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Drum Hum

Article from Making Music, April 1987

bash crash

Can you read? Well you're reading this, ha ha ha. No, seriously, though. Non-dyslexic Geoff Nicholls here sets out the arguments for and against the rock drummer learning to read and write music. He concludes yes, you should, really. Find out why.

IN THE last few columns dealing with co-ordination you'll have noted I had to invent a form of notation to get the ideas across. The point is, while Making Music's other writers are able to fill each month's issue with wise and valuable titbits for guitars and keyboards, made concrete by the use of symbols and chord-shapes, I'm reduced to blathering on about this topic or that, on condition I don't use conventional music notation.

Now this is not because the editor cannot read music (lord no!), neither is he a philistine (well, maybe just a little bit). It's simply that it's assumed many musicians (ie drummers) can't read music, and rock drummers don't have to anyway (read music, that is). However, if I'm to continue with this monthly labour, it would greatly help occasionally to be able to use notated examples.

The trouble is I'm not aware of any shorthand for kit notation. Mention G7 to guitarists or keyboard players and they're half way there — they just have to 'voice it' appropriately, high or low, tasteful sound or revolting sound, and all that. With drummers all you can do is to refer to the rhythm of such-and-such a record, or resort to abuse: "Play it like Rat Scabies, you nerd."

This isn't always the case. In Cuban or Brazilian music, for example, there are very definite prescriptions for the drum/percussion parts. If told to play a cha-cha or a rumba, then the guiro, timbales and the like have set parts to play, which in sum produce the correct rhythm. In reggae, for another example, a one-drop is a pretty accurate description of the rhythm needed. In rock there aren't such accurate formulae.

The only recourse is to some form of notation. Yet there remains amongst rock musicians the fear of reading; and perhaps it is at least partially justified. Many moons ago I did a benefit gig with all manner of variety acts on it, and I recall the chill of terror as the drum parts were handed out. But a wholly opposite perspective opened up for me when I noticed one of the sax players panicking: "There're no parts for this one — I can't play!"

The great thing about rock is that you don't have to read to play, it's all about what you hear. And that's as it should be — the concept of not being able to play rock unless you read is too ridiculous to think about. But after that, there's nothing wrong if you can read as well. No-one gets upset because people who can talk can also write. I've never heard anyone suggest that being able to write impairs the ability to communicate verbally. Quite the opposite.

The ability to play by ear should surely come first. The same as with language: you learn to talk, then you learn to write.

I say this because I'm one of those people who had piano lessons when young, with the consequence I can sight-read quite complex piano music; but take away the music and I'm stumped. The same can happen with drum parts. I occasionally dep for a mate, Lyn Edwards, in music-theatre, and have to read. A nice change, and good practice. But I've noticed that I'm very loath after a few performances to put the music away. The part becomes a crutch and I'm frightened that if I remove it I'll forget it. This is worrying, even accepting that parts for theatre are often more complicated than for rock.

Yet the good thing about reading is precisely because the memory is fallible. Sometimes you happen on a great drum beat, and if you can jot it down there's no danger of forgetting it. It's a good way of filing ideas for moments when inspiration fails. In the way I'm sure a lot of drummers have their own shorthand of codewords and symbols for rhythms and fills which they might put down on a scrap of paper at a rehearsal. Or sometimes if you've got a whole set to get together quickly, rather than searching through tapes it can be very impressive if you've got all the rhythms (and tempos) jotted down.

So for those of you who don't read, or are a little wary of it, be assured that the principle of writing drum parts is actually very simple and logical. Not like learning a foreign language, which may be neither.

You know there are most often four main beats to a bar. That is to say you count one, two, three, four, and at its simplest the bass drum hits one and three, while the snare hits two and four. Think of it as simple fractions: the four beats are four quarter beats making up the whole bar. The hi-hat often plays eight to the bar; that is eight eighths. So, counting one and two and three and four, you have:

HI-HAT 1 & 2 & 3 & 4 &
SNARE 2 4 etc.

If you can follow this you can read drum music. Conventionally, cymbals are denoted by crosses and drums by dots. Where dots or crosses coincide vertically they are played simultaneously. So in real notation, you'd get this:

If you've never read music before, you're on the way. Having broken the ice, I'll return to this subject in the near future.

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Publisher: Making Music - Track Record Publishing Ltd, Nexus Media Ltd.

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Making Music - Apr 1987

Feature by Geoff Nicholls

Previous article in this issue:

> Sabian B8 Cymbals

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> The Buyers Bible

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