Rhythm Section Essentials Workshop: Adding Flavor to Your Groove with Percussion

+ The Pocket Queen has inspired millions with her crisp drum grooves and beats and infectious positivity. Learn to harness your inner groove and your outer brand in her new course on Soundfly. Stay tuned in via email.

In most production and ensemble settings these days, auxiliary percussion is used primarily to add extra sparkle and syncopated spice to a track. Yet, adding this flare effectively is more difficult than it sounds. If mismanaged, percussion additions can easily cause problems with the flow of your track.

Let’s break down some of the ways you can use percussion in a track, alongside your drum part, in order to create a more colorful, dynamic groove. These tips will help minimize potential problems like cluttering, distracting over-syncopation, and sounds canceling others out in your mix.

Compositional Benefits of Adding Percussion

Before we dive into the textural and rhythmic possibilities of adding percussion, here are the three largest benefits of composing for percussion or simply playing with an auxiliary percussionist, for both drummers and instrumentalists alike. This practice:

  • helps to improve one’s awareness of the rhythmic subdivisions and overall space within a groove
  • helps drummers improve their awareness of when to place drum fills or variations, and how long they should last
  • helps increase listening ability and creative improvisation skills

+ Read more on Flypaper“Amazing Drummers Who Were Still Green at Eighteen”

Creating Space

The first issue you’ll notice, as you start to layer percussion parts, is that the clarity of the groove gets lost at a certain point if there are too many rhythm lines happening at once. In order to eliminate this problem, you can simplify the drum groove to allow space for the percussion to add rhythmic ideas or colors.

Colors are percussive sounds that are generally used to either create an atmosphere within a song, to signal transitions between sections, or to break away from the rhythmic pulse of the song.

Some percussion tools that I often use to create colors include wind chimes, vibraslap, flexatone, cymbal rolls and rain sticks.

Here are three examples of this concept:

Use slower hi-hat and ride subdivisions (i.e., quarter or eighth notes) to leave room for percussion to fill in spaces in the groove.

Substitute ghost notes on the snare drum with hand percussion instruments like congas and bongos.

Another option is to have the percussionist play in unison with the drum set part. So, for example, shaking the tambourine alongside the snare drum or playing a shaker in unison with the kick drum pattern.

Synced Sequence.00_06_28_00.Still002

+ Learn more on Soundfly: Build a tighter, sharper, and more flexible rhythm section with Soundfly’s free course series, Get Into the Groove.

Orchestrate

Now that you’ve created space in your groove, it’s time orchestrate the drums and percussion with combinations of similar and opposite sounds. In this case, we’ll call long sustaining sounds “wet” and short sounds with quick percussive attack “dry.”

The unique combination of wet and dry sounds have the ability to create tons of interesting textures and articulations of rhythm. As you’re writing parts, play around with these combinations in rehearsal. It’s good to be aware of all of the sound possibilities available to you so you’re not creating overly repetitive parts.

Wet sounds tend to have longer decay and, as a result, they fill up more space in the music. Here are some examples:

DrumsRide cymbal, half-open hi-hats, toms, and cymbal rolls.

PercussionTambourine hit, mouth of a cowbell, open conga tone, and wind chimes.

Dry sounds tend to have quicker attack and decay and are better for faster rhythms. Here are a few examples:

DrumsClosed hi-hats, cross-stick, shell of floor tom, and rim shots.

PercussionShaker, top of cowbell, woodblock, cymbal stack, and clap or snap sample.

+ Read more on Flypaper“Into the Wild: Making a Beat in Ableton with Found Sounds”

Outlining the Song Form

The next essential step in adding percussion to a rhythm is to work out part combinations that make sense dynamically and musically for each section of the song. The goal is to try to add fullness to the overall groove and fluidity from section to section of the song.

An important thing to remember when orchestrating your drum parts is that less is always more. In fact, having an instrument rest for a whole section and come in later can add a lot to a tune without even creating anything new, per seHere are four different drum and percussion variations that could work in a song:

Intro/Verse

Pre-chorus

Chorus

Bridge

Perhaps the best way to fully internalize the balance of bringing percussion parts together in your rhythm section is simply to listen to the songs that do so most successfully. Here’s a short list of inspiring tracks that nail the percussion balance so well, you almost can’t even tell it’s in there!

Anderson .Paak – “Am I Wrong”

Marvin Gaye – “I Want You”

Snarky Puppy – “Binky”

Weather Report – “Palladium”

Donny Hathaway – “The Ghetto”

Have you had success over the years with adding auxiliary percussion elements to your rhythm section? Let us know in the comments below! 

Join our Mailing List

We offer creative courses, articles, podcast episodes, and one-on-one mentorship for curious musicians. Stay up to date!

still image from Casablanca (1942)

Write

Exploring the Functions of Music in Visual Media

Underscore and sound design can serve a variety of different purposes in film and TV, here are a plethora of scene music function examples.

still from Camila Cabello's "Crying in the Club" video

Write

Crying in the Club: Songs Within Songs and Intertextuality in Pop Music

A lengthy, in-depth look at the self-referential nature of pop music and what that means for legality and creativity in music.

What Is a Leitmotif video thumbnail

Write

What Is Leitmotif, and How Do You Use It? (Video)

Another exclusive video lesson from Soundfly's Intro to Scoring for Film & TV course, this one on the creative composing power of leitmotif.