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Piano Playing any Drummer Will Respect: Part 2


Playing piano with a drummer is not easy. It doesn't just happen. To become an effective and satisfying team requires you to understand some very basic things.

For example, you need to understand what groove is and how it's determined by the different parts of the beat. You also need to understand just a few things about the core parts of a drum set and the role they play in setting the groove.

That was the subject matter of Part One in this series. If you've not already done so, read that one before continuing with this tutorial.

The first part was just knowledge. Now I'll to put that knowledge to use. In this tutorial I'll teach you how to play the piano to fit into the groove.

I find it helpful to think of three different options: 

  1. Mirroring
  2. Complimenting, and 
  3. Contributing

Using the same grooves from part one, I'll unpack each option and give examples.

1. Mirror

Mirroring is simply imitating or matching. When you go for this tactic, you're aiming for the piano to sound like the drum set. A simplistic formula for this would be to have your left hand mimic the kick drum and your right hand mimic the snare drum.

Here are some examples. Again, I'm using the same beats from part one.

Simple Drum Beat

Examples of Mirroring

Notice I've done exactly what I suggested: my left hand is playing with the kick drum, right hand with the snare drum.

This kind of playing doesn't sound great in this example but, depending on the beat, it can sound really cool. You'll hear that in some of the other examples.

Here the right hand is matching the straight quarter-note feel of the drum beat. Super simple, but has a nice full, solid sound.

Complex Drum Beat A

Examples of Mirroring

Another example of the left hand taking its cue from the kick drum and the right hand from the snare drum.

Same idea, but adding chords on the down beat makes the groove sound fuller.

Complex Drum Beat B

Examples of Mirroring

Here I'm just playing the chords when the kick drum plays. This is one of my favorite techniques. Putting so much emphasis on what the kick drum is playing adds a lot of power to the groove.

Complex Drum Beat C

Examples of Mirroring

This example is a lot of fun. My pinky on the high C note is mimicking the hi hat and the chords are matching the kick/snare drums. 

Mirroring is a very simple concept and you'd think that would make the parts really easy to play. Many times that's the case. But sometimes it can often lend itself to some really cool parts that are really hard to play.

2. Compliment

Complimenting is very similar to mirroring. In fact, if you want to use this strategy, I suggest you start by mirroring the drummer and then figure out one thing to set the piano apart from the drum set. 

That's essentially what this option is: it is a part that matches the drummer's part but offers something different, something that adds to the groove.

Some formulaic ways to go about this would be to find small ways to simplify or complicate the rhythms. Or you could voice your chords in a way that communicates a different feel (dynamic) from the drummer.

Using the same beats as before, I'll give you examples of these three different formulae.

Simple Drum Beat

Here I'm simplifying the rhythms. I'm playing a beat similar to the one I did when I was mirroring, but now I've removed some of the chords. I'm adding space, which can be an extremely effective musical tool.

Here I'm adding rhythms. The simple drum beat is a straight-forward quarter note rhythm, so I made sure that anything I added was simple and not syncopated. That ensured I didn't change the groove when I added more notes.

The simple beat is strong and loud, so I played something that was open and pretty. The contrast can be really nice.

Complex Drum Beat A

Again, matching different parts that the drummer is playing (mirroring), but removing a lot of stuff in between. The space simplifies the groove and opens up lots more space for other instrumentalists in the band or even the singer to fill.

What I like about this drum beat is the emphasis it naturally puts on beat four. So in this exampled, I accented it by adding some rhythms in the left hand right around that last beat in each measure. 

Even when you open things up and play sparsely, you still need to make sure that single notes aren't going rogue and stepping outside the groove. Here you'll see that even the single notes match the drummer's beat.

Complex Drum Beat B

Complex Drum Beat C

Another really fun example to play. As the drum beats get more complicated, trying to add a rhythmic element gets harder. That's why in drum beats like this, I typically play more half- and whole-note based rhythms. To add more just makes it sound too cluttered.

But on occasion you get opportunities to go for it. This example is one of those. This would be an awesome groove to build a song on.

3. Contribute

Contributing is adding new ideas to the groove. It's fitting a different groove on top of the one provided by the drummer in a way that works.

This is the hardest tactic because it requires a few important things:

  • You need to be courageous enough to come up with a new idea
  • You need to have a well-developed ear to know if your idea is good. That comes only with trial-and-error
  • You need to have open communication lines with your drummer so that they can freely offer feedback on the idea. The drummer is the best resource to know if your idea is good or not. If the drummer feels distracted by the idea, then try a new one. If the drummer is inspired by it, then go for it.

The possibility for variety when contributing is endless. That's what makes it the most exciting strategy. Here are some quick ideas I came up with to help spark some ideas for you.

Simple Drum Beat

This highly syncopated groove fits really well on top of the super simple drum beat. A match made in heaven.

Complex Drum Beat A

Same as before, when the drum beat is straight forward, I fill the gaps with syncopation. When the drum beat breaks away from the straight forward (around beat four), I back off and let the drums have their moment to shine.

Complex Drum Beat B

Adding a different groove on top of the drummer's groove doesn't always mean yours has to be more complicated. Sometimes the drummer has the fancy part and you have the simple one.

Another fun one. I've just added a repeated rhythmic figure that sits on top while my left hand matches the kick drum.

Complex Drum Beat C

Finding my own groove to play on top of this already complex groove without just playing whole notes was tricky. And you might think what I came up with is annoying. But it works and it's fun to play. 


This tutorial has been very practical and, though the concepts are simple, the mastery of them takes practice. 

Over time your ear will develop more and they will become second nature. You won't even have to think about it. Don't give up.

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