Beyond the Backbeat

Mary Claxton • April 2023Modern Band • April 2, 2023

Are you or your student drummers ready to move past “boots and cats” but you’re not sure what comes next? Here you will find helpful tips to help drummers of any age improve their skills.

Triple Meter

While duple meter is the queen of contemporary pop music, we should also be prepared for great triple meter songs. To make the mental switch from two to three subdivisions, start with just your bass drum and snare drum, which remain on alternating beats.

Then practice your “cymbal hand” alone before putting the whole thing together. 

Try playing along to “Like I’m Gonna Lose You” by Meghan Trainor and John Legend, “Until I Found You” by Stephen Sanchez, or “I’d Rather Go Blind” by Etta James. If this new feel is still challenging, try standing up. Put on the song of your choice and sway back and forth, starting with your right foot on beat one. Once you are more confident feeling the beat, sit back down and try the sequence again! 

Bass and Drums: BFF’s

Bassists and drummers should be close (though you don’t have to marry one, like I did). The groove between these roles can make or break a band, so it’s important to be in sync and listen for moments when they line up. Songs like “Trip” by Ella Mai or “Hold On” by the Alabama Shakes are succinct examples of how bass drum and bass guitar can use the same rhythms to set the whole feel for a track. On the other hand, the slight difference between bass line and bass drum on “Clint Eastwood” by the Gorillaz is a cornerstone of that song, though it may not be immediately obvious to the listener. Choose a couple of your favorite songs and listen, paying special attention to the relationship between the drums and bass. When writing a new song, bass players and drummers should collaborate to create grooves that work together to support the song. 


This leads perfectly to the idea of transcription. There is no better way to learn new drum grooves than by listening to our favorite music and imitating what we hear! In today’s world, it’s also often possible to easily watch videos of those songs being played live. Learning to transcribe can feel daunting at first, so it is very helpful to listen to simple songs to start. Try learning some more “backbeat” songs by ear (there are many lists of these, including songs like “Comfortably Numb” by Pink Floyd and “Ritual Unions” by Little Dragon). After getting into the groove, listen for bass drum variations and cymbal choice (ride or hi-hat? Loose hi-hat or tight?) to practice hearing in “detail.” When in doubt, beat-box with the song. This will free you from needing to coordinate your body and allow you to focus on what you are hearing. 

Playing Melodies

Yes, grooving is our main job, but everything drummers do is connected to melody! We help support phrases, establish or reinforce subdivision, and have a whole percussion section’s worth of tones at our fingertips. And every once in a while, the clouds part and we have a drum solo bestowed upon us. To get more comfortable with this concept, pick a melody that you know well and tap the rhythm along. Bonus points if it’s something repetitive, like “Single Ladies” by Beyoncé. Once you have it down, play it just on the snare drum. Next, listen for pitch and see if you can match the rises and falls by orchestrating it onto the drum kit. For example, the snare drum and cymbals are typically higher pitched sounds, while tom-toms get progressively lower. 

When you’re ready to take a solo, rather than starting with random assortments of rudiments, play pieces of your favorite melodies, using those rudiments to make them come alive! 

Take A Course!

For more tips, practice videos, print resources, teaching insights, and play-along tracks, visit the free drums courses on Music Will Academy. We also offer free, self-paced courses for bass, ukulele, guitar, keyboard, and more that are made for educators like you.

Mary Claxton is the associate director of teaching & learning for Music Will. She is a former K-12 classroom teacher and current professional musician.

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