If You Can Count It, You Can Play It

One of the basic lessons I learned when I was taking drum lessons was how to count time.

I learned the basic 1,2,3,4  for quarter notes, 1N,2N,3N,4N for eighth notes , 1ENA, 2ENA, 3ENA, 4ENA for sixteenth notes and 1NA,2NA, 3NA, 4NA for eighth note triplets.

My teacher would say, “If you can count it, you can play it.

This is true.

I play predominantly by feel.  I can read music but it’s been so long since I had to that it takes my brain too long to process what I’m reading into my hands.  I should practice it more but there are just so many things you can work on in such limited time.  Once I finally translate the notes on the page into a feel I forget about the written notes and only use it to reference where I am in the song.

For years just about every song I ever learned I learned by simply listening to it to get the feel and then the arrangement which generally changed when the band covered it.

Recently one of the songs I had to learn for a band had a very syncopated rhythm.

I sat and listened to it and got the feel but couldn’t get the count.  I couldn’t count it so I had a hard time playing it.

The back beat didn’t fall on two and four.  It was on the N after 2 in the first bar, the N after one and then on 4 in the next bar.  At another point in the song it changes to the N after 2 and on 4 in all the measures.

Now as I sit here writing this I can tell you specifically where the back beat was to be played but when I was trying to learn it I couldn’t until I sat down and broke it down measure by measure and counted it.

The feel that the unconventional back beat gave the rhythm was an almost triplet like feel but I knew it wasn’t.  I knew it was just eighth notes not triplets.

So first I counted out the right hand on the high hat or ride cymbal and determined it was just steady eighth notes.

Then I counted and notated on a basic chart the left hand which is the snare, the back beat for both the first half of the song and when it changed in the second half.

Finally I counted and notated the bass drum.

Now I had my chart and I could count it.  I understood exactly what notes made the feel.

I thought it would take me an hour or more to learn to play this different rhythm.  Not that it’s that difficult of a beat but it’s different for me and it had been a while since I pushed myself to learn an unconventional beat.

But since I did my “homework” and could count it and understood the beat it translated to my hands and feet with ease.

After running through it a couple of times I had and understood the feel and could stop counting in my head and work more on technique and feel for the song.

Even though I already knew the lessons I had just learned with this exercise I once again reaffirmed to myself two things:

  1. Make it simple and build from that. I took this somewhat foreign rhythm and broke it down by each hand and foot.  Once I understood what each one was doing I could put it all together.
  2. If you can count it you can play it or if you can’t count it you can’t play it. I understood where each note fell in the measure.  That’s over half the battle when learning a new beat.

The other benefit to pushing myself and learning this song or really learning any new song is it keeps my mind sharp.  That should serve me well in my old age.coldsweat

This particular song changes the feel in the middle of the song.  It’s a subtle but definitely noticeable change.  This kind of song helps me exercise my focus and keeps me sharp.

And it adds yet another set of chops to my repertoire.

© Otis P Smith and About the Groove, 2015. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Otis P Smith and About the Groove with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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