Thursday, October 22, 2015


The more I play music, the more I appreciate syncopation.  And I absolutely love putting it in my songs and my solos.  People think I have something against downbeats!

Syncopation comes when notes don't fall on the downbeat or in expected places.  It can be a simple as emphasizing the 2 and 4 when counting "1-2-3-4" or so complicated that you literally have no idea where the downbeat is.

At first, when people start putting syncopation in their solos, they often tend to throw it in wherever, which makes the patterns sound a bit random.  It's like a cupcake with a cherry stuck on the side of the cake part.  Then there's a point for some where they put in a LOT of syncopation to where the effect is lost because there's no "home" to come down on, no anchoring.  This is like a bunch of cherries and frosting with no cake.  Intentional syncopation is powerful, even if it's simple.  When it's complicated or prominent, it has to be even more intentional.

Now, I definitely get made fun of for my liberal use of syncopation.  But it's not like I'm making up notes that aren't there (like I've discovered "17th notes" next to the 16th notes, ha).  I just feel them wanting to be played.

One things that makes someone a master musician isn't how many notes they play (reflexes fade with time) or how fast they can play (speed fades too) but where they choose to play the notes they can.

For me, syncopation is the spice, the flavor that makes taiko so tasty.  You can have a strong stock (lots of players) and a hearty protein (playing together and loud) but then you add some spice, some patterns that weave around the strong downbeat, and you dramatically change what it feels like.  Maybe you add sriracha, maybe you add oregano, maybe you add peppercorns.  How much you add also changes the profile of the "dish".  But add too much and you have a mouthful of spice that ruins the experience...

So how do you get better at syncopation?  How do you get comfortable with it?  Like I've said many times on this blog, listen to more music.  New music.  Different music.  Genres like Electronic, Heavy Metal, and Funk are loaded with the stuff, and a lot of the lyrics in Rap music are delivered with it as well.  Western drumline and drum kit solos are also a huge arsenal of syncopation.

From there, maybe try repetition in your syncopation.  Try out patterns but repeat them so you can feel and hear what they're like, rather than just "ooh I put a note in between downbeats!"   Don't be afraid to play notes where you might normally NOT, because that's how you learn what sounds good and what doesn't, outside of your own head.

Finally, it's important to mention that the more you start using syncopation, the more important the sense of the downbeat is.  It's your lifeline, your anchor to all that fun - and when you lose that anchor, fun turns to chaos and it can be really hard to get back.  So at first, as you get used to it all, don't stray too far.  In my opinion, the best syncopation players have the downbeat so strongly within them that they can get miles away from it and still be rock-solid.  Many others are shaky only a few feet away!

I'll end with a few songs that might be useful, entertaining, or even daunting:

Stevie Wonder, "Superstition"
The Sugar Hill Gang, "Rapper's Delight"
D and K Cadence from the movie Drumline
Gene Krupa vs. Buddy Rich
Dave Brubeck, "Unsquare Dance"
Kodo, "Stride"
Incompetech, "Firebrand"

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