The key to a great drum groove is not speed, not chops, not metronomic time. It’s maintaining a consistent upbeat!

One of the mysteries of life is that nobody tells drummers about the upbeat. They mention the backbeat—part of it, for sure—but they don’t go further and explain that a a major component of the groove is focusing on the bits between the dominant notes (often where laypeople tap their feet).

And it’s not just keeping consistent note values, either. It’s maintaining consistent emphasis on these upbeats. Fail in that one and you mess up a groove beyond repair.

The upbeat is the most well-kept secret in drumming. The upbeat underscores any good groove, makes any lazy drum beat dance. It’s a defining characteristic of folkloric and urban music styles.

The reason it’s not discussed is because it’s a more difficult aspect of drumming to tackle—discuss in context/demonstrate/teach—than fast double-kicks. On the face of it, the upbeat is as plain as dirt but once you try it you’ll see that it’s incredibly difficult to maintain it, especially when we get to the Chris Parker/Steve Gadd “Sun Song” example (noted below) or the many others etched on vinyl/CD by ?uestlove (“The Fire”) and Steve Jordan (“Mr Slump”).

The upbeat goes against natural drummer tendencies. Many grown men would tear their hair out rather than try and keep a consistent upbeat going from intro to exit of a 3-minute track. It’s that hard to do. And I bet you $50 you can’t do one tight enough to come close to “Sun Song”; I’ve written the basic pattern below. Put your money where your mouth is.

Adding to the difficulty is a certain confusion of definition, given “upbeat” was once used in lieu of “backbeat” to refer to the snare drum 2 and 4 characteristic of rock music. This “upbeat” is only the beginning. I’m not sure if I’ll get to the end of it lucidly but I’ll try and do the best I can and, hopefully, get you motivated…distract you from that blast beat bass drum.

It’s taken me 40-plus years in the saddle to get it. And merely getting it in-spirit is easy compared to the difficulty I’ve experienced trying to maintain it throughout a track without fluffing or hiccuping. The reward is hearing—and feeling—a song take flight. See, you can’t just catch a piece of the upbeat, then revert to former tendencies. You can’t dabble in the upbeat. The moment you lose it is the moment the groove dissipates.

You know how your drummer friend sits down and plays a beat and it’s all lumpy—feels like it’s tripping over its own feet, lurching forward and holding back? Sometimes it’s not mere sloppiness but a more terminal sort caused by the drummer’s lack of vigilance in guarding and maintaining the upbeat. It doesn’t have to do, necessarily, with keeping the time, although certainly it makes the time feel better!

I’ll try and explain a frightfully difficult concept you ought to know about and woodshed.

What’s an “upbeat” anyway?

Although it means different things to different drummers, educators, and, especially, ethnomusicologists, there is common ground. When old timers began to label the snare hit on 2 and 4 the “upbeat”, what they meant is that the traditional emphasis on all-4 pulses (thinking common time) or on 1 (the way people clap in baseball stadiums) had been replaced by a bouncier feel that stresses the pulses formerly left alone. These pulses, when emphasized and not merely slammed home, constitute the upbeats.

Thus a standard jazz ride cymbal rhythm, with swung eighths, when augmented with this upbeat feel, begins to really bop. Similarly, an upbeat will jack a mundane swing into a lethal half-time funk.

The upbeat is quite simply the space between customarily dominant pulses.

Any expert hand percussionist is painfully aware of the upbeat

When you’re shaking something and the band is grooving and people are dancing, you know about the upbeat already. For the rest of you, what you need to do is take up a tambourine or maracas and, in common time, play 8th-notes. It will probably sound something like this: CHICK chick CHICK chick …. That’s the art of a certain realm of hand percussion—and the secret of the dance.

A lot of it is gravity (for drumset players it’s a different sort…called inertia!).If you nail the down beat with your shakers, there’s this annoying after-effect that occurs when the contents bounce from the front wall to the back—unless, of course, you’re lucky enough to stumble upon a pair of LP One-Shot Shakers. I wrote the press releases when these were released and was skeptical about the concept until LP sent me a pair. The LP One-Shots address square-on the difficult lay percussionists experience manipulating the after beat—or upbeat.

