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Build Your Groove with a Drum Machine

Using a drum machine can be great for practicing and offer more than a metronome can provide

Building a Drum Machine Track
Download Audio Example
1. Machine starts on a four-beat count-in. Kick and snare drums were already recorded on a previous take of this track. Kick is on all four beats, snare is on 2 and 4.
2. Hi-hat is added, a little uneven and without any swing to the beat. It even rushes a little bit. After the first two bars of hi-hat, it is just playing back and the quantizing kicks in to even things up, while the looser swing setting adds some bounce.
3. A crash cymbal is added at the start of the first bar on the next pass of the two-bar segment.
Every few months, I succumb to an idealistic bout of self-improvement with my bass playing and pick up a new music book, video or gadget. Some things stick, while many more don’t. But I keep trying. My desk has books and DVDs on walking basslines, Latin bass playing, R&B bass and jazz soloing, plus some of the more esoteric topics like slapping the doghouse. One learning tool that has long fascinated me is the drum machine, but I’ve been deterred by what seemed like a complicated undertaking. Not so: a drum machine can be great for practicing, offering more groove-building assistance than a metronome because you’re actually playing off the key parts of a drum rhythm. And it’s not hard to use. I got the nerve to try out a drum machine while watching a bass-related DVD that showed how to use one. The approach on the video made sense, so it was time for another binge of self-improvement GAS. I shopped around and found a basic drum machine for under $100.

Okay, So What Do You Do?
When the drum machine arrived, I pulled out the manual and spent some time reading it. That helped me see how my new box compared to the one in the video. I also got an idea of what the little black gizmo could do. That done, I thought about the process the video used to program a drum machine. What’s the trick? Think layering. In other words, a drum machine can record in multiple passes of your rhythm phrase. You don’t have to do it all at once. And think simple too—you’re not trying to mimic all the things a drummer does, just the basic groove of playing with drums.

There are a few things to set up before putting together your own drum pattern. First is the bar length. Do you want the pattern to repeat every two bars, four bars, or something even longer? I’ve generally stuck with a two-bar phrase, both for ease of recording and to fit into more songs (just repeat more times for eight bars, 12 bars, or even 16). The next step is choosing the quantize level. One of my initial fears about the drum machine was that my “playing” would be irregular.

And there’s nothing worse than an uneven kick drum. That’s where the quantize function comes in. For example, a typical blues pattern would use four kicks to the bar. Quantize to quarter notes and you’re all set. Just come close to the beat and the electronics even things up for you. The drum machine’s swing setting also fits in, letting you tweak the feel from a rigid Devo to a Bouncy C. Finally, poke around your drum machine’s sounds to find a kit that’s appropriate. Do you want something electronic or a more classic sound?

Laying It Down
Okay, we’ve done our basic setup and it’s time to start laying down patterns. But do you have any idea of what your drummer is actually doing? If not, you’d better have a chat with him or her to find out what’s going on. Here’s an example for basic blues. To begin, set quantize to four beats per measure and punch in the kick drum beats in real time. Your drum machine probably has touch sensitive pads, so you’ll need to work at getting an even touch at the right volume.

Next, turn to the snare. In blues, hitting the snare on beats two and four does the job, so the same quantize setting will work. Keeping with a blues motif, let’s add a closed hi-hat cymbal next, quantized at eight beats to the bar. As a last touch, add a crash cymbal at the start of the first bar—that’ll keep you on course the same way that a drummer signals chord changes.

Time To Play
With everything programmed into the drum pattern, you just need to set a tempo and start playing. This is really useful, because you can use the same pattern at a variety of speeds, going slower to work things out and then picking up the tempo to challenge yourself to pull off those riffs at gig speed. Keep listening to the key elements: how does your bass part play off the kick and snare? Try playing slightly ahead of the beat, right on the beat, and slightly behind. Try a simpler part as well as making things busier.

Play your riff in different keys and in different places on the neck. Experiment with more or less swing. You can also copy the pattern to another user bank and make a change, such as going from hi-hat to ride cymbal. With success in one pattern, start working on a few more that you gig with. Of course, you will need to understand what your drummer is doing as you put your new pattern together. Try out a few pre-programmed beats, too. As you work at the drum machine, your practice time can help you build your groove!

Dan Berkowitz
Dan is a professor by day and a bass player when the sun goes down. He plays both electric and upright bass in blues, jazz and pit settings. He can be reached at: