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The 1 And The 3
In my last article, I talked about how you can improve your accuracy and make your time more consistent by subdividing. Now I'd like to touch on a way of improving your time feel. Time and feel are two different areas, and having one does not necessarily guarantee that you have the other. Each player's feel can be affected by a number of different factors, such as whether you feel a certain groove from the bottom up, or the top down, or how you balance the various sounds in your kit. However, an important element in getting your time to not only be consistent, but to also feel good, comes from understanding the importance of the 1 and the 3. It can make the difference between a beat that is accurate, and one that is ALIVE.
To make a beat or groove have life, it must swing. By this I don't mean the "ding dinga ding" jazz cymbal swing rhythm, but rather a certain tension and release that comes from a backbeat's relationship to a downbeat. Many times the backbeat can be moved up a little (for an on-top-of-the-beat feel) or moved back a little (for a laid back feel). Although the backbeats can be moved, the placement of the downbeats usually remains constant. In a typical 4/4 groove, for instance, the 1 and 3 are the grounding points, and should be played accurately. It is the relationship between the back and forth motion (the swing) of the downbeats and the placement of the backbeats that gives the groove its feel.
If you have any doubts, just ask James Brown about the importance of the 1 and 3. Sometimes drummers and percussionists can get so involved with all the complex rhythms and the coordination that it takes to execute certain beats, that they forget the essential purpose of the beat itself. Every beat should groove, no matter how complex it is. You might have heard a great groove referred to as pumpin' or humpin'. It all means the same thing: that back and forth motion. You can help get that feeling by paying strong attention to the 1 and 3. Doing this, in conjunction with subdividing, will make a noticeable improvement in your time feel. Your beats will "sit" in the pocket more and have a "glue" to them, so they will be better able to stand on their own. Your phrasing and rhythmic articulation will improve. It will also improve your ability to lock in your playing with the rest of the band.
To work on this, try practicing any even-eighth 4/4 beats you want to play, along with a metronome or drum machine. Rock beats, funk beats, Latin grooves, even march-type feels will work. First, just feel the quarter note pulse evenly. Next, mentally subdivide using sixteenth-notes, while still paying attention to the quarter-notes. Finally, do both, but also put an emphasis on the 1 and 3. By this, I don't necessarily mean more volume, just more focus. If you do it correctly, you should feel the swing from the downbeats to the backbeats, and it will almost seem as if you're playing in two different tempos: the original 4/4 tempo, and a seemingly half-time tempo. You might also notice that your beat seems to widen out and become fatter sounding.
Practicing this way has a number of benefits and it shouldn't take long before you notice it strengthen your overall playing, as well as your ensemble playing. You can also apply the same basic principle to triplet-based patterns, as well as to odd meters. Applying the principle to odd meters will require you to find the primary downbeats; for instance, a 5/4 pattern broken up as 3-2 or 2-3. Experiment on your own, and I'll see you next time!
Images and Information from DRUM! January/February 1992, pages 35 & 36