Recently, an "Ask A Pro" question crossed my desk that was not easily answerable in 25 words or less, so I thought: "Aha! Here's another excuse for an article." But here - you'll see what I mean:
"Your ability to play in odd times, play odd accents, and insert your fills in the most peculiar - yet proper - places is surpassed by none. To follow some of your more difficult music exactly seems (at my level) impossible! My question is: While you are playing, how do you think ahead to what you will play next? More specifically, do you 'think by numbers'? Do you 'hear' the upcoming riff in your mind? Do you see the 'hardcopy' of your music in your mind, or do you just let it flow? Can you give me any advice on a workable mental tract to use while playing?" - Matt Ancelin, Toms River NJ
Now, aside from adding to my wonder about why I get so many letters from Toms River, New Jersey, and making me blush with embarrassment, you can see that there's plenty of "food for thought" here. Many drummers' minds will start to whirl when they think about these things, and I think all of Matt's assertions are, or can be true.
But let's start at the beginning: with the numbers. Of course, it's never too early to learn to count, a skill that you'll need forever. So it makes sense that when you first begin to dabble in odd times, or even learn to flow well in 4/4 or 6/8, counting will teach you the "program." As you become more fluent in different rhythmic foundations, you will be able to recall these "hardwired programs," to set you into the right "cadence," or to let you pick up the "odd" beats at different times. I've written about this before, so I won't give it too much emphasis now, but you learn to subdivide the time signatures into their even-and-odd components, or to multiply them to make a series of odd bars add up to one long, even one. This is a trick I have used many times, playing 4/4 over 7/8, 5/4, or 6/8, and just holding the rhythm chugging along until all the bar lines add up again, and I can take off somewhere else!
There is another thing, too - a wordless mental "language" that I use to understand and remember parts. Certain phrases even have a kind of picture symbol; not notation, or the physical move, but an inner image of the effect of some little technique or rhythmic twist. So in that sense, I don't hear the upcoming phrase in my mind so much as see it. This, by its very nature, is unfortunately not communicable to others. I guess that's why we have written music!
But let's get into the really deep waters of this question. All of the above will set you up for comfortable improvising, but what if you want to arrange a drum part, one that will stand forever as the definitive way of playing a song? (I know, I know...dream on!) Starting from ground zero, you have a blank slate - a new song - and a drum part to create for it. So you play detective, look for clues, put two and two together - and come up with seven. (Always a good answer!)
But the clues. Perhaps the songwriter will play you a rough tape. On it, there will be some indication of the tempo, whether it's from a drum machine or in the inherent "lilt" to the music as it's played. Then there will be dynamic hints: how the song builds, where you might want to make the strongest statement, where you can be subtle and supportive, and where you might add some rhythmic interest. What does the song need? Where are the vocal parts, the instrumental parts, the choruses, the bridges? These are all the building blocks, not only of the song, but also of your part in it.
So you mind starts to sift possibilities: perhaps a big backbeat on the 3 for the verses, maybe a quarter-note bass drum with 16ths on the hi-hat for the chorus. And those bridges: Let's try a driving 2 and 4 on the snare, with a quarter-note ride, to build into the chorus, and then plane out under the vocals. And I think we could do some clever stuff in that intro to the instrumental: Bring it down and play across the time, with lots of those "ghost notes" that Rod Morgenstein is always talking about.
Listen to the song another couple of times, mentally going over your "map" of the musical terrain and trying to cement the arrangement details in your head. Again, people use different ways to accomplish this, and all are good. It doesn't matter if you write out some notation (or use the kind of "shorthand" that many drummers do), or if you're able to rough it out in your head just from memory. In this case, if it works, it's right! Is the song dark and introverted, or is it light and airy? Do you want to be able to dance to it, or is it "just for the ears"? Does your band's common stylistic ground run to samba, ska, swing, or speed metal? What sorts of fills are appropriate, and where are they appropriate? And if you're playing speed metal, can you introduce some ideas from ska, samba, or swing that might make it more interesting? This is where the fun starts.
Inevitably, it's going to be rough the first few times, especially if you and the rest of the band are all trying to learn the song at once. If you can do some experimenting with it at home, even if it's just on magazines to your Walkman, more to the good. But if you're diving right into it, again there are two approaches. Some people start as simply as possible. Then, if they feel compelled to add to that minimalist approach, they will. Other people start the opposite way - trying everything they can possibly think of in the first few run throughs, then gradually eliminating the ideas that don't work. There's much to be said for either approach. In the first case, you'll interfere with the rest of the band less, and you'll come up with a good, conservative part. In the second instance, however, you're more likely to stumble into something original and unexpected, and if you have the luxury or working by yourself, it's at no one else's expense. This is, I suppose, the ideal. (Sadly, our world doesn't tend toward the ideal, and if others are complaining about all the noise you're making, you may not make many friends. And let's face it: In this business, you need friends, and you should certainly not alienate the bass player! So be nice.)
The big word here: LISTEN. As you play the song, take time out from your explorations of outer space to listen to what your friend, the bass player, is getting at, and to see how the other instruments are responding to your rhythmic input. There may be something nice happening that will trigger other directions for you. One of the wonderful things about working with other musicians is coming up with something together. When the whole band gets excited about something, you just know it's going to work, because everybody will be happy, feel part of this holistic experience, and play their fingers off.
But there are still many options open to you. Much will depend upon your own temperament as a player. What sort of situation makes you most comfortable? Do you like to have your part worked out as much as possible, so your only concern when you play or record the song is getting it right? Some wise editor once advised an agonizing writer: "Don't get it right, get it down!" There's something in that for musicians as well, though perhaps not what the literary advisor meant. If you find you fly best "by the seat of your pants" - again, if it works, it's right. Go wild.
I have told the story before about how I was a big Keith Moon fan as a beginning drummer. All I wanted to do was get in a band that would play some Who songs so I could wail like he did. But when I finally found a band that actually wanted to play these songs, I discovered to my chagrin that I didn't like playing like Keith Moon. It was too chaotic, and things just weren't placed rationally. I wanted to play in a more careful, deliberate way - to think about what I played where, and not just "let it happen." I am driven by a strong organizational, perfectionist demon. Of the two extremes, I must confess I probably prefer the dull and "correct" to the adventurous foray that doesn't quite come off. Again, that's a personal thing, and I sure don't think I'm necessarily right. It's just the way I am. So I'll continue along in that vein for a while - as that's what comes naturally - and talk about organizing a song.
My personal approach is fairly linear. I'll often start simply at the beginning of the song and gradually build it - if not dynamically, then in terms of activity. A simple roll around the toms in chorus one might double up in chorus two, and then by chorus three become a rip-roaring, two-bar, triplet-feel flurry of 64th notes. Or a gentle backbeat in verse one can develop through a Latin feel on the ride cymbal in verse two, and be echoed by a double-time full-throttle "race to the finish" during the rideout. Then there are accents, pushes, hi-hat chokes, sudden pauses, feel-shifts, staccato punctuations, downbeats on the toms instead of the snare, leaving the downbeat out, or emphasizing the upbeats on the ride pattern. There's also something I hear Manu Katche doing with Peter Gabriel and Robbie Robertson: insinuating the rhythm - playing all around the beat without actually playing it, but it's absolutely there. This gets more complicated, but also more fun, and is very satisfying when you pull it off (not only for yourself, but for the song, the other musicians, and, hopefully, the audience.
People so often seem to forget that an audience doesn't have to understand the music to enjoy it. How many of the millions of people who loved Pink Floyd's song "Money" and bought the Dark Side Of The Moon album knew - or cared - that it was in 7/4? Peter Gabriel's "Solsbury Hill" again is in seven, and is one of the cleverest maskings of odd time - and just happened to be a big hit for him. The time signature just didn't matter; the musicians used skill and musicality to make it feel good, and that's what the audience responded to. That's what "accessibility" is really all about: communicating the thing properly. That's your ultimate responsibility, and your ultimate blame. Sure, there are no black-and-white absolutes in music, (or almost none), but it sometimes happens that a great song doesn't "click" with people because it just wasn't put together right. The listeners might not be able to articulate the flaw, and neither may the musicians. But if it doesn't reach the people you would have expected to like it, the song just didn't connect. So it's up to us to make the connections.