BY STEWART JEAN
Ghost notes are the glue and grit, the secret sauce that makes a groove spicier and more intriguing. When you play ghost notes, are you aware of what part of the beat they are landing on? Are you aware of the definition of your ghost notes? Where and how you place ghost notes in a groove can be the X-factor that makes a so-so groove or a killer groove. In this lesson we explore a few “go to” ghost note techniques that will help you to deepen your awareness of and ability to place ghost notes.
Play a simple 2 and 4 beat at a comfortable tempo. Add a ghost note to the “ah” of beats 2 and 4 so it precedes the bass drum (Ex. 1).
Move that sixteenth-note ghost note over to the last thirty-second-note before the downbeat (Ex. 2).
Double that thirty-second-note to become two thirty-second-notes notes essentially “dragging” into the own beat (Ex. 3).
Lay back on the thirty-second-notes to create a small grouping of two sixteenth-note triplets (Ex. 4).
Go back to the single sixteenth-note on the “ah” of 2 and 4, but play it as a buzzed note (Ex. 5).
Play four bars of each stylized ghost note. Once you are comfortable with that start to mix them up at random.
Stewart Jean is Program Chair for Drums at Musicians Institute in Hollywood, CA.
What are drums’ ghost notes?
A ghost note is a musical note that has a rhythmic value but doesn’t have a distinctive pitch when it’s played.
Ghost notes are also known as “dead notes,” “muted notes,” or “false notes.” They shouldn’t be confused with the “grace” notes, however.
A grace note is shorter than the principal note it ‘graces,’ but it often receives a greater emphasis, despite the fact that it is a much shorter note.
To put it another way, while a grace note can be ghosted, note ghosting is a function of volume rather than length.
When it comes to drumming, the ghost notes are played extremely softly between the main accented notes, usually on a snare drum.
Although quiet, the ghost note should be heard under the main sound of the groove, surrounding a strong backbeat or specific accents with a delicate 16th-note vibe.
How do you notate a ghost note?
If you are wondering how to find the ghost note in a music sheet, it’s pretty simple, although they have similarities with the regular notes.
The key difference is that the ghost note is notated with an “X” sign instead of the oval shape of the note.
In percussion sheet music, they appear as a note head separated by parentheses, and they are played softly between accented beats.
The common term for percussion ghost notes is “anti-accent,” and there are various anti-accent marks that show gradation more precisely.
Some of the different variations of the ghost notes for drums are:
- ◡ (breve) – played a little bit softer than the surrounding notes
- ( ) (the note head is in parentheses) – significantly softer than the surrounding notes
- [ ] (the note head is in square brackets) – a lot softer than the surrounding notes
From whole notes to half notes to quarter notes to eighth notes to sixteenth notes and beyond, ghost notes can occur for any rhythmic duration.
Why do drummers use ghost notes?
The purpose of the ghost notes in drumming is to create color and texture in the groove. Drummers use them to create more complex drum beats and contrast in drumming.
Ghost notes are particularly popular in funk and jazz music because they add diversity and create the funky sound of the drums. Also, they are a distinguishing characteristic of R&B music.
Frankly speaking, ghost notes find their use in various arrangements and can be heard in the works of different drummers across almost all genres.
If you would like to hear some examples of the ghost notes, you can find them in the drumming of many famous percussionists such as Harvey Mason, David Garibaldi, Bernard Purdie, and others.
A particular example of the well-used ghost notes can be heard in the hit song “Rosanna” by the American rock band Toto, played by the legendary drummer Jeff Porcaro.
Or, if you are more into funk music, play “Cold Sweat” by James Brown, and you will hear the distinct role of the ghost notes we talk about.
How do you play ghost notes on the snare?
Ghost notes are mostly used on a snare frum but can also be played on the other instruments in the kit. If you want to learn how to play ghost notes on the snare, start with practicing to play at a lower volume.
Stroke the snare drum from a lower point than you would usually with the regular accented note. You should place your drumstick 1.5 inches above the drum head. Try practicing the soft stroke so that note is much quieter than the accent.
The tricky part is combining the ghost notes with the regular notes. You will need to switch between low and high strokes while you play, which can be difficult at first.
Playing the accented note after the ghost note should be easier, but the hard part is another way around. The key part is keeping control over your stroke, starting with the properly-established technique.
When you are playing a ghost note after the accent, your stick will tend to bounce back, but you need to stop it. You need to keep the drumstick close to the drum head and tighten up your wrist so you can keep the stick low.
It could be hard to achieve at the beginning, but once you gain control over your drumstick and manage to coordinate your moves, you can master the ghost notes.
How do you improve ghost notes on drums?
If you want to improve ghost notes on drums and develop a proper technique, there are some simple tricks that can help you with that.
Play the beats with many ghost notes and work on them until you are completely comfortable with the move.
Start with some paradiddles and practice the ghost notes with both hands. Make sure that your accents really pop while making the ghost notes almost inaudible.
Practice groove patterns on the hi-hat with a hand-to-hand sixteenth-note in a short and repetitive rhythmic pattern as the right hand play the backbeats.
Then, play the same patterns with your right hand on the hi-hat and snare while your left hand gently strikes the snare.
Rolls with many strokes, such as 5-stroke or 6-stroke rolls, may be beneficial. Play the entire roll at a low dynamic level, then add accents to different areas of the roll as your stronger notes.
If you are a drummer who usually crossovers the right hand to reach the hats, try not to lift up your right hand. Lift up your hi-hat stick to provide room for the big stroke as you play the accented hit.
If you want to make sure you are doing it right, record yourself playing. If you can barely hear the ghost notes – you are on the right path!
It can also be helpful if you play in front of the mirror so you can see your drumstick’s height while practicing.
To wrap up, the ghost notes are unaccented notes which improve the variety of the drum bit and generally give a funky and playful sound to the music.
In drumming, ghost notes are usually played on the snare drum, while they can be played on the other parts of the kit too.
The key move when playing the ghost notes on the drum is the control over the drumstick’s bounce while softly striking the drum head. It can be achieved if you place your drumstick closer to the drum than you would when playing the accented notes.
It might be hard to achieve the smooth and controlled playing of the ghost notes in combination with the accented ones. As most drumming techniques require, you need to practice persistently and thoroughly.
With some helpful exercises and dedicated practice of rudiments, you will be able to master them eventually. And when you master them, the ghost notes will flow smoothly, and you will feel their full playfulness.