Mental Chops: 12 Guided Exercises in Drumming Improvisation

By Gino Robair

“Play a rose.”

If you had taken lessons from Paul Motian, this might’ve been the first thing he asked you to do. The message? If you are going to play the drums musically, you must learn to express yourself in ways that reach beyond the rudiments and mere timekeeping.

Improvisation can be the impetus that helps you expand your musicality beyond the patterns taught in drumming method books. Despite what you saw in Whiplash, there’s more to drumming than Olympic-style competition where speed and precision are prized over taste and musicality. World-class artists will often tell you that what you say is more important than how nimbly you say it.

In this article, we will examine ways in which improvisation can be used to free yourself of old habits and take your playing into new and uncharted territory. The following exercises can be done in the privacy of your practice room or brought into places where disruption will help get the creative juices flowing—the recording studio, a songwriting session, and even on the bandstand.

Improvisational Strategies

In order to open ourselves to some new possibilities of creative expression, I have assembled a collection of strategies designed to facilitate improvisation without a reliance on song structure, timekeeping, or the other formal elements we typically use. I have also included examples that relate to each exercise and show how the concept has been applied in real-world situations.

As you work through the material, focus on the process and exploration, rather than tangible results; the journey is what is most important here. We learn a lot by taking risks, and the quickest way to improve as a musician is to push ourselves beyond our comfort zone, not just by learning to play faster, but also by expanding how we approach the instrument conceptually.

Most importantly, avoid using the F-word—failure. You might attempt something that falls flat and doesn’t work; learn from the experience and move on. Musicians who don’t take risks are less likely to make important discoveries that raise the bar of their musicianship.

As with any type of practice, it’s a good idea to record yourself as you work through these exercises. At some point you might play something you want to transcribe or remember, and you’ll be glad that you captured it.

Word Play
One way to find improvisational inspiration quickly is to play the syllabic rhythms of words (Fig. 1). Rappers, authors, and poets work with word-rhythm instinctively, as do songwriters when they set lyrics to music.

Fig. 1

To set up your solo, pick a phrase or sentence that you’ll use as source material. One approach could be to play through the word rhythms in order a few times, letting them suggest which instruments to play. From there, you can repeat individual words or groups of syllables, perhaps thinking in terms of a theme and variations.

Another concept could be to work through your sentence one or two words at a time, repeating them in different ways, altering the tempo and phrasing in as many ways as you can before moving on to the next group of words or syllables. Don’t forget to play your words in reverse order!

I was mighty impressed the first time I heard the Berkeley, California-based jazz-rock band, Pluto, play their rhythmically complex song “The Pledge” in unison, at top speed and without sheet music. Later I found out that they were simply playing the speech rhythms of The Pledge Of Allegiance in unison—a compositional masterstroke!

Morse Code
Similarly impressive is the intro to the song “YYZ” by Rush. Here, Neil Peart used the Morse Code equivalent of Toronto airport’s identification letters (Y—•——, Y—•——, Z—— • •) as rhythmic inspiration for the 10/8 riff.

The combinations of long and short sounds used in Morse Code were designed to be easily identifiable, and it’s hard to ignore their rhythmic qualities. But how long should a dash be, and how short is the dot? That’s up to you. Peart used a 2:1 ratio, where the dash equaled two dots, while licensed radio operators often use a 3:1 ratio. For the purposes of this improvisational exercise, the time span of the dash and dot are completely malleable and subject to change as your mood dictates.

Take that sentence you used in the Word Play exercise and translate it into Morse Code, in which you will use a graphic score for improvisation (Fig. 2). You can play with the differences in length between dots and dashes, or assign each symbol to an instrument or timbre. Play it straight through, or remix it in real time, so to speak, by repeating phrases, skipping sections, or reordering the parts. There is no need to be literal: Use your score only as a guide, and feel free to move away from it if the muse takes you somewhere else. That’s the point of the exercise—finding inspiration.

Numbers
It’s what drummers know best! Many of us use mnemonics to learn polyrhythms (the phrase “pass the gosh-darn butter” suggests the pattern for three against four) or play groupings evenly (the five-syllable word “university” demonstrating a quintuplet). This time, however, we’re going to use a string of numbers to suggest rhythm and time combinations that we wouldn’t otherwise consider.

For this example, let’s pick three numbers—three, four, and five. Start by looping them, assigning a bar of time for each—3/4, 4/4, 5/4. Once the groove is locked in, throw in some fills, again, alternating the numbers in order. The first could be a triplet (representing the three), the second could be four eighth- or sixteenth-notes (representing the four), the third fill a quintuplet (the final number five). Look for ways to keep that three-four-five progression intact as you repeat the bar-phrase, add fills, and develop your solo. When you’re ready, add a new number to the progression or pick three new numbers and see where they take you.

Another way to build a solo is to use a set of numbers to indicate note groupings, stretching and condensing them in time to decrease and increase playing speed. The numbers six, five, eight, seven, three could be played in a literal fashion as a sextuplet followed by a quintuplet, eight thirty-second-notes, a septuplet, and a triplet. Or, you could play phrases where the numbers indicate how many hits are in each phrase, keeping time and meter in constant flux. As you repeat the numbered phrases, take the opportunity to explore unusual instrument combinations or play your kit melodically (Fig. 3).

Fig. 3

Conceptual Approaches

In the following exercises, we will use more abstract ideas to guide our improvisation and stretch the limits of our instrumentation and skillset. Again, consider the process to be as important as the results. It is only by keeping your mind and ears open that you will discover new ways of working with sound.

The Metaphor
Paul Motian’s concept of interpreting a rose is a good example of a metaphorical approach to drumming. Consider what a rose is, how it grows, how it opens up. It’s soft and gentle, yet it has sharp thorns. It grows slowly from a small formation to a larger, colorful bloom. It opens gradually, imperceptibly.

Each of those descriptive words—soft, gentle, sharp, slowly, larger, colorful, bloom, gradually, imperceptibly—can be interpreted in musical ways. If you ask two drummers to play a solo based on these words, each would be different. However, determining which is the “best” or the “most musical” interpretation is not what we are after. You will learn more by listen-ing to what each musician has to say than by judging them against each other.

Whether you’re soloing or thinking up a part to a song, approaching it metaphorically will suggest a direction that is musically relevant but not necessarily obvious or predictable.

Listen To Your Environment
Environmental sounds have inspired music making since the dawn of human history. In this exercise, we will examine rhythm and color in the sounds and images that surround us—a woodpecker in a tree, car tires going over cracks in the road, or several hazard lights flashing out of sync but creating an outrageously complex polyrhythm. But instead of approaching these metaphorically, this time we will imitate them.

Open the windows or door of your studio and directly mimic the sounds you hear for approximately 30 minutes. You might hear a car alarm down the street, or a motorcycle zoom past, followed by the chirping of a bird. Play each sound as you perceive it, capturing its essence as best you can.

It helps if you mentally catalog the qualities of each sound: Does it come and go gradually (like a bus passing by) or is it sudden (like a bird chirp)? Is it high or low in register? Loud or soft? Considering the motorcycle, you might notice that it has “a low, rumbly sound that slowly increases and decreases in volume, but with a sudden high sound when it brakes.” There’s more than one way to interpret that description.

Next, listen for the transitions between the sounds, as well as any overlap. Can you finish imitating one sound, while catching a new one as it begins? Soon you will realize that there is much more music going on around you than you expected.

One of my favorite stories involving this approach has to do with a bandleader demonstrating the part he wants his drummer to play. To get his point across, Don Van Vliet (aka Captain Beefheart), threw a metal ashtray against the wall and asked the drummer to imitate the sound. One can only imagine what it sounded like as the ashtray hit the wall, dropped to the floor, and clattered around before coming to rest. But imagining is how we want to begin: We want to see and hear the image in our mind, then find a way to bring it to life in the physical world using our instruments.

Leaving Holes
In drumming, as in life, what we don’t say can be just as powerful as what we do say.

Explore silence with the same amount of determination that you approach playing. This can be as simple as inserting breath-length rests in a groove, or by using bigger and weightier moments that balance against the sounds you play. In both cases, leaving space in the music calls attention to what just happened while creating anticipation for what is yet to come.

Take the example of the woodpecker, mentioned earlier. It strikes the tree in fast bursts of six to twelve hits, then stops. That pause, which can last for minutes, far outweighs the burst of pecks. Yet it is within that long period of inactivity that tension builds as we anticipate the next group of hits.

An interesting way to explore the power of inactivity is to set a timer and then choose a number of sounds that can be played at any point before the timer goes off. For example, within two minutes, hit only five objects. Do not determine in advance where you will play your sounds—let them happen when the time is right. This is an especially fun approach to take with a group of musicians, where everyone closes their eyes or faces away from each other so there are no visual cues about when to play. Record the improvisation, then listen back. Could you predict where each musician would play? Were there any unusual moments, such as several people playing simultaneously?

One particularly notable use of negative space can be heard in the King Crimson track “Trio” from Starless And Bible Black. Here, Bill Bruford is credited as cocomposer (and with “admirable restraint”) for remaining silent throughout the group improvisation: his decision to remain tacet was seen as an important influence in the musical direction of the piece.

But you don’t need total silence to effectively use negative space. Take advantage of it in an orchestrational way by suddenly removing an instrument from a busy texture. This is a classic technique used in dub-style reggae, where the mix engineer mutes various instruments to create tension. Imagine that you’re playing a highly coordinated part using all four limbs and, without warning, you drop out the kick drum. That will get everyone’s attention immediately. Let the tension increase before you bring it back in.

Orchestration

A drum set is a miniature orchestra with a wider frequency range than just about any other acoustic instrument. This next set of exercises will help you gain new appreciation for each part of your kit, both in terms of how it sounds and how it can be used.

Subtract An Instrument
One of my favorite challenges is to simply remove an instrument from a student’s kit. After listening to them play, I choose the piece they favor most. For example, jazz drummers often put the hi-hat on autopilot, using it merely to fill space. Remove the hi-hat stand and suddenly the player is gasping for air! The hats are only returned when the drummer is comfortable playing without them: Now he or she has a fresh awareness of the entire kit, and the hi-hat is no longer taken for granted.

A high-profile example of this concept can be found in Discipline-era King Crimson, where Bill Bruford utilized drums for the ride patterns rather than hi-hats and cymbals, using the latter only for accents. This limitation took the drummer into territory he might not have otherwise entered while, orchestrationally speaking, it left the upper frequency range of those songs open and uncluttered. The result was a unique sound, unusual for a rock band at the time and instantly identifiable.

Switcheroo
Another way to increase your orchestral awareness is to rotate the instruments. For example, swap the position of the bass drum and hi-hat so that they are under the opposite foot that you normally use. Not only does this change the orchestrational aspect of the parts you play, but it forces you to reconsider what each hand will do. Similarly, Soft Machine drummer Robert Wyatt used to have his tech set up his drums differently for each gig in order to keep his playing fresh.

At first, you might attempt to play your favorite beats the way you normally would, using different limbs. However, you can also use this opportunity to explore the possibilities that occur when your “downbeat” foot makes an entirely different sound from what it used to. As with the exercise above, don’t try this for just a few minutes: Keep the instruments in this new configuration until ways of playing present themselves. To get the ball rolling, use the improvisation exercises we explored earlier—numbers, words, or Morse Code rhythms.

Here’s a real-world example of how the switcheroo saved a recording session: During a full-band tracking session with Tom Waits, it became clear that the guitar parts didn’t gel. Both players were superb musicians, but one of the parts was too busy. The solution? Waits asked the busier guitarist to flip his instrument upside down and play the part left-handed. Not only did this simplify what the guitarist could do, the unfamiliarity of the string-to-fret layout brought a welcome bit of tension and risk that was musically satisfying.

Substitution
This exercise is similar to the switcheroo, but in this case you substitute something unusual—a metal pan, a plastic washtub, a cardboard tube—in place of an instrument you commonly use. This can be as simple as replacing one piece of your kit or as extreme as changing out everything (think of the street musicians who play a collection of plastic buckets set up like a drum kit). In this exercise, you can use the physical aspects of the substitute to inspire you to come up with new approaches to creating sound.

A simple but classic example can be heard on the Buddy Holly hits “Not Fade Away” and “(You’re So Square) Baby I Don’t Care,” where Crickets drummer Jerry Allison played his drum parts on a cardboard box. Although substituting a box may seem trivial at first, it brings up

a lot of questions when you actually try it: How big should the container be to fit the tone of the song? How many boxes do I need? Should I use sticks, brushes, mallets, or hands?

Every material you work with—such as glass, metal, wood, cardboard, felt, and Styrofoam—will respond differently. Your job is to explore these differences and find the ones you like best.

Reduction
Even if we are surrounded by a truckload of instruments, that doesn’t mean we have to play them all (just as we don’t expect a concert pianist to play every single note on the keyboard at every concert). The reductionist approach is a classic compositional technique that can be used in any context, either improvisationally or when inventing parts for a song.

Imagine you have access to only one instrument. Focus on the various sounds you can get from it, and don’t move to a new instrument until you’ve said everything you can with the first one. Take a floor tom, for example. In addition to hitting the head, you can play the rim, use cross sticking, hit the shell and bottom head, tap or scrape on the legs, and use sticks, hands, mallets, or household items (chopsticks, vegetable skewers, cardboard tubes) throughout. To see the premier example of the reductionist approach, search YouTube for Max Roach’s classic solo “Mr. Hi-Hat.”

Every instrument in your kit has untapped sonic potential. As you discover new sounds and techniques for creating them, interesting ways to use them will not be far behind.

This article was originally published in the May 2015 issue of Drum! magazine. This is the first time is has appeared online.