Crafting Drum Parts for Original Songs (part 2)

In part 1 of Crafting Drum Parts for Original Songs, I dealt with many of the general concepts, questions and variables involved in constructing drum parts for original songs. Here in part 2, I’ll deal more with specifics. I’ll break down the individual components of a typical drum part, discuss each component at length and explore various options for each. With any luck, by the end of this installment, you’ll have a much clearer picture of the thought process involved.

Selecting Beat Patterns

Have you ever had the experience of hearing a new song on the radio and instantly being drawn to it? I certainly have! For years I simply accepted that and never bothered to try and figure out why. Then I began to write songs. As a writer, I've found that it's in my best interest to explore the whys. Why am I particularly attracted to specific songs? I'm inclined to believe that there's no single, universal answer to this question. I imagine that the answer varies as much from person-to-person, as individual taste does. For me specifically though, the overall feel and flow of the song has a lot to do with it's immediate appeal. I think it's safe to say that the choice of beat patterns plays a large part in establishing that feel and flow.

To begin with, the subtitle for this section is plural - patterns, Ideally, you're going to select more than just one. It's not uncommon to utilize 2 or 3 variations of a basic pattern for the verses of a song, then turn around and select an entirely different pattern for the choruses. Many times a bridge section is given yet another pattern. Something with a completely different feel than the verses and choruses. After all, one of the main functions of a bridge is to break the monotony by introducing something unique. The bridge is supposed to be different and the drum pattern can certainly aid in the accomplishment of that.

In previous tutorials, I've dealt extensively with choosing, developing and understanding various types of beat patterns. Fundamental Beat Building, The Revelation of Syncopation and More About Syncopation explore the subject in depth and include video demonstrations for many of the examples given. I would think that any or all of these articles would be helpful in crafting or selecting appropriate patterns for your particular song. Back in part 1 of this tutorial, I talked quite a bit about adjusting beat patterns according to genre, arrangement, flow of the melody and the type of feel you're trying to develop for the overall song. Rather than repeat all of that information here, I've simply provided you with the appropriate links for reference.

There are some fairly common tricks-of-the-trade that I haven't covered previously. Now's as good a time as any to talk about those. By the way, all of these examples assume a right-handed drummer.

1) You can vary the specific part of the drum set being played by the right hand, from song section to song section. For example, use hi hat in the verses, then switch to ride cymbal for the chorus sections. Even though it's a fairly small change, the impact on the overall texture of the song sections can be quite dramatic.

2) You can vary how the hi hat is played within a given song section. Playing it tightly-closed produces a very crisp, structured sound. Whereas playing it semi-opened gives you a looser, free-floating kind of sound. It's pretty common for heavier, harder-driving songs to go with the 2nd option. Lighter-edge pop, rock and country utilizes a lot of the tightly closed version and many times will combine the 2 techniques. For instance, play it tightly closed through the majority of a verse, then semi-open it for the last measure or 2 of the verse. That produces a slight change in feel just prior to the entry of a chorus section. That type of variance can also serve as an announcement to the listener that a change is about to take place. Many times it will be employed as a prelude to a cymbal crash, announcing the actual change. I've included a brief video below to demonstrate the difference in the 2 high hat sounds.

3) You can employ an extremely basic right hand rhythm, then utilize a misc. percussion instrument to embellish the feel of the pattern. For example: Use a quiet 1/4 note right-hand hi-hat (1,2,3 and 4 counts), then on a separate track, record a tambourine or a soft-shake to fill-in the straight 1/8 note feel and give it a steadier, more constant overall texture. This approach can also help add variety & depth to a song's rhythmic feel.

4) It's fairly common in the metal and hard rock genres, to hear the right hand playing a straight pattern on the edge of a crash-ride cymbal. This technique produces an effect that essentially sounds like one-prolonged crash. When it's combined with the heavy rates of compression that are commonly used in those genres, it tends to add a blurred, heavy edge to the song. If that's the type of feel you're looking for, this is something you should consider.

