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On The Beat (Part 13)

Traditionally the musicians' worst nightmare, the drum solo is now all but extinct (except in heavy metal circles, of course). Nigel Lord reexamines the lost art with modern technology in mind.


THERE'S A SOMEWHAT different flavour to On The Beat this month - a move away from the more structured themes of recent articles and into the realms of greater experimentation. But before those of you who like to be spoonfed a handful of new patterns each month start turning the page, let me just say that you can, if you wish, copy this month's examples verbatim and stick rigidly to the instrumentation I've outlined. However, you might find some of the rhythmic ideas I've touched on rather limited in application if this is the approach you choose. Why limit your options just for the sake of another few minutes of programming time?

The idea behind this month's article came about as a result of the very definite opinions I have had occasion to air on the subject of drum solos (in my time as editor of MT's sister mag, Rhythm). As a member of MT's rather erudite readership, I'm sure the subject of drum solos has rarely crossed your mind. You probably believe the days of the 15-minute extended drum break while the rest of the band went off for a fag are but a dim memory of the excesses of the 70s. But believe me, there is an alarming number of people for whom this sort of unfettered indulgence is still an acceptable form of entertainment.

While editing Rhythm, I was keen to exact swift and damning retribution on anyone who even came near to claiming that the drum solo had any entertainment value whatsoever. The problem was, the demands of courtesy (and circulation figures) meant that I was forced into offering sound philosophical arguments to support my rejection of drum solos and those who sought to perpetuate them. Pre-eminent amongst these was the fact that in all the hours of drum soloing I had been subjected to over the years, none of the players ever took it upon themselves to actually play a coherent rhythm - you know, the sort of thing you could tap a foot to or (perish the thought), perhaps even dance to.

All I ever came across was drummers - often with incredible skill and technique - playing one tricky exercise after another. The only thing that seemed to separate a "good" solo from a "bad" one was how well each of these exercises was welded onto the next. What's wrong, I argued, with the idea of a drum solo where the drummer actually starts with a good solid rhythm and then develops various themes within it, moving, perhaps, into related areas, but always maintaining a basic groove which audiences could respond to?

And that, dear (patient) reader, was the thinking behind this month's article. You could wait a lifetime for a drummer to come up with this idea themselves (I never managed to sell it to them), so why not entrust it to our old friend the beatbox? But hang on - if you think this is my cue to introduce a half dozen extended rhythmic compositions for drum machine, forget it. We haven't got the space and they don't pay me enough money. What I have included is a handful of quite individual patterns which are not intended to provide a well-defined beat, as is the case with most contemporary rhythm, and which aren't simply technical exercises designed to show off your programming technique.

Instead we find patterns in which the bass drum can play fast rolling figures throughout the bar and where cymbal sounds can be layered to create interesting textures. Snare drums lose their pivotal role of providing the pattern's rhythmic pulse and are used simply to accent and colour the overall sound. Once underway, the beginning and end points of each pattern often become obscured and the rhythm is given a more cyclical feel from which it may be developed into all sorts of interesting areas. But that, in case you haven't already guessed, is where you come in. Where each one of these examples is eventually taken is very much up to you. Program them in, take out the bits you don't like, extend the bits you do. Chop them in half, splice them together, try layering the parts from two or three different patterns - the possibilities are enormous.

Above all, try experimenting with the instrumentation. With most modern machines (and, of course, sequencer-based systems) it's simplicity itself to program in the notes and then select the instrument to which they are applied. I have assigned some of the parts from these patterns to instruments as disparate as heavy ambient bass drums to fast stroke cabasas and got excellent results from both. Clearly, there's no way I could list all the possibilities or the range of combinations for each example. All I can say is that these patterns, more than any I have included in this series so far, warrant the time and effort involved in choosing the right instruments.

Enough said, let's get down to Pattern 1. An interesting pattern, it features a rather distinctive "call and response" figure provided by the side stick and ride bell parts. (Just to recap, this is the domed central area of the cymbal which produces a cleaner, more penetrating sound which is less intrusive on the hi-hat parts than the conventional ride.)

Contrary to my remarks earlier, the snare does appear to play a fairly conventional role in this example, but as you'll see if you take it out, the pattern is perfectly capable of standing up without it. Perhaps the most obvious instrument to change would be the bongos, which could be substituted for virtually any tuned instrument(s) such as a cowbell or agogos.

Pattern 2 is rather more unconventional and is written in 6/4 time. This gives it a pleasantly insistent feel which is emphasised by the rolling bass drum figures in the early part of the bar. This part is a prime candidate for experimentation, and there are comparatively few instruments which couldn't at least be tried in its role (sorry). It would also be worth sifting through a few different snare sounds, as these can have a dramatic effect on the overall pattern - particularly as the instrument is cast in such an unconventional role here.

Rhythmic interest in Pattern 3 is again provided by the bass drum, but the combined effect of the hi-hat, cymbal and cabasa voices produces a very distinctive layered effect which also works well in the context of this rhythm. If, after programming, you decide the bass/snare figure at the end of bar four sounds a little odd, don't worry, it's supposed to. In fact, if you run it slow enough you'll hear that it doesn't quite fit. But at the normal tempo it's quite an effective way of bringing the bar to a close. Drummers do it all the time, but of course you can't slow them down to see how well it fits.

Speaking of which, the pattern is capable of running at an exceptionally wide tempo range, though I prefer a fairly brisk pace. See what you think.

In Patterns 4 and 5 we come across our old friend the triplet once again - though each pattern has its own quite distinctive feel. Pattern 4 with its subtle tom tom parts and its rippling bongos, has a decidedly jazzy flavour to it, punctuated rather nicely by the ride bell. Pattern 5, on the other hand, has a more up-front feel which should make it useful in a variety of situations. Though the snare is quite prominent and marks the beat throughout the pattern, the ride bell is probably the more important instrument and should certainly be given its head in the mix. You could try losing the snare part altogether if you prefer a slightly lighter feel.

Finally we come to the pattern which represents my personal favourite for this month. A robust, full-blooded rhythm, this one rolls along beautifully with some really effective accenting courtesy of the toms and a neat foot closing hi-hat marking time throughout. Actually, I suspect this instrument might prove a problem for some machines (I know the HR16 has one), but this is one occasion where there is no obvious substitute. As in Pattern 1, the bongos could be swapped for any tuned instrument - aim towards something like a third (three semitones) spacing between the two voices.

As you can see, most of this month's examples have been spread across double grid lengths. This is simply to make things more legible, particularly for instruments like the bass drum and hi-hat which require some quite detailed programming. Your best guide in terms of beats to the bar and relative tempos are the small figures over the main grid in each pattern. These also make it easier to see what's going on in the triplet-based patterns.

Next month, we'll return to specific rhythmic styles, so stay tooned...

Series - "On The Beat"

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All parts in this series:

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8 | Part 9 | Part 10 | Part 11 | Part 12 | Part 13 (Viewing) | Part 14 | Part 15 | Part 16 | Part 17 | Part 18 | Part 19 | Part 20 | Part 21 | Part 22 | Part 23 | Part 24 | Part 25 | Part 26 | Part 26 | Part 27 | Part 28 | Part 29 | Part 30 | Part 31 | Part 32 | Part 33 | Part 34 | Part 35

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Music Technology - Copyright: Music Maker Publications (UK), Future Publishing.


Music Technology - Aug 1990

Feature by Nigel Lord

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