Tips on composing drum parts for songs: Part 1

The following fairly complicated question came in, and I thought it might be good to try to air an answer in public. It’s a bit long, so I’ll split the answer in two, with Part 2 to come next time:

Would you mind addressing how you compose a drum part for a song and let us know if you plan everything including fills, breaks and specific patterns that repeat consistently on purpose and become the final part? What is your method and is it the same way you approach composing a song? I saw you rehearsing your composition with the Buddy Rich orchestra and it was brilliant. I guess the bottom line is when you listen to the drum parts in “One more red nightmare” , were those breaks improvised over different takes and you decided that you liked the one that we hear and you re-learned it as the final part or was it totally planned from preproduction of different ideas?

Part 1

I’ve always seen the percussion or drum part for the song as being a stand alone little work of art that, should all the other instruments be silenced and the percussion soloed alone, would still sound unique and interesting. Currently most drummers on pop or rock records do mostly the same thing, based around four beats in a bar, typically with a back-beat, and within an increasingly narrow tempo range. What differences there are, are largely timbral or cosmetic. But strip away the ear-candy, and what you’re hearing is roughly as described above.

I have no set method of finding these parts, but here are several options. The part might arise from practising the instrument. As you’re playing it, a bass part that would work well with bass drum comes to mind. A rhythmic platform is growing. Assign any pitches to the bass, and there will be harmonic implications. If there is a harmonic skeleton forming, it might suggest a melodic movement. If you can’t think of anything, just use the top note of the chords for now. This is effectively building from the ground up. Singer-songwriters tend to write the other way – lyric or melody down.

Let’s assume you’re building a four storey building. We need a foundation and three floors. Let’s say the foundation is the rhythm, the first floor is the bass, the second the harmony, and the top floor is the melody.

Sometimes I’ve gone all the way to the top floor by myself (much of Bruford, much of Earthworks, some Bruford-Levin, most of If Summer Had Its Ghosts). That’s before I got a little smarter, and began to see that I was a) overwriting, and thus b) probably excluding input from others that might be very helpful. Frequently – usually – the instrumentalist you’re working with will have a better idea about what he wants to play on this budding composition than you do.

There may be politics in this, too. It may be important for extra-musical reasons to have your colleagues ‘invest’ themselves into the music by providing parts they want to play and to which they are committed. Assuming it’s your own group, it’s always possible to insist people play things you wrote for them , but seldom wise.

Sometimes an idea for the third and fourth floors of the structure are brought to me (Robert Fripp–Discipline) and I’m able to provide the rhythmic foundation and bass motif to suit. Sometimes the musical ideas are taken from an improvisation, formalised and tweaked, and perhaps extended. (The Sheltering Sky from Discipline: King Crimson). Often I’m working with a good singer like Adrian Belew, and the percussion movement can be entirely dictated by the scansion of the (sometimes sung, sometimes spoken) text. (Dig from Three of a Perfect Pair: King Crimson). Usually the things that come together quickly are the most effective. If it’s like pulling teeth, it probably is pulling teeth.

(To be continued…)

2017-11-22T12:23:45+00:00 March 19th, 2011|