Playing to your rhythm
4 min read

Playing to your rhythm

What music can teach us about feel.
Playing to your rhythm

"Mick Jagger can't sing - and it doesn't matter one bit." That was a comment my dad made many, many years ago when we were talking about music, and I was reminded of it this week watching a Metallica concert.

The drummer, Lars Ulrich, has always taken a beating (haha! great pun Simon) in the drum community. Many judge him to be a poor drummer, but they forget that that's only part of the package when it comes to making something special.

In my teens I enjoyed attempting to play guitar and drums (saying I played them is pushing it a bit...).

I began to read about the artists I liked, listening to the experts in magazines who advised what tunes to listen to and which artists to follow.

Oftentimes they would deride other artists - often popular ones - for their lack of perceived technical ability. Meanwhile, they'd hail an obscure musician who is able to to simultaneously play two guitars or beat at drum 300 times per minute as geniuses.

I had a good friend at university who was a fantastic guitarist. The problem was, he was just like the experts. He loved obscure guitarists who looked as if they stepped out of a time machine from the 1980s. And he ridiculed new bands, often because the tunes were technically not perfect.

He was technically right, of course. But he was wrong about this being the main shortcoming.

Computers can be perfect. They can play anything note perfect with timing no human could possibly emulate. But what makes great music great is the feel, and the same goes for many areas of work.

Human metrics

If you are technically the best at something, good for you. That does mean a lot. But if, like most people, you're not, there are a million different ways you can make whatever it is you do unique. Technical metrics are just one of the many ways to measure something (and a rather dull one at that).

Technically good drummer Mike Portnoy has this to say about Lars Ulrich:

"I'd rather be entertained and go to a show and watch a drummer and have somebody that makes me actually smile. So I don't judge drummers based on their technical ability; I judge them based on the overall package and what they bring to the music they're part of. And what Lars brings to the music of Metallica is absolutely invaluable. So I could care less if his meter might be slightly up and down, or if his fills are slightly sloppy; I don't care about that. To me, there's way more to being a good drummer than precision and technique."

My dad was saying the same thing about Mick Jagger after I said I could never perform in a band.

He wasn't saying he wasn't a great artist, he was making the point that technically he couldn't sing if measured by traditional metrics. But he brought so much to the table in terms of performance, attitude and hip swinging. He was unique, world class.

A primer on feel

Metallica wouldn't be Metallica with Ulrich. The Rolling Stones wouldn't be The Rolling Stones without Jagger.

The history of their craft relies more on feel and less on formal technique. As music producer Michael Beinhorn explains in this great post, every form of modern popular music carries a derivation of African music.

The interesting thing about African music, he says, is its general adherence to timing. Perhaps because most ethnic music wasn't based around notation, the concept of timing was much less formal (unlike classical music where timing is very strict).

"Instead of there being a specific down beat where everyone lands simultaneously, there is a loose (yet general) idea of where down beats are relative to each player (and to each instrument sound).When instruments are played together in this way, a remarkable and unique sensation of movement which is generated. All the instruments are perceived as working together, but they are neither dependent upon one another, nor are they particularly independent. They can be said to be performing together interdependently."

This creates an 'invisible latticework' of sound. It's all together, but also always unique, always personal.

This doesn't mean you can just turn up with a drum kit at your next party without a moment of practice. You will not be popular.

But it does mean that you can start learning a craft and playing to your own rhythm.

It also means you shouldn't worry about the perfect pros over there practising speed drumming for 12 hours a day (why?!). Focus on your your own unique ability, practice, and let a bit of your come out.

And what does Ulrich has to say about all this?

"I'm not a particularly accomplished drummer but I am very, very, very good at understanding the role of the drums next to James Hetfield's rhythm guitar. I guarantee you I'm the best guy in the world for that, and that's enough for me!"

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