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This Week's Lesson:

Drum Circles: Beyond the Basics

--by Shawn Garbett--

<rhythm reference>

As a more experienced drummer, a drum circle can sometimes seem to get stuck in a simple rut and it seems almost impossible to push it in interesting directions without the group losing cohesion. You go off on some wild crazy rhythm you've been practicing for months only to have half the circle stop and stare at you in amazement. For a beginner, the drum circle is an amazing thing in which they can freely participate without fear of doing something wrong and it can be a most wonderful experience. The trick is for the more experienced drummers to lead the beginners down the same path of discovery that they traversed as they learned rhythm without ever saying a thing. This article outlines some ideas I've had along pushing a drum circle into more complex rhythms.

The first thing is observation: look and listen to all the players. A more experienced drummer is usually relaxed and looking around for cues from others. Beginners tend to be stiff and absorbed in keeping a steady beat. If huge loud drums, "big guns" dominate the circle, I sit out till these guys wear themselves out. They're not in it for subtlety, and the odds of them having the coordination of a Japanese drum troop are slim. There is a little dirty trick I saw someone use once to speed up the energy burn of a group of big guns. After hearing several people complain about what a din of bass noise the circle had become, he went and synchronized to what they were playing and double-speeded it. After playing double-speed for a bit, he laid back and relaxed. They took this as a cue to work themselves into a massive burn of frenetic energy, sort of like lemmings off a cliff. It wasn't long until the "big guns" had shot their load. As a side note, one mark of a master drummer is the efficiency at which he plays, minimal energy expenditure at any speed.

I always keep a pair of claves in my pocket when going to drum circles. I consider them a good set of trouble shooters. If a group is having any problems holding a beat, or multiple unsynchronized beats are going on, a pair of claves will cut over everything to bring people together. Basically any bell or wood block will cut over any amount of bass to be heard. Most inexperienced players go for something with a loud bass it seems, so trying to out do them on bass will only wear you out. I use a standard Latin clave, either the Rumba or the Son clave is fine. This also sets you up for a 6/8 or 12/8 beat later, because these claves have a 3 over 4 feel to them already.

Son Clave in 4/4 (denoted in half-beats)
|: X . . X . . X . | . . X . X . . . :|


Rhumba Clave in 4/4

|: X . . X . . . X | . . X . X . . . :|

It's generally easier for a group to follow the Son clave and move into the Rhumba later. Also note that traditionally the clave patterns are not played strictly in 4/4, nor 6/8 but that it falls into the cracks between the two. That's why it works so well with so many rhythms. Here's the 6/8 clave versions for comparison:

Son Clave in 6/8

|: X . X . X . | . X . X . . :|


Rhumba Clave in 6/8

|: X . X . . X | . X . X . . :|

All of these clave patterns are in the 3-2 versions, sometimes they are played with the second part first and are referred to as the 2-3 clave.

Generally, at this point you begin to hear Beladi or Mambo beats proliferating through the circle. Once the pattern is solid, it's a good time to play a montuno or two. A montuno is not a rhythm, but a section of a dance or song form. It's the point in a latin song where the rhythm takes control and the melody stops. If you have some friends and coordinate ahead of time, call it trading four. Each drummer takes four measures of improv and passes it on. The most commonly heard is a 3/8 pattern played over the top of the 4/4 beat going on. Always come back to the core pattern and encourage someone else to give it a go. If there are other experienced percussionists, get a dialog going in rhythm with question and answer phrases. When after some time the circle starts to falter and tire, a good mambo driving accent pattern has always picked up the group energy, in my experience:

Mambo written in 2/2 (Each position represents an eighth note)

Bongo pattern

|: L l L L l L b l | L l L l L L b l :|


      d g d d g d G g | d g d g d d G g

Conga pattern

|:  c c S . c c O O | c c S . c O c O  :|
    d d P . d d G G | d d P . d G d G 

When the mambo/beladi easy style 4/4 pattern finally wears out, try a little more spice with a samba, rumba or kpanlogo. These rhythms are more common for a reason, they are easier to learn and understand the basics (oh, but mastery is so hard). Usually this can get some dancing going. Once this wears down, you can try and push . . . if there's a break, talk to the more experienced drummers and see what 12/8 rhythms they know/like and get one started. Yanvalou, Afro-Cuba 6/8, or a Nanigo all seem to be good choices that people might know. If the group falls apart at any time, you can always go back to the original patterns and try to walk forward through them again. A 12/8 at this point however can usually be followed by a beginner, who would have had trouble had the circle opened with it. Once the 6/8 pattern gets established, it's fun to lay back and see where it goes, always ready to pull it back together if needed. After the 6/8 pattern has played out, people generally go back to 4/4 and what they are comfortable with.

Now if you want to push the group in a new direction, a pattern has been established of going from 4/4 to 6/8 or 12/8. It's much easier to do it again. Once these transitions get comfortable from 4/4 to 6/8 or 12/8 try something unusual that you know. Once you reach the point where you fell back before in complexity, people will start looking for something new to grab onto. It's a natural progression. I generally go for a 13/8, what I call a dreamtime rhythm. You've got to hold it rock-solid, because in 13/8 if you ever lose the pulse-it's hell picking it back up.

Basic Dreamtime 13/8 pulse, as played on wood sticks.

|:  x   .   .   x   .   .   x   .   .   X   X   X   .   :|

Variation on a bongo

|:  L   b   b   L   b   b   L   b   b   B   B   B   .   :|
    g   D   D   g   D   D   g   D   D   G   G   G

Variation on a Djembe:

_______ _______ _____ ___ 
| | | | | | | | | | | | |
g - - d PTPTg - - D G D -

Dreamtime is just where I like to go with a group, but I'm sure you have your own favorite. It's been my experience that people enjoy dreamtime and can usually find an interesting part to play along with. The important point is that a coherent natural progress is easier to follow than showing up and starting with something difficult that no one can follow. Even more important is that everyone has fun. Don't be dominating, demanding, or commanding. It's best if no one notices that you've pushed the group towards higher rhythm. Most people are quickly turned off by anyone who reminds them of their high school teachers, so don't even go there. One thing I haven't figured out is how to get a nice slow rhythm going, people tend to think faster is better.

I did once run across an interesting situation in a drum circle. It was a group that had been playing together a long time (10+ years), but never learned much more than a Beladi. 4 or 5 guys all beating variations of Beladi on Djembes. I tried what I've outlined here and managed to break it into Yanvalou once. It quickly fell back to Beladi being played on 4 or 5 djembes the first time Yanlavou faltered and never went forward again. They locked into a pattern years ago and were set in their ways. So what I've outlined here doesn't always work if a group already has its heart set on a certain rhythm; just follow and do what you can. One wonderful thing I did notice that these 4 or 5 core guys did, however, any time a beginner started up (a beladi they'd heard of course): one of them would go over and sit next to them playing in support of what they were playing at the speed they were playing. It put the beginner in front and in the lead, and it was beautiful.

Have fun and enjoy, and remember if it hurts, you're probably doing it wrong.

Shawn Garbett, 5 November 97

Rhythm reference


(in this notation T,t = rim tone, S,s = slap)

          1 . . . 2 . . . 3 . . . 4 . . .
bell      x . . x . . x . . . x . x . . .
drum      M m M s M m S m M m T . S . M m     
M,m = r,l closed tones (hand remains on skin)
drum      T . S s . . T t T . S s . . T t


(Middle Eastern), from Larry Morris ( Traditionally played on doumbek. Many variants exist. From L. Morris's Rhythm Catalog.

'B' is center tone (dum)
'O' or 'm' is a finger hit (te ka), accented or unaccented
's' is a finger hit with raised pitch (tok)
'_' appears above notes that should be played with stronger hand

4/4         |:  .   *   .   *   .   *   .   |   .   *   .   *   .   *   .  :|
            _       _       _       _       _       _       _
Doumbek     B   .   B   .   o   o   o   o   B   .   o   o   o   .   .   .
            _       _       _       _       _       -       _       _
variants:   B   .   B   .   o   m   s   .   B   .   o   m   s   .   o   o
(many       B   o   O   .   .   .   o   o   B   .   o   o   O   .   o   o
 others)    B   .   o   O   .   o   O   .   B   .   B   .   S   .   .   .
            _       _                       _               _
bass:       B   .   B   .   .   o   .   .   B   .   .   .   o   .   .   .
            .   .   .   .   L   L   .   .   .   .   .   .   L   .   L   .


(Haitian), Sean Engelson (, via Larry Morris's Rhythm Catalog

12/8      |:  .   .   *   .   .   *   .   .   *   .   .  :|
Bell      X   .   X   .   X   .   X   X   .   X   .   X
                  _       _                   _
Segonde   B   .   O   .   O   .   B   .   .   O   .  (B)
(tumba)       _           _           _           _
Boula     .   x   x   .   x   x   .   x   x   .   x   x
Maman  (lead, variations in 4):
(R stick) x   .   .   x   .   .   x   .   .   x   .   .
(L drum)  B   .   M   .   .   .   B   O   .   .   .   .

Case'(repeating break) on Maman:
(R stick) O   .   .   .   x   .   .   .   .   x   .   .
(L drum)  .   .   B   .   .   .   O   O   .   .   B   B
Lead-in back to std phrase:
(R stick) O   .   .   .   x   .   .   .   .   .   .   .
(L drum)  .   .   B   .   .   .   O   O   .   O   .   O

_____ _____ _____ _____ 
| | | | | | | | | | | |    
d   D g   G d G T g D P   Nanigo 
_____ _____ 
| | | | | |  
d G T g D P   Afro-Cuban  
_______ _______
| | | | | | | |
D g T g D g T P  basic Montuno beat 

Return to Top

Go to Rhythms of the Week, Page One

Go to Rhythms of the Week, Lesson Two

Go to Rhythms of the Week, Lesson Three

Go to Rhythms of the Week, Lesson Four

Go to Rhythms of the Week, Lesson Five

Go to Rhythms of the Week, Lesson Seven

Go to Rhythms of the Week, Lesson Eight

Go to Rhythms of the Week, Lesson Nine

See lots more rhythm notation and drum lessons in my Roots Jam rhythm books, with optional audio files (CD or mp3). And read my latest tips and insights about drumming: African Drumming Blog

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