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Loosen Up!

By Paul Wertico

There are two different approaches to playing the drums. The first is the "tight" approach, in which everything is carefully articulated and subdivided. Tight playing works well in situations such as funk, fusion and other precisely executed styles of music. In contrast, in most forms of jazz, a "looser" interpretation of rhythm is important to creating the feel essential to the jazz genre. Playing "loose" can be very creative and demanding. Since jazz is not as popular as pop or funk, it can be overlooked by students of drum set. Learning and practicing the "loose" approach can be a lot of fun and will increase your overall playing abilities. It can also give you some alternative ideas that can be applied to various styles.

One way to work on playing "loose" is to practice rhythms that are not easily transcribed. In other words, rather than playing standard subdivisions, such as sixteenth-notes, or thirty-second note triplets, you create and play "events" in time. Those events can be sporadic notes, a rhythmical flurry, accelerandos or decelerandos. Now, I am not talking about playing completely free here. Rather, I am describing a situation where you play in time with a feel of total freedom. This is not easy to accomplish; your goal should be to have the ability to flow from the "tight" to the "loose" approach in an effortless manner.

A drum machine can be a useful tool to practice these approaches to drumming. To start, program a comfortable groove for 15-1/2 bars. Then, leave the last two beats of the sixteenth bar empty. The result is a repeating 16-bar exercise in which you have ample time to get in the pocket. At the end of the 16 bars, something interesting, if not unusual, should be attempted. The goal here is to set up a strong feel in time and then become totally adventurous in those last 2 beats. You can try just about anything, but you will find certain things work better than others. The object is to come in squarely on the 1 at the beginning of the next 16 bars in a completely confident manner.

Once you find that you can play freely in those two beats while still maintaining the groove in the other 15-1/2 bars, reset your drum machine pattern to play 15 bars of the groove and leave the sixteenth bar open. When you're comfortable with that, keep decreasing the number of bars with the groove while increasing the open bars. This type of practicing not only works to improve your groove playing, but also teaches you how to feel large areas of space. Tape yourself when playing this exercise. You may find that some freer-sounding fills sound better and more musical than others, depending on the type of groove and tempo.

A drum set can provide a vast palette of colors and sounds. Being a drummer and percussionist gives us carte blanche to make use of any sound we want, as long as it fits. But, contemporary pop drumming makes use of only a portion of these potential sounds and colors. Playing with different strokes as part of your technique will get you in touch with the different sounds that can be created by the drum set. For instance, pushing one or both of the sticks into a drum head will choke the sound or vary its decay. This can be an alternative to a more traditional open stroke. Also, pushing one stick into the drum head while varying the pressure and playing with the other stick can create some great sounding pitch changes. A variation to this stroke is to slide one stick around the head while the other stick either strikes on the head, or the other stick. Playing on various areas of the drum head and the drum itself provides a variety of tonal colors. The center is usually the deadest, while the area nearest the rim has the highest pitch, most overtones, and provides the greatest stick bounce. Intelligent use of these principles can make for some very creative phrasing.

The hi-hat is an important ingredient to the "loose" approach as well. Playing the hi-hat while varying the amount that it is open or closed is not a new idea, but try varying the pressure that your foot applies to the closed position. This creates pitch changes that can be very expressive. In terms of the cymbals, a stroke can be employed in which you dig your stick into the cymbal. This will change the cymbal's decay. For variety in cymbal pitch, try cupping one hand over the bell of a cymbal while the stick in the other hand hits or slides on top of or around the cymbal.

Don't be afraid to be different.

Images and Information fromDRUM! September/October 1992, page 53

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