One question I always had before I eventually had the opportunities and humbling failures that gave me some answers was, “What stuff do I practice that will help me get gigs, either live or the studio?”
A mistake I see a lot of drummers make is focusing on their hand speed to the point of ridiculousness. I always ask my students, “Can you express the ideas you have in your head out on to the drums?” If the answer is “yes,” then you have enough technique or “chops.” First and foremost you must get your time consistent, and develop a great time feel, and be able to make good musical decisions. To achieve these things, I personally think your time in the practice room is better spent listening to and playing along with your favorite recordings, and working on playing everything confidently and comfortably to a metronome or click track.
Today, for better or worse, 99 percent of all recordings are done on a grid. It may be Pro Tools, Logic, Digital Performer, or some other software program but it’s a visible grid with a click track you will play to. Producers and engineers want perfect, metronomic time and yet want it to feel like a human being is playing it (most of the time). Many producers believe that our audience’s ears have become so accustomed to this level of perfection that no matter how perfect your time is, chances are some nudging and fudging will be done by the engineer and producer using “Beat Detective” or some sort of quantizing to line it up even more accurately on the grid. They like to call it “massaging” the track.
It can seem as though drummers need to be nearly superhuman in order to work in the studio and many times in a live situation you are asked to play to backing tracks, so the same applies. When I first witnessed an engineer “massaging” and “comping” (compiling the best of several takes) some of my work, I felt sick to my stomach. I thought all of the time spent alone with my metronome was not paying off. In a last ditch effort to save my fragile ego, I asked the well known producer and engineer if my heroes had to be “time corrected.” Their answer was a resounding “yes.” Many drummers who I consider to be the greatest of the studio greats; Keltner, Chamberlain, Waronker, Freese, Indrizzo, all of them have been corrected on the grid at some point in recent years. The difference is how much.
An engineer and producer’s time is very expensive. They need to get the drum tracks done first and fast, and they want to keep the creative momentum flowing in the session. The last thing they want to do is waste a lot of time correcting things like you speeding up on a fill or getting ahead of the click on the chorus. If it’s nit-picky stuff they have to edit, it can be acceptable but they’d really rather not do that either. It’s really all about perfecting your time so save their time.
For the last several years, my main priority in the practice room has been to try to get a great, relaxed feel and still retain extremely consistent time that needs very little if any “correction.” How do I do it? I practice everything ridiculously slow. I also sing everything I play and everything I don’t play! The space between the notes are just as important, if not more important than the notes themselves.
Before moving to L.A. I was fortunate enough to teach at Seattle Drum School and to also study with the owner Steve Smith (not the Journey drummer, same name, just as amazing.) Through Steve’s vast playing and teaching experience he has learned what is required of a drummer today and some of these tips I’m giving you are just regurgitated things he gave me. If you are ever in the Seattle area and have time to take some lessons with Steve, I highly recommend it.
I’ve heard many different schools of thought on how to improve your time. This way works for me. **Whatever works for you is the correct way. Some folks may even tell you that using a metronome is bad. I personally have found that it helps me a lot. If nothing else, I’ve grown accustomed to having that annoying click in my ear while trying to make beautiful music. Steve told me that he once had the opportunity to speak one on one with the great Steve Gadd and asked him what to practice, Gadd thought hard about it for a moment and then replied simply “Practice slow.” I tell all of my students “If I can recognize anything you are practicing, you are playing it too fast!” Practicing slowly is the key to the time and feel problems that face us all. Put your metronome on quarter note equals 30 to 45 beats per minute and play everything you know at that speed. Personally, I rarely concern myself with trying things faster. Fast is easy, slow will get you work.
Just doing this will increase your awareness of the sound you are pulling from the drums and also if you are pushing or pulling the time. While you are doing this, try subtracting one of the limbs you are using and “sing” that missing part. I use the words “chick” for the hi hat, “bop” for the snare drum, “boom” for the bass drum and “ding” if the ride cymbal is involved but whatever representational noise you want to use is fine. This can be a very difficult and humbling exercise. Even if you are an advanced drummer, it’s going to feel as though you are starting over from day one. Don’t be frustrated. If you let yourself sound bad and work on it slowly it will get easier in due time. This exercise has several immediate benefits. It will make you aware of which limbs are your “crutches,” or which limbs you are dependent on to make the groove feel good. It also allows you to hear the melody within the groove which makes it purely and intuitively a part of you, not just an exercise in a book.
(This next exercise is demonstrated at http://www.youtube.com/wicksjm)
Once you have sung all of the limbs involved, play the groove normally and sing all of the spaces between the notes. In general, when we are playing a regular old back beat rock groove with 8th notes on the hi hat, we ignore the spaces between the notes, the e’s and ah’s. Play the groove you are practicing and on all of the e’s and ah’s say the word “dut,” or maybe “uh.” Again, this will be a humbling exercise but trust me, you will no longer take any note or space for granted. As a result your time will be much steadier, and the listener will hear the spaces between the notes you play. Most importantly you will be a more patient player, because you will be content playing this groove knowing the amount of work that went into it to make it feel that good.
The sad reality is that recording music has become a visual medium. I’ve witnessed many a great feeling take get “massaged,” “corrected,” or even thrown out because the waveforms were not perfectly lined up to the grid. The previous exercises have helped me develop consistent time and still sound like a living, breathing, sweating human being on the playback. Try them out, hopefully they do the same for you.
Now, all of that being said, most music I enjoy listening to was made “pre-grid.” I prefer the human push and pull to a certain extent. Listen to Smokey Robinson & The Miracles’ “Tracks Of My Tears.” Check out how it pushes on the choruses, and pulls back on the verses. I love that! I think what we’ve lost sight of in recent years is that listeners love to hear that you are human. Have you ever noticed that when a band or artist makes a mistake on stage, they cheer the loudest? Or how about during a drum solo when the drummer drops or breaks a stick? Huge applause! When a recording has some weird mistake that was left in, the listener feels like they are in on the joke. In my opinion, music has lost a lot of it’s innocence and it’s endearing qualities. After all, what is more original than our mistakes?
For examples of these time exercises, please visit my You Tube page at http://www.youtube.com/wicksjm and watch the videos entitled “John Wicks’ Time Feel Exercise.”