As an instrumentalist I am primarily a guitarist, but as a composer I write for a range of instruments. The one thing I am particularly struggling with is writing for drums. Although I've managed to get by alright so far and create good enough drum parts for music which has had some commercial success, I still feel my drums are somewhat lacking in their sophistication and realism.

I'm thinking of picking up some books on drums, especially those by Gary Chaffee, but I'm a little apprehensive to splash out on books when I'm not sure if they will be of that much use to me without a drum kit. Do any drummers on here think I would potentially be able to get into the mindset of a drummer without having access to a kit and compose/program drum parts which have a sense of realism? Understanding the rhythms and hearing them realised with the aid of VST instruments is not an issue, it's more the mechanics and playing dynamics (e.g. one hand stronger than the other) which I am concerned about.

If anyone could make any suggestions (especially resources on the mechanics of drumming), it would be much appreciated.

  • Not an answer, because I'm not a drummer: If you have a games console, consider getting a Rock Band drum kit. It's cheap, fun, and it gives you some insight into the mechanics of real drumming, and the construction of real drum patterns. – slim Jan 17 '14 at 15:47
  • That's a pretty open ended question. If you want a real answer you'll probably have to narrow it down. If you wanna do it right, find a drum teacher, buy a set, and start down the path. Otherwise, just stick with the "if it sounds good, it is good" rule. – Stephen Hazel Jan 17 '14 at 16:46
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    How about getting a drummer? Most good drum parts in rock music aren't strictly "composed" at all but pretty much improvised. Anyway, what makes them good is less what is played, i.e. which instrument on which beat, but subtleties about the timing and dynamics. (Which is, I suppose, what this question's about.) While it may be possible to simulate this by fine-tweaking every single hit of a quantised MIDI-composed part in a DAW, it's really impractical, because the knowledge of what sounds good is as complicated as the technique to just play it. – leftaroundabout Jan 18 '14 at 19:46

There's certainly nothing wrong with learning more specifics about drum kit performance—I think more knowledge almost always helps—but honestly, I think you'd find more benefit in learning the general ways that drummers talk about patterns, genres and feels. I've written pieces with drum kit parts several times, and the best results always happen when I describe the general style and vibe I want and let the drummer figure out the specifics.Of course, if there are sections that need specific rhythms (e.g rhythmic unison with another inst, introduction of a particular motive, etc.) then you should absolutely notate it. But in sections where you just want the kit to lay down a particular rhythm, just describe it: driving hard rock backbeat, techno 4-on-the-floor, black metal blast beat, laid-back jazz swing, etc. the drummer can find a way to express the feel within their own style, add fills, and more, thus creating a much more natural part.

I say this not as someone that disparages specific notation or writing for other instruments, I think this is almost uniquely true for drum kit.


An answer I gave to another question is also relevant here. I was writing mainly about orchestral percussion, but what I said is no less true for drum kit. My summary was:

It's really easy for even an inexperienced player to spot a part that was written by someone with no percussion experience. You don't need to learn every percussion instrument to get it right, just speak with percussionists (in whatever ensemble you're composing for) and get them to show you a good part and a bad part.

Asking a player what they'd like to see on the part will always get you a better piece of music than trying to guess. I'd even say that playing on a kit on your own isn't really sufficient experience, as a lot of the difficulty about parts comes from playing in 'live' conditions with an ensemble: keeping track of where you are, switching instruments or retuning in good time.

Drummers are really easy to get hold of to ask questions, because it takes so long to clear up after a performance. And whoever you ask will probably be impressed that you thought about them, and repay you with respect and helpful advice.

  • Retuning isn't an issue with a kit, but I've played quite a few kit parts where I had to stop and pick up a tambourine, or change sticks in a hurry. Having enough time to make the change is no less important there. As for keeping track of where you are, I don't know anyone but a drummer who's expected to play more than 50 identical bars (which aren't necessarily counted on the part), and then change or stop in exactly the right place, with no cues or other indication of what the rest of the ensemble is doing at the time. – Dan Hulme Jan 25 '14 at 18:12
  • I deleted the comment to which Dan Hume was responding because it wasn't helpful to the discussion, apologies. – Matthew James Briggs Jan 25 '14 at 18:28

One thing that I can think of that might be helpful is to find drum parts and associated recordings. For example broadway shows and jazz charts. Drummers often interpret a part loosely and good ones will take botched notation and turn it into something idiomatic.

I agree with Dan Hulme

describe the general style and vibe I want and let the drummer figure out the specifics

One way to do this is with Slash Notation

I had to copy this image because SE said the image format is not supported. The website it came from looks like a great resource for the OP's question. http://johnhinchey.com enter image description here

  • On the contrary, I'd say this is an example of an awful part. There's no indication of dynamics or style at all. The only redeeming quality is that it counts the bars and has a double-barline to indicate phrasing. All the same, I'd sooner play from the guitarist's part than this: if you aren't going to write me a part, at least let me see what I have to fit in with! – Dan Hulme Jan 25 '14 at 18:16
  • @Dan Hulme, Funny as I think it's a great part. I work professionally as a drummer and have to read a lot. One thing to note is that this pic is clipped from bar 66, and if you clicked into the link provided, you would see the part included a realized rock beat for a bar before the slash notation started. Most charts like this have something like that or a style indicator like "Medium Swing". They will also have dynamics where applicable and things like "Brushes" or "Sticks" for those things. Anyways, this is the standard by which all working charts abide by, so it is not awful. – eteich Jan 29 '14 at 18:52

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