend to throw their entire focus into the 1st task: overcoming the physical difficulties of learning new drum grooves. Once a given groove is “learned,” then the beginner feels ready to tackle a different groove. The problem is that, to most beginners, “learned” simply means “do-able.” The beginner will only practice a groove enough to make it merely “do-able,” and then move on to something else. The extra practice that is required to take that groove from the “do-able” status to the more important “sounds good” status is ignored. As a result, most beginners are able to play many different grooves, but can’t really play any of them in a way that sounds good.

I can understand why the 2nd task often gets the short end of the stick. The practice that goes into the 2nd task is difficult. It’s tedious. It’s time consuming. It’s subtle and nuanced… and most of the time it doesn’t give the immediate satisfaction of “learning” a new groove. However, in my 8 years of playing drums for a living, I have realized that the 2nd task is really the more important issue. Most professional musicians are able to play whatever the gig would require them to play… but not all musicians sound good doing it. The gig never goes to the guy who knows the most – it’s the guy who sounds the best that gets the calls.

Working on this 2nd task has been my main focus for the last 3 years or so, and it has reshaped the way I practice, the way I listen to other drummers, and the way I teach my students. I think it has been a good thing.

SUMMARY: Work on learning new grooves/fills/rudiments/whatever, but don’t just “learn” how to play them – make them sound good too.

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