15 Feb, 2016

A simple method for counting bars


Now you have the ta-ka-di fill from Part 1 mastered you might be asking yourself at what point in a song you should play your fill. Up to this point we've practiced playing the fill every bar, but in the "real world" you wouldn't do this. It's important to develop the ability to count bars so you can extend the length of time before you play your wonderful shiny new fill.

In this lesson I will show you a really useful way to count bars when playing a groove and we'll begin looking at where you might add a fill when playing along to the Billie Jean track.

One reason we enjoy music lies in its balance of predictability and surprise. Fills are usually played to add excitement and shape song form, ie. cue a new section of the song. Remember, it's not exciting to hear people play the same fills all the time. If you repeat yourself too often you become predictable and boring. If you don't repeat yourself enough what you play can sound random, so again the listener loses interest. Remember: it's a game. So a great place to begin is by using your fills only to cue a new section in the song.

To do this we need a “song map" with the length of each section of the song written down and the ability to accurately count these bars. One universal method for counting bars as I discussed in the post 8 On A Hand is the numerical system of counting each beat of the bar whilst using the word “&” between each number to represent 8th notes. On “Billie Jean” it would go like this (Figure 1):

Figure 1

Now each time replace the number 1 with the number for the corresponding bar of your phrase. Exercise 1 shows you a 2-bar phrase (Figure 2). Obviously bar one is counted as follows: “1 & 2 & 3 & 4 &”. However, bar two would become “2 & 2 & 3 & 4 &”. This seems strange at first, but over time becomes perfectly natural. The ta-ka-di fill is on beat 4 of the second bar, so we can say “2 & 2 & 3 & ta-ka-di”. I’ve highlighted the bar with the fill so you can easily visualise which bar you are playing.

Figure 2

Practice playing along to “Billie Jean” slowly—say 60%—and play the ta-ka-di fill every two bars. Gradually increase the tempo until comfortable at 80-90% speed. At quicker tempos you will have to stop saying the “&s” because there are too many words to get out in time but you should be able to feel the pulse by now to not need to state these.

Exercise 3 is a 4-bar phrase. If we lose the “&s” our count is now: “1 2 3 4, 2 2 3 4, 3 2 3 4, 4 2 3 4.” It sounds like a tongue twister, but honestly you'll be saying it in your sleep in no time. One way to help guide you is by using the Bar Counter function on the metronome app Tempo. Limit the number of bars to 4 and this becomes a visual aid to remind you which bar number you are on.

Once you can comfortably play the ta-ka-di fill every 2-bars and 4-bars without losing your place you can now interact with the “Billie Jean” track. Play the song from the beginning and count the bars. You should notice the drums play solo for two bars before the bass enters with the iconic bass line. This would be a nice place to play a fill to cue the bass player to enter in a live situation. Now count how many bars until the synth keyboard enters. Yep, there's eight bars. Again, this could be a good moment to add a fill. You will notice there are 8-bar phrases everywhere in popular music, so get to know how to count/feel 8-bars.

Make a song map for “Billie Jean” writing down the length each new section and practice playing the ta-ka-di fill to cue each of these. I'll start you off:

Intro (2 + 8 + 4 bars)
Verse 1 (12 bars)
Verse 2 (8 bars)
Pre-Chrous (8 bars)
Chorus (12 bars)
Verse 3 (12 bars)
Verse 4 (8 bars) etc...

This is the beginning of you thinking like a musical drummer!

Did you notice when the drummer on the record—Ndugu Chancler—plays his first fill-in? It's to introduce the pre-chrous at 1 minute 11 seconds. I dare you to wait this long before you add a fill on a song!

Remember to make a video of yourself practicing the ta-ka-di fill and upload it to Instagram with the hashtag #1BeatWonders, or share your YouTube videos on the Facebook page. I’d love to see you playing it, and I'll be sure to write a comment! Have fun, and I'll see you for the next instalment where we will start adding the ta-ka-di fill to different grooves. Until then, happy ta-ka-di-ing!