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Create An Arrangement Part 2

1. Now's The Time!

In this installment of the series I tried to take my drum arrangement to the next step by actually playing the "pitches" of the melody.  You can hear the melody played through twice starting around   after the brief introduction.  Although trying to get even a relatively simple melody like this across on the drums is a lot of work, it can can also inspire some really fascinating musical directions in your drumming, so in my opinion it is well worth it.  


Here is the original Charlie Parker melody for reference:


2. How to develop an arrangement

In addition to the overall idea of staying in the character/form of the song discussed in the last post here are some more strategies for developing your own arrangement.  

  • Experiment with different sounds and use those sounds to dictate what/how you play.  For example in my arrangement I start with the open snare/tom sound.  This sound strongly influences my playing lending itself to less cluttered and more melodic style drumming.  After a couple of choruses of that sound I transition into a closed snare sound which leads me to more intense and busy playing that builds intensity. 
  • Use rudiments thematically.  For example listen to how I use flams in this solo.  I am not playing a flam and then moving right on to another rudiment, I am really trying to explore the sound and feel of the flam all around the drum set.  Using rudiments this way can help you develop your solo in an unhurried way.  In general playing an unaccompanied solo like this can make you feel a lot of pressure to play everything you know right away, it is just you up there after all!  So combat this tendency by using rudiments in this fashion.
  • Listen to the greats.  Max Roach springs immediately to mind, but there are many others.  I know I sound like a broken record with this, but the truth is that ear-training is the single most important part of learning the drums.
  • Use call and response.  The idea of playing a simple idea and then responding to that idea is probably the single most common/helpful phrasing technique for drum soloists.  This kind of phrasing not only takes a lot of the pressure of improvising off, it creates a structure that listeners can easily grasp.  Communicating with an audience is always a challenge, particularly when you are talking about drum solos.  The conversational nature of call and response phrasing is perfect for confronting this challenge, so try incorporating it into your solo.
  • Use mistakes and unintended things to grow your arrangement organically.  As you are practicing  you will often stumble across great ideas entirely by accident.  For example initially I meant to turn on the snare and leave it, but it slipped.  When I turned the snare on again I had the idea of alternating between the snare on/off sound.  The truly great improvisers can incorporate these kinds of ideas on the fly, but for right now just think of them as new compositional elements for you to incorporate into your solo over time. 

3. Overall map of my arrangement

Each section or idea usually divides along roughly the lines of the form, hopefully some of these ideas will be useful or inspiring to you!

  • Short intro 
  • Melody twice
  • Solo with pitch
  • With Flams/Pitch
  • Pitches again, but more aggressive and with rolls
  • Alternating between snare on and off sounds
  • Press rolls and cymbal chokes
  • Open playing around the drums
  • Staccato rolls followed by looser rolls with right hand lead
  • Floppy long roll
  • Head out
  • Short outro



Create An Arrangement

Practice by creating an arrangement

I was feeling inspired by a fantastic solo by Jeff Hamilton where he plays a whole arrangement of "Caravan" (it seems to have disappeared from the internet) on the drums, so I thought I would record my own version of "St. Thomas" as well as share some thoughts on how to play an arrangement in this fashion.  Making an arrangement of a song is a great practice tool for internalizing whatever tunes you are working on, soloing more compositionally, and often inspiring some great ideas that you wouldn't have thought of otherwise.

Here are some basic techniques to use when playing an arrangement:

1.  Come up with an overall map of the arrangement

It is important to understand the over-arching structure of the arrangement you are going to play so that you can anticipate what is coming next.  The map of my very basic arrangement goes like this:

  • Brief rubato intro on the cymbals
  • Max Roach inspired latin groove taken from the original Sonny Rollin's recording
  • Melody twice- I tried to match the contour of the melody on the drums
  • Solo section
  • Melody twice again
  • Ending- I tagged the last four bars three times


2.  Stay in the character of the song

In order for this style of solo to come across to an audience you need to spend some time thinking about how to keep your solo in the character of the song.  To accomplish this, when I am soloing I am constantly thinking about the melody of the song (for more on this check out my


about the two songs of jazz).  If you listen carefully to my solo you will hear me referencing the melody, playing off of the call and response structure of the phrases, and also outlining the form of the song.  

This is the most important part of this exercise, and is also the most difficult.  Start with simple ideas that come to you from the melody or structure of the tune and then build off of them.  Often using the most basic call and response style phrases is a great place to start.  Don't worry about trying to play your fanciest, most technical ideas, this isn't really the place for that.  Just play what comes naturally and take your time.  

For more inspiration on how to keep a solo in the character of a song, I would check out Max Roach.  As a matter of fact, his classic solo on "St. Thomas" is a great place to start:

3.  Try to give your solo a shape

Once you start to hear the song in your solo and you are feeling more comfortable, you can begin adding a macro dimension to your solo, a shape.  In the most basic sense you can think of your solo as an arc.  It has to start low and build intensity to some sort of climax before coming back down.  There are different variations of this shape, starting high before coming down and building back up, multiple crests and troughs, ending at a high point, but they all work on the same basic principle of tension and release.  

This deceptively simple phrase basically describes why music works, it builds up tension and then it releases it.  The important thing to take away is that if the shape of your solo is too flat for too long, you will lose your audience.  

There are a number of elements you can manipulate to build tension in your solo including:

  • Dynamics- How loud or soft are you playing?
  • Texture/Orchestration- What parts of the drum set are you using?
  • Note density- How many notes are you playing or not playing?
  • Rhythmic phrasing- Call and response?  Reference to the melody?  A groove?  Rudimental ideas?  

Essentially, the degree to which you use your musicality to control these elements will determine how much tension and release there is in your solo.  This in turn will effect what impact your solo will have on an audience.  

More tension and release = Better solo.  



Newk The Bass Drum

Applying ideas from other instruments

As mentioned in a previous post, here is an exercise from my forthcoming book "Melodic Syncopation" that features Sonny Rollin's solo from "St. Thomas".  Just a friendly heads up, this exercise can be soul-crushingly difficult at first, so take your time!

Max #5.pdf

Just for reference, here is the melody used in the exercise again:



Food For Thought: Rushing

The great bassist Hassan Shakur!

The great bassist Hassan Shakur!

Rushing isn't necessarily bad

Saying that rushing isn't necessarily bad may be a somewhat controversial opinion, but I believe we need to rethink how we use this word.  Here is a simple experiment to illustrate my point: 

1.  Listen to the recording at the top (which features my great teacher Chuck Redd on Vibes, Ehud Asherie on Keys, and Hassan Shakur on Bass) straight through.  Ask yourself how it sounded and felt.  To my ear the whole things sounds pretty good, and the band is swinging throughout.

2.  Now listen again, but this time skip from the head in right to the head out.  We were definitely rushing!

Here is the thing, human beings don't really experience or play music non-linearly.  We can and should only play what feels good in the moment, and in general, what feels good in the moment isn't necessarily metronomically precise.  If we go back and analyze a recording, sometimes what felt good in the moment is essentially a gradual increase in tempo over the course of a song.  In other words, rushing.  I have found that this tendency to rush seems most powerful in a live setting. 

Another more famous example from Max Roach, try doing the same listening experiment:

Again, to my ear this recording sounds great all the way through, but man are they rushing like crazy!

Playing on top of the beat vs. Rushing

There are so many examples of classic recordings like the one above where the playing rushes, but still feels and sounds so great that labeling it as "rushing" seems completely irrelevant.  Many jazz musicians I know talk about playing on top of the beat as opposed to rushing, and I think this terminology makes a useful distinction.  Playing on top of the beat generally means playing with a sense of forward motion by slightly anticipating the quarter note pulse.  In reality, this type of playing often leads to an increase in tempo over the course of the song.  

I think that playing on top of the beat only becomes rushing (and hence a really serious problem) when it happens either so quickly or so dramatically that it disrupts the feel of the music.  In other words, a gradual increase in tempo of over the course of a song like in the examples above wouldn't really be rushing in this scheme, it would just be playing on top of the beat. 

