To begin with, I thought it might be useful to come up with a short-list of variables to be considered when crafting drum parts for a new song. Typically, I ask myself questions like:
What's the genre of the song?
For a multitude of reasons, I don't begin structuring a final drum part until the basics of a song are pretty well set. By basics, I mean:
2) at least a rough idea of lyrical content & subject matter
3) backing chord structure (basics of the song's musical movement)
4) tentative song structure (intro, verse, chorus, bridge, etc)
At that point, I'm able to get a pretty clear picture of what type of song I'm working with. That matters! Regardless of your personal style preferences, the part you craft needs to be appropriate for this particular song & genre. In simple terms, a typical metal drum line probably won't fit very well in a country/pop song. By itself, it may seem like a really cool, impressive part. The thing is..... no one will ever hear it by itself. They'll hear it within the context of the song.
Remember - it always needs to be about the song!
As a drummer, I was slow to learn that lesson. As a songwriter, it was immediately obvious. It's simply a matter of perspective.
How is the movement of the melody structured (meter, flow, rhythm)?
Earlier in this article, I pointed out that I never begin writing a drum part until the melody is complete. Always keep in mind that the melody is the single most important part of any song! Regardless of whether it's sung or played instrumentally, the melody & it's appeal to listeners, will play a huge part in determining a song's overall likability.
If you're the songwriter, this is your money-maker! You want to protect it at all costs! If you're the drummer, you need to recognize & accept a harsh reality. Your crafting of this drum part can help the song or hurt it. But, regardless of how good & how well-played your final part is, it's won't be the reason that listeners like the song! It can certainly be a contributing factor, but generally not the big reason. I know, I know.... it's not fair! What can I tell you though..... it-is-what-it-is! I was a drummer long before I became a songwriter, so I've been on both sides of this argument. Drummers want to write parts that will be impressive to their musician friends & that they find personally challenging. After all....we're drummers, that's what we do! Once again, I empathize with your plight, but my advice is to focus on how your part impacts the song as a whole. It's simply a question of big picture - little picture. Focus on the big picture! That big picture is made up of many small facets, the melody being one. Be sure you have a clear understanding of how that melody moves & craft the drum part so that it's complimentary to that movement. Once you have something specific in mind, try playing it along with the melody. That'll give everyone involved the opportunity to access how well they function together. Trial & error plays a big part in this process. Keep working with it until you have a part that works with the melody, not one that competes with it. Remember, in the end it's all about the song!
What type of arrangement do you have in mind for the song?
I'm not suggesting that you should have your whole arrangement set-in-stone before starting the drum part. Chances are though, you have some rough idea of what things may work well. Tentatively.... are you thinking of using piano, are you picturing more than one guitar track, might additional percussion be a good fit (congas, tambourine, shaker, etc)?
The point I'm getting to is this, if you have definite ideas for your arrangement, you want to factor those into the writing of your drum part. Again, in the end, everything needs to work well with everything else. Here are a few of the variables that I typically consider:
1) If you're planning a busy arrangement with lots of instrumental movement, a simpler drum part* may be better. A song isn't a contest for dominance! Ideally, the parts of your arrangement all work together.... towards a common goal. For instance, if you've got some really cool ideas for an intricate piano part & a tasteful signature guitar track, you want a drum part that allows those to shine through. No, I'm not telling you that the drum part has to be boring! Just build the drum complexities into sections of the song that allow a little more room for them. Those piano & guitar parts I referred to..... let's say those are only for the verses & bridge. That means your chorus sections could employ dominant, driving drums. Varying which instrument dominates from section to section, builds variety into an arrangement. It also makes the dominant instrument much more noticeable to the average listener. When that chorus section rolls around & those drums start kicking butt, the change immediately grabs the listeners attention. This type of approach not only works well for the song, but it gives the poor drummer some well deserved attention!
*If you're interested in specific examples of simpler drum beats, you're welcome to check out one of my previous songstuff tutorials - "Fundamental Beat Building". It contains a number of basic patterns, with written examples & video demonstrations. of each.
2) Sometimes arrangements are very sparse.... open. For instance, many songs employ sustained chords, struck primarily on major counts. Sometimes a writer will utilize just bass & drums for the verses of a song.... really strip it down. Anyway, you get the basic idea. Situations like these offer the opportunity to get really creative with the drum track. You can experiment with extremely intricate or syncopated parts*...... really flex those creative muscles. With limited instrumentation like this, there are far fewer things for the drums to potentially conflict with. The single biggest thing to be aware of in these scenarios, is the movement of the melody. We've already discussed that subject extensively, but I thought it was worth another brief mention.