Harness that after shake for good not evil because that troublesome, ornery after shake is the upbeat. Recognizing the issue, LP reckoned that sometimes it’s easier to silence something than deal with it.

Rather than controlling that after shake that occurs when the buckshot hits the back wall of the gourd/cylinder via hand technique, the LP One-Shot damps the back wall. This is ingenious. I think it is but maybe I don’t get out enough. It enables the drummer, particularly n the studio, to play shakers using downbeat technique. Think of striking with a drumstick and not lifting after each stroke, which is what you want to be doing with a drumstick anyway. If you’re lifting the stick skyward after each stroke you’re gonna look like a mechanical monkey. Point is, a drummer unfamiliar with maracas in the studio can look like a star—he (she) doesn’t have to exhibit the sort of expertise required to control the after shake.

Then again, this “second shot”, to use LP terminology is the key to the bounce or swing factor. It’s not that it ought to be locked down tight—executed with precisely the same force as the down stroke. In fact, the lilt of the upstroke is the human factor. It’s why Chris Parker, or perhaps Steve Gadd (or both) achieve such a remarkable, sprightly forward-moving effect in the old Stuff tune “Sun Song”.

I felt it but I didn’t realize it until one night years ago when I caught the Mario Bauza Orchestra outdoors at a local jazz festival years ago. I believe it was the legendary Latin vocalist Hiram Ramone who played a solo on maracas-only. His control, it seemed to me, was beyond complete. It was magic the way he seemed to move the buckshot inside those gourds, almost as if it were the moon and the dies. He shook it away, he summoned it, he rolled it around like those motorcycles that ride a 45-degree track (talk about mixing sacred with secular). At any rate, you can imagine that he pushed the excitement up a few notches.

Hate to harp on maracas (interesting juxtaposition of instruments) but if you understand the way they work, you’re on your way to understanding the upbeat. See, some things in drumming don’t come from bounce but from stroke….if that makes any sense at all.

Shakin’ all over

Speaking of which, the namesake rock tune is a really good example of a bouncy upbeat, in that instance the so-called “twist beat”. But back to maracas, imagine playing them in a cha cha cha. Steady 8th notes, first stroke on the downbeat, second on the upbeat and down the line. The “ands” are critical to getting the dancers up on the floor; the emphasis here is critical.

It’s nothing to do with clavé; I find it absurd when people say that a cha cha is in-clavé. I mean, how can a 1-bar phrase be in-clavé? Beats me.

One reason it’s cool when, say, Joey Heredia plays a cha cha on drumset is the way he plays the conga part on his bass drum—which comes down on the 4-and. The wee bit of extra emphasis on that and is the upbeat at work. The groove doesn’t stop like a lump on 4, which sounds trivial, I realize. Play it yourself, the 2 eighth-notes on kick and see how the cha cha groove jumps forward.

Years ago at Ronnie Scottls (Soho, London jazz club) I witnessed this for the first time, meaning the 4 and on bass drum and it was in a jazz context. Kenny Washington played that figure on his bass drum on an up tempo swing and, baby, did that kick every make it swing alright! I stole that lick then and there and it always works, which is to say I do not trot it out every tune.

Since we’ve neatly segued to a discussion of jazz time, let’s look at the business about the chick, cause by closing hats on 2 and 4, and the claim that the upbeat thus created is what defines modern jazz. If not modern jazz, maybe swing. Who am I to knock the authorities who’ve written this over and over in textbook after textbook…especially when it’s partially true? Well, if I might add an observation or two:

For one thing, the relentless quarter-note feel, such as seems to have been implicit in Jimmy Cobb’s work with Miles Davis, and appropriated by Steve Gadd on Jim Hall’s Concierto, recently re-released, can drive a bop tune and get it bouncing along even if the drummer doesn’t play hi-hat at all!

According to conventional wisdom, if a drummer plays tang, tang, tang, tang—no hi-hat on 2 and 4, nor any deviation on ride but simply quarter-notes, than according to my upbeat argument, it’s not going to swing, right?

Ah yes, but there’s more to it than that. In fact, the upbeat is what creates the forward bouncing motion in those instances when the drummer accents the middle note in the typical jazz ride pattern. In the following example I insert the conventional “swung-eighths” ride beat on the 4-and and show quarter notes elsewhere. Ting ting ting ting-da ting. The control of this, what is in effect an, upbeat is the key to contemporary jazz time feel, as my friend Ian Froman is always telling me in no uncertain terms when I sit with him at the drumset. My jazz time sucks, Ian has stated, because: (1) I don’t play even quarter-notes, but, rather, tend to come down on 2 or 4 or both, and (2) I don’t play the “middle note” of the jazz ride beat with sufficient emphasis, nor consistently. It’s not a matter of whacking out an accent on this upbeat but maintaining a slight oomph such that it drives the music ahead. Wows, this is really getting difficult to discuss, not only because of these deficiencies in my playing but because of the difficulty in putting certain musical concepts, best felt, in words. You can check out Ian, who demonstrates on the Vic Firth website.

The jazz ride cymbal beat with upbeat shown

The upbeat and role in uplifting the jazz ride cymbal beat

It’s not as if I’m permanently stuck in some rut. Since Ian broached this topic with me when criticizing my jazz playing about 20 years ago (ironically a former student now gone off into the upscale jazz circles and returning to set his teacher straight), it’s become plain to me that he’s spot-on. He’s certainly helped me get things sounding right. If I can change, you can change. And your first step, in jazz, is learning how to play quarter-notes on ride, equidistant and without accentuation. You can always tell a rocker posing as a jazz drummer by way of the telltale accents on either 1 and 3 or 2 and 4. Once you learn how to play quarters, and I mean over the course of a tune, then you can make it really pop by means of the upbeat or middle beat in the jazz ride pattern, which you emphasize consistently. It’s done wonders for my jazz playing, you know, bringing it into the 21st century at very least—and I grew up listening to Coltrane, The Fourth Way, Art Blakey and all that. Funny, it takes someone objective to point out one’s deficiencies or tendencies. In my case, it was a child-is-father-to-the-man scenario. I knew this stuff but it took someone I’d once taught to teach me!

How did I know the upbeat?

I got a feel for this when I was 5 and playing my first public performance on harmonica before an audience of parents, teachers, and graduating kindergarten peers. My dad, who had played a lot of harmonica (I don’t mean it was a huge harmonica or anything) and a little accordion (ditto), inspired me to take up mouth organ and wail. Only thing that wailed at first was the cat…until I began to play melodies and get them perked up and dancing.

At any rate, some of the music my dad taught me, which he’d learned at home in the tobacco belt from migrant farm workers, simply refused to sit well, I discovered, on 1 and 3 but seemed to jump to its feet, come alive, when I began to stress the upbeat, or, at least, the 2 and the 4. Mind you, some of the southern stuff my dad would play (and he’d imitate the vocals of the migrant workers, probably illegal in this era of political correctness) featured a prominent downbeat on the 2, if you were to count it in a slow 2/4. Or on beat 4 in similar mid-tempo circumstances.

I learned early on that this tension and release, this tug twixt the jump of the upbeat and finality of the downbeat, could be manipulated by the player such that people would tap their foot vigorously and without impediment—or dance or clap. I remember so clearly that if I were to loose that upbeat thing, parents and teachers (who I’d watch out of the corner of my eye) would sort of falter in the body movement and feet tapping. I mean, you work to get that happening and you ought not to sacrifice it.

We’re not talking exclusively southern/roots/Americana repertoire, either. I learned as a kid that this dancing, upbeat feeling was something that crossed cultural/stylistic boundaries. Some funky old barnyard stomp could benefit when infused with the upbeat lilt as easily as the revered “Red River Valley” and “Scotland the Brave” (my choice for first tune in that first public performance).

The MJQ came into my living room and confronted me within a year of Ringo appearing on The Ed Sullivan Show. Both Connie Kay and Ringo Starr, I recall fondly, were masters of the upbeat feel—Kay by virtue of stressing that “middle note” in the ride pattern and Ringo with his hi-hat and the “ands”. Ginger Baker furnishes the perfect example, left foot hi-hat on the ands, in “Doing That Scrapyard Thing”, a track from the 1960s power trio Cream. Another more subtle Ginger example is his marvelous handling of “Presence of the Lord”, wherein the upbeat is dispersed but always present. Listen, for example, to his ride bell pattern, which appears as part of the descending chord intro pattern…very churchy. The upbeat “and” is what moves the thing along and, in addition, suggests the house of worship vibe, what with tambourines and all that (at this age, I’d experienced that once in some traveling evangelical road show, which had set up for a day in the corner United Church, about the stiffest institution on the face of the earth. I remember my jaw dropping and my foot chattering; this was unlike the “Amazing Grace” I’d heard from my Sunday choir, about as exciting as a dirge. Again, it was this upbeat thing, which, of course, I hadn’t identified as such but realized its efficacy in getting things swinging. It was a sort of ultimate tribute to the Creator in an era in which I was accustomed to stay as solemnly still as I could in church, avoiding yawning as vigilantly as I resisted the tendency to speak or sing out of turn.

Later examples from mentor Dave Mattacks include his revolutionary treatment of British/Scottish jigs and reels. For the more straight-8th reels, which were analogous to American 2-step folk tunes, DM would stretch the bar length, in effect playing them in 4/4, complete with 2 and 4 on snare, as opposed to previous drummers’ inclinations to adhere to the 1-2, 1-2, 1-2 regimen, with 1 played on kick and 2 on snare. Enough about DM: we’re getting back to his studio diary, as I keep promising. Honestly.

Dave Mattacks revolutionized jigs/reels on drumset

DM revolutionized drumset role in trad jigs/reels

One drop

I got the reggae feel, traditional 1-drop, quicker than my peers for some reason—perhaps attributable to that harmonica upbringing and its attendant eye-opening vision of a new, upbeat lilt. Reggae, or, at least, traditional reggae is characterized by a displacement of the rock n’ roll backbeat. At medium tempo, counted 4 beats to the bar, the backbeat in rock would sit nicely on 2 and 4. In reggae, however, if you maintain the same count 1, 2, 3, 4, those backbeats might be voiced with bass drum instead. Presto, a mid-tempo rocker becomes an up-tempo reggae.

This is difficult, not only in that it challenges stylistic protocol. Insult to injury, it necessitates that drummers somehow wipe clean their muscle memory, which dictates the old faithful coming down with kick on beat 1. In the realm of rock and jazz, it’d tax the mind to imagine some song that doesn’t imply or straight-out feature a bass drum on 1—or on all fours.

Think “I Shot the Sheriff” (nooo, not literally, even though it’s a drag when they stop you on the Interstate and hand you a $300 ticket, which is what happened to me outside of Watertown, NY, which incidentally boasts over 5 separate jurisdictions within a stone’s throw, complete with a JP for each one. Chances are, if you don’t pay a ticket they’ll lose it in the system….not that I ever would contemplate….) At any rate, “I Shot the Sheriff” is commonly played, at least in clubs where I live, with a backbeat on 2 and 4. To me, that ain’t right, as if there were a right and wrong in music.

I hear bass drum on 2 and 4 in “I Shot the Sheriff” and nothing except sticks playing 8th notes on hi-hat on 1 and 3 (I simplify). Ditto with the oft’ rendered Latin version of “Footprints”, the Miles Davis jazz standard. I’ve heard a billion bar bands play this as a songo, as we used to term the hybrid salsa-meets-funk style. To me, it’s irritating when I hear drummers constantly nailing 1. Rather, if they’re going to go-Cuba with “Footprints”, there should be bass drum on the “and” of 2 and smack on 4, with only the occasional kick on 1 as an exclamation or as a resolution.

