There are tons of resources online now about how to play the drums. In this article I’m going to cut through all of that noise for you. Being a successful drummer comes down to one thing and that’s groove.
How to play drums beginner lessons
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These days, I see so many videos, books and social media posts online with a heavy emphasis on drum fills and complex drum beats. What’s missing is instruction about playing with great groove or feel.
All of my beginning drum students start off learning how to get a nice groove happening. It may not be steady but every student I’ve ever taught was able to get great feel or groove for at least one measure of time.
Once they can play it even for one measure, they learn what it feels like. It’s then a lot easier for them to do it again.
To get that one measure of nice groove in drum lessons, we focus on playing even quarter notes. Almost all great groove can be linked back to the strength of a drummer’s quarter note pulse. The trickiest part of playing great groove is knowing where to play your limbs in relation to the quarter note.
Drumming groove gets the gigs
Of course, drumming is not all about making money but it’s pretty cool when you get paid to play. I’ve been getting paid pretty good to play drums since 1991. My drumming groove is what consistently opens musical doors for me.
Even the best drummers today with their drumming wizardry, can lay down a simple groove that makes you move. If you can get people tapping their toes or clapping their hands, you know your groove is in “the pocket.”
Playing in the pocket is when you are locked in with the other rhythm section players and feeling the groove in the same way. It’s like you morph into the keys, guitar, bass, drums instrument.
When everyone is in the pocket, the band doesn’t sound like individual instruments grooving anymore. Instead the group becomes a collective groove.
A great example of this is the song Sweet Thing by Rufus and Chaka Khan. This tune is a groover. It’s not a complex drum beat but the way it’s played by Andre Fischer just melts into the groove of the other instruments and vocals.
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I play hundreds of live performance and recording session gigs each year. These are opportunities I receive because of my pocket playing seamlessly melds with the other musicians’ playing.
I don’t get them because of my flashy drum fills. Those are like the icing on the cake. In fact, I’ve found that playing fewer drum fills leads to more work. Check out my blog post on the 25% rule to get more gigs. I explain this idea in more detail.
How to improve your groove drumming
So I mentioned before that groove drumming all comes down to a quarter note pulse. In Jazz, you’ve got groove if your quarters on the ride cymbal swing like you’re playing the whole spang-a-lang pattern but without the extra notes.
If you can pare back all of your playing to just quarter notes in any style of music, you’ll quickly discover if you have a nice groove or not.
It can be really humbling to discover your groove ain’t so groovy. Once upon a time, that happened to me. It forced me to focus on that quarter note and improve my groove.
Learn how to play the drums all over again
I want to share a drumming exercise with you that will help you quickly fix your groove. I call it the quarter note pulse exercise. In a way, it’s like re-learning how to play a drum beat you already know.
As I’ve already shared, the quarter note pulse is the glue that binds a band together. If it is felt by all band members in the same way, a pocket can be created.
Try playing a basic Rock drum beat on the drums with a metronome starting at 90 BPM. Play quarter notes on the hi-hat, 2 and 4 on the snare and quarter notes on the kick drum.
Pay very close attention to how your limbs line up. Are they lining up tightly with each other or is there some obvious flamming (when one limb plays before or after another limb) going on?
In the beginning of this type of practice, you want to get all of your limbs lining up pretty tight. Try to make all of your limbs play at exactly the same time and right on the click of the metronome.
Playing behind the beat
Once you’ve got a tight sound, try and move only your snare drum timing slightly after the click of the metronome. We call this “playing behind the beat.”
This is when you will begin to consciously adjust the timing of your limbs in relation to the quarter note. If you want to dive deeper into improving your groove, sign up for a private lesson or two. I’ll be glad to help you get it sorted out.
After you can play this exercise up to about 120 BPM, move on to playing with music. Below is a list of songs that work great:
- Stomp by Brothers Johnson
- Super Freak by Rick James
- Billie Jean by Michael Jackson
- She’s A Bad Mama Jama by Carl Carlton
If you’re really locking in with the musicians in the recorded music, then try and play 8th notes on the hi-hat with an accent on the quarter notes. Play the non-accented notes on with the tip of your stick on the top of the hi-hat cymbal.
See the video below for how to do this.
Check out the Smooth Jazz drumming example below. I’m locking in with the band playing only four quarter notes on the bass drum. This kind of simplicity creates a powerful and supportive groove for the music especially during solos.
You can also do this same type of exercise with Jazz. Here’s another video from one of my gigs where I’m just laying into the quarter note in my ride cymbal Swing groove. I play quarter notes, then spice it up a bit and return to the quarter note.
Backing tracks for drums
Another suggestion to help you improve your groove is to get some backing tracks for drums or drumless tracks (music without the drums). What you need are opportunities to connect your playing with other musicians.
There are some nice drumless tracks out there but most don’t have real musicians playing. Many also sound fun with lots of kicks and fancy arranging but they won’t help you develop your groove. You need simple, groove tracks that will help you find and stay in the pocket.
I’ve created drumless tracks below with real musicians playing to help you improve your groove. Using my quarter note pulse exercise, use these tracks to help you pinpoint your groove issues and fix them.
Practicing your groove with real musician tracks, helps you adjust to little human imperfections in timing that create the pocket. This is just like performing in a live music situation.
The more you can practice playing with other musicians, the better you will become at live drumming. Check out my article about the importance of getting experience in your drumming.
So the truth about how to play the drums is, groove is the most important thing to master. You ability to groove well with other musicians will get you many more playing opportunities than fancy drum fills and solos.
Try my quarter note pulse drum groove exercise. I know in the beginning, it may feel like your’re starting over in some ways. That’s exactly how I felt. Keep at it and you’ll realize what really groovy groove feels like.
It also may not feel exciting to play a simple and effect groove if you’re used to playing beats with many notes. I assure you though, it will pay off.
The more juicy your groove, the more other musicians, audience members, recording engineers and others will notice that your groove is in the pocket. More playing opportunities will also come your way.
Keep on groovin’ and KEEP ON DRUMMIN!
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