What makes great drummers great when they all use the same currency, the Beat?
How brill is my back beat? Or your backbeat? Or Steve Gadd's? Geoff Nicholls considers the artistry of time and what separates one drummer's left hand from another's.
DRUMMERS SPEND most of their time marking out the back-beat with a solid two and four on the snare drum. Anyone can learn a basic form of this beat in just a few weeks.
So how is it that certain drummers, doing just this, stand out? How can such a seemingly simple job be elevated to Great Artistry? Like the image I retain of Andy Newmark on TV with Roxy Music. I've never seen a back-beat played with such confidence and character. What's he doing that is so different?
As with so many things that make you notice a particular musician or band, it's obviously quite subtle. A recognisable sound is usually part of it. But I believe it's not just how a beat's played, but where. To say "on beats two and four" is not enough.
Here we move into areas which cannot be written down. Beyond notation — Beyond The Click Track, even! As notated, rhythm is categorised into quarters, eighths, sixteenths and all that. But these are just 'headings' for note types. Everyone interprets these notes with different degrees of 'accuracy' when actually playing.
To illustrate, take the extreme of a classical soloist who will often make a right melodrama out of phrasing, distorting the dots to the edges of credibility. Rock soloists 'emote' similarly, though generally confined by a more uniform beat. As we get closer to dance music the beat gets stricter, and approaches metronomic time.
In particular the drummer's job is usually to hold the beat as tightly as possible. So whereas the soloist displays emotion by distorting the time, the drummer has only milliseconds' leeway to create expression. Which is partly why it can be so difficult to put your finger on how a certain drummer achieves such a great groove.
This returns us to the back-beat, the part of the rhythm which is usually most upfront and responsible for swinging the band. The snare drum is the audience's handclap (unless you're the Terry Wogan audience accompanying Stevie Wonder — did you witness that too?).
With the advent of drum machines a 100% reliable monster back-beat has become the easiest thing in the world. Every band can have it — at least on record. Which is why some people are already getting fed up with it: it's too dependable. Music without unpredictable deviation, light and shade, loses some spark. All sorts of tricks can be used to 'humanise' the machines: meticulous accenting, devious quantising and so on. But significantly the easiest way to do it is to overdub parts played in real time: hi-hats, tom fills, percussion etc. Or get a steady drummer to overdub a whole new 'real' drum track. Ideally this is as tight as the machine, and yet it somehow lifts the track better than the machine.
Some drummers are able to do this not only by the dynamics in their phrasing, but also by adjusting their rhythm in relation to the machine time. They can play on the front, in the middle, or on the back of the beat, and stay there. Or even vary this position in different parts of the song, maybe laying back in the verse and leading in the chorus. Such subtle control can take a track to heights undreamed of by the most dedicated programmer. I suppose there's a message here: if we drummers want to keep drumming, this is the sort of control and effect we have to strive for.
So while locking in to the machine time, good drummers still make their mark by very subtle phrasing. Everyone knows Steve Gadd has great time and control, yet his phrasing is an instantly recognisable trademark. In years to come I've no doubt this will be computer-analysed in milliseconds by professors of music in American colleges. If you think I'm joking look at the depth to which classical music is analysed. I've seen books on Bartok which could only have been written by PhDs in maths.
To the average listener, though, it's the aural effect that matters. And this harks back to the distinctive quality of some bands before the samplers and sequencers moved in. The more a band plays live together the more they adjust to each individual's sense of where the beat is. However dodgy, this means that at least every band is different. It's an organic process which, accompanied by much arguing and bullying, develops a unique rhythmic feel. This is not the metronomic perfection of sequenced machines, but in fact is more sophisticated; different members of the band playing on different sides of the beat, and tempos slightly speeding and slowing in places sympathetic to the music.
What's more, over a period, the hand 'hears' itself better, plays tighter and gradually eradicates superfluous parts until that all-important back-beat comes crashing through. Aswad is a case in point. They've played together so much that Drummie is one of those drummers who even (or especially?) non-drummers realise is happening. There seems to be all the time in the world for him to drop that beat in just the right place — and not just because it's a half-time reggae pulse. A good drummer in a good band seems to defy metronomic description.
Just to be totally self indulgent I thought I'd mention two other TV sightings of great 1980s backbeats. Not the obvious ones. The first is another reggae drummer, the guy with Chalice (please someone remind me of his name), who plays a right-handed kit open-handed ie with left hand on the hi-hat so that he can lift his right hand about ten yards above the snare. The heaviest reggae beat I've ever heard! The other is A J Pero spotted on his Tube debut with the preposterous Twisted Sister: a bloodcurdling backbeat even for an HM band. A great drummer confirming everyone's prejudice that all drummers are complete animals.
Feature by Geoff Nicholls
mu:zines is the result of thousands of hours of effort, and will require many thousands more going forward to reach our goals of getting all this content online.
If you value this resource, you can support this project - it really helps!