BY JOHN NATELLI
It was the ambitious fourth album by the English band Yes — a group of slightly nerdy, absurdly skilled art-rockers — that first turned the ears of the world toward the rhythmic individualism of Bill Bruford. The record was called Fragile, and rarely have the drums on a recording made such an immediate impression on generations of first-time listeners. The music was equally impressive, both in scope and execution — the tense, prog-funk grooving of “Roundabout,” the dizzying intro to “Heart Of The Sunrise,” and that incredible snare sound that could only be described as a sort of dry, punchy bonk
All would be canonized as prime examples of what had then become known as “progressive rock,” a term loosely applied to a highly diverse set of bands aspiring to move beyond the structures and conventions of the standard blues-rooted rock that had dominated the airwaves since the early ’60s. Yes was the first of these acts to achieve true mainstream appeal, although Bruford would only stick around a little longer before making the first in a series of career moves that by anyone’s terms would be considered adventurous, if perhaps a little risky. He had it figured out, though. His restlessness and pioneering instincts gave us a body of work astounding in its variety of achievements (and collaborators).
To examine Bruford’s contribution to drumming by simply compiling a list of “Brufordisms” is to diminish his legacy. Like the greatest of composers, the merits of this legacy are most apparent when his work is viewed holistically, rather than as separate achievements. After all, these techniques and innovations were not consciously devised independently of one another. They evolved as a style over time, forging one of rock’s truly unmistakable musical voices, which has modeled artistic integrity of the highest degree for the past 40 years and reflects the true personality of its owner. His prose, in fact, reads much like his drumming: meticulously crafted, yet never sounding belabored; complex, yet totally reasonable. To state it plainly, Bruford has been very successful in striking the perfect balance between brainy and badass.
1. THE GROOVES
From his legendary up-tempo lope with Yes, to his more fusion-influenced patterns of the late ’70s (see Exs. 2a, 2b, 2c), hard grooving is one of Bruford’s undeniable strengths as a rock drummer. Even the most straightforward of his earlier rock-era grooves seem to have a little extra springiness to them. Aside from the man’s inimitable feel, a few small embellishments help to create this effect. The most characteristic (and ordinary) of these is a simple sixteenth-note in the bass drum just before the snare whacks a backbeat (Ex. 1a). This little gesture can be heard frequently throughout Bruford’s entire catalog, right up to the recent “From The Source, We Tumble Headlong,” from In Two Minds, his collaboration with keyboardist Michiel Borstlap. As unremarkable as it may seem, it’s a trademark of his feel. The addition of a subtly ghosted breakbeat pattern adds even more texture and spring, as seen in “Yours Is No Disgrace” (Ex. 1b, from The Yes Album by Yes) and “Siberian Khatru” [(Ex. 1c, from Fragileby Yes). The classic “Roundabout” has a similar feel with a slightly different construction (Ex. 1d).
2. THE SNARE (CLOSE TO THE RIM)
The sound of Bruford’s drums are as much a part of the records he has recorded as the music, and the most unique and noticeable voice in this kit is the sound of the snare drum. It is one of legendary distinction, sought after by many, but never quite replicated. In fact, “Bill’s Bonk” seems to be less the result of any particular piece of magical gear than the manner in which he played those items (various Ludwig Supra-Phonics and Supersensitives — no surprises there). According to Bruford, the task of contending with his colleagues’ amps in the days before drum mikes resulted in him firing his rimshots at around the halfway point between the center of the head (tuned “fairly tight”) and the rim to produce more ring. Bruford is a lifelong believer in the au naturel school of mixing: drumheads are not to be dampened or muted because the overtones will properly absorb into the mix with the other instruments, creating a livelier and more organic-sounding record. In his words: “Crap idea, if you think about it. I just let my drums ring, and those harmonics are part of the music, as any idiot now knows.” A comprehensive inventory of Bruford’s gear by era can be found at billbruford.com/equipment.
3. THE PARADIDDLES
For Bruford, and many others, the paradiddle and its permutations provide a sort of vocabulary of stickings that allow us to explore more complex rhythmic territory. (For example, the handy RLRLRRL and RLRLRLL stickings help you to play in 7/4 by allowing you to begin each new phrase on the right hand.) Bruford has been able to exploit the endless usefulness of figures like these to a high degree in much of his playing, providing the seed for some of his most celebrated material.
Examples 2a, 2b, and 2c are all taken from three different performances of the fusion-y 9/8 workout “Beelzebub.” The first is the original studio recording from his 1978 solo debut, Feels Good To Me, the second taken from the Earthworks rendition heard on the Magna Carta label’sDrum Nation Vol. One (2004), and the third comes from a Bruford clinic at Mohawk College in Hamilton, Ontario in 2006. Notice how he uses a distinctly different pattern for each, yet relies heavily on paradiddles for all three. Bruford is also particularly fond of the paradiddlediddle. To this day, the entirety of Yes’ “Heart Of The Sunrise” remains perhaps the greatest recorded document of one man’s ability to creatively and musically incorporate this rudiment into a piece of music. The passages in Ex. 2d are taken from this masterpiece. Similarly orchestrated figures are plentiful in the King Crimson song “Easy Money” from Larks’ Tongues In Aspic record (Ex. 2f).
4. THE SEXTUPLETS
Swift, single-stroke sextuplets have always been a reliable choice for Bruford as textural material during a fill. As a result we hear them quite commonly in his playing. Oftentimes he seems to enjoy the rhythmic contrast of following and/or preceding these with straight sixteenth-notes, as in the gripping opening phrase of “Heart Of The Sunrise” (Ex. 2d) as well as other moments in that song (Ex. 3a). Ex. 3b shows a similar application, also preceded by straight sixteenth-notes and further enhanced with an accent pattern. It is from yet another live version of “Beelzebub,” this one from a 1979 performance captured on The Bruford Tapes (each recording of this tune is unique from the others). Example 3c is his clever orchestration of a sextuplet between the hi-hat, snare, and kick, also from “Heart Of The Sunrise.”