Playing with or without metronomic precision can both produce great music

Let me make an analogy to art.  For most of the history of western art, the primary objective of the artist was to record the visible world as accurately as possible.  The attempt to translate reality onto the canvas produced some of the worlds greatest art and artists.  Look at the incredible attention to detail in this self-portrait by Rembrandt for example:

At some point, artists began to realize that there was more to art than trying to reproduce reality, that art could have other more abstract priorities.  This may or may not have had something to do with the fact that cameras were being invented, and the ability of a person to reproduce reality was being completely overshadowed by this new technology.  But regardless, this increasingly abstracted art also produced some of the worlds greatest art and artists.  Below is another self-portrait, this time by Picasso: 

Even though Picasso's and Rembrandt's paintings clearly do not have the same priorities, both produce a real emotional experience and both are masterpieces.  In a musical context, this means that a piece can have either a very strict or very loose relationship to metronomic precision and still produce a real emotional experience for audiences. 

Sorry, you still have to practice with a metronome

Although this idea would seem to suggest that I don't think practicing with a metronome is very important, this is not at all the case.  I think the skills you develop in pushing yourself to play accurately with a metronome are valuable regardless of whether you play with perfect precision on the bandstand or not.  There are lots of examples of things that you need to practice hard and then essentially forget about when you are playing, and in my opinion playing with a metronome is one such thing. 

The bottom line

There are two main points I want to emphasize:

1.  Music doesn't have to be metronomically precise to feel good.

2.  A gradual increase in tempo over the course of the song that feels good should be referred to as "playing on top of the beat", not "rushing" . 



Winard Harper: This is also what I am talking about

This video of Winard Harper is another in a series of videos of great drummers playing and talking about the importance of melody that I have been bringing up through this blog.  The main things I wanted to highlight in the video are:
Winard at work
  • Starting around 4:33, Winard talks about the importance of learning melodies
  • More specifically (around 5:30) Winard talks about how all the great jazz drummers were "hearing melodies" when they were playing, even if they weren't producing specific pitches.  
  • Winard connects this idea of "hearing melodies" with the even more fundamental idea of "playing musically"
  • As an example of this he talks about Max Roach's playing and how he incorporates Max's ideas into his playing
  • At 6:40, Winard points out that all the great jazz drummers would even sing melody when they were playing, using the examples of Art Blakey, Elvin Jones, and Billy Higgins
  • He goes on to talk about giving the "idea of what the melody is", and shows some great examples of how to do this by singing the melody and playing around it (starts around 7:30, uses "Now's The Time" and "All The Things You Are")
I hope you enjoy this example of Winard's beautiful playing and teaching as much as I do!



Using Melody In A Solo

The melody as the basis for improvisation
In today's post I am going to use my own playing to demonstrate one of the themes of my blog, that is using the melody as the basis for improvising a drum solo.  One of my earliest inspirations for learning to solo using the melody was Roy Haynes' great solo on "In Walked Bud" (if you haven't checked it out already, I have a post about it here).  Some specific examples of how my playing in the video above is melodic are my imitation of the opening phrases of the melody, my use of repetition and space, and finally my adherence to the structure of the form.  If you want to read more about what I mean by melodic drumming, check out the post about Max Roach here.  

Two advantages to melodic soloing
There are a lot of things I love about this approach to soloing, but my favorite part is that it integrates the drum solo into the rest of the song.  From the audiences perspective, this unifying effect can be much more engaging and interesting than a pyrotechnical drum display.  To me, playing this way also makes improvisation flow more naturally, by allowing me to focus on hearing the melody and reacting as opposed to trying to arbitrarily conjure up a solo from scratch. 

Melodies with rhythmic character
Some songs lend themselves to this approach because of their rhythmic character.  Monk and Bird are two of the best composers for drummers because their melodies have such incredibly catchy and sophisticated rhythms.  In today's posts I am playing the great Kenny Barron original "Voyage", another melody that really lends itself well to drummers.  Notice how I use the descending and then ascending opening phrases of the melody throughout my solo.

