DYNAMICS, dynamics, DyNaMiCs


One of the most common frustrations I hear from my students is how to help make their playing sound more musical, and less robotic. My response just about every time is dynamics.

This may sound very familiar to you. You've progressed past the coordination challenges, learned all the parts to a song (even the fills), can keep your tempo steady, and maybe even can play through it flawlessly. But it still does't sound quite right. You most likely need to work on your dynamics.

Dynamics are the salt and pepper of grooves, without it there's just no flavor. Drum beats that have a single volume are boring and easily fade into the background. They just don't grab and pull you into them. Think about your favorite songs. I bet one of the reasons you love them is because there are memorable moments where it feels like the drums are going to jump out of the speakers and kick you in the face. It's because those drummers understands how to use dynamics.

The simplest way to start using dynamics in your playing is to vary the volume between the different parts in a song. The most common example of this is playing the verse quiet (typically on closed hi-hats), and then playing the chorus loud (typically on the ride cymbal). It's up to you how extreme you want to go, but create some differences and keep them consistent. If there's a second verse, get quiet again and match the volume you did with the first verse. Remember, you always want to have some room to go in either direction volume wise. If you're already playing as loud as you can during the chorus, you won't have anywhere left to go during the outro or big guitar solo. Always give yourself some headroom.

Another very useful way to utilize volume is during drum fills. The first fill I teach all my students is an 8th note build. Unison 8th notes played with both hands on different drums as well as the bass drum. If all the hits are the same volume, it doesn't really have much of an effect. But if you start really quiet and build it up to really loud, it is guaranteed to sound good every time. Think of fills as the on-ramp to a highway, in not much time you need to get up to the speed of traffic. Well instead of speed, think volume. In most cases the fill is the on-ramp to the next part of the song. You want to build the energy and push into the next section.

Dynamics can be the overall changes in volume throughout a song like the examples above, but if you get a bit more granular it then becomes the volume of each part of a groove. This is where the pros really stand apart from the amateurs.

Lets say you're playing a backbeat with the hi-hat, snare drum, and kick. They're not really created equal. I like a big kick drum sound matched with big snare hits on the 2 and 4. For my money, those are the main components of a backbeat and what I want the audience to feel. The hi-hat is also important, but if that's louder than both the snare and kick, it doesn't really make sense and the groove is lost. Think about the beat as layered. Each individual part should be looked at separately, and the better you can control the volume of each limb, the more musical it becomes.

If we zoom in one last time, you can start to isolate and control the volume of every single hit. This opens the door to accent patterns, ghost notes, swells, and advanced hand and foot techniques. This level of control and touch takes time, be patient! Make sure you're comfortable adjusting the overall volume first.

A great entry to getting to this level is to start incorporating ghost notes into your practice and playing. The goal is to create as much volume contrast between the ghost notes and backbeat hits. Challenge yourself to make the ghost notes as quiet as you can by barely lifting the stick off the snare. As your ability to "ghost" individual hits get better and better, it can be translated into many applications. For example, if a fill is all 16th note snare hits, playing some loud and some quiet gives that fill contour, character, movement, surprises, and more importantly…human sounding.

As you listen and watch your favorite drummers, intently pay attention to what hits are louder and which ones are quiet. There's a big variety of drummers out there, nothing being right or wrong. Some keep it level and steady like driving down a straight country road, and some are sporadic and random like a roller coaster. The one thing they share is their awareness to dynamics.

Always pay attention to how hard you're hitting and what volumes your hits are. Create a spectrum of dynamics and strengthen your control over ever single hit. Be able to adjust depending on what is happening in the song. You'll be much happier with your playing because you'll be drawing the musicality out.