Jan 20, 2014

Homework: Working Out Drum Beats Without a Kit

Time, it's one of the two things all of us would like to have more of in order to accomplish the things we fantasize about. The other is of course, money.  In a perfect world we all have plenty of time to do whatever we want and no one needs money to provide the basic necessities of life.  Our coolness causes everything to work out effortlessly.  We are all Ferris Bueller in our own heads.  In my head, throngs of people cheer me on everywhere I go.  There are tamale trees around every corner, and water fountains flow with the sweet nectar we call iced tea.  Not that god awful, bitter leaf juice that sophisticates drink in coffee houses, or that offensively fruity crap that companies try to pass off as a drinkable substitute for real tea.  I am talking about the good stuff; sweet, southern iced tea.  You can't find it north of Virginia, at any point west of North Carolina or south of South Carolina. The good stuff is found here, in this little beverage oasis the rest of you look down upon, though half of you retire here. In a Sheltopian society, Mexican and Indian food mysteriously appear whenever I begin to feel hungry, and there are no bills to pay.  Sounds nice, doesn't it?  That's what allows me the time I need to write all of my drum parts for Confessor and Loincloth in that perfect world where album pre-sales always lift your releases to "platinum" status before you even go into the studio. Sadly, here on Earth things are very different.  

I am a pretty busy guy.  Surprisingly busy for someone who feels like he never really accomplishes much, but that's the way it goes.  Most of us have too many commitments. The older I get the more difficult it becomes to find the time to do what I enjoy.  I have not had my drums in my own house since the time I moved away from home and joined Confessor.  They have always been set up wherever we practiced.  That means that the only time I have ever had to work on things has been when we were all together, but group time isn't a good time for working things out in my head.  I think about drums all the time, and I can get pretty far by imagining how playing things would feel, but it takes playing with people to really know how something sounds.  Actually, it takes hearing recordings of practices to be able to begin to pull back enough from what I'm working on to really 'hear' things.  One thing I have done from time to time has been to write out drum parts for riffs I've wanted to play around with, especially early on when I really had no idea what I was doing behind a drum kit.  In order to stay true to what Confessor and Loincloth are both about I have to be able to think in pretty creative ways, and sometimes writing things out can speed up that process.  

Many of the polyrhythmic beats I have come up with were worked out on paper first, and sometimes in truly random ways.  Take the intro to our song 'Condemned' for example.  I knew what I was shooting for when I wrote the intro, but I had only been playing double bass for about three years at the time.  I needed to see things written out to be able to begin chipping away at my pattern.  I didn't have enough real time behind a kit to be able to pull my idea off without seeing it on paper.  Once I had my pattern written out, I began to play around with it on the sheet of paper until it morphed into the pattern we recorded.  I intentionally wrote things I was incapable of playing into every Confessor song back then as a way to make up for the fact that I didn't have access to my drums.  I overreached, pure and simple.   I was afraid of falling into bad habits, and many years later I owe my 'reputation', to whatever extent I have one, to that ambitious approach.  

Writing parts out on paper is something that I knew I should consider in order to help retrain Confessor's focus on the kind of awkward riffing that put us on the map now that we are writing for our third album.  Since some of my more unusual beats came as a result of playing around with paper instead of playing behind a kit, I thought I might be able to tickle that part of my brain again and have equally interesting results.  Hmm... which end of the pen does the writing?  Oh right, not the end that goes up your nose when you're bored, but the end you stab people with.  It's all coming back now.  In the last couple of weeks Confessor have reached the point where the time for constructing choppy polyrhythms has come. Marcus has exceeded our expectations with regard to learning our older material.  He is a child of metal, and what we do has come very naturally to him.  He enjoys the challenge of figuring things out.  We still have some older songs to learn, but we are turning our focus to newer riffs so that we don't fall into the trap of only working on old material because it's easy. Now that that time is here, and for Loincloth as well, I have begun to pull out blank sheets of paper so I can begin scribbling out some of my more unorthodox ideas. 

