James Gadson has been the key drummer for every style of music you can think of since the ‘60s, with a playing style that above all else focuses on groove and musicality. He’s the perfect person to build a series of drum lessons around.
Much like Gadson, talented New Zealand musician Jeremy Toy has long been a chameleon whose impressive work covers multiple genres, including punk, jazz, soul and hip-hop. Who better to distill Gadson’s work into a Melodics Course
Toy’s detailed understanding of what makes a James Gadson beat so unique was the starting point for creating the lessons in the course. In order to condense something as subtle as Gadson’s playing style into easily digestible lessons, Toy decided to deconstruct some of the classic tracks he played on in order to understand them. First he broke them down into separate pieces before putting them back together in his own way.
Toy took a methodical approach of converting Gadson’s drum loops into MIDI in Ableton, and then triggering his own drum sounds with that MIDI. Reprogramming his drums as best as he could, Toy essentially created his own virtual James Gadson. Converting these loops into a visual format on a grid allowed Toy to better analyse Gadson’s style and extract the groove from each clip.
“To me the number one thing with James Gadson is the feel,” Toy tells Melodics. Creating a more tactile version of this vague idea meant Toy could find common themes in Gadson’s playing to incorporate into the lessons
Although groove and feel by nature involves tempo being inconsistent or wavering, Toy began to notice exactly how Gadson manipulates his timing – specifically by keeping the swing of his hi-hats consistent, while the kick drum stays solid and on beat. “That actually happened quite a lot,” says Toy. “The more I analysed it I thought ‘this is actually a thing.’” After confirming in a scientific way that groove and feel is Gadson’s secret sauce, Toy went about making it a core part of the lessons.
While the starting point for understanding Gadson’s drumming at a molecular level is based on a sort of science, make no mistake these lessons are made by real musicians with aspiring musicians in mind. With the analysis done Toy, who helped write this, this and this, wrote and recorded the backing tracks you hear in the lesson. These backing tracks were then performed on by Gadson himself at Stones Throw studios, the recordings then condensed into the final product which is the lesson.
Teaching groove is a challenging prospect as it’s fundamentally based on playing something not quite right – but still in a way that sounds good. It’s a skill generally seen as something that you just have or something that you very slowly build up over time without intending to. With the Gadson lessons Melodics are making this skill something that users can actually learn and track their progress on, which is rare for feel.
Transferring Gadson’s groove into the visual and dynamic Melodics format, Toy landed on a kind of galaxy brain idea of averaging out or condensing Gadson’s groove from each recorded track into a short loop which is then duplicated for the duration of each lesson. If the lesson was to try replicate Gadson’s moving groove exactly across an entire track not looped, it would be too hard for anyone including Gadson himself to consistently achieve and build on. With a shorter looped groove there is some consistency to the inconsistency, providing attainable learning outcomes. When users play along and attempt to hit the drums in time with the lesson, they are essentially playing with Gadson’s groove which is a little out of time, yet still playing in time with the lesson.
“It needs to be quantised in some way, to make it performable and gradable and markable and achievable,” says Toy, “so you end up quantising with feel, James Gadson’s lessons’ which is almost a no no”. In this case it’s not a no no, it’s very deep and the reason you can be funky.
The other core aspect of Gadson’s playing that Toy tried to incorporate into the lesson was again a fairly subjective idea of how Gadson’s style is essentially fun, or more that playing in his style is about playing with people. Toy remembers the story he heard from percussionist Lucky Paul who has worked with Gadson. “He jammed with James Gadson a few times and he said it’s not what he plays but it’s how he makes you feel when you jam with him. As a drummer, he backs you up. He makes you feel like a million bucks.”
With this in mind, Toy tried to make the backing tracks and the lesson in a way where the drums feel “like you’re playing in the track”. At times the drum rhythms mirror the other instruments on the track, while other moments are juxtaposed to give the feel of jamming with a band rather than playing a repetitive beat. The drums are intertwined with the backing track as much as possible to make the user feel more like they are immersed in the track than practising a beat.
Another aspect of Gadson’s style that Toy appreciates is his touch and how he’s able to vary the way he hits each drum – something that is perhaps a challenge for another day for Toy and Melodics. “You can’t represent everything in his playing, but we have to represent what we could which is the feel of the rhythm. There’s the foundation.”