If you’re unfamiliar with this derivative of salsa, you will be delighted at the discovery. You’ll probably, in addition, get a hernia contorting your natural balance in order to avoid nailing 1 with kick! The implicit upbeat Latin vibe is made even more adamant by the omission of 1. Curiouser and curiouser, the absence of 1 somehow makes the 1 stronger! Somehow.

Mambo! Everybody on the dance floor!

Mambo is said to be a musical style—a drum beat even. I always thought it was a shout chorus. Don’t get me started on songo. Well, just for a moment maybe.

Songo was new to me when I first visited LA in 1988. I got my first sniff while sitting in a club in Venice (not the one in Europe with the canals) watching Joey Heredia execute this hybrid Afro-Cuban rhythm. I was smitten, excited beyond belief. Back in the late 1980s, nobody where I lived, meaning eastern Canada/northern States region where I have relatives, spoke openly about any “song” rhythm. Their so-called “mambo”, from which the songo has borrowed the cascara and clavé (on a good day), featured bass drum 4-on-the-floor. Or worse, and something that pained me back then, even though I couldn’t figure out why, drummers would play their “mambo” with a samba ostinato kick: boom, b-boom, boom, b-boom. All I knew is what I felt. And I felt an unnatural mingling of Brazilian and jazzy ride cymbal and plodding bass drum—to me, a dog’s breakfast. Until I heard Joey and saw him make this music sizzle, while keeping immaculate clavé. The moment I heard him do his brand of songo, I knew it was right. It was good. There was something incontrevertibly authentic, what with the tight cascara the thread running through it, the snare rimshots in pace of timbale, and the bass drum omitting 1 in favor of the ‘and” of 2 and then smacking down a little heavier on 4. I say this in retrospect. At the time I didn’t know what the flock he was doing. And aside from a few casual remarks during break, the bastard left me to sort it out from the tape I’d made and by, “listening to the real salsa bands without drumset and learning what the traditional instruments are doing”.

Indeed, I’d taped 3 sets, still have ‘em, and this was fortunate. But as far as Joey’s admonition, it was easy for him to say! Sure, go listen to traditional music. What kind of guidance was that?

Turns out, it was the best possible guidance. For one thing, there weren’t any books or CD packages or VHS videos to set me straight. The closest was an album I stumbled across by the Puerto Rican band Batacumbele, a God-send.

Point is, I had to learn this stuff myself. No one locally, as it turned out, could aid me. They’d speak as if the dance hall Spanish-inflected rhumba was what I’d begun to comprehend as the in-clavé Afro-Cuban vocal-drum call and response rumba.

Today, you may find this odd. But in those days, playing the real deal kick on the “and” of 2, and so on, put me into contortions and convulsions. And, again, it took hard work guided by intensive listening to salsa albums. The epiphany came when playing along on kit to a cassette of “Se Le Ve”, a Batacumbele track. I can remember a curious feeling and a growing wave of shivers and goose bumps. It reminded me of the first time I buried the click in the studio: where had it gone? Why was I feeling so fluid in the absence of the clicking in my phones? That’s what happened when I finally latched onto the various drumset roles, and especially that offset bass drum—and began doing them in-clavé. It was as if I’d tapped into something so deep, so universal, and so far beyond the notion of drum beats it was ridiculous!

That was my gateway—my passage way from mouth organ and folk dance to Cuban styles and reggae and even Peruvian folk music, long story. All I can say, once again, is that it is the favoring of the upbeat over the familiar downbeat on kick.

The Stairway to …

I have my obsessions and this became another in a long list, which includes photography, searching out old Turkish, Italian, Asian, and American cymbals and playing them, and collecting sea rocks—seriously, polished round-edged stones washed up with the tides. My obsession with the omission of 1 gave way to an unnatural focus on the upbeat.

It occurred to me that many of the most popular Led Zeppelin tracks included a subtle upbeat. I’m not talking Bonham’s incredible backbeat, either. Rather, it was his hi-hat! Played with sticks, cymbals either closed or slightly open and rattling. He’d be playing 8th-notes and accenting, sometime obviously and other times almost imperceptibly, the second 8th note. It’s not like he was truly accenting them; he was emphasizing them, especially those 8th-notes immediately following the backbeat.

Seriously. Go listen and you’ll see what I mean: pick your tune, it’s readily available on many Zeppelin tunes. His nuance was the opposite of the nuances that people explain and demonstrate in drum videos—you know, all those necessary (but not sufficient for our purposes) waves of accents on closed hats that ebb and flow. This is all good but it’s not what the upbeat is about.

Okay, another example, extremely on point: listen to ?uestlove’s drumming, particularly his hi-hat on the track off How I Got Over, “The Fire”. That hi-hat accent after the backbeat is the whole deal.Incidentally, that feel is all over (!) the stunning new, soon to win a Grammy Award, Roots’ album Undun. For that matter, the upbeat accentuation is a tenet of too many folkloric and urban styles to document. We have ignored it, that’s all. We have all tried to get down but forgotten the up.

I’ve mentioned the track “Sun Song” off the first Stuff album. The tempo is slow, around 73 BPM and while the bass drum and snare roles are conventional: kick on 1, snare on 2, etc. But the hi-hat, played closed with sticks, sits in a typical double-time pattern (ie not 8th but 16th notes) and wherein every 3rd 16th-note gets an accent.

The upbeat sets the groove in "Sun Song"

Upbeat accents define groove in "Sun Song"

First off, let the record show that most drummers would play hats with 2 hands alternating left/right L R L R at this tempo, simply to muscle it through the song without falling over in fits of cramps and ultimately paralysis. And they’d play unnaccentuated 16ths, or 16ths with some groovy emphasis on all 4s, fine and good. But just try and do it the way Parker/Gadd do it on “Sun Song”. Do not, for a moment, miss the accent on the 3rd 16th-note or all bets are off. Once you get it, and, brother, it’s gonna take some time, you’ll know the upbeat.

I don’t know why drummers, their teachers, musicologists, and other authorities don’t deal with this necessary tenet of time and swing. If they know about it, they sure play it close to the chest. Of course, there are major exceptions, especially ?uestlove and Steve Jordan (from the latter, you hear a stellar upbeat treatment on “Mr Slump”, from the band Eyewitness. I stole that one and used it on a Gerry Griffin track but I digress).

Footnotes to getting down using upbeats

I may be straying (what else is new?) but I believe some of the problem is not embraced by the concept coordinated independence, which presumes alternating sticking, R L R L. Obviously, I know that there are a host of stickings, as we call them, that venture far from the R L R L alternating pattern. But each of those patterns presupposes a this-hand that-hand division of labor. If you’re doing doubles with your left hand, chances are it’s off to give it up to the right hand in the blink of an eye. Singles, doubles and flams…that’s the mantra.

But that doctrine leaves out, in practice if not in theory, one critical concept I’d like to discuss at some future point; I’ve written out a long article already but it’s going through edit 32 at the moment. What is “anal retentive”?

Traditional drum pedagogy, if that’s the right word, misses out on a critical bit of technique:

Unison.

I’ll leave that teaser ’til later but state provocatively that until we explore unison, meaning both hands or both feet or one hand and one foot coming down at the same time, not flamming if possible, then we’ll be stuck. Each time we attempt to accent in some atypical manner, such as you’ll see when you master the hi-hat upbeat in “Sun Song”, we’ll be thrown into some unnatural, perverse posture.

Not to trivialize once again, but when we place an upbeat on some beat in which downbeats customarily rule, we defy muscle-memorized patterns and fall flat. Or throw out our back. The only way of executing smoothly is to revisit unison and practice unison, seemingly an unexciting and peripheral aspect of drum instructional doctrine. I’ve been realizing that it’s essential, far more so than the once-popular business about linear drumming, which dictates that we never touch down with any 2 limbs at the same time. No unison is allowed.

More later.

The upbeat is sometimes elusive: it’s there and it disappears. That’s okay. The real groove players manipulate this presence, applying it whenever a piece of music requires forward motion.

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