Drummers are the rhythmic backbone of any modern music. You can really step up your game by observing drummers and stealing a few pages from their playbook.
1: Lock Into 2 & 4
Modern pop, rock & blues is primarily in 4/4 time. Generally, drummers play the snare on beats 2 & 4 which gives the beat a sense of propulsion. I’ve prattled on before about the importance of tapping your foot as you play. But if you want to really internalize the groove, switch to tapping your foot just on 2 & 4. Once you start paying attention to where 2 & 4 fall, you’ll get a whole new perspective on your playing. It will really start to groove.
One thing you should note is that not all rock beats emphasize 2 & 4. Some shuffles put the crack of the snare on 3. The most famous example would be the “Purdy Shuffle” which has been used in songs like Led Zeppelin’s “Fool In The Rain” and Steely Dan’s “Home At Last”. If you stick with 2 & 4 on this kind of beat your playing will sound out-of-sync. So you need to pay attention.
2: Follow the Snare
For beats that use these quieter snare hits, the drummer is generally doing something pretty funky by syncopating beats between the snare and hi-hit, but it’s usually just a steady stream of 8th or 16th notes. As a guitarist, you can click into the drummer by following the basic 8th or 16th note pattern. Once you’re locked in, try syncopating your playing to match the accents the drummer is playing. This is the essence of funk rhythm guitar.
A “fill” is some deviation from the basic beat that drummers put into their playing. They usually signal a transition to a different part of a song, like from a verse to a chorus, or the beginning of a repetition. Some drummers, like Keith Moon, play fills pretty much all the time. Others, like AC/DC’s Phil Rudd almost never play fills. This is part of what defines their individual styles.
As a guitarist, you can mimic a lot of what drummers are doing. Some great examples are Jimi Hendrix’ “Voodoo Chile”, SRV’s “Tin Pan Alley” and pretty much the entire first Van Halen record. These fills are like little decorative accents, but they aren’t places for full-blown solos. Think of these more as places to tell the listener there’s a change coming, and less about showing off.
The trick to pulling them off is getting the timing right. They need to start in a logical place, like the first or third beat of a measure, and they need to end in a logical place (typically the first beat of the following measure). Like drummers, guitar-fills often work best to signal a transition from one part of a song to another. But if your drummer is laying down a fill, you might want to get out of his way and stick to your part. Two fills at once might sound like the band is falling apart.
This means you’re going to need to communicate with your drummer. Yes, that means you have to stop looking at the fretboard the entire time and pay attention to what everyone else is doing. Simply making eye-contact at the right time can make some magic happen in the moment.
Drummers don’t have tonal pitches they can play like guitarists can. Yes, they tune their drums, but they don’t have twelve notes available to them to compose melodies. Instead, drummers rely a lot on dynamics. That is, they vary their volume to add interest to their playing. A lot of rock guitarists overlook this component in their playing.
As guitarists, particularly in rock, we get pretty used to dialing everything up and leaving it there. Particularly when we’re playing with a lot of gain, our signal gets compressed and lowering our volume gets tricky. Two things you can try are rolling the volume knob back a bit on your guitar and playing with a much lighter touch.
The bridge in Van Halen’s “Panama” is a good example of dynamics. The bass and drums quiet down and Eddie plays with an incredibly light touch. It gives the song a chance to breathe before the climb into the final chorus. Without that volume break, the song wouldn’t end as powerfully as it does.
As an aside, I think guitarists should spend more time playing with different settings for their volume knob. A fun experiment to try is to dial-up a fairly high-gain setting on your amp then start rolling-back the volume on your guitar a bit. Then play with how hard you hit the strings with your pick to get different volumes and tones. Also, don’t be afraid to use your fingertips to get a gentler sound. You’ll discover a whole new palette of tones.
5: Play Your Guitar Like a Kit
The drum set is a relatively modern instrument. It’s really just evolved from a random collection of various percussion pieces into what we think of now as the modern drum kit. Unlike classical concert percussionists, drummers are typically playing several pieces at once. One foot plays the bass drum, the other might move the hi-hat, one hand is on a cymbal and the other is on a snare. What makes a groove is coordinating all those pieces together into a steady flow of notes.
As guitarists, we can mimic some of this approach by breaking up our rhythm playing into different pieces and mixing them back together. For example, instead of simply strumming a chord, you can mimic the bass & snare by playing the root note on each bass hit, and the rest of the chord on the snare hit. This is just the beginning. For more complicated beats, you can start breaking up chord voicings into multiple pieces and play them to match each piece the drummer is playing. Even in cases where the drum beat is pretty simple, you can play a more complicated rhythm part over the top using this technique.
Also, don’t hesitate to get creative with muted notes. A big part of really funky guitar-playing is mixing muted notes in with fretted notes. Again, think of the opening to Hendrix’ “Voodoo Chile”. Those are all muted notes played through a wah-pedal. He’s taken all of the melodic and harmonic content out and focused solely on the rhythm.
There’s an old musician’s joke that goes like this:
Q: How can you tell when a drummer is playing out of time?
A: If their arms are moving.
Good drummers can be hard to find. Even basic beat-keeping requires a really solid sense of time that often takes years to develop. If you ever have the chance to play with decent drummer, make the most of it and really pay attention to how she plays. Pay attention to how she uses dynamics, fills and accents. You could learn a lot from a drummer.