3) If certain instrument parts are already written, do those parts heavily accent specific counts?
Do several of those parts accent the same counts? I ask these questions because it's possible to over-do accents. With very few exceptions, you don't want every instrument emphasizing identical counts. That can result in a song arrangement with a very stiff feel. Like any other guideline, this isn't an absolute. You will hear the occasional song that actually seems to benefit from an overly-rigid feel. Generally speaking though, I try to build some variety into the accent patterns of my arrangements.
4) What impact, if any, would you like the drums to have on how the song develops....beginning-to-end? In an effort to clarify that question a bit, I'll break it down into several more specific questions:
a) Do you intend for the song to build as it progresses?
If you do, you may want to utilize the drums to aid in that process. It's not uncommon to bring them in gradually, layering in complexity & momentum a little at a time. If you're interested in hearing a specific example of this approach, check out "No One Gets It All" on my reverbnation site. The song is loaded there as a streaming mp3. A direct link to the site is included in my writer's bio at the bottom of this article. The song begins with an acoustic chorus section (no drums) - into verse #1 which uses just sparse bass drum & hi hat - employs a roll taking it into verse #2, which moves the drums up to a full, but very basic beat pattern - into the first full chorus allowing the drums to finally break loose. At that point in the song, the build-up is complete and the momentum is peaking.
b) Do you intend for one specific section of the song to jump out & grab the listener's attention?
One simple way to achieve that effect is to hold much of the instrumentation (including all the drums) back, until that specific section. "The Real World", another song from my reverbnation site, is a good example of this effect. The song begins with a verse, employing just a single guitar & vocal - adds in an organ around the half-way point - then brings in drums, bass, piano, a second guitar, and a doubled vocal..... all at once. Smack!.......... it hits you right in the face & that's exactly what's intended.
c) Would you like the drums to maintain a fairly constant feel throughout the song?
That question is pretty self-explanatory.... consistency in the feel of the drums from start-to-finish. If you're looking for a reference point, "Rain King" by Counting Crows should serve nicely. Surprised you, didn't I? Yes, I have songs of my own which would have served as examples here! I just figured that we were due for a little variety...
d) Would a change in the drum part, from half time - to full time be useful?
This can be very helpful in varying the feel & flow of a song. Essentially, you're changing one part (in this case the drum part), by creating the impression of cutting the BPM (beats per minute) in half for specific sections of the song. For instance, if the basic song runs at a rate of 120 BPM, the beat used in the verse sections may feel as if it's being played at 60 BPM. It's the shifting from one to the other that generates the noticeable effect. For an example of this, I'll return to my shameless self-promoting & refer you to a song called "Someday". Yes, you guessed it...... it's also on my reverbnation site!
As you may have already realized, most of what this tutorial has dealt with shares a common theme. None of these variables are even worth considering unless the basics for the song have already been established! Hence my earlier statement that -"I don't begin structuring a final drum part until the basics of a song are pretty well set".
I'm not trying to tell you that it's the only way, but in my humble opinion, it is the best way! I've tried my best to provide you with reasons to support that opinion.
With part 1 of this tutorial, I've dealt with some of the general concepts, questions & variables involved in this topic. Part 2 will deal more with the specifics of actually building the drum parts. I'll try to give you a clearer idea of what works best, where & why. As always, thanks for your interest! Please check back for part 2 of this series in the not-too-distant future or subscribe to the Songstuff Site Blog or add the Songstuff Twitter Page to your account to receive notifications of new articles.
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About Tom Hoffman
.....anyway, onward & upward into Phase #2. Apparently, Tom never lost the itch to play an active part in music. At age 40, he was looking to scratch that itch. He had something different in mind this time though......not performance.....writing. He'd always wanted to become more involved in the creative end of things, so that was the goal this time. One small problem though.....he lacked all of the skills, knowledge and equipment necessary to make it happen. That didn't turn out to be an insurmountable obstacle though. Over the next 2 years, he went about the task of addressing his musical shortcomings. By age 42 he had achieved a reasonable level of competency as a drummer, guitarist and bass player. He had also managed to acquire a fundamental knowledge of both music theory & home recording.
Tom is now 56. For the past 14 years he's been primarily an amateur singer-songwriter, but has never lost the passion for his first love....drums. He's still an active drummer and intends to continue in that capacity. In recent years, many of his songs have achieved various levels of recognition in international writing contests. He's been a finalist, a 6-time semi-finalist and a runner-up. He has also received a number of honorable mentions, but has yet to win. "Winning" is still a work-in-progress. For anyone interested, the following link contains a detailed breakdown of the award results. Tunesmith Awards.
Tom Hoffman - Full Site Crew Profile