Virgil Donati’s ‘impossible’ layered grooves


so that was an excerpt from Virgil
Donati’s song The Thinking Stone and this is from the Planet X album entitled
Quantum, and this is one of my favorite albums of all time.
Virgil is one of my favorite drummers ever and this is a really good example
of what he calls ‘layered grooves’. Now the idea with these layered grooves is that
you’re essentially splitting your body into two halves, so you have the left
side: your left hand and your left foot working together as a pair; and the right
side working together as its own pair. And Virgil has practiced this to the
point that he can create the illusion of these two limb pairs — the left and right
sides — being completely independent. Now, this kind of side against side
coordination is something that we don’t see very often. Normally as drummers we
tend to think about coordination in terms of hands against feet, but some
interesting things can happen once we start to divide the body up into
different configurations. For example, if I split my body into a left and a right
half that opens up the possibility of using two snare drums for example: one is
more of an accompanying part like a repeating ostinato pattern and the other
as more of a soloistic component and together these two sides can create the
effect of, say, two drummers playing a groove at two different tempos, which is
exactly what’s happening in this example on The Thinking Stone. Perhaps Virgil Donati’s most
well-known example of this kind of coordination — you might have seen a video
of it or seen him demonstrate it at a clinic — that is a paradiddle against
double paradiddle layered groove. So one side will play a double paradiddle
pattern and then the other side will play single paradiddles. And then Virgil
usually plays it the other way too, meaning the double paradiddle in the
other side and the single paradiddle in the opposite side. and then for all of
you overachievers out there, you can learn to switch sides on those patterns
without stopping and go back and forth. I was actually inspired to make this video
after coming across another video this week from a drummer named Austin Burcham and in this video he broke down an excerpt from a Virgil Donati solo, which
is absolutely insane. Austin did a great job breaking this down, he provided a
transcription of this excerpt — which was spot-on — he clearly understands exactly
what Virgil is doing here, and he did a really great job of explaining this to
the viewer as well, so definitely check out Austin’s video. In the video one of
the first things that he says is that you know, normally he likes to play
through all these excerpts when he does these videos and this was the first one
that he was not able to play, and even after I guess giving it a couple weeks
or so of practicing he wasn’t able to play it. And this is no fault of Austin’s.
I mean he’s clearly a very advanced drummer — he understands exactly what’s
happening here. This stuff is so advanced that unless you had a lot of prior
experience with practicing this kind of a thing there’s no way that you’re gonna
be able to pull this off in just a couple of weeks. So you know, I want to
say that to let Austin off off the hook and let anybody else off
the hook that is thinking about performing this. It takes time. It is all
absolutely learnable, but if you don’t have that background of learning that
kind of a thing, you’re gonna have to do some work before you’re able to do that.
So at the end of the video Austin extends an invitation to the viewer
saying, “if you’re up for the challenge of learning this and you actually get to a
point where you can physically execute it definitely tag me on social. I’d love
to see who can pull this off other than him.” And that, ladies and gentlemen, is a
challenge that I’m gonna have a real hard time refusing, which is why I spent
the last couple of days trying to learn this this excerpt. Now what’s happening
in this clip is that the left side is playing a repeating seven-note ostinato. But this is further complicated by the
fact that the meter that we’re hearing is in 4/4 so we’re actually hearing this
as triplets and more specifically as sixteenth note triplets in 4/4 and this
seven note left side pattern is going over the bar line and then the idea is
you’re supposed to be able to solo freely with the right side. Now, when you watch Virgil play this
clearly he’s extremