"Each human personality is like a piece of music, having an individual tone and rhythm of its own." Hazrat Inayat Khan
Rhythm and tempo are essential skills when learning to play the drums. Yet not everyone has a musical ear and some don't start out with a sense of rhythm.
10 to 20 percent of the population fails to sing in tune, according to an often-cited expert estimate.
But it is not because one is a bad singer that one is incapable of mastering a rhythm. Dancers are not singers and yet they also move with the rhythm, tempo and melody of a piece of music.
It's the same with playing the drums.
If you are not able to spot the different notes or beats at first, don't panic!
This will develop over time and learning the drums is a great way to gain a better understanding of the tempo of a song.
The Basics of Drumming Rhythm
Understanding music theory, reading a musical score and playing a drum piece may seem complicated.
On the other hand, understanding and reproducing a rhythm is something that is accessible to everyone.
Through listening and paying attention, one can capture the essence of a rhythm to better perceive the structure of a piece of music.
The first thing to understand is the pulsation or beat. Nothing's easier! Even without being a musician, you must have felt it. It is that which makes you stomp your feet or bob your head while listening to a song.
If you really think you're struggling, start with a techno song. The tempo is well marked, notably thanks to the bass drum: this is called the beat.
Any piece of rock has the same style of rhythm. Take for example London Calling by the Clash, Seven Nation Army by White Stripes or We Will Rock You by Queen.
The beat is steady. It's not because there are breaks, fills or that the music accelerates or stops, that you have to change it.
Try to keep a steady pace even when the drums stop or the bass guitar and drums play variations during choruses.
A pulsation marks a beat. The rhythms are usually on 4 beats or 4-count.
Try counting 1, 2, 3, 4 on London Calling, you'll see that its fluid. Try doing 1, 2, 3 and it does not work anymore. The strongest beat is always the first one, you'll notice the 1st, or 1, of the musical tempo the most.
The most common for a rhythm on 2 or 4 beats is the binary rhythm.
But there are still 3-beat rhythms like with a waltz or jazz (try to count the beats on The Waltz #2 by Elliott Smith). This is called a ternary rhythm.
It is also possible to have ternary beats on 4 beat rhythms like the blues. Listen to the Doors' Roadhouse Blues to better understand the difference.
But I don't want to go too far and lose you...
When starting out on the drums, prioritize the binary rhythms on 4-counts which are much easier to understand and break down. These are usually all found in pop, rock, rap and techno music.
Check out different songs on the radio. Count out the 1, 2, 3, 4 beats and you will see that it's everywhere!
You can also develop your creativity by playing the drums.
Solidify Your Sense of Rhythm on the Drums
After seeing the different beats possible on the drums, let's now pay attention to the sense of rhythm or groove of the drummer.
Knowing how to hit the snare drum and tap the cymbals is not enough to make you a talented drummer.
What about your sense of rhythm?
- Are you precise enough with your drumsticks when you play a song?
- Are you early or late on the crash cymbal compared to the song you are listening to?
- Do you want to be a travelling metronome and be precise, steady and strong on the beat when you keep the pace?
It's a bit of the definition of being a good drummer: keep up the pace and make sure the beat does not falter.
While other musical instruments have to pay attention to harmony (electric guitar, cello, clarinet, upright piano, flute...), percussion instruments (tambourine, djembe, acoustic drums, electronic drums...) are judged on their pace.
Playing the drums means to play rhythms.
The more you master your basic rhythms, the more precise you will become. Once you've hit that off-beat shot, it's too late to take it back.
However, even if you can't go back in time, you can use it as a warning to continue working more on rhythm patterns and certain sequences.
The good news is, developing your hearing acuity is possible.
Here's an exercise that can help you better master develop your rhythmic sense and gain precision:
- Place your metronome between 60 and 100 bpm: we're starting in the low zone!
- Leave aside the hi-hat and focus only on the snare drum
- At first, do one hit per beat, then 2 hits per beat, 3 hits per beat, 4 hits per beat, 6 hits per beat and 8 hits per beat
- Each group must be played during two 4-beat measures
- Repeat in reverse order: 8, 6, 4, 3, 2, 1
- Really pay attention to the accuracy of what you play. Open your ears wide!
I advise you to devote a little time to each drum session to working on your rhythmic precision, especially if you really need it!
How to Keep Tempo as a Drummer?
With drums, whether alone at home or in a concert, keeping the tempo is essential for a drummer.
It takes only a few minutes to pronounce a sentence in an unknown language but it often takes several years to pronounce the same sentence fluently, without the accent of your natural language, and with the same rhythm as the native speakers.
With tempo, it's the same! Learning takes time.
What influences the tempo of a drummer?
There are five factors that influence the tempo of a drummer:
- Experience: contrary to a lot of preconceived ideas, we are not born with the ability to keep tempo or not. Even though we all have a more or less basic ability to keep a beat, not everyone pays the same attention to the rhythmic regularity of a song. Listening to and reproducing as often as possible different rhythms, greatly help to develop the stability of keeping a tempo. But it takes time! Your memory needs to do its work and it will be much easier for you to spot a rhythmic anomaly in a song that you have been listening to for 10 years, rather than in a song that you have been rehearsing for 5 minutes.
- Concentration: with a high level of concentration, tempo is inevitably easier to keep. Concentration can be developed just like technique. If you have trouble staying focused, go slowly.
- Mental calm: keeping a calm mind will also help you keep your concentration and prevent the tempo from speeding up. Stress is an important factor in tempo instability. Try to calm down before going on stage, for example.
- The complexity of the exercise: the more the exercise involves technique, the more it will be complicated to keep a regular tempo. Don't try to skip steps and play pieces much higher than your level but also don't keep it too easy and simple. It's a balance to be found between confidence and risk-taking!
- Natural Breath: Keep your breathing natural while playing. If you hold your breath, it will be harder to keep a fluid tempo. It's up to you to work both the complicated rhythm and your breath at the same time in order to stay calm and unwind even while playing.
Do you know all the benefits there are to learning the drums?
Working with a metronome
To keep the beat with percussion drums, there is no secret! You'll need to practice with a metronome.
Working it properly means working with it every day and for all exercises: basics, agility, speed, accuracy...
The metronome allows you to progress by increasing the speed gradually while keeping up the beat.
With beats per minute, progress is quantifiable and boundaries are identifiable.
But be careful when choosing your metronome. It must have:
- A stereo jack
- All playable tempos (from 1 to 1)
- A small light
- Not too much of an acute sound
- A tap function to find the tempo of a song you are listening to
You can then choose the Trixes M50, the Boss DB30 or the Tama RW30 according to your budget.
I advise you to work on your pad or acoustic snare with the metronome playing directly in your ears through headphones. But be careful not to put the volume up too high to preserve your delicate eardrums.
With significant use, you'll get so used to the metronome that its steady clicks will become a natural reflex for you. During concerts, it is also possible to listen to a metronome through earbuds, but it is not ideal for the eardrums...
Definitions "Rhythm and Tempo on the Drums"
Hitting your drums is fun, but mastering rhythm and tempo is better!
What is GADD tape?
From the famous drummer Steve Gadd, it's a tool used on the snare drum to get a dry sound.
What is a bearing edge?
The bearing edge—the bevelled rim of a drum's shell—is the only place where the head meets the body of the drum.