A big part of what makes a drum solo effective is it's pacing, how it's intensity rises and falls.  In my solo I tried to take advantage of this by tying the pacing to the structure of the song.  Notice how I start off slowly and leave lots of space, only really starting to build up in the last A section of the first chorus.  I then build up through the second chorus before suddenly dropping down at the start of the third chorus.  On the bridge of the third chorus I start a big climactic swell that climaxes at the bridge of the fourth chorus. Starting from such a low spot in the third chorus means that I have lots of space to grow!  From there I bring the solo back down to segue into a brief vamp into the head out. 



Max Roach: Comping as soloing

Comping as soloing
In an earlier post I discussed Max's approach to soloing in a general sense.  In today's post I am going to zero in on a particular solo technique that Max used very frequently, and to great effect.  The technique I am referring to is using comping as a vehicle for soloing.  Essentially for Max this meant soloing using his left hand and right foot while keeping the time going in his right hand and left foot. 

In "Parisian Thoroughfare", the song at the top of the page, you can hear a fantastic example of this type of soloing starting at around 3:59.  Here is a transcription of what Max plays:

Max Comping 4's

Note: The last four bar solo is not an example of comping as soloing, but I included it anyway as it is beautifully played and segues so nicely into his chorus long solo.

Application exercise
To develop this technique, start relatively simple.  Pick a straight forward melody, for example "I've Got Rhythm" and sing the melody while playing time.  Once you feel comfortable doing this, break each eight bar section into two parts.  Sing the melody and play time for four bars in the first part, and then respond with a four bar comping solo in the second.  Play what comes naturally, make sure that whatever you are playing doesn't break up the groove of the ride cymbal, and use the above example (and whatever else you are listening to) as inspiration.  I will try to post a video of myself doing this exercise some time in the near future.

The big advantage to this technique is that it keeps your focus on maintaining the groove while you are improvising a solo.  This is a good habit to get into no matter what context you are soloing in.  Since it is easy to forget about the importance of groove when you are trying to execute complicated ideas, it is a good idea to practice this exercise to counteract this tendency.

Historical perspective
Max, along with Kenny Clarke, was one of the pioneers of bebop drumming.  The elements of bebop drumming that were the most radical departure from the previous swing style were using the ride cymbal to keep time, as well as playing highly syncopated comping rhythms on the snare and bass drum.  These comping rhythms, particularly on the bass drum, were referred to initially as "dropping bombs" because of the element of surprise and drama they added to the music.  So the fact that Max would use his soloing space to highlight some of these radical, new comping rhythms makes a lot of sense. 


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Max Roach: The melody as accents with paraddidles part 2

Getting Consistent Rimshots
Last week I posted exercise #3 from the Max Roach section of my forthcoming book, as well as videos of me playing it at various tempos.  This week, after some hard work and excellent advice from the helpful guys at the Drummerworld discussion forum, I have worked out the final step of the exercise.  In this step I am playing all quarter notes from the melody as rimshots.  Consistent left handed rimshots using traditional grip have been a real struggle for me, so making progress on this was very rewarding.  Here is a video of how it sounds at a medium tempo:

Two useful tips
The suggestion I personally found the most helpful from the Drummerworld discussion was to increase the angle of my snare drum.  In addition, one thing that I discovered really helped me improve my accuracy was to mentally visualize where on the stick I was trying to hit the rim on each rimshot.  Although this can be extremely tedious, I think that this very deliberate mental effort was the only way to really train my brain over time. 

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Max Roach: Paradiddles with the melody as accents

I recently saw a great article on cruise ship drummer about different uses of the ever popular paradiddle.  In the spirit of collegial cooperation I thought I would add my approach to paradiddles into the mix.  

Max Exercise #3 Full

Here is a video of me playing the exercise:

And here is what it sounds like a bit faster:



Max Roach: Melodic Architecture and Phrasing

What makes a drum solo melodic?

