Syncopation, or beats between the beats, is the drummer’s ultimate cool-tool! I remember when I was first introduced to the concept. It was as if someone had just given me a great new toy. Syncopation added a whole new dimension to my playing and had a permanent impact on my style.
What Is Syncopation?
Despite its critical importance, the term syncopation is difficult to clearly define. I can tell you that I know it, when I hear it, but that doesn't serve as much of an explanation. In an attempt to offer a little more clarity, I did some research. After consulting a multitude of online and print sources, I assembled a short-list of partial definitions that I’ll share with you. Individually, none of these offer a precise meaning, but together they begin to paint a little clearer picture.
- beats between the beats
- the art of playing a note where it's not expected
- the absence of the expected
- a disturbance or interruption in the regular flow of rhythm
- the placement of stresses or accents where they would not normally occur
- an unexpected deviation from the strict succession of regularly spaced strong & weak beats
- the accenting of a typically unstressed portion of a measure
As you can probably tell from this variety of attempted definitions, the concept itself is a bit vague. With this tutorial, I hope to give you a clear enough understanding of syncopation, that... you'll know it when you hear it.
A Little History
When I first began playing drums in 1966, the concept of syncopation wasn’t even taught to novice drum students. When I think back to the pop & rock that was on the radio at that time, syncopation in drum parts was virtually non-existent. I’d been playing in bands for several years before I actually remember seeing it utilized by a local drummer. If you were wondering where I got the name for this tutorial, that’s where it came from. For me, this was an honest-to-God revelation! I sat in front in this drummer in utter amazement…asking myself what in the world he was doing? It was incredibly cool, yet completely unknown to me! But after watching & listening for a while, I began to understand. What he seemed to be doing, was randomly sprinkling single 16th note bass drum strokes into traditional beat patterns. The way in which he did it seemed to preserve the essence of the basic beat….while adding variety, color & the element of surprise to the feel of his playing. Essentially, he was placing beats-between-the-beats & playing notes where they weren’t expected... sound familiar?
I’ll take this opportunity to point out that this specific form of syncopation serves as the focal point for much of this tutorial. Syncopation can appear in a variety of forms, but this is the one that most heavily influenced me. Hopefully, it makes a great starting point....allowing you to developing a clearer understanding of the overall concept.
I'll take this opportunity to point out that this specific form of syncopation is the focus of these last few sections of tutorial. Syncopation appears in a variety of forms, but this is the one that most heavily influenced me. It should make a great starting point for developing a clearer overall understanding of the concept.
My revelation happened to coincide with a huge change in the commercial music business.
FM radio had begun! AM radio, which had ruled the music airways for so long, was rapidly losing its appeal. AM music radio had begun its death roll & was fighting to maintain relevance.
- the styles of the music being played
- the formats considered air-worthy
- the artists themselves
Syncopation was becoming commonplace for rock drummers and my world became a lot more interesting! A whole new range of creative options opened up.
Now that we’ve covered what it is and how I was introduced to it, we should spend some time exploring ways in which syncopation can be utilized.
Understanding a general concept is great. But until you begin to see what it can actually do for you, it's just theory for theory's sake. Let's look at some specific examples of how to incorporate it into a basic beat.
I'm going to refer back to one of the primary beats addressed in the fundamental beat-building tutorial. It’s simple, but should serve our purpose well. I’ve included a chart of the pattern below for easy reference.
*The bold counts indicate a stroke.
The video below demonstrates some of the simple ways to further develop this pattern through the addition of syncopated elements. Obviously, there are countless variations to choose from, but these should convey the general idea. Here’s how the example is laid out...
- 2 measures of the basic pattern
- builds-in 1 additional 16th note stroke at measure #3(bass drum)
- adds an 8th note stroke at measure #5(bass drum)
- adds in another 16th note stroke(bass drum) & a 16th note snare stroke at measure #7
Perspective & Judgement
Once you begin to develop ways in which to incorporate syncopation into your drumming, there is something you should be conscious of. Drummers seem to have a tendency to over-use new toys like syncopation. It’s so cool, we want to do it all the time, whether it’s appropriate or not. I speak from experience on this subject-LOL. Ask any musician who knew me back in my late teens & early 20s. I was a bit slow to learn discretion. It took a while before I learned to trust the opinions & perspectives of my band mates. The thing is....they are your best means by which to judge, at least in the short term. Always remember that no matter how totally excellent your part is.....nothing exists in a musical vacuum. Whatever you do has to work well with the music happening around you. In the final analysis, everyone’s part needs to positively contribute to the song as a whole.
If you would like to discuss syncopation, or any other drumming and percussion topic please visit our drum and percussion forum.
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About Tom Hoffman
Tom 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.
Tom Hoffman - Full Site Crew Profile