No matter what our playing level is, we all encounter playing situations that require us to learn a specific groove or fill for which the coordination required may be outside of our typical comfort zone. I have encountered this often when subbing for great drummers who may perform a groove or fill in a different way than I would typically execute the same idea. Their method of executing a figure may produce a totally different musical outcome than my default method. The practice method that I employ to “acquire” their coordination and resulting sound is the same as I often recommend to students, from beginners to working professionals, to learn new ideas of their own.
I first look at the length of the figure or groove. Is it a one-bar pattern, two- or four-bar phrase, or something else? I then identify a “ruler” to base the coordination around. That “ruler” could be eighth notes, sixteenth-note triplets, etc. If there is an ostinato such as a straight eighth- or sixteenth-note hi-hat part, I’ll start with that as my ruler and repeat it as a loop for the full length of whatever pattern or phrase length I’m working with. At this point, I will choose to either add any other anchor points in the groove, like a backbeat on 2 and 4 or other constant figures, then begin adding bass drum notes and other snare notes one at a time within the measure or measures, until I have added all the notes of the groove.
Alternatively, I will treat the whole groove akin to adding “events” to a sequencer, one at a time. If the first “event” is a bass drum on beat 1, I’ll start with that (and nothing else) until that one note is easy to execute and grooving. Then I will add the next “event” such as a snare on 2 and groove the first two events in a loop with my hi-hat constant. This process continues, adding each single “event” (bass drum note, snare hit, etc.) one at a time, gradually working my way across the measure(s), only adding the next note in the groove when executing the preceding notes is relaxed and grooving.
I use the same methods above for multiple-limb independence grooves, such as we often encounter when playing grooves on drum set that were originally performed by multiple percussionists in a section. This also works for grooves with ostinatos between hands or feet with additional coordination on top of the ostinato.
I use a similar method for learning challenging fills. I work on them playing at first in “slow motion” so that I can fully understand how to execute each note. I will loop the duration of the fill — one beat, two beats, or even multiple measures — adding one note of the fill at a time, making sure that I understand and can play everything preceding in a relaxed and grooving manner.
I find these methods work well for beginner students and advanced students learning new types of beats. If the beat is based on an eighth-note hi-hat groove, you can line up the notes with that hi-hat ruler. If there are sixteenth-note figures between the eighths, students can “see” one at a time if the note comes before, with, or after the hi-hat constant. Some students like to start with the hi-hat and snare parts together; others find it easier to add one note at a time in the bass drum.
These processes can work for any type of coordination challenge, playing snare drum or bass drum notes with shuffle or swing ride patterns, or adding parts to clave, tumbao, cascara, or bell parts, etc. The possibilities are endless!
Karl Latham has performed and recorded with Grammy Award winning artists, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame members, and many acclaimed performers including The Shirelles; Johnny Winter; Bernie Worrell; Mark Egan Unit1; John Lee Quartet with Clark Terry, Slide Hampton, Cyrus Chestnut, and Jon Faddis; Ali Ryerson with Pete Levin; Jerry Vivino; The Fantasy Band; Howard Paul with Laurence Hobgood, Anat Cohen and Tom Scott; The Dizzy Gillespie Alumni Group; Andy Snitzer; Vic Juris; Mitch Stein; and Rachel Z. Karl has performed in Europe for decades in the groups of vibraphonist Wolfgang Lackerschmid and pianist Johannes Mossinger. Latham co-led the 2016 BMW World Jazz Award nominated “Constellations” with Mark Egan and Ryan Carniaux and co-leads Don Braden/Karl Latham Big Fun(K). Karl has subbed on the Broadway productions of Bring It On, Hamilton, Beautiful: The Carole King Musical, and Ain’t Too Proud. Karl is an adjunct instructor at Drew University, County College of Morris, and PCCC. More information available at karllatham.com.