Published on August 24th, 2010 | by Hugh Hession2
What makes a great rhythm section?
I often get asked to critique bands and sound. Admittingly, this is probably one of my least favorite requests; not because I can’t do it, but rather how delicate this matter is.
As musicians (and I include myself), we all come off as tough – wrapping the layers of skin around our offense detectors to ward off any unpleasant discourse. As a result, we have the propensity (yes, our word of the day is propensity-lol) to lose objectivity and insight on the very issues that are holding us back. The key is to learn from positive criticism. As long as there are specifics and solutions to remedy the problems, then to me, that is effective.
With that being said, If there is one thing I’ve learned through the years, it’s the importance of having a good rhythm section; specifically a solid drummer and bassist. Your focus should be heavily centered around these two individuals. No, I’m not talking about pumping their egos every 10 minutes (although some do require it!) but rather listening to how the bassist and drummer connect. They should be one unit, not two.
Although your audiences won’t be able to put a finger on it, they will know and hear the difference between how good Band A is versus Band B, if Band A has a better rhythm section. When a band is tight, intensity and dynamics are significantly taken to another level. There is more of a difference than you may have considered.
The best drummers are in the pocket
Ever heard of the expression, “That drummer is in the pocket?” That pocket not only signifies how tight the drummer is (meaning, a human metronome) but also the feel or the groove. The best drummers not only have consistent tempos, but also are great feel players. They know how to lay out the groove.
Speaking of groove, one of my favorite books is Victor Wooten’s The Music Lesson. In his book, he says that “once you find the groove, it doesn’t matter what note comes out; it will feel right to the listener. People generally feel music before they listen to it.” With this being said, you need to focus on groove! (Page 31). Groove and laying in the pocket has absolutely nothing to do with how busy a drummer is. Some of the best drummers go sparingly on fills. The ones that use fills generously know how to make them work in context of the song and the band. They are team players. A drummer soloing throughout a song only continues to solidify his or her amateur status.
To emphasize groove and pocket playing, let’s take a look at a video from the late and mighty Jeff Porcaro. Jeff was one of the most sought after session drummers in the studio and was the drummer for Toto (Hold The Line, Rosanna, Africa) You’ve heard on him on Michael Jackson’s “Beat It,” as well as recording with Steely Dan, Madonna and more. Here is his explanation of how he came up with the shuffle for the song Rosanna (that’s Cynthia Rhodes of Dirty Dancing in the vid). Listen to both Porcaro’s tempo and groove.
Stewart Copeland is one of the best “pocket” drummers around. Copeland’s fill work is tasty in the middle of Roxanne; using the drums to create that intensity without breaking the tempo. Listen to how well Sting and Copeland compliment each other.
Characteristics of a killer rhythm section
So what are the elements of a great rhythm section? In my opinion, they are the following:
- They understand their role. The best bassists and drummers know what their roles are…to act as the adhesive for the band. They understand that their role is one of the most important and their focus is to provide the foundation of tempo and feel, making it a delight for the other musicians to play over. They don’t noodle and solo through songs until that moment arises when the lead singer says, “and on the drums….”
- They listen to each other. Is your bassist not in sync with your drummers kick? Are they missing the downbeat or experiencing tempo problems over the backbeat? Bassists and drummers need to be able to open their ears, and play off of each other. The best almost melt together or what I term, “gel.”
- They understand the elements of style. Style is everything when it comes to playing. It’s really what separates average players from quality. Being busy can be effective, but only when it’s in the right places. When I see drummers placing more emphasis on their fills than keeping time, then I know where the focus needs to be.
- They use dynamics to create emotion. A common mistake is consistently playing at the same volume, which is usually loud. Creating various layers of dynamics within a song can really take a song to the stratosphere. Classical piano is a good example of this. The best players know how to make dynamics work for them. The ones just playing a flutter of notes, are doing just that and as a result, there is no feeling. It’s just there. Create something compelling for your audiences. I guarantee it will make a difference in how you set the mood.
- Space is music. Why so many bands fail to use space to accentuate their music is beyond me. Space is probably the single most effective way to make your music stand out. The best rhythm players (and any musician for that matter) uses space (or if you are a music theory buff…rests, ritardandos and fermatas) to their advantage. In The Music Lesson, Victor Wooten says that “before you can fully understand notes…you must understand the space you will place them in. Space can be seen as the birthplace of all things. That is why all things are eventually attracted back to it.” (Page 207).
- Their gear reflects and compliments their playing. Every drummer sets up their rig differently. Some like the toms higher or spaced apart more than others. Some prefer to play with a cage, others couldn’t bother with it. Some like to utilize the splash. Some don’t. Bassists are the same way. Some prefer different brands or tweak the setup for maximum performance. I’m not saying that new gear or a specific brand is going to help you play better. I’m merely pointing out that like a batter and his unique stance -the best players know what works for them.
Evaluate your situation and act!
Placing emphasis on a smoking rhythm section is one of the most dramatic actions you can take to improve the quality of your band. To some, this may mean re-evaluating your current line-up and making changes to the mix. This takes some objectivity, especially if you’ve been friends for a long time. I’ve been in the middle of this on many occasions. It’s not fun, but if your goal is to make this a career, decisions of this nature are common.
The bottom line, is that it is essential that you continually evaluate your chemistry as a band. Different players can change a bands level of playing and style. Just make sure you are choosing the right players to compliment who you are as a band.
Making It In Music recommends:
From Grammy-winning musical icon and legendary bassist Victor L. Wooten comes The Music Lesson, the story of a struggling young musician who wanted music to be his life, and who wanted his life to be great. Then, from nowhere it seemed, a teacher arrived. Part musical genius, part philosopher, part eccentric wise man, the teacher would guide the young musician on a spiritual journey, and teach him that the gifts we get from music mirror those from life, and every movement, phrase, and chord has its own meaning…All you have to do is find the song inside.