5. THE METERS
Bruford’s facility with odd meters has come to define much of his work. This can be somewhat attributed to his often brutally discerning choice of collaborator. But it’s also very much the result of his status as the first rock drummer to explore odd meters while working within the format of a “pop vocal group,” as he described Yes in his 1982 instructional drum video. Evidently one of the first of its kind, Bruford And The Beat features the drummer explaining the genesis of his famously off-kilter groove from the hypnotic title track off King Crimson’s 1981 albumDiscipline (Ex. 4a). Inspired by a left-handed Swiss triplet, the phrase comprises 17 sixteenth-notes — which would make the time signature 17/16 — tethered to quarter-notes on the bass drum. Think of this as a measure of 4/4 with an extra sixteenth-note tacked on the end. Because of this extra note, the right foot won’t fall on the first downbeat of the phrase for another four measures (i.e., it will take four measures before those extra sixteenth-notes add up to another quarter-note). Another great example of Bruford’s gift for odd grooving is from “In The Dead Of Night” by uber-virtouso prog unit U.K. (Ex. 4b, from their eponymous debut).
6. THE POLYRHYTHMS
It’s only natural to hear Bruford and “polyrhythms” mentioned in the same breath (this is, after all, the man who drummed on the finest output from King Crimson, a group that spent entire LPs exploring the concept). Nonetheless, the association should not be taken for granted. While greats like Tony Williams and Elvin Jones had spent the ’60s coloring their post-bop with these clever rhythmic illusions, Bruford — certainly influenced by the aforementioned — was one of the first drummers to use the technique extensively in the rock idiom. Specifically, he likes to imply polyrhythms by the use of specific orchestrations around the kit within a phrase of otherwise typically subdivided beats. This can be heard a number of times on the King Crimson album Red, particularly in “One More Red Nightmare” and the title track, where he repeatedly outlines a 3:2 polyrhythm with a pattern orchestrated around the toms and ride (Ex. 5). The effect would be lost here if the same rhythm, single-stroke sextuplets, was played on only a single piece of the kit.
7. THE DISPLACEMENT OF THE BACKBEAT
Another clever technique in Bruford’s arsenal — no doubt the direct result of frequently playing odd-metered music — is his practice of displacing the backbeat in a groove. A rhythmic illusion of sorts, this has the disorienting effect of making it seem like your LP just skipped. In a live performance of his composition “Sample And Hold,” from a 1979 New York City radio broadcast, Bruford pulls this one a couple of times successively while the rest of Bruford (the band) churn out a dizzying melody with contrapuntal bass (Ex. 6a). Whether these are definite meter changes embedded in the composition or just the playful whim of our tricky hero is not completely obvious. Does it matter, though? We’re left with our heads spinning either way. Sometimes Bruford is able to create the opposite effect by declining to adjust the backbeat while the rest of the group transitions from one odd-metered phrase into the next. This occurs right before the turnaround during the guitar/keyboard “hook” in “Siberian Khatru” shortly before both meet up at the beginning of the new phrase (Ex. 6b).
8. THE BREAKS
Considering all the discussion of his virtuosity on the instrument, it should be noted that for most of any given song Bruford is fairly keen to lay low and lock into a groove (even if it’s in 17/16 and polyrhythmic). This inclination of his to serve the song makes the busier moments only that much more exciting. Occasionally he finds his window and takes the opportunity to teach both his kit and you a lesson not soon to be forgotten. Examples 7a, 7b, and 7c represent a small collection of these often dazzling moments.
9. THE SYMMETRICAL KIT
Just as Bruford’s career evolved through the years, so did the drums he played, until his endless craftiness and innovation joined forces in the late ’90s to produce the Bruford original: the symmetrical drum set. This configuration consists of a remote hi-hat placed due north of the snare with two toms and two cymbals equidistantly positioned on each side. The toms are placed flat with a gentle inward curve, similar to a set of timpani, and are purposefully arranged to avoid the descending pitch order of a typical setup. Bruford credits his design with a more comfortable playing experience as well as enhanced musical possibilities: “This makes for some nice combinations [and] interesting phrasing.” Ex. 8 contains excerpts from a 2005 Earthworks performance of “The Wooden Man Sings And The Stone Woman Dances” in Paderborn, Germany. The phrases demonstrate the possibilities of this unique kit.
10. THE MASTERY OF THE DOWNBEAT
Of the true holy grails of drumming, the ability to take extended metric excursions while maintaining a firm awareness of the downbeat can often prove the most elusive. At the risk of sounding a bit too admiring, it must be acknowledged that Bruford has simply mastered this concept. While every album in his catalog verifies this claim, the most compelling piece of evidence is a YouTube video of Bruford soloing over the King Crimson’s “Indiscipline” vamp at his 2006 drum clinic at Mohawk College. For the three-and-a-quarter minutes, he modulates around various pulses, manipulating the audience’s sense of downbeat with the skill of a magician and a look on his face like he’s trying to solve a riddle. Occasionally he returns to the downbeat, following it with a brief rest to remind them what planet they’re on. Then he’s off again, ad-libbing material that cannot be rationally analyzed in terms of meters, pulses, and polyrhythms. Ex. 9 illustrates a few of these moments and how they relate to the 4/4 “Indiscipline” rhythm that accompanies them. All are taken from the YouTube post titled “Bill Bruford — Indiscipline,” which must be seen to be believed.