Build Your Groove with a Drum Machine
Every few months, I succumb to an idealistic
bout of self-improvement with my bass playing and pick up a new music book, video
or gadget. Some things stick, while many
more don’t. But I keep trying. My desk has
books and DVDs on walking basslines, Latin
bass playing, R&B bass and jazz soloing, plus
some of the more esoteric topics like slapping the doghouse. One learning tool that
has long fascinated me is the drum machine,
but I’ve been deterred by what seemed like
a complicated undertaking. Not so: a drum
machine can be great for practicing, offering
more groove-building assistance than a metronome because you’re actually playing off
the key parts of a drum rhythm. And it’s not
hard to use. I got the nerve to try out a drum
machine while watching a bass-related DVD
that showed how to use one. The approach
on the video made sense, so it was time for
another binge of self-improvement GAS. I
shopped around and found a basic drum
machine for under $100.
And there’s nothing worse than an uneven
kick drum. That’s where the quantize function
comes in. For example, a typical blues pat-
tern would use four kicks to the bar. Quantize
to quarter notes and you’re all set. Just come
close to the beat and the electronics even
you can use the same pattern at a variety
of speeds, going slower to work things out
and then picking up the tempo to challenge
yourself to pull off those riffs at gig speed.
Keep listening to the key elements: how does
your bass part play off the kick and snare? Try
A drum machine can be great for practicing,
offering more groove-building assistance
than a metronome because you’re actually
playing off the key parts of a drum rhythm.
things up for you. The drum machine’s swing
setting also fits in, letting you tweak the feel
from a rigid Devo to a Bouncy C. Finally, poke
around your drum machine’s sounds to find a
kit that’s appropriate. Do you want something
electronic or a more classic sound?
playing slightly ahead of the beat, right on
the beat, and slightly behind. Try a simpler
part as well as making things busier.
Okay, So What Do You Do?
When the drum machine arrived, I pulled
out the manual and spent some time reading it. That helped me see how my new box
compared to the one in the video. I also got
an idea of what the little black gizmo could
do. That done, I thought about the process
the video used to program a drum machine.
What’s the trick? Think layering. In other
words, a drum machine can record in multiple passes of your rhythm phrase. You don’t
have to do it all at once. And think simple
too—you’re not trying to mimic all the things
a drummer does, just the basic groove of
playing with drums.
Laying It Down
Okay, we’ve done our basic setup and it’s
time to start laying down patterns. But do
you have any idea of what your drummer is
actually doing? If not, you’d better have a
chat with him or her to find out what’s going
on. Here’s an example for basic blues. To
begin, set quantize to four beats per measure
and punch in the kick drum beats in real time.
Your drum machine probably has touch sensitive pads, so you’ll need to work at getting
an even touch at the right volume.
Play your riff in different keys and in different
places on the neck. Experiment with more or
less swing. You can also copy the pattern to
another user bank and make a change, such
as going from hi-hat to ride cymbal. With success in one pattern, start working on a few
more that you gig with. Of course, you will
need to understand what your drummer is
doing as you put your new pattern together.
Try out a few pre-programmed beats, too. As
you work at the drum machine, your practice
time can help you build your groove!
There are a few things to set up before putting together your own drum pattern. First is
the bar length. Do you want the pattern to
repeat every two bars, four bars, or something even longer? I’ve generally stuck with
a two-bar phrase, both for ease of recording
and to fit into more songs (just repeat more
times for eight bars, 12 bars, or even 16). The
next step is choosing the quantize level. One
of my initial fears about the drum machine
was that my “playing” would be irregular.
Next, turn to the snare. In blues, hitting the
snare on beats two and four does the job, so
the same quantize setting will work. Keeping
with a blues motif, let’s add a closed hi-hat
cymbal next, quantized at eight beats to the
bar. As a last touch, add a crash cymbal at
the start of the first bar—that’ll keep you on
course the same way that a drummer signals
Click here for a sample
sound clip of building a drum
Time To Play
With everything programmed into the drum
pattern, you just need to set a tempo and
start playing. This is really useful, because
Dan is a professor by day and a bass player when the
sun goes down. He plays both electric and upright bass
in blues, jazz and pit settings. He can be reached at: