BY BRAD SCHLUETER | FROM THE WINTER 2018 ISSUE OF DRUM!
Funk grooves are exciting and compelling. They can make you tap your toes or get up and dance. But funk drumming is more than a style. It’s a collection of concepts and techniques that you can use to enhance any style of music. Learning to get funky is essential to becoming a great drummer.
In this article, we’re going to explore some of the fundamental skills used by funk drummers so you can apply them to the styles you play.
GETTING IN SYNC
Syncopation is the root of all funk. It leads to emphasizing the weaker parts of the beat. This is usually done by note placement or by accenting a weaker count. In Ex. 1, we see the grandmother of all rock beats. The symmetrical back and forth repetition of the kick and snare emphasizes the quarter-notes, creating a solid, if predictable, pattern. If we move the second bass drum note from beat 3 to the & of 2, we create an asymmetrical groove that’s much funkier (Ex. 2). Next, let’s move that same note to the & of 3. Again, this simple change makes the beat more angular (Ex. 3). You can mix and match these patterns to create a longer phrase (Exs. 4–5). The best part is that using syncopation requires no special techniques or skills, and it’s easy enough that beginners can do it. Syncopations don’t happen in a vacuum, of course, and should be used to enhance the music.
HILLS AND VALLEYS
Adding extra snare notes to a groove is another method both newbies and pros use to draw attention to weaker counts (Exs. 6–7). These can be played with different degrees of emphasis, as accents or rimshots, to create a timbre change.
Another way to use dynamics is to use ghost notes to create a subtle inner motion to your grooves (Ex. 8). Notice how these ghost notes soften some of the abruptness of the underlying beat of Example 3. Strive to play the ghost notes low and relaxed.
Creating multiple layers of independent dynamics is challenging, but it’s an essential skill for anyone who wants to be a great drummer. Let’s accent the strong beats of the hi-hat part of our original rock groove while playing the upbeats more lightly (Ex. 9). Many drummers do this by playing accents with the shoulder of the stick and using the tip for unaccented notes.
If we add some extra snare syncopation, we can create beats with a couple of independent dynamic layers (Exs. 10–11). This will emphasize the quarter-notes and make the syncopations stand out more. Try playing these grooves on your ride with the accents on the bell.
If we change that accent pattern to the upbeats, it will have a profound effect on the feel of these beats (Exs. 12–14). This can be challenging at first, so if this is new to you, expect it to take a little time. We can use ghost notes with this upbeat cymbal pattern to create even more compelling grooves.
GET ON YOUR GOOD FOOT
Placing your bass drum on the e’s and ah’s of each beat, which is necessary for playing harder syncopations, will open even more possibilities. Let’s add a note to our basic rock groove pattern on the e of 2 (Ex. 15). Notice how much this syncopation changes the original groove immediately from rock to funk. To my ears, playing bass drum notes on the e’s is a bit like hitting the brakes on your beat, momentarily disrupting its progress.
Now let’s try putting that note on the ah of 1 (Ex. 16). This seems to subtly “lift” the snare note and smooth out its sudden entrance. I find that syncopations on the ah’s seem to propel the beat forward.
Developing your foot to play double-strokes with ease can take your beats to yet another level. Ex. 17, which creates an echo effect by placing pairs of kick notes on 1 e and (2) & ah, can be thought of as a variation on the beat in Example 2.
Shedding bass drum double-strokes with a single pedal is well worth the effort. Many funk drummers play heel up and bury the beater on the second note of their doubles. This technique accents the second note, and burying the beater deadens the drumhead’s resonance, creating the muffled, staccato bass drum sound typical to the idiom. If you’re more of a rebound player, muffling the head can accomplish the same end.
As your foot develops, you can use doubles to create triplet rhythms (Ex. 18). More experienced drummers should try extending the triplet run a la Led Zeppelin’s John Bonham, or even playing it with upbeat accents (Ex. 19). Of course, you can play triplets on your snare, too. You can play these as ghost notes to shape the beat subtly (Ex. 20) or play them at full volume along with triplet bass drum notes to create a roll leading into the backbeat on count 4 (Ex. 21).
Playing one-handed sixteenth-note hi-hat grooves is an invaluable approach that sounds similar to snare ghost notes. If you’ve ever transcribed one of your favorite drummers and been unsure whether you were hearing an unaccented hi-hat or a snare ghost note, you’ll know what I mean. Typically, this cymbal ostinato is accented on the eighth-notes with the e’s and ah’s faintly filling the gaps (Exs. 22–23). These can also be played with differing degrees of swing. You can play constant hi-hat sixteenths along with snare ghost notes, too (Ex. 24).
