The New Versatility
By Donny Gruendler

Remember when your band teacher told you “if you are versatile, you’ll always work”? As a result, you worked on swing tunes, shed that bossa nova groove, whipped out the metronome and even brought a pair of brushes for that ballad in jazz band class. You ARE going to be versatile and become a gigging musician one day.

The most in demand drummers have always focused on musical issues such as touch, time, feel, and stylistic diversity. In addition, many are taking the idea of versatility even further and including another important skill into their drumming repertoire – performing with loops, click tracks and programmed drum tracks. Rather than letting drum machines and laptops get all the gigs, today’s drummers are embracing, working, and playing with them. They are successfully merging these worlds together by enhancing, integrating and adding life to programmed tracks with their own creative ideas!

Do not get left behind by ignoring the trend - technology and its textures are here to stay.

From Eminem to Sheryl Crow, loops and samples are all over the airwaves. Students and teachers need to realize that music on the radio is vital and as aspiring working musicians, it deserves our attention. Today (and tomorrow’s) job requirements are present in these styles and therefore, grooving consistently to loops should be mastered. This expertise will not only expand your groove and broaden your feel, it will increase your odds of getting work as you develop from student into pro. In addition, heaps of current radio genres will be tomorrow’s standards and fair game on your future gigs!

So why haven’t you already included these modern styles of timekeeping in your practice routine? Can you groove with a drum machine? Are you capable of playing to a click track and a synth bass line? How about syncing with the feel of a conga part? If you are not sure, wake up and get to work! Tons of local pro, touring, and studio drummers do this everyday day on the job! Do not get left behind by ignoring the trend - technology and its textures are here to stay. Once you incorporate these new essentials into your “bag of tricks”, you will truly be a versatile player.

Let the Shedding Begin!

Now that we have established that playing with machines is a must, it is time to implement these ideas and slowly rebuild a “well rounded” practice strategy. Don’t be intimidated. It is important to realize that working with loops is very similar to playing with a metronome. It will be a difficult at first, but with practice, grooving with these textures will become easier.

Furthermore, loops are more interesting because they also provide you with musical subtleties to deal with – feel, tone, and texture – whereas a click only offers tempo information through a simple “beep”. Here is a comforting thought…. Think of practicing with loops as if you’re playing along to your favorite CD – education AND entertainment!

Below are the five main types of loops and tracks that you might encounter on a session and/or gig. Let’s get to work!

1. The most common and simplest loop concept to understand is that of total accompaniment. In this instance, your job is to play the exact drum set rhythm that is being performed by the drum loop. This is done to “fatten up” the original loop and give it a human element. However, there are two popular variations of this idea to be aware of:

A. You can play along with the loop for the entire song – thickening up the entire structure.
    Example: Play for both 8 bar sections – Verse & Chorus


B. OR you can change things up and just play in the Choruses (to boost ONLY that section of the song).
     Example: Out for Verse/ Fill into Chorus

C. In addition, here is a half-time loop that is also based on the above ideas. Apply the above variations to your practice routine).


D. Now we will combine the First Loop 1 (for 8 bars) and the half time loop (for 8 bars) into one practice exercise. Remember to let the loop generate not only the tempo; but the feel as well.


2. Sometimes there are even percussion loops that are used as substitutions for a monotonous click track (they are also used to generate a particular feel as well). Your job in this situation is to keep good time along with a conga part (or shaker, tambourine, etc.) and let that ethnic rhythm influence and dictate your drum set groove.

Listen to the percussion loop – where are the accents? Where can you voice those accents on the kit? Are there any holes that you can play between? Percussion loops help add more feel and flavor by adding musicality and collaboration to the musical landscape.

Below are two different conga loops.

A. Conga 1 has its accents primarily placed on the downbeat. Notice that the corresponding drum set pattern also has a downbeat feel that helps the two blend together.


B. Conga 2 has a more “upbeat” feel to it. Thus, the drum set pattern accents a few of the congas rhythmic accents (again, helping to blend and sound “as one”).


Again, we will combine the Conga Loop 1 (for 8 bars) and the Conga Loop 2 (for 8 bars) into one practice exercise. Remember to let the loop generate not only the tempo, but the feel as well.


3. However, there are still moments when using a traditional click track are appropriate. A click can be employed to help keep you in time with the other sonic landscapes that jump sporadically - in and out of a track. There could be voices, one bar loops, or crazy sounds that are “in time”; but do not occur every measure. This is where a click really helps out. With time, you will get used to syncing with a click and STILL grooving with the other sounds that are rhythmically present in the mix.

In the example below there are two bars of click – followed by two bars of various sound FX that fade in and out of the track. Have fun!


4. A click track can also be used as a “feel” reference point. This tactic is useful when playing with another instrument loop that is not performing throughout the entire song. Frequently used instrument loops are bass lines, guitar riffs, and organ stabs.

For example: In this situation, the click is used to aid with count in‘s, multiple bar rests (where no instrument is playing), and other feel issues. You still need to play to the instrument loop (more than the click) - if the part is laid back, you must lay back too. The listener will not hear the metronome!


In addition, here is half-time loop that is also based on the above ideas:


5. The method that combines ALL 4 of the previous concepts is also the most challenging aspect of performing with loops. When you are called upon to work on a fully completed track in the studio, you are usually asked to replace an existing programmed drum track with the feel and tone of live drums. This is extremely difficult because not only do you have to play (and groove) with the synthetic drum track – you also have to become one with the feel of the bass, guitar and every other instruments/sound present.


So there you have it! These are the basic exercises needed to implement and utilize loops into your drumming repertoire. After working with these effective loop/click track methods on a daily basis, not only will your time improve; but your sense of form will deepen and your new skills will grow exponentially. As always, immerse yourself in this new world and enjoy it.

Relax, be patient, do your homework and most importantly of all – have fun!

You can download a PDF of this article, with examples for printing here (473K)
Click here to download all MP3 examples used in this article (.zip file - 16.5 Megs)


Donny Gruendler was born and raised in Detroit, Michigan. He graduated Cum-Laude with a Bachelor’s of Music Degree from Berklee College of Music and earned his Master’s of Music Degree from Wayne State University in Detroit.

He has toured internationally and recorded behind such artists as Kenny Burrell, John Medeski, Alberta Adams, Denny Freeman, and with W.C. Handy award winner Johnny Jones.

Donny is an associate Professor at Musicians Institute (PIT) in Hollywood, CA and teaches Pro Tools, Reason and Recording for Sound Art – a Non Profit educational Program in the greater Los Angeles area. He is also a Vic Firth Education Team member, and endorses Vic Firth products.

With an unusually broad range of influences including rock, soul, funk, pop, hip hop, modern electronica, traditional swing, hard bop, and low-down blues, Donny brings a deep rhythmic sophistication to any project.

You can contact Donny at