Below is a short list of some of the parts I wrote out on paper before I learned how to play them.  This is more for the tech-nerds who check out The Poundry.  I hope that this doesn't peel the onion back so far that you see my clueless, talentless core... but so be it if it does. There is no wizard behind my curtain.  You don't have to be good to be cool, and I would rather be thought of as a cool drummer than an "exquisitely refined percussionist" any day.  I expel too many gases to ever be described as "refined", especially when I'm playing drums. Ha-ha... gotcha!  Any drummer knows that it can be risky to let one fly while you're playing, particularly if you inhaled cheap bar food before your show!  So here is the list of some beats from 'Condemned' that were written out before I knew how to play them, and one beat from the Loincloth album.  Why are there no beats from 'Unraveled'?  I'll tell you... it's because the band decided not to follow the precedent we set with our first album.  We intentionally backed off of the numbers for our second album.  Two fifths of the members at that time were not as interested in technical riffing as we all were in the beginning, and that was enough to tip the scales.  I had a much more basic template to work with in most of the songs on that album.  I have thrown all of those remedial templates out the window for the next album.  All is right in the universe once again!  So here we go...

TRACK 5, 'UNCONTROLLED' - While truly primitive, I did have to write out one of the guitar parts using my completely unsophisticated system of hash marks of varying lengths to represent the riff enough for me to understand it in a visual way. Once I did that I could 'play around' with the drums and affect the feel of the part.  The guitar part comes in at 1:18 in the song, but the beat that I mapped out comes in after some accents and a brief, flatulent roll a few seconds later at 1:26, and then continues through the remainder of the riff.  The thrash metal way to play the part would have been a little faster and it would have provided a section for some mindless head banging.  I chose to slow the first part of the riff down a little so that the guitar could weave in and out of the slower meter which created a little tension between the riff and the drums.  Almost as though we were playing different parts.  It isn't anything really special, but mapping the riff out helped show me the points at which I should emphasize togetherness or the sense of wandering away from each other.  I play truer to the riff towards the end of each pass so that when the first few notes of it come back around they sound more disconnected than they really are.  

TRACK 6, 'CONDEMNED' - The intro to the album's title track came about as I began to see smaller and smaller patterns once the riff had been written out on paper.  The only thing that I was trying to do to begin with was to find all of the points where my ride or hi-hat would hit if I played them on every third note instead of the traditional way of playing every second note.  I never would have thought of the other tweaks had I just been sitting behind the kit.  I probably would have been content to play the slower ride pattern competently, but I had too much fun playing around with the drums on paper before I even got to sit behind my kit.  It did take me awhile to learn the part I had written out for myself, but learning this one has helped me think of riffs and beats in many different ways, and has given me a 'trick' that I used once on 'Unraveled' and am already applying to the second song we are currently writing for our third album.  

I had to write out much of the song 'Condemned' in order to come up with what I eventually played on the album.  As I mentioned earlier, I had no idea what I was doing behind a drum set at the time, and writing parts out was an effective way to play over my head.  The 'mathy' section that comes in at 3:11 shows the approach I knew I wanted to employ when I first mapped out the intro.  The numbers don't line up exactly with the intro, but they were not so different that it really changed what I had to do to play the part correctly.  The choppier intro feels so much different because of taking some notes out here and there, and filling in a quick left drum bass drum note in between right foot 'sixteenth notes' wherever there were two of them in a row, uninterrupted by any other note I was playing.  As a matter of fact, when I finish this post I'm going to map out that same approach for a section I've come up with for the song Confessor are working on right now.  Can you feel the excitement?

TRACK 8, 'THE STAIN' - This was the last song that we wrote for 'Condemned'.  It is a hell of a lot of fun to play live!  We wrote a transitional bridge between the second verse and the lead section that I had to write out because I was trying something very foreign to me. The bridge begins at 2:27 just as Scott finishes his vocal line with the word "... nothing".  At that point, I had to write out my part because I knew what I wanted to do in my head, but it was way too much for me to feel out for the first time ever behind the kit.  The guitars are playing something that is super basic.  Let's call it a simple 4/4 time signature even though it's actually longer than that.  It takes them 22 beats to finish the first pass using a 4/4 approach, but I wanted to play along with them at that tempo on my bass drum and snare while playing a 6/4 pattern on the ride.  In layman's terms I wanted to squeeze six notes into the same amount of space they were using to play four notes.  That meant that my ride pattern was fifty percent faster than my bass drum and snare pattern and I needed to see how that relation looked on paper so I'd know what I had to do and where my drum hits would lay on, or between my ride hits.  I do the same trick at the very end of the song while emphasizing every fourth ride hit.  Unfortunately that emphasized ride didn't really come out clearly.  Now I have an upside down bell that I use that you can hear for days, but I didn't have it when we recorded the record.  I had to write out that particular ride pattern backwards, starting with the last note of the song and emphasizing every fourth note until I got to the beginning of the riff so I could see where to start the pattern in order to finish together with the band.  Are you confused yet?  

Once I realized that all you have to do to create a time signature that sounds insane is to take a four/four riff and add one note to it ( making it a whatever/seventeen signature ) I stopped paying any attention to the prestige of sounding like you know what in the hell you're talking about.  It's like calling walking a "bi-pedal transportation regimen".  It's meaningless, except for highlighting pretense.  Sure it helps people who know what they are doing recognize what they need to do before they get to a certain part, but I'm an idiot and smart people intimidate me, so screw them!  Their reliance on music theory would scare them away from most of what Confessor and Loincloth do, anyway.  I've actually had musician friends of mine who were taking music theory classes tell me that we "couldn't do" what we were doing.  Yeah, maybe... if you hate fun.  I met a guy whose background was in Latin dance and orchestral percussion.  He told me that his peers were giving him a hard time about joining a metal band.  They had no respect for the genre.  If they were thinking of the homoerotic, big hair, bubblegum metal that was huge in the early 1990's, I can understand. But underground metal is a very different beast.  He transcribed his parts to sheet music and once they saw all of the things he had to keep up with they shut right the hell up!  And to be completely honest, his band was really quite basic as far as time signatures and transitions go.  Confessor and Loincloth are all over the place compared to what his band was about, and there are countless bands that make us look like we don't even try.  It's all relative, and none of it ultimately matters.  I'm just trying to show that what you do can be looked at as freaky-spastic or stuck in the mud depending upon who's checking your band out at the time.

TRACK 9, 'SUFFER' - I remember what a hard time I had coming up with something to play under Graham's strange and non-metal riff that comes in at 1:06 of the last track on 'Condemned'.  There is a cassette of an early practice on which you can hear how completely clueless I was about the parts' hooks and structure.  This part more than any I can think of sounds completely unique because I was stabbing in the dark when I wrote it out on paper.  I can say without a shadow of doubt that I never would have come up with that beat had I been behind my kit instead of hunched over a piece of paper.  I just couldn't sort things out in my head, so I started playing around with how all of the little symbols I used to represent different drums and different 'tricks' looked on my improvised line graph.  I wrote my part as a visual exercise with zero regard for how it impacted the riff beyond starting my own beat on the first note of their part every time.  What I ended up with is my favorite Confessor drum beat to date.  Graham wrote a totally weird part that I laid my unconnected drums on top of, and Scott finished it off with one of his most creative parts.  That riff is a defining section of music for the band as far as I'm concerned, and it would have been totally different had I come up with my part in the traditional way.

LOINCLOTH, 'SHARK DANCER' - For many people it might be difficult to hear strong differences between Confessor and Loincloth.  That's okay.  They might describe the differences thusly: "This stool sample has a higher concentration of corn, while sample B has more bean skins."  I can't be offended by that.  As for the way I approach the drums to either band, the differences are pretty clear.  The two biggest differences are that Loincloth have no vocalist to compete for listener attention, and no part is played consistently enough to actually use any repeating patterns.  There was only one part on all of 'Iron Balls of Steel' that I had to write out, and it happens to be the longest riff on the record.  It also happens to be my favorite drum beat on the record.  You could almost argue that it is the ONLY drum beat on the record and I wouldn't be able to come up with a persuasive counter argument. There are several points at which I really love how the drums highlight this thing or that thing, this break or that peak, but the end of 'Shark Dancer' stands out as a result of being the only part long enough for me to map out a pattern on the whole record.  The outro for 'Shark Dancer' begins at 1:39 and makes up about half of the song.  

Tannon and I were getting down to the wire because we had the studio time booked but I had not finished writing my part at the end of the song.  I think that I finished it within the last couple of weeks before recording the song.  We finished writing 'The Poundry' ( the name of my favorite blog ever! ) within a couple of weeks before recording as well, and Confessor's 'The Downside' was also completely reworked within two weeks of recording.  It happens. When it came to finishing 'Shark Dancer' I broke the outro down into four distinct sections. The first section uses mostly toms and bass drums, the second section is a more traditional beat, the third uses a slower ride pattern and mostly bass drums and the fourth section uses an alternating cymbal pattern with a crash cymbal and a china type.  I like the whole thing, but the second and fourth sections are the ones that I really enjoy.  The second section lasts from 1:48 to 1:58 and uses the hi-hat and lots of cymbal chokes, a Sheltonian staple.  There will eventually be video of me playing different songs from that album that I put together for online viewing, and this section might be the first thing I film.  The fourth section begins at 2:03 and lasts until 2:12.  It is similar in feel, but the alternating cymbals and quicker bass drum pattern makes it feel a bit like Meshuggah.  The alternating cymbal pattern is deceptively easy to play.  It makes it harder for someone listening to focus on the beat, but it's no different in execution than a normal pattern on a ride or a hi-hat.  It can also help you hear other cool things that you could do with your cymbals.  All you have to do different is play the same pattern but alternate every hit between two cymbals.  For all of you Opeth fans, it's the same thing that makes the really long, mathy riff at the end of the title track on 'Deliverance' sound almost out of phase at 10:57 and is used off and on from that point through the end of the track.  It's a great trick because it's so simple.  Simple tricks tend to have the greatest impact.

So, for any drummers out there who actually made it through this post, don't ever be afraid to experiment.  Many of my own favorite beats came from pencil and paper, not drumsticks!  By the time the next Confessor record is written I will owe quite a bit more to mapping riffs out on a desk before applying my ideas in our practice room.  It can save a tremendous amount of time if you run into a brick wall, too!  And for what it's worth, that part of my brain has been tickled since I began thinking about mapping things out for both bands.  I have written five different patterns in the last week because I've got my juices flowing again.  So whip out your pencils and rulers and see what you might come up with.  Your favorite beat might end up scribbling itself out right before your very eyes!


  1. Hello Steve! Thanks for sharing so much of your work. Awesome hash mark photo. It's not like I really understand your music process or creativity but I get an unusual good vibe from some of it. The sticks in my hands have been invisible so as far as I can tell, it's the irregular heart beat of life that keeps returning me here. Fly Machine's Becoming is a favorite force for sawing the limbs off my own baseless vision. God perplexing goosebumps nearly every time. I'm mostly focused on migrating to a new city in a new country so I don't have capacity for much Heavy Metal now but I enjoy experiencing some of your metamorphosis.

    1. Best of luck with the move, Mr. Tooth! Sounds daunting. I have to say that 'Becoming' was always one of my favorite Fly Machine songs to play. It has a bounce that was unusual for us. Get the irregular heart thing checked out, but be glad that yours is unique. Oh yeah, sweet "metamorphosis" reference! You sir, are clearly a Pounderer!

  2. The scary thing is, I understand what you are on about! : )
    I have used this method myself on one or two occasions (Nothing on the level of Confessor of course)
    The excitement continues to build for new Confessor and Loincloth music...gonna be amazing. I'm also excited about footage going online. A YouTube channel maybe? Drum-cam footage from live shows? Something else? Whatever you decide...I can't wait : ) 
    Loving these blogs Steve, always a great read!

    1. Good evening, Keith! Happy New Year! I first thought of writing my beats out on a modified line graph after having to make several quick marks on a sheet of paper while tapping along to a song I was trying to figure out years ago. I knew the first little bit but always got lost at about the same point. Within seconds I noticed a pattern in the marks I made that I could never hear. Boom! Thirty seconds of literally throwing marks onto paper allowed me to figure out something I spent a couple of years trying to learn by ear. I'm glad that you know what I'm talking about. As for the video stuff, without any real money to throw at the project I might just film it the same way I did the drum video on the Confessor DVD, only with more pillow fighting vixens in the background. Does anyone know any vixens?

  3. The footage on the Confessor DVD is perfect, I watch it on a regular basis still! I unfortunately don't know any vixens, must be a drummer thing hehe

  4. Ha! Tell me about it! What few 'vixens' actually came to see us did so just to drool over Cary and Scott, but for some reason they never showed any interest in the guy who was red-faced and drenched in sweat after a show. Go figure... I'm a drummer AND a ginger. I think homeless guys had a better chance than me to have groupies. Let the hair bands keep their vixens. I can sleep at night knowing that I never sold my soul. Plus, staying out of trouble and avoiding stupid mistakes helped lead me where I am today, which I wouldn't change for anything!