Author: Schulman, Mark
Date published: October 1, 2011
Many pro drummers I know have created their own simple and quick way of charting music. We choose to do this in the interest of saving time and being able to keep our energy focused on the audience, rather than burying our head in a chart. I use my own system, both in the studio and when playing live, which allows me to hear an average pop song for the first time, chart it out in fifteen minutes, and then play it correctly right away. Quite often I've recorded ten to twelve drum tracks in a day, never having heard the music before. Here's how I do it.
I listen through the song once to get a feel for the phrase lengths (how many bars are in each section) and the overall style. I listen to see if the phrases have even or odd numbers of bars. I listen for stops, specific rhythmic figures, tempo shifts, dynamics, and style changes. Once I have a general idea of how the song flows, I go back to the beginning to start writing my chart.
I may write a short description of the song at the top left corner of the page, just a few words to remind me to play a certain style or groove. This reminder works wonders, especially if I'm charting out a set of new material to be performed live, or I'm at a tour rehearsal or an audition. (Yes, I got the gig with Stevie Nicks and with Cher while having my charts with me on the drum riser during the audition.)
Charting It Out
Let's chart out one of the songs from my DVD, A Day in the Recording Studio, called "Jane the Stripper." It's a funny little love song about a poor boy who falls in love with a working girl. Jared Engelmier wrote and performed the song. I played drums on it and produced the track in my studio.
I use letters to mark the different sections of the song, and I circle them. I use "I" to mark the intro, "A" to mark the verse, "B" to mark the pre-chorus, "CH" to mark the chorus, and "Solo" to mark-anyone's guess?-solos!
In "Jane the Stripper," the first "I" section has no drums, so I write "Tacet," which means "do not play." When the intro repeats, I write out the rhythm because it's the basic groove of the song. I usually follow each section letter with a number that tells me how many bars are in that section. This allows me to just count bars without having to keep my eyes on the chart, which frees me up to play the music and, in the case of live performance, to pay attention to the audience and the other band members on stage. I need to look back at the chart only at the end of the section, to see what's coming up. In the case of "Jane the Stripper," I left out the number at the end of the second "I" because it's an even four bars and I will instinctively go to the next section when I hear the phrase corning to an end.
In the "A" section I'll be playing the same groove as before, so all that's written is "4," which means four bars of the same. That also applies to the "B" section. When I see "CH" coming up, I instinctively bring the dynamics up a notch, as the chorus is usually the loudest section of the song. In this case the groove doesn't change. Bringing up the dynamics in a pop song usually means that the kick and snare stay at the level of the verse and pre-chorus, but I may either go to the ride cymbal or open the hi-hat a bit to suggest a bigger sound.
This song goes along very predictably until the end of the second chorus, where there's a 2/4 measure with no playing. I easily notate this with a stop on beat 4 of bar 8, tied to a half note in bar 9. Then the solo section begins. Since I've opted to play closed hi-hat during the verses, open hi-hat during the choruses, and the crash cymbal during the second intro, it's time to go to the ride for the solo. It's a musical choice.
The next section is a chorus in a lower key signature, so I determine that this should involve a drop in dynamics, as signified by the decrescendo symbol (>). I also write "quieter!" just to make sure that in the heat of playing I notice the change. As you can see on my chart, I made a mistake in the number of bars for this quiet chorus. I crossed out the "4" and wrote "3" because I realized there's a two-beat tacet at the end of the fourth bar, which I notated with two quarter-note rests.
It's smooth sailing for the next chorus. I wrote "Double time x 2" for the repeated chorus (often called a double chorus), because Jared suggested that we go into double time to rock out this last section. Rather than stay in double time until the end of that chorus, I opt to return to the regular groove for the last two bars. You might make a different decision, but there is no wrong or right, just opinions. These musical interpretations are up for discussion with the producer, the artist, your bandmates, your girlfriend, your boyfriend, or anyone else whose opinion you feel would help your playing of the song. Incidentally, my wife, Lisa, still doesn't agree with the double-time choice, and she lets me know this every time she hears the song. In this case, the artist won. (Sorry, baby!)
The end of the song is simply one bar of groove, then half a bar of the same groove (marked by two slashes, one for each beat), a two-beat fill, and finally a fermata (hold) played as a cymbal crash.
"Jane the Stripper" is a relatively simple song, and its difficulty level represents most of the pop tracks I get hired to play. With this shorthand charting system, I can play the music rather than bury my head in the chart. I hope this method helps you too. An MP3 of the track is posted on the Education page at moderndrummer.com.
For more insight into my approach to recording drums, check out A Day in the Recording Studio, which is available through Hudson Music. There's a trailer posted on my website, markschulman.net.
Mark Schulman has drummed for numerous rock and pop artists, including Pink, Sheryl Crow, Foreigner, Stevie Nicks, Destiny's Child, Billy Idol, and Cher.