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Blake's Take: Level Up Your Drums 2 - Active Listening

Blakes-Take
Activate your listening to level up your drums.

Check out the other articles in this series:

Blake’s Take: Level of Your Drums 1—Basic Concepts of Rhythm 

Blake's Take: Level up Your Drums 3 - Drum Programming in MONTAGE and MODX

Active Listening


Active listening and watching drummers play are vital for creating realistic drum parts. This is the practice of enjoying and analyzing music at the same time.

A bonus of the modern age and online video is you can combine active listening with active watching. You can watch and listen for the things that make the music and incorporate those components into your own production.

Maybe you already apply active listening with keyboards or piano. I know I do. Below are a few things I’ll listen for when I check out a great jazz pianist:

  • Tone: What are they doing to get their sound from the instrument? Is there a way they are holding their hands? Is there a specific posture they have? How are they using the pedals?
  • Time/Feel: Is the groove straight or swung? What is the time signature? Where do they sit in the time? Are they in front of the beat, behind the beat or right in the middle? How long/short do they hold the note?
  • Dynamics: How do they get very soft passages to be present? How about loud passages?
  • Comping: How do they comp behind a singer or instrumentalist? What do they do to support them rhythmically, harmonically and melodically?

Active listening is watching and thinking about the what the player is doing as it unfolds. Learning to listen will help you extract the subtleties and nuances of great drummers. So…let’s watch some great drummers play the drums!

“I Play Yamaha” Drum Videos


The “I Play Yamaha” video series include performances by amazing drummers. I’ve selected five of them for you to check out and included my notes below each selection. You can see and hear what each drummer does to produce their sound.

Pro Tip: You can slow the video playback down to absorb difficult passages. On YouTube, select the gear icon to increase or decrease the playback speed.

OK: Let’s check out the videos.

Steve Gadd: Steve Gadd is a drumming icon. His groove is instantly recognizable. Steve has performed with Steely Dan, Simon & Garfunkel, Chick Corea, Bob James, Paul Desmond, Paul McCartney, James Taylor and Eric Clapton to name just a few. His performances on Paul Simon’s “50 Ways to Leave You Lover” and “Late in the Evening” are legendary. I chose this cool 360˚ video shoot where you can really watch him play. In the upper left-hand corner of the video, you’ll see the up/down/left/right icon. This video was recorded with multiple cameras, and you can move the camera around to check out his playing from different angles:


Notes: The time feel and fills in this video are classic Steve Gadd, as are his feel which often sits on the back end of the beat and has this grooving quality. He also is a master of space: you’ll notice that what he doesn’t play is as important as what he does play. Notice that the kick drum is used to set up things he plays across the kit and as an accent with a cymbal. That’s a common thing drummers do, and you’ll see it in the other videos. He juxtaposes triplets and duplets in his snare drum work, which is very cool. Elements like these impart a groovy buoyancy. Lastly check out his long ending phrase starting at 1:39:


He plays a great repeating fill with cool interplay between the kick, snare and crash cymbals. Change the video playback speed to “0.5” for a better look.

Mike Bordin: Mike Bordin is a founding member of Faith No More and has performed with Ozzy Osborne, Korn, Jerry Cantrell and Primus. He’s a great rock and metal drummer with a massive sound and a solid back beat. Check out his short “I Play Yamaha” video:


Notes: One aspect of Mike’s playing that is cool are his short drum rolls and “flams”. He starts with a roll and fill and drops into the first part of a rock beat. At about 8 seconds, listen to the short roll he plays right before his kick drum that lands on the first beat of measure two:


That small accent adds interest and forward momentum to the beat. Then on measure four check out the triplet kick drum figure he plays to accentuate beat two. Again, these small rhythmic devices add forward momentum. Starting on measure five he breaks into a cool tom-tom groove that bolsters a cool flam snare drum backbeat on beats two and four. This is a classic Mike Bordin groove!

Dave Weckl: Dave Weckl is one of the most influential drummers in the world. Perhaps best known for his work with Chick Corea, Dave has performed with George Benson, Diana Ross, Mike Stern, Robert Plant, Michel Camilo and many others. He technique, time feel, and dynamics are breathtaking. Dave was inducted into the Modern Drummer Hall of Fame in 2000. Here is his “I Play Yamaha” video:


Notes: The first thing that gets me is the feel! This groove subdivides to the triplet, and he is definitely swinging in the video! He also has great time, and he tends to sit right in the center or just in front of the beat. Dave told me a story about his first serious studio gigs in the early 80s. His time had to be perfect because he had to play to click tracks and drum machines. When programming drum grooves in MONTAGE, MODX or a DAW I always try to record them live to a click track. It really helps my time feel, and that work benefits my piano and keyboard playing. There is an interesting relaxed yet athletic physicality to Dave’s playing as well. Check out his press rolls, single stroke rolls, tom fills and how he uses the kick drum to both provide a foundation and accentuate hits.

Another thing unrelated to the time feel is the sound of his kit in the video. Dave sets up his own microphones and monitor system and makes sure he sounds great. That is clear in this video: The snare is snappy and full; the toms are resonant, and the bass drum is nice and punchy. Taking time to get drums to sound good is important. In the next article I’ll show tools in MONTAGE and MODX for drum mixing and production.

Tommy Aldridge: What did Black Oak Arkansas, Whitesnake, Pat Travers, Ozzy Osborne and Gary Moore all have in common? They all had the Mississippi-born drummer Tommy Aldridge provide a searing backbeat. He’s among the first drummers to use a double bass drum, a powerful sound that’s standard for metal drummers worldwide. Watching Tommy Aldridge play is always impressive. He hits hard and his time is rock solid.


Notes: Double kick drum backbeats are great for music requiring a driving, relentless rhythmic foundation. Notice how he begins this video with solid single stroke snare work set up with triplet double bass drum figures. He then drops into a slamming rock beat, again underpinned by his signature double bass drums. He’s an aggressive, physical drummer who’s influenced a generation of hard rock and metal drummers.

Antonio Sánchez: I remember first hearing Antonio Sánchez with the great Panamanian Pianist Danilo Pérez in the late 90s and being blown away. Great feel, technique, dynamics, sound…amazing! It’s no wonder he’s performed with musicians like Chick Corea, Micheal Brecker, Gary Burton and a member of the Pat Metheny Group for over 20 years. In 2014 he scored the movie Birdman. The music is centered around his drum performances and is one of the most unique and remarkable film scores ever created. His “I Play Yamaha” video is incredible:


Notes: The first thing I notice is Antonio’s technique and economy of motion. Notice how he sets up his drums and cymbals: They are almost flat, and he situates himself close to everything. There is no wasted motion, no sticks flying around…it’s all incredibly tight and controlled. At the beginning he plays a cool introductory “call and response” figure between a snare cross stick and the bass drum. After this introduction you are treated to a full minute of remarkably controlled and dynamic playing in 7/4 time.

Something to try: When he starts the groove at about :07 seconds in try counting out loud “one, two, three, four, five, six, seven” along with his performance. It’s sits at about 111 beats per minute, and he accentuates beat one. It’s really cool:


There are lots of “I Play Yamaha” videos featuring drummers like Steve Jordan, Dave Garabaldi, Matt Cameron, Akira Jimbo, Dave McClain and other instruments as well. Check them out here.

That’s it for the basics of rhythm and active listening! In the next article I’ll dive into the MONTAGE and MODX Performance Pattern Sequencer and show you the great onboard tools for creating and producing drum parts.
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