Chart and Listen
Learning to write your own drum charts is a habit you should develop whether you're currently a working drummer or a hope-to-be working drummer. Why? I'm glad you asked!
Whether you work with the same band every night or freelance (that is, work with different bands), there are many benefits to writing your own charts.
Most drum charts (even so-called professional ones) are poorly written for drums. They usually offer nothing more than the bare "kicks" that you need to accent with the rest of the band. And charts that even attempt to show rhythmic patterns for the drum set are often incorrect.
For these reasons, whether they give you a drum chart or not, you should learn to write your own.
The Homemade Drum Chart
Suppose you've got a new song to work on. If you get a chart, use it as a base to create your own. If not, you can write your own from scratch.
First, sketch out the entire song on a blank piece of paper. If there is an intro, include the intro on your chart but don't fill in any notes yet. That will come later. (Instead of using blank paper, you may want to download the blank drum chart template that I use. Feel free to download and make copies of it to fill-in for your homemade charts. Also, see the sidebar for my article Homemade Drum Charts.)
Next, sketch out the remainder of the song. Make a notation above each section for the Verse, Chorus, Bridge, etc. Then, if someone wants to take it from the "Bridge," you'll know right where to go. Also, make a note of any Solo sections. (Hopefully, there'll be a drum solo somewhere in there for you.) Once you've finished sketching out the entire song, it's time to go back and add the details.
Rehearsal's Where It Happens
If you've rehearsed with many bands before, you'll realize that rehearsal is a time for change. Parts will be added and cut until the band settles on the proper arrangement. The same is true for your drumbeat. The music may give you an idea of what type of beat to play for the song, but the exact pattern is something that you will experiment with and refine as you play the song with the rest of the band. This is where your hearing comes in.
You have to listen carefully to what the others are playing and try to fit your drum pattern into their rhythmic flow, like fitting a piece into a puzzle.
At this point, your drum chart should consist simply of a page or more of empty measures with notations written above each group of measures identifying them as belonging to the Intro, Verse, Chorus, Bridge, or Solo section. You should also have a metronome tempo marking and basic musical style designation marked down. Now comes the fun part.
Listen to the Rhythm Section
The first time you play the song, listen to the bass player. If there is no bass player, listen for the keyboard player to be playing the missing bass line. If the keyboard player isn't covering the bass line, quit the band. (I'm only partially kidding here!) A band without a bass is a band without heart and without soul. OK, at the very least, it's a band without BOTTOM and without B*LLS! Anyway, let's assume that your band does have a bass player.
You and the bass player need to complement each other, not compete with each other. The drummer should follow the bass player's basic rhythmic patterns and vice versa. Not exactly note for note, but close. This gives the rest of the band a solid foundation that they can build on.
The next band member that you should listen to is the keyboard player. If there is no keyboard, listen to the rhythm guitar. Your rhythmic pattern should not be in conflict with the rhythm guitar part. If your band includes a percussionist, you must also fit in with what he or she is playing. Actually, both of you need to be careful not to step on each other's toes. Once you have your basic drum pattern, write it down on your chart.
I can't stress the "listening" factor enough. How many drummers have you heard who play great (by themselves), but sound awful when playing with a band? That's because they don't listen to anyone but themselves.
You can be the greatest drum soloist in the world but to sound great with a band, you must become a team player. You must listen carefully to what the other members of the band are playing and complement each of them.
"Cut" With The Band
Once you've connected with the rhythm section, you can concentrate on the accents or "cuts" that you must make with the rest of the band. Write these cuts on your chart so you won't have to remember where they are. (If you're lucky enough to have a supernatural memory, you may skip this step.)
Your drum chart should now contain the following:
- Tempo written as a metronome marking.
- Basic musical style (Jazz, Funk, Samba, etc.)
- Outline of entire song written in measures.
- Musical sections marked above their corresponding measures: Intro, Verse, Chorus, Bridge, and Solo.
- Your basic drum pattern written in detail.
- All "cuts" you must make with the band.
If the song has a vocal line, you might want to write in a few of the more important lyrics, especially if they are critical to what you are playing in the song.
Also, unless you are unlucky enough to be in a band that insists that you play the exact same fills in the same places in the same songs every time (can you tell that I was once in such a band?), you should never write your exact fills on the drum chart. Simply write the word "fill" in the appropriate place on your chart and let your creative juices flow!
Easy Does It
When writing your own drum charts, make sure they are legible from a distance and easy to understand. Don't include any complicated repeats or codas that can easily be missed in the heat of battle. It's better to write a chart that's a little bit longer and easier to follow than it is to write one that it's easy to get lost in. (If you don't know what I mean by repeats and codas, take a look at my Tiger Reading lessons in the sidebar on this page.)
Once you have a collection of homemade drum charts, I suggest you alphabetize them by song title and keep them all in one place. This will give you instant access to your entire "book." Don't forget to make at least one set of backup copies, in case they get lost or stolen.
If you feel that reading music on stage looks less than professional, you have two choices: Memorize every song that your band will ever play or use your charts to guide you without making it look obvious. I've never used a music stand on a gig. When I need to read a chart, I simply keep it out of sight of the audience (usually on a low, inconspicuous trapcase). Go with whatever works for you.
Good Charts & Good Ears Are Hip
Even if you don't intend to use drum charts on the gig, I still recommend that you write them and use them in rehearsal. Charts can really help you visualize the song structure and get you thinking about the important fills and cuts in the song. And there's the all-important ear training that begins in rehearsal and carries into the gig.
The ability to "listen" to the other members of your band is what will take you out of the ranks of the average drummer, and put you into that elite group of team players. A simple thing like good homemade drum charts and good ears can help you develop the ability to take any song, whether cover or original, and make it truly your own.
Until next time: Stay loose.