Thursday, December 25, 2014

"Jungle/Drum 'n' Bass", Johnny Rabb's definitive School of Rock

The word “rock”  in the phrase “rock and roll”, alludes to the rocking back and forth motion.  The word “rock” in “rock music”  began to acquire the other sense of “rock” when the music became more sophisticated, with a harder edge to it.  

There is something about the rock beat that feels right -  that building of tension with the repeating bass drum and that blessed relief that comes with the crack of the backbeat on the snare.  It so mirrors the rhythms of the human body, which is why it is so irresistible a form of dance music.

In jazz drumming up until the 1950’s the bass drum beat solid four - four quarter notes to the bar.  The famous drum exercise book Syncopation. by Ted Reed, is almost entirely straight four on the bass drum.  I realize Syncopation  is probably the greatest book of progressive exercises for the right and left hands ever, but the straight four drives this rock aficionado crazy.

Here’s a suggestion for aspiring rock drummers:  Once you’ve gone through Syncopation, turn around and do it again, this time substituting the bass drum for the snare drum part.  Use one of your hands to play quarters, eighths, or broken triplets on the cymbals, and the other to play backbeat on the snare, on the three, for cut-time or on the two and four for regular.  If you want a real workout on the bass drum I recommend Bass Drum Control by Colin Bailey.

For years I have searched high and low for the rock equivalent of Ted Reed’s Syncopation - a book that takes you from simple and easy to fantastically complex in a smooth satisfying progression.  I believe I have found such a book for the rock drummer.  It is a book by pro drummer Johnny Rabb, called Jungle/Drum 'n’ Bass.  

Jungle/Drum ‘n’ Bass is actually a particular style of dance music that often features drum machines rather than live drummers.    In some ways this style is rather segmented from other styles of popular music.  Unless you are a fan, you are likely only to have heard this kind of music in passing.  It is distinct in it’s high speed tempo and polyrhythmic drumming, hence it’s jungle-like aspects.  The bass drum has an insistent flowing quality that drives it forward.  Even though it is repetitive, the fast tempo makes it flow together surprisingly well.

Johnny Rabb, who is well-known for his speed and precision, has created what amounts to the definitive primer for rock drummers in this book.

A good rock drummer should be able to play in many different styles so that he or she has the ability to create a virtually infinite variety of beats.  The most important thing to remember is the bass drum.  In order to lay down a proper groove, the bass drum line must always be rock solid, the foundation for everything else in the song.  Rock solid means perfect timing and steady even phrasing - everything else follows.  

How do you get to this point?  The first thing is practice - but what do you practice?  It needs to be progressive - start with easy and slowly add challenges - timekeeping, coordination, and achieving a continuous flow at higher tempos.  In order to make progress a drummer has to be able to produce a wider and wider variety of beats in a technically consistent manner. this only comes from regular practice and gradually increasing the technical challenges.  This is exactly what Jungle/Drum ‘n’ Bass allows you to do.

Working my way through Jungle/Drum ‘n’ Bass over the past year  I have been pleasantly surprised by the steady improvement in my timing, precision, and ability to play polyrhythms in a relaxed and seemingly effortless manner.  

Rabb’s section on rolls has been particularly satisfying as I have made substantial progress in a matter of weeks.  What Jim Blackley did for Syncopated Rolls, Johnny Rabb does for Rockin Rolls in this book.  This section alone was  well worth the price of the book.

In my opinion, the highlight of Jungle/Drum ‘n’ Bass  is the section on Linear Drumming.  I was first introduced to the Linear style of drumming in books by Glenn W. Meyer.  Creative Drum Systems, Funk and Fusion Concepts, and Beyond Stick Control are a few of his books that feature sections on Linear Drumming.  

As Johnny puts it, this is one of the styles that looks easy but is more difficult to do correctly. As I see it, Rabb’s entire book is a graduated series of exercises that builds up to the Linear style.  All the pieces that go together are first broken down into learnable parts and then gradually built up into a cohesive whole.  That’s why it is really important to start at the beginning of this book and do the exercises in the order they are written.  

What I love about the linear style is how relaxed and effortless it sounds and how it adds to the continuous flow of the music.  If you want a consummate example of this style listen to Steve Gadd.  

There are also great sections on other important styles of drumming in Jungle/Drum ‘n’ Bass, including unison style, sixteenth note ghost-notes, and double-bass drumming.  

Here are some suggestions as to how to get more out of Jungle/Drum ‘n’ Bass:
  • practice exercises as written, then go back and practice them with a shuffle or legato feel.  
  • keep time with the high hat while playing the ride cymbal.  Steady half-notes, quarter notes, or eighth notes played with the foot on the high-hat really helps to keep time especially when you are creating a break or a drum solo, where the tendency is to fall out of time in the transition.  (Use ear protection, especially when you are playing on the ride cymbal or the crashes.)
  •   practice all exercises with the R hand on hi-hat or ride cymbal, then switch to L hand on hi-hat or L ride.  Now, why burden oneself with ambidexterity on the cymbals?  It strengthens your left hand;  it allows your right hand freedom to play around the set,  especially on the low tom, while your left hand is keeping time;  and best of all, it it strengthens your right foot - making for a more solid bass drum beat.  That’s because the right foot does the same thing whether R or L is working the cymbals, so the foot gets twice the workout.  

All in all, Jungle/Drum ‘n’ Bass is the closest thing I know of  to a “School of Rock” for aspiring rock drummers .  Practicing the exercises in this book in a graduated manner will eventually give you the precision, timing, creativity, and mastery to be able to play tasteful grooves any time, anywhere.

People may remember a particular rock drummer from the groove that he laid down in one song, but what really makes a good rock drummer is the ability to play a wide variety of grooves and styles with a consistent technical proficiency.