BY JOHN NATELLI
The time and place that saw Stewart Copeland’s emergence was in the midst of an artistic cleansing. Punk had its grip on London and was attempting to exorcise rock and roll of an increasing tendency toward artistic self-indulgence. Ever more complex musical forms and extended soloing were beginning to distance much of rock’s original demographic from the music, and audiences were finding it harder and harder to relate to the often-excessive lifestyles and eccentric behavior of its practitioners.
Copeland had recently parted ways with the progressive outfit Curved Air and began to see promise in the burgeoning punk scene. By early 1977 he was rehearsing with his newly formed group, The Police, who were about to quickly outgrow the stylistic constraints of the very scene that had just given birth to them.
It’s fair to say that by the end of that decade Copeland had developed a sound so fiercely distinct that his playing had become as recognizable as John Bonham’s had been ten years earlier. Of course, the music industry was a much different place then; the possibility of an artistic innovator being a contributing member of the undisputedly biggest band in the world still existed. Yet, it seems that Copeland’s impact would have been just as strong and immediate regardless of the era in which he’d emerged.
1. FIND YOUR INSTRUMENT AND STICK WITH IT
To some extent, every great player’s ability to develop and maintain his or her own sound depends partly on a meticulous choice of gear. While some choose to keep a large arsenal of items in rotation, others develop one highly specialized setup that works to emphasize their natural abilities. Copeland, claiming to have used the same exact snare drum on all five of the Police’s studio albums, is an example of the latter. That legendary drum, “of unknown provenance” as Copeland has claimed, having been exactly reproduced by the metallurgists at Tama as a 14″ x 5″ chrome-over-brass with a 1.5mm-thick shell, accompanied more or less the same Tama Imperialstar and Paiste outfit for the better part of the drummer’s recorded legacy. Copeland, Tama’s longest-standing endorser, evidently found exactly what he was looking for in the company’s product early on in his career: extreme durability and just the right tone for his musical voice. So while the production techniques may differ from one Police record to the next — from Zenyatta Mondatta’s dry, close-miked sound, to the ultra-crisp punchiness of Synchronicity — the gear remains largely the same.
2. ABSORB YOUR SURROUNDINGS
Not everybody is lucky enough to have grown up in places like Egypt and Lebanon with the exotic rhythms of the Middle East slowly making an irreversible imprint on their subconscious. Copeland’s musical instincts, partially as a result of having spent his formative years in Beirut, were culled from a variety of sources as disparate as American pop, traditional Lebanese music, and big band. But it was reggae more than anything else that, for Copeland, united rock and roll with the drop rhythms and missing beats of the Arabic grooves he had heard as a child. By the time punk exploded in London in 1977, Copeland happened to be in the right place at the right time, and immediately found an outlet for his fierce intensity as a player.
3. BLAZE YOUR OWN TRAILS
Far and away, Copeland has been one of the most successful pop musicians at internalizing his influences and tastefully reflecting them in his own work. It’s clear to all fans of The Police that reggae and its related styles, as well as jazz, had a profound impact on his approach to the instrument. The uniqueness of his story is that, while much of what Copeland plays may be informed in some way or another by these styles, it rarely sounds as if he’s actually playing either. He manages to come away from his influences with specific technical and musical aspects that appeal to him, while leaving some of the more identifiable characteristics of those styles behind. As a result, this method of picking and choosing has only worked to strengthen Copeland’s own personal style into something completely original and inimitable. What we wind up with is a body of work that constantly challenges our notions of what rock music could be by having absolutely no regard for boundaries whatsoever. The Police’s music of embodies this sense of fearlessness right from the very beginning with the band’s earliest hit, “Roxanne” — rock’s first tango.
4. EMBRACE THE SMALLER THINGS
At a time when record engineers were trying their hardest to make drums sound as huge as possible and people were attempting to use 14″ and 16″ floor toms as their rack toms, Copeland was headed in the exact opposite direction. Instead, he looked to achieve volume and projection with smaller, tightly tensioned drums and higher-pitched, quicker-speaking cymbals. Among other things, he was able to do this with his 13″ hi-hats and the help of Tama’s innovative 1978 creation: Octobans, a set of eight (octo) 6″-diameter, single-headed drums distinguished by long, tube-like shells of varying lengths, which determined the pitch of each drum. Copeland made profuse use of, and did much to popularize, these and other similarly new products debuting at the time, such as the splash cymbal. Inspired by a mini toy cymbal he had acquired, Copeland even helped encourage Paiste to develop its first version of a modern splash (one that could withstand the abuse he was known to inflict upon his unlucky gear). Zenyatta Mondatta’s “Driven To Tears” features prominent use of both splash and Octoban.
5. DISCOVER YOUR VOICE AND BUILD A VOCABULARY
In many Police recordings the hi-hat seems to be the main percussive voice through which Copeland is able to sing his rhythms — perhaps even the centerpiece of his kit. A number of his most popular performances were anchored by hi-hat parts that have so much character they seem to be a member of the group. What’s more, the 13″ hi-hats Copeland chose to record with were a particularly special ingredient in the music, speaking in a clear, high voice with lots of attack, and always cutting right through the mix. Not only did they have their own unique sound, but they also allowed him to articulate certain figures in a way in which other hi-hats might not have been as well suited (another example of Copeland’s excellent choice in gear that works to emphasize his playing style and natural abilities). As in speech, when people tend to favor certain words and phrases over others, these figures can be thought of as rhythmic words in Copeland’s musical vocabulary. More than any other “word,” Copeland really likes to say the one in Ex. 1 (notated along with its inversion). It can also be seen in the second full bar of Ex. 2b, and famously introduces the hit “Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic.” Much of his legendary hi-hat work relies heavily upon this figure and its various displacements.