Max is widely credited as being the first melodic drum soloist.  One question that I often get after people hear Max's soloing is, "How is that melodic"?  I think that this is actually a really good question, and goes to the heart of what this blog is all about. 

Using the architecture and phrasing of a melody

Unlike the last post about Ari Hoenig where the answer to the question is absolutely clear, since Ari literally plays the melody note for note, Max doesn't usually play melodically in this sense. Instead what he does is use the architecture and phrasing of a melody instrument to create tension and release in his solo.  For example "For Big Sid" from "Drums Unlimited":

The architecture of melody: Form

In this unaccompanied drum solo you can hear these techniques very clearly.  In terms of architecture, Max starts out with a clear statement of the theme or melody of the piece and then repeats it three times, creating two eight bar A sections.   After these A sections, he introduces some new, but thematically related material in an eight bar bridge before returning to the original theme in the final A section.  This AABA song form is a perfect example of using the architecture of a melody to structure a drum solo.  This form also has a built in sense of tension when it moves away from the familiar material of the A section on the bridge, and release when the familiar A section returns after the bridge. 

The larger structure

Max also uses the even larger structure of head-solo-head to organize the entire piece.  In other words, rather than just jumping right into improvisation, he starts and ends with a clear melody and then uses this as the basis for his improvisation. This a fundamental part of how jazz music works in that there is both tension from moving away from the comfortable/recognizable material of the head in the solos, and the release of finally coming back to that material in the final head out. 

The interior design of melody: Phrasing

If architecture is the large scale technique of playing a melodic drum solo, phrasing is the interior design, the smaller scale.  Some specific phrasing techniques that Max uses in this solo include contour, repetition, use of space,  and call and response.  By using all these techniques, Max is able to create an experience of tension and release for the listener that is similar to the experience of listening to a melodic instrument. 


Although the drum set is not a pitched instrument in the traditional sense of the word (that is that it plays frequencies we recognize as musical tones), it does have a clear order of high to low sounds (cymbals down to the bass drum).  With that idea in mind, listen to the shape that Max creates in the A section of this solo.  This simple high to low shape gives this solo a clear contour, just like a melody.  And this contour combined with the rhythm is what makes this theme so distinctive, recognizable, and melodic.        


By starting the solo with a simple statement and then repeating that statement three more times, Max is underlining that this idea is the theme of the solo.  Throughout his soloing, he is also constantly referencing this theme, never straying far enough way that the listener loses sight of it.  This is a big part of the way that Max relates the song of his improvisation to the pre-composed song or melody (see the post "The two songs of jazz" for more on this idea).  Repetition is one of the key techniques that melody instruments use to give a listener something to hold on to.  Having a theme to a solo both gives the listener the satisfaction of recognition, as well as surprise and tension when the expectation of recognition is upset.  Max uses this tension and release to draw the listener into his solo like a masterful melodic player.

Use of space

Max further emphasizes that the initial figure is the theme of the song by leaving space between each statement instead of cluttering things up with flashy fills.  This deliberate pacing also means that his solo has somewhere to go.  In other words, as he builds up the intensity and velocity of his solo, it feels as if the solo has a direction rather than just a static flood of notes.  Once this buildup reaches a climax where the notes are flying by and the tension is at its highest, it is that much more satisfying for the listener to return to the more stately pacing of the opening theme.  This is another way in which Max's soloing shares the principle of tension and release with a melody instrumentalist.  

Call and response

Call and response is the last phrasing technique that I want to highlight.  In the opening theme of the song, the call and response feeling is immediately apparent.  It is somewhat awkward to  describe, but it is definitely clear to the ear.  Listen to how the call ends high on the snare drum, and doesn't feel resolved until the response with the final two low notes on the bass drum.  The entire solo is infused with the feeling of call and response, where the call sets up an expectation or tension, and the response releases that tension.  It is a sort of question and answer structure where the questioning high note isn't resolved until the answers low, solid ending.  


So the answer to the question, "How is that melodic?" is that between his use of the large scale technique of melodic architecture, and the small scale melodic phrasing techniques I have described, Max creates tension and release in his solo just like a melodic instrumentalist would.