Before leaving this section, I do have one final piece of advice to pass on to you non-drummer songwriters. Please do everyone a favor, especially yourselves. When you put together a song demo, please don't pick a single mechanical beat pattern and utilize that one pattern all the way through. It kills me to hear people do that! In my humble opinion, nothing makes a demo sound more amateurish! Spend a little time and effort on it. It doesn't have to end up sounding like Neil Peart, but it does need some variety. Every part of an arrangement impacts a listener's impression of the final song. That includes the drum track!


The Story On Rolls (fills)

You'll find that opinions vary widely on when to use a roll, what type is most appropriate and how complex they should be. For drummers, much of this is determined by personal style. Whereas non-drummer songwriters, tend to be guided more by their years of experience as a listener. For the purpose of this tutorial, I'm going to stick to the basics and allow you plenty of room to exercise personal discretion.

Whereas beats serve primarily to establish fundamental rhythmic feel, rolls can be used to perform a number of functions:

1) Add variety / prevent monotony - In other words, break up the consistent flow established by your beats and make the overall rhythm track a little more interesting.

2) Serve as fills , much as lead licks, keyboard or bass fills do - Although it's not the only common application, rolls are frequently placed between lyric/melody lines to help fill in gaps and maintain the overall momentum.

3) Indicate (announce) a coming change - For instance, the start of a new vocal sequence, a change from verse to chorus, a shift in dynamics from quiet to loud, or visa-versa.

Rolls can be used in combination with lead licks or other fill elements. Although, when they're employed in this way, caution should be used. You want to avoid timing conflicts between the various fill parts. Everything should work well the benefit of the overall song. The upside of this approach is added complexity, the downside is added difficulty. It's very cool when it's done well!

It's also common practice to trade-off fill instruments. Use a drum roll this time, a guitar lick next time, followed by a keyboard run, etc. This will get you even more variety, with the added benefit of making each fill instrument more prominent. Each designated fill instrument becomes more obvious to the listener, because it's the only thing presenting a variation on the basic theme at that particular moment.

*For additional information on the basics & some specific video examples, please feel free to refer to an earlier songstuff tutorial - "The Role of Rolls".


To Crash or Not-To Crash

Cymbal crashes are very useful tools when utilized tastefully. Here are some typical examples of common applications:

- to accent, or call attention to a specific count within a measure

- to add dynamics to a section of music by boosting both the high-end frequencies and overall volume of that specific section

- to mark a change in the structure of the song (for example, moving from the verse to chorus)

- can be combined with rolls, particularly longer, more elaborate ones. This breaks them up, reinforces accents and adds color


Recap and Preview of Coming Attractions

Congratulations! You've now reached the end of the theoretical portion of this subject.

In parts 1 and 2 of this tutorial, I've done my best to give you a grasp of the thought process behind the crafting of a drum part. Going forward, I intend to dissect several of my own songs part-by-part, to show you what specific decisions I made and why. One song will be addressed in each tutorial. Unlike these past 2 articles, the remaining installments will be heavy on video examples and light on text. I apologize for the lack of visuals in the first 2 parts, but I had a lot to cover and not many ideas for applicable videos. Please check back soon for part 3 of this series.

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About Tom Hoffman

tom_hoffman_300Tom Hoffman currently lives in the Midwestern section of the USA. He started playing drums at the age of 13. That began the first phase of his musical journey. Seven months later he joined his first band. From that moment on, he was hooked! By age 15, he was functioning as both a drummer & a singer. At 16, like many other aspiring musicians, he began teaching in conjunction with local drum shop programs. From age 20 to age 23, he was one of the founding members of a band called "Nickels". During that period, Nickels was a common fixture throughout the local club circuit. The band was also given the opportunity to serve as opening act for a number of national groups appearing at local concert venues. At age 23, for various reasons, he decided to end the first part of his musical journey. He left Nickels, sold all his equipment and stopped playing altogether.

.....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.


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If I could, I would not do anything else. I'd just be in the studio for my whole life. I would never go to parties, events, and red carpets. I would rather just be in the studio for the whole time. I don't even care. Nobody has to know what I look like. I just want to make music.”
Ariana Grande