An Introduction to Linear Drumming

Great drummers like Tony Royster Jr., Chris Coleman, Aaron Spears and Matt Garstka all incorporate linear ideas in their drumming. If you’ve heard of linear drumming but aren’t sure what exactly it is, this primer should help demystify the concept and give you the tools necessary to get started using linear grooves in your playing.

What Is Linear Drumming?

The idea behind linear drumming is simple: Play a series of notes without playing more than one note at a time.

Most of the beats you already know are not linear beats because some of the kick and snare notes are played simultaneously with hi-hat notes.

The Beatles ballad “In My Life” is a linear pattern because only one note occurs at a time.

Ex. A) A non-linear funk rock beat. Ex. B) The Beatles - "In My Life" | Click to view full size.
The Beatles - "In My Life"

Why Learn Linear Drumming?

Linear drumming grooves are very popular and are useful in a variety of styles, especially funk, Latin, pop and gospel. They are fantastic for improving your coordination, dynamics and timing. For that reason, even if you don’t expect to use linear ideas very often, it’s still worthwhile to spend time developing your linear abilities.

Every one of these patterns will require you to develop new “muscle memory”, so the coordination benefits you’ll obtain from working on these grooves can help you learn other drumming styles faster too.

The Big Idea Behind Linear Drumming

For this lesson we’re going to create linear patterns out of shorter “building block” patterns. These building blocks will be just one beat long and with these you’ll create longer two-beat patterns by combining the blocks from one type with the other.

Patterns 1 through 8 should be used for the first half of each beat since they all start with the bass drum (the downbeat).

Patterns 9 through 16 should be used for the second half since they all begin with an accented snare note (the backbeat).

Patterns 1-8: Linear Ideas for Downbeats. Patterns 9-16: Linear Ideas for Backbeats | Click to view full size.

This may not look like a lot of material, but with this small handful of patterns you can create 64 beats in 2/4 time and thousands more in 4/4. I’ve included six 2/4 combination linear grooves from these ideas, but obviously you’ll want to create more of your own.

Ex. C-H) Combination Linear Grooves | Click to view full size.

A Caveat

Linear grooves have a unique sound that can sound a bit busy. There are a couple of specific things you can do to help them fit seamlessly into more musical situations. Perhaps the best way is to play them with a wide dynamic range.

Try playing all the bass drum notes and the accented snare note strongly, while playing the hi-hat notes and unaccented snare notes much more softly. This gives the grooves a percolating quality and focuses the listener’s attention on the most important part of your groove — the kick and snare pattern.

Another way to help keep your linear beats from sounding odd is to begin your patterns with a kick and place a snare on count 2.

Linear grooves don’t have to have the kick on beat 1 and the snare on 2, but having a strong downbeat and backbeat helps these patterns blend better into most genres of music. All of the patterns here conform to that concept, but keep this in mind when you create your own patterns.

You can create longer 4/4 patterns by combining two of these shorter 2/4 patterns. To do this, combine patterns from the first group for counts 1 and 3 and using the second group for counts 2 and 4. However, since this approach will always put a kick drum on count three, it may sound like you’ve joined two shorter ideas together rather than created one unique longer pattern.

To create beats that sound more like one longer pattern, try substituting a hi-hat or soft snare note on count 3 for the bass drum note.

It also should be noted that business of linear patterns can be used to offer a tasteful contrast to the rhythmic structure of a song. Maintaining a balance with the main melody is important, and when done carefully the results can be amazing.

Take Paul Simon’s “50 Ways To Leave Your Lover” for example. Steve Gadd’s simmering linear groove provides a strong contrast to the straight-ahead groove of the choruses, creating an additional layer of tension under the pensive and melancholic vocals.

Paul Simon - 50 Ways to Leave Your Lover

Expanding the Concept

You’ve probably noticed that no stickings have been provided for these patterns. This enables you to experiment with a variety of stickings to see which ones work best for you.

Most drummers will begin by playing with their dominant hand on the hi-hat and weaker hand on the snare. One of the great things about linear patterns is that you don’t necessarily benefit from that approach since each groove requires you to develop unique muscle memories. Each pattern here can also be just as easily played by reversing your normal hand position so you play open-handed (leading with your weak hand).

Additionally, playing open-handed will increase the coordination benefits you’ll take away from these grooves and will allow you to more easily incorporate your toms into the patterns.

A few final ways to expand upon these ideas is to incorporate buzzes, diddles and rolls into the patterns. These can provide seemingly limitless variations to the building block ideas presented here.

Hopefully, this lesson will enhance your understanding of linear drumming and add some fresh ideas to your playing.

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