The Rimshot Backbeat is the single-most important technique in getting a dream snare drum sound.
And the rimshot, in my experience with young rock drummers, is among the most neglected.
This stuns me. I’ve seen drummers buy a new snare drum in search of that crunching backbeat sound and get all frustrated when they strike it timidly in the center of the head.
A young drummer approaches me and asks about some snare drum I’m playing and I oblige him/her. Then I advise them that the sound they’re hearing more likely resides in the way I strike the drum: always a rimshot (okay 95%) on 2 & 4. Invariably, he/she wrinkles a brow, looking as if a firecracker has gone off, clearly shaken. As well they should be. Thing is, I’m not striking the drum, despite an occasional long arc (my way of marking time in space especially in slow tempo tracks), that hard. I’m not whacking the drum into submission.
Rather, I’m invoking what the drum offers: rim tone, shell tone, snare response, and stick tone, too.
If you’re striking 2 & 4 and not being heard—and not getting the sound of your dreams—I’ll bet you a fin that you are not striking rimshots consistently on the backbeat.
You need to (1) begin playing rimshots on 2 & 4, something an astounding number of drummers don’t do; and (2) you need to find the sweet spots that lay waiting. I’ve suggest a few basic positions: stick vs head. I go for many in a day’s work but, all things equal, my favorite is a rimshot with the bead landing south of center. It’s been a labor of love getting that one to send less vaudevillian and more like Steve Jordan. Now there is a drummer who knows rimshots and plays them like a fish on a line.
I’m going to offer you suggested stick-to-batter head positions—north of center, south of center and so on, in addition the basic smack on center or damn near (the position that arguably yields the fattest backbeat with least high harmonics and minimal decay). First, some background.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned since I began drumming in 1965, it’s how to get a great snare sound live off the floor. That spoken, my snare drum often offends the meek. It has resulted in me losing gigs on more than one occasion owing to the tremendous bump in volume it affords.
More dB presence > relaxed stroke > less hand trauma > less energy expended > more musical and more distinct backbeat.
A strong snare drum backbeat, however, confounds its opposition and inherits the earth. I’ve helped a lot of young drummers get their sound. Sometimes it takes weeks and months. Others it takes minutes—providing they grasp the rimshot, so to speak.
The rimshot comes from God-knows before vaudeville but became famous in that era, when incredible human or animal “stunts” were set up by snare drum exclamations called rimshots.
First a little rim history (I saw you yawn…listen up!)
My oldest, earliest relevant memory was at age 4 when my dad took me to see a Barnum & Bailey three-ring circus. Since the circus trade has all but vanished, at least this sort, the memory is worth setting down on paper. Or setting down herein, given I omitted this one when I used to keep a diary.
I was young, had barely learned “The Red River Valley” on mouth organ. I’d never played drums, probably never seen drums. It was the end of a perfect day at the circus—an exciting day of games, freak shows, and all sorts of diversions that are illegal today in most states. And provinces. And countries with notable exceptions.
So there we were under the big top, a structure the size of a commercial airline hangar, sitting on bleachers and thrilling to women and men dancers; and various animals; and disguised characters called “clowns”. All were engaged in antics—racing, juggling, jumping, and riding in circles (this would underscore the notion of “ring” as in “three-ring circus”. Come to think of it, I remember but one ring. Then again, first time I saw a NYC subway, I didn’t spot the third rail). There was so much stuff going on it’s hard to say at this vantage point whether it was anarchy or extremely organized. All I know is that my eyes and ears were wide open.
Especially when the drummer got going. As I saw it, he gave rhythm to the dance and punctuation to the movement, both human and beast. When the man squeezed himself into the giant cannon and submitted to being fired across public view, the drummer rolled on his floor tom and bass drum, signifying a successful landing with a crash cymbal or two. I noticed and remember clearly that if some jagged movement came to the fore—say a clown clowning around and stumbling on an imaginary wooden leg—the drummer wouldn’t simply choke the crash cymbal. He’d add some rumbling toms and cymbal swells while the clown was mobile then splash a cymbal sharply to signal a fall and a broken leg. Often a knife-throw, which was a common ploy in circuses, would get a rimshot.
That sort of thing stays with you. It informs you when you begin doing singer-songwriter gigs and want to comment. I remember a Canadian folk singer, Ian Tamblyn, with whom I worked for a decade (and who fired me because I “played cymbals too loud”), used to sing, “everybody wants to walk in the Hollywood parade…”. Except him, fine dandy. My circus memories flooded through me and infused his music. I’d follow the lyric with a series of marching 5-strokes on snare and splashed open-closed hats, the latter to suggest hand cymbals.
It came to me a while later that you can only catch so much. Sometimes you’ve got to let it go by and not play the vaudeville or classic theater drummer. Sometimes you had to play time and let the lyrics speak for themselves.
I still comment a little too much. But my rimshot, when I comment, is finely honed. And that is the issue today, when all drummers enjoy access to early clips of Buddy Rich and Gene Krupa, which reveal two drummers who designed their rimshots carefully in order to invoke proper pitch, harmonics, decay, etc. In that sense, vaudeville is still very much alive.
And so is the rimshot. A good rimshot will serve a simple drummer well and foster an air of complexity beyond his/her technical limitations if only by clarifying what should be obvious. Sure you could nail 2 and 4 like clockwork but it wouldn’t tell people anything more than you are capable of marking the passage of time.
Quite apart from aesthetic considerations, it is natural that a clear voice will be heard in a crowd. That is why, according to the tenets of American and western pop music, I stress learning to stake out the kit by way of a magnificent rimshot.
Rimshot accents vs backbeats: today we’re talking backbeats only
First we distinguish between rimshot accents and rimshot backbeats, the latter being our focus. You need to understand that when you slap a rimshot it is not arbitrary. You know, if you glance the rim, strike it by mistake, you haven’t played a rimshot; you’ve made a mistake. Each time you strike a rimshot you have a purpose. Today’s ours is the bolstering of 2 & 4.
When drummers first hear the full force of a rimshots it’s as if the heavens open. Imagine how engineers feel.
I’ve done annual seminars, sometimes twice-annual, for The Audio Recording Academy, located at Raven Street Studios, Ottawa. Like other major, inner-city studios, Raven has followed the trend of using considerable down time to reveal expertise to legions of students who can afford cheap gear but don’t have a clue.
I walk the students through a typical session from a recording drummer’s perspective. I act as if this was a freelance session where I arrive without a hint of the music and need to assemble bits and pieces to comprise a generic recording drumset. I help students understand circumference muffling as in the EQ1 and Powerstroke, mention trends when I started out, and move on to other drums.
Point is, when I get to the snare drum, I suggest that 90% of the classic snare drum sounds (“Owner of a Lonely Heart”, “Roxanne”, “Save the World” ??) were struck in a manner that suggests strongly the outcome.
Where to Place the Stick
You place a rimshot according to what you want to hear.
If this sounds deceivingly simple, know that it is true: live and especially in the studio.
Most drummers, I suggest, overlook this obvious reality.
Your snare sound lies more in the way you strike the rimshot, and obtain a snare drum level/volume in proportion to the other items in the drumset—and in the mix—than in any studio gating, compression, and general trickery.
The rimshot, furthermore, as I discovered from a close study of Dave Mattacks and, by extension, his idol Kenny Clare, is not a mere congruency of head and rim—not a mere unison striking of metal (might be wood) rim and head.
There are short rimshots, long rimshots, rimshots south of center, and rimshots north of center. Each delivers a degree of clang and finality. There are so many historic examples of rimshots defining tunes that it’s silly and inexcusable drummers fail to recognize them for what they are: the crunchy, muffled, wallet-on-snare Al Jackson Jr rimshot backbeat, the more ringy but ostensibly similar John Bonham 2 and 4, the authoritative pop of Earl Palmer in “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’”. You can almost pull them out of a hat: the LA sizzling pop of Hal Blaine on too many radio hits to count, beginning with, oh, Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots are Made for Walking” and the Tijuana Brass’s “A Taste of Honey”. Then there’s Ringo popping away in the verse and chorus of The Beatles “In My Life”.
I’ve done up a few sketches that you really ought to study. Guys come over to my basement music room, some of them better players than me, but they don’t strike rimshot backbeats and they sound wimpy. Wimpy means less work, it’s that simple, that fundamental a reality. You ain’t hittin’ rim and head, you ain’t playin’ the drums.
You hear the old Stax Records releases and you hear a beautiful, crunching rimshot that lands near the center (and falls next to a leather wallet oftentimes, one that’s secured to the Rogers Powertone in order to quel overtones). That’d be Al Jackson Jr getting his distinctive, lethal backbeat live-off-the-floor.
Long before I researched, interviewed, and wrote the tribute to the legendary Stax drummer, which appeared in Modern Drummer in the early 1980s, I’d learned from Dave Mattacks that the secret to most of the revered snare drum sounds in history was not the recording console but the way the drummer took care of business off the floor on the other side of the glass (does anybody remember studios?).
Place the stick at one of these spots & enjoy the effect. Ensure you strike rim concurrently with the head; if you strike rim only, especially in the studio (Jim Keltner on Randy Newman’s “Short People” at the point of vocal entry…they left it in because everything felt good; those were the days!). Similarly, if you strike head only, you’ll get a good sound; it simply won’t deliver 2 and 4 with finality, authority, and the sort of tone that comes from bringing rim, shell, and heads into play.
Once you master a few simple positions, you’ll find yourself exploring the head looking for alternatives that feel better to you. And that’s when drummers will begin saying that they can identify you by your backbeat sound. Guaranteed they won’t unless you master rimshots and learn to play them consistently—obviously when required almost concurrently with the heThen explore the rim and head. Come up with your own optimum rimshot locations according to your touch, stick girth, force of attack, etc. You can mark sweet spots with a Sharpie until you memorize them.
Center: crunchy, fat, often lacking in upper harmonics. Decay may be limited. Thus, this may be the best rimshot position relative to “self-muffling”, meaning controlling decay with the stick in absence of muffling (takes practice)
South of Center: placing the beat, or butt, of stick closer to you, can be more vaudevillian but is optimum position for one-drop reggae and certain Latin grooves requiring a hybrid snare/timbale sound, especially songo (Cuba). Works great for partido alto (Brazil).
North of Center: ultimate in power as struck by Jeremy Taggart (Our Lady Peace). Watch that you don’t go too far north or you’ll smack your hand against the snare rim.
Side: I use this a lot combined with the south position. A slight shift to the east brings, it seems, a more “expansive” rimshot tone.
There are many more possibilities. And that’s with sticks. Brushes, brooms, rods all carry their own rimshot tonal possibilities.