Tama Starclassic Maple (Blue Sparkle Finish)
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6. ACQUIRE AN ACCENT
It’s no secret that Copeland has a certain fondness for decorating a groove in all manner of accents. Sometimes they contribute to a very specific pattern, or “part,” as in the case of the chorus groove in “Don’t Stand So Close To Me,” where the ride bell provides a paradiddle-inspired hook (Ex. 2a). In many other instances, though, these accents are distributed throughout phrases rather spontaneously, adding to the often impulsive, off-the-cuff feeling that a Copeland performance can create. This tends to have the added effect of blurring the lines between groove and fill. Take a look at the passage that opens “Demolition Man,” where Copeland intersperses tricky hi-hat work with random accents on the bell of a crash (Ex. 2b). Also notice the sheer variety of ideas happening in the span of those four bars; at first glance each measure seems as if it could belong to its own song. When others attempt this type of playing on a pop recording, they run the risk of coming off as too busy, even distracting. In Copeland’s case, though, this type of unrestrained musical expressiveness sounds as natural and honest as a simple backbeat.
7. GET OVER ONE
This could be the single most defining element of Copeland’s rhythmic sensibilities: The man never fails to take the listener off guard with his unforgiving treatment of beat 1 of the first measure of any given phrase. While the rest of us, in all likelihood, are choosing to end every phrase with the same tired fill followed by a bass/crash on the first beat of the next, Copeland instead goes right into beat 1 with a tasty hi-hat flourish, or perhaps an accented hi-tom, or perhaps he plays right up to the edge of beat 1 with something more intense, and then leaves us suspended with a big, gaping hole where we would expect that huge downbeat accent we’re so used to hearing. Oftentimes, he chooses to shift the dynamic climax of a fill to the & of 4, leaving 1 blank before he kicks back in with the groove. Once you become comfortable with this concept, you will find that you have discovered one of the major keys to Copeland’s approach to rhythm in general. In fact, his playing is so colored with this technique that you could arguably find an example of it in almost every recorded Police song. Ex. 3a, 3b, and 3c illustrate some very memorable instances of this.
8. IMPLY OTHER METERS
The good thing about the existence of time signatures is that they provide endless opportunities to color outside the lines. In other words, like rules, it seems the only real purpose they serve is to be broken. Copeland favors what are known as “three-over-two” and “three-over-four” polyrhythms. The three-over-two — sometimes referred to as a “hemiola” — works by taking a passage with a 6/8 two-feel and superimposing a three-feel on top of it by implying 3/4 (or vice versa). The groove that introduces the superb “Murder By Numbers” does exactly that (Ex. 4a), albeit in 12/8 (so we would need to cut the measures in half before attempting to examine it). In the span of half of one of those 12/8 bars, the right hand and bass drum play a strong two-feel, or dotted quarter pulse, yet the rim-click pattern in the left hand clearly outlines triple meter with a quarter-note pulse. Brilliantly arranged, these roles are shuffled around in the chorus, where the bass drum picks up the three-feel against the two-feel now in the hands. Ex. 4b shows two measures of this rearrangement plus another example of the three-over-two polyrhythm, this time in the context of a fill as opposed to a groove. The three-over-four polyrhythm on the other hand creates a whole different effect by accenting every third eighth-note in a 4/4 passage. This technique is most effectively used when extended over the span of a couple of bars, as in Ex. 4c, where Copeland does this with a crash cymbal at the end of a phrase. He purposefully puts the first crash/accent on the & of 1, knowing that two bars later he’ll be able to conveniently end the polyrhythm on the downbeat of 1 of the new phrase.
9. LIBERATE YOUR RIGHT FOOT
Of all his drummerly attributes, Copeland’s right foot may be the least discussed. While his bass drum playing does not necessarily define his sound, there are, as expected, some definite Copelandisms to consider. Ex. 5, from the chorus of “Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic,” reveals a couple of interesting things. To begin with, Copeland’s right foot tends to assert strong independence from his right hand, especially during groove material. Notice how the ride cymbal accents sit right up in counterpoint against the bass/snare pattern. Explore this passage more in depth by slowing down the tempo and isolating the ride part. Then do the same thing with the bass/snare pattern (paying close attention to the bass drum’s accents and ghost notes). You’ll discover that the two parts share little in common but create a nice obstinate effect when put back together. Another characteristic here — and this may or may not be conscious for Copeland — is that he frequently plays his right foot at three distinct dynamic levels within any given phrase: soft, normal, and loud (notated as ghost, standard, and accented notes). While this isn’t the most glamorous point of analysis, with a little focus it has the ability to enhance the sophistication of anyone’s feel in a much more subtle way than, say, adding more notes.
10. TAKE CLICHÉS AND TURN THEM ON THEIR HEAD
Sometimes musicians will inadvertently reveal a sense of humor through their playing. One can sense that, when seated behind a drum set, Copeland’s famously dry wit is never too far away. Among his more clever pastimes is to take some of the staples of rock drumming — the basic backbeat, the descending tom fill, and so on — and play them all wrong. What else could be the motivation behind the inside-out grooving of “Reggatta De Blanc” (Ex. 6a), where Copeland plays a typical half-time feel no less than a full beat behind the rest of the band? I’m sure we all remember hearing “Reggatta De Blanc” for the first time and scratching our heads at this simple rhythmic illusion, not to mention the thoroughly disorienting rim-click fiasco that opens the track (even with Copeland counting us off). Other tomfoolery can be seen in places like the transition out of every chorus in “Wrapped Around Your Finger” (Ex. 6b). As if in reverse, this fill begins at the lowest point in the kit and ends at the very top with a splash and moves into beat 1 with a hissing open hi-hat.