TWO-HANDED SIXTEENTH-NOTE FUNK
Playing two-handed hi-hat patterns is a fantastic way to create funky grooves. The challenge for most drummers is to get used to playing bass drum notes while your weaker hand is playing the hi-hat (Ex. 25). Using both hands obviously allows you to play faster tempos, but also allows some other creative options, like adding off-beat tom accents to your groove (Ex. 26).
Now, let’s play the e’s and ah’s more lightly, which can make your hi-hat pattern sound like eighth-notes (Ex. 27). This can be done to add a little swing to any groove (Ex. 28). These don’t have to be played as strict triplets. By slightly delaying the left hand, you can create varying degrees of swing that always help add a bit of grease to your groove.
Boring four-on-the-floor pop/disco grooves are a curse of jobbing drummers. One way to add a bit of flavor to them is to superimpose a contrasting accent pattern on the hi-hat, while still playing the backbeats (Ex. 29). In this example, I’ve layered a bossa nova accent pattern on top of my first groove. Another way to expand this two-handed concept is to leave your left hand on the snare lightly playing all the e’s and ah’s on the snare, as ghost notes (Ex. 30). It’s also easy to play offbeat accents this way with your left hand (Ex. 31). This idea is great for beginners — it sounds like you’re a ghost-note god, but doesn’t require years of shedding Clyde Stubblefield beats.
TWO SURFACE RIDING
Steve Gadd has contributed lots of great ideas to the funk vocabulary, including this two-handed sixteenth-note pattern between hi-hat and ride (Ex. 32). We can make things a little more challenging by moving the left hand to the snare (Ex. 33).
Right-handed gospel drummers often move their left hand to the hi-hat to play an offbeat note or two. The advantage of using the left hand? It can be played louder to cut through a loud band (Ex. 34).
OTHER OPTIONAL OSTINATOS
Every good drummer plays ostinatos on cymbals, mixed and matched as the mood strikes. Here are a few other essential hi-hat ostinatos to practice over your kick and snare patterns (Exs. 35–37). Playing the upbeats on your ride is another way to radically alter a groove’s feel (Ex. 38). Another way I like to embellish upbeat ride patterns is with occasional double strokes on the &’s and ah’s (Ex. 39).
BEYOND THE BACKBEAT
We’re so used to hearing counts 2 and 4 played on the snare drum that it can be refreshing to hear it anywhere else, and that rhythmic surprise is one of the essences of funk (Exs. 40–42). Perhaps one of the most common ways to do this is to play the snare on count 3, creating a half-time feel (Ex. 43).
Open hi-hat notes are an indispensable tool funk drummers use for quick accents or to connect notes. This is referred to as the onomatopoeia “pea soup,” which is appropriate since it often leads to tasty grooves. In this beat, we see examples of both ideas, with staccato barks on (2) e ah and an extended note on beat 4 that fills the space to the downbeat (Ex. 44). Most of the beats in this article can benefit from a well-placed open hi-hat or two. Opening the hi-hat is notated with an “o” and closing it with a “+.”
Linear grooves are very different from conventional beats; you’re only playing one note at a time, so you won’t rely on any one limb to keep steady time. This particular linear groove, which also features an upbeat hi-hat pattern, can be played with a straight sixteenth-note feel or slightly swung (Ex. 45). Now let’s take that groove and convert it into a linear triplet groove by adding some well-placed hi-hat double strokes (Ex. 46).
You can use rolls and other rudiments to embellish your grooves (Ex. 47). Another approach is to take a rudiment like a paradiddle and use it as an ostinato while layering bass drum notes underneath it. The “King Kong” ostinato is made up of two individual paradiddle variations (RLRR LRRL), and it usually results in a killing groove (Ex. 48).
Two-measure beats are often more interesting than single-measure grooves. This first example uses a displaced snare on the & of 4 to create a funky two-bar groove a la James Brown’s “Cold Sweat” (Ex. 49). An even simpler way to imply a two-bar groove is to add an open hi-hat to every other measure of a repeating beat.
ODD-TIME POLYMETER FUNK
One exciting way to play funk is to imply two different meters at once. For our last funky idea, I’ve superimposed a 3/8 shuffle rhythm on the hi-hat above a kick and snare pattern that’s in 5/4, creating a subtly evolving groove that takes three bars to cycle (Ex. 50).
As mentioned, you can play a beat straight, or swung, or somewhere in between. But there are many different ways to create the “feel” of all these grooves. Play ahead of the beat for a sense of urgency, on the beat for a solid feel, or behind it for a lazier feel. Try playing the subdivisions with metronomic precision, or with a looser, sloppy approach so the beat divisions aren’t always perfect. As long as the rhythm section plays together, any method can work.