When selecting a song to cover, I almost always go for a song that I've been hearing for years. I figure if I'm familiar with the song, I won't have to spend so much time practicing it.
I still spend a lot of time practicing it.
But I digress! Recently I was looking for a new song to cover, one that had not been around for long. I'm always inclined to cover a Rush song, but I wasn't too keen on playing "Caravan" or "BU2B" since those have been out for a couple of years.
When I first heard it, I thought, 'wow, this is gonna be incredibly hard to learn!' The song has a very fast pace, faster than most of their songs as of late. In typical Neil Peart fashion, every transition is played differently, and there's a furious single strike roll solo in the middle of the song. Throw in some thwarting time signature changes, and I knew I was in for a difficult time.
I'm going to digress again just for a moment and mention how amazed I am at how Rush continues to overreach themselves musically. They still play with a passion that very few musicians in their genre possess, especially at their age (I say that with the utmost respect). If I can play like that when I'm almost 60, then I'll be very happy.
To learn the song, I first listened to it for entertainment purposes only. I wanted to get to like the song, since it was brand new. But that wasn't hard to do, since this is a great song. I ended up hearing it over and over and over, literally dozens upon dozens of times (my steering wheel got a lot of abuse), until I had a good 'feeling' for what was going on.
At one point early on after I heard the song a few times I sat behind the kit and tried to play it, just to see how much I knew. It was apparent, though, that I had a lot to learn. The drumming sounds somewhat simple, but is deceivingly complex. There are moments where Neil is just driving the song playing straight quarter notes, then bursts into a flurry, then back to quarter notes, then another flurry with different sticking - this goes on throughout the entire song.
So basically, these where the issues I had to figure out:
- the marching snare pattern at the beginning
- the sticking pattern for each transition (be it during the verses, or during the bridges)
- the odd time changes during the '3-beat 4-beat' instrumental
- bass drum pattern during guitar solo
- quarter notes or eighth notes during ride cymbal play
- the single stroke roll solo
No big deal at all (sheesh)!
The snare drum pattern at the beginning, from a listening perspective, could have gone either way. I could have either combined single and double stroke rolls, or just played the notes as single strokes. To me, playing the single stroke roll here sounds more powerful, and it's easier for me to play, so I went with that.
For the patterns Neil used during the transitions and verses, those required a lot of listening. It was a matter of listening to the song over and over to memorize when what was when. But that took seemingly forever.
What I call the '3-beat 4-beat' instrumental, right after the second chorus, was yet another challenge. Right before it, Neil seemingly plays his piccolo snare leading up to that part of the song. I for one do not have a piccolo snare (although my DW Pacific 13" metal snare may have done the job, but that's just too much setup work ). So instead I played to the very edge of the snare (which happens to be the SuperDrum12 14" x 8" chrome snare again, by the way), and it played the part perfectly. Just another testament to the versatility of this snare drum.
I then had to figure out the 'phrasing', if you will, for this '3-beat 4-beat' instrumental. The first time I heard it, I thought, "what the heck is going on there!?" Instead of trying to count it, however, I instead tried to feel it. Sitting behind the kit and trying to play to it, I eventually figured it out without counting. Later I figured out that the pattern was something like: 3 beats, 2 beats, 4 beats, 2 beats, 3 beats, 2 beats, 4 beats, 2 beats, 3 beats, 2 beats, done. 'One little victory'!
For the guitar solo after the single stroke roll solo (more on that in a moment), Neil settles into a quarter note groove while he lets Alex Lifeson do his thing. For the first half of the solo, the bass drum pattern is played a certain way. For the second half, he changes it up a bit. And right before the solo ends (probably the last two bars of the solo), he changes it back to how he played it in the first half, but not exactly. The change is very subtle, but that's one of the reasons I love Neil's style of play - he just has to change it up, to avoid monotony. Definitely makes for a challenge to learn and duplicate, though!
There are certain songs where Neil will play eighth notes alternating between the X-hat and the ride cymbal (“Far Cry” from Snakes and Arrows, for example). When he does this, you can barely if at all hear the ride cymbal, but it just gives the groove a certain fullness of sound. On this song, particularly during the 'bridge' parts, there are times where it seems Neil is playing the ride cymbal with eighth notes, while at other times it sounds like quarter notes. After listening to the song several times, I tried to figure out where to play the ride cymbal with quarter notes or with eighth notes, but it just got too confusing for me. So I made the decision to just play eighth notes for these parts of the song. I realize that it may be exactly what he's doing at certain times, but it made it easier for me to play it this way every time, and I still think it worked out pretty good.
There was another part of the song that made my jaw drop. What I call the 'single stroke roll' solo seems simple enough - it's just single strokes. However, many drums are used here, and keeping time while hitting alternating snare and tom combinations, while also incorporating the crash and ride cymbals, was a tall order (at least for me). I couldn't just hit randomly all over the place though, and hope my playing sounded like his. I listened through it a few times to determine the 'character' of the solo - that is, when certain drums were more pronounced. There were moments when the snare was more pronounced, and moments when the toms were. I knew I wasn't going to play this part of the song note for note, but I wanted to keep the 'voicing' of the solo intact. I call those particular moments of the solo where each drum shines 'axis points', and I figured as long as I played the axis points properly, I could get away with the rest of my interpretation without sounding too different.
Take One - Action!
I like to play with different camera angles at times, and challenge myself to get the synchronization of the video and audio correct to make it look like one take. But the more I practiced this song, the more I was determined to get it all in one take. Since there are so many changes in sticking patterns, I never played it the same way twice, not because I wanted to, but because I kept forgetting! This became very frustrating, so that weekend I gave up (temporarily). I did then what I did when I did my Genesis cover - I let it sink in my mind for about a week (although for the Genesis cover I didn't try again for about another month or two!). Since there was some muscle memory developed after playing it so many times, when I sat back down to play it a week later it was easier to remember. I eventually landed on the final take shown here. And even though there are still some mistakes, those are ones I can live with.
Because of my determination to get it all in one take, I had the luxury of placing the camera at an angle that would get a view of most of my drumming. Since I use the Off-Set double bass pedal, my right leg is in full view, and you can pretty much see what my hands are doing all of the time as well. I thought this would be more 'educational', both for the viewer, and for me.
For the audio, I did something a little different. Instead of mixing the audio within the video editing program, I used the drum recording from the Zoom H2 recorder and the original mp3 of "Headlong Flight", and mixed them in Audacity. This allowed me to fine-tune the audio level of my drumming to effectively mask Neil's drumming, while making the song still stand out. I see a lot of drum covers where the drumming mix from the 'coverer' sounds too loud, and it drowns out the original too much. I'm always experimenting with mixing levels, because in the end I want it to sound like my drumming is part of the song, not played on top. I think I could have done an even better job of synchronization and mixing, but that's a lesson learned for next time. I then saved this modified version of the song as a high-quality mp3.
Whereas on some covers I thought some special effects would add to the drum cover, this time I left them all out. I wanted the drumming to really shine this time, without any distractions. So I just included the intro, without any frills, where there was no drumming, and then the flying paper airplane at the end (the song's called "Headlong Flight", right? Ahem, um, ok - I'll stop now). Since I now had the 'modified' mp3 with my drumming, I simply muted the audio from the video and synchronized it with the mp3. This was much easier than bringing in the original mp3, then the drum audio from the Zoom H2, then trying to synchronize those, then adjust the audio levels, then synchronize these with the video, etc. Of course, I could have just used the audio from the video, but the Zoom H2 captures the drum sound much better, so I'll use it when I can.
'Holding on with all my might'
This phrase from the song exemplifies how I felt while trying to play this song. It really did take all my concentration, 'holding on with all my might', to get through this song, especially since I was determined to get one good take. After my previous Genesis drum cover, I really felt more confident that I could tackle the difficult songs, with enough practice. It gave me a sense of bravado, which carried over to this song. Pretty much any song I cover is overreaching for me anyways, so I get a great sense of accomplishment when I pull them off. And this is yet another benefit of recording yourself playing drums - the results. When you see what you've accomplished, when you go through the pain of trying to get it right, 'holding on with all your might', you feel a great sense of satisfaction and increased confidence in your playing. You feel more and more that you can hear a song, figure it out, and play it. What's next then? Well, anything.
If you have any questions at all about this cover, feel free to leave your comments below. Till next time!