Learning how to change time signature on the drums is tricky. You need a combination of expert timing, mental acuity, and physical dexterity.
- Practice. It’s easy to watch Neil Peart change time signatures and bash out patterns that make your head spin, but it’s an incredibly difficult skill to master. Peart has been a professional drummer since the early 70’s. The guy practices in a swimming pool. So, develop an intuitive feel for and love of drums. Tip: Remember, humans can’t breathe underwater, so stick to the shallow end of the pool.
- Learn the Signatures. Having grandiose ideas is wonderful, but you need knowledge to realize them. Familiarize yourself with music theory; how many beats per measure in 7/6 vs. 6/4? Listen to practical applications of tricky signature shifts. If you’re a head banger, look to Tool or Converge. For fans of less abrasive music, jazz, Latin music, and experimental groups like Slint, do this well. Tip: Remember, you don’t have to change tempo to chance time signature.
- Count in Your Head. This sounds so rudimentary its stupid. But trust us, it works. You don’t even need a drum set to do it. Going for a walk? Sitting at your desk? Commuting? Alternate counting signatures in your head. While you’re doing that, tap your foot or hand in time to the rhythm. This helps develop an internalized metronome, and will help you change time signatures the next time you get behind a kit. Tip: Don’t do this too loudly, or you’ll really start to piss people off.
- Create Two Patterns in Different Signatures. Learning music can be daunting. Behind the drum set, you’re doing different things with different limbs, often in different rhythms. Luckily, the process is a lot less intimidating if you break it down. To apply this to signature changes on the drums, create two patterns in different times. Keep in mind that you’ll be bringing the two together eventually, so it makes sense to create similarities. Tip: Look to accent with similar fills and symbols. Entering both patterns with the kick drum or snare will also help in creating a smooth transition.
- Play Behind, then Ahead of, The Guitar. This works really well in practice, and is a simple way to start learning how to change time signatures on the drums. Zep drummer John Bonham was a master of this. Listen to “Black Dog”: the song isn’t very complicated, but it has excellent dynamics because Bonham plays different time signatures than the guitar riff during the chorus and verse. Tip: The downfall of countless hack musicians is their inability to run with inspiration. Don’t simply copy what you like, make it your own.
- Think Outside the Box. Mastodon’s Brann Dailor is a master puppeteer with time signatures. How’d that happen? When he started playing as a teenager, in the 80’s metal finger-tapping insanity heyday, Dailor didn’t realize he was supposed to be playing along with the bass, so he tried to keep up with Van-Halen inspired guitarists. Tip: While thinking outside the box, remember to master the basics of drumming, without which you won’t be able to do anything.
- Find an Exit Pattern. When it comes time to combine your patters and change time signature on the drums, you’ll need a transition, or exit pattern. Exit patterns are called such because they help you exit a beat and transition into another one. Tip: It helps if your exit pattern stars on the rhythm of the first beat and ends on the signature of the second. For instance, if you’re transitioning from 4/4 to 3/4 time, begin with a straight drum roll and end on triplets.
- Lean a Song You Like with Signature Changes. It can be hard to master something without reference points. To change time signature while drumming, find a song that you like in which the drummer changes patterns, and learn it. Tip: By listening to the patterns over and over, and breaking them down to their component parts, you can better understand the mechanics of time changes.
Now, with a little bit of practice and imagination, you’re ready to time change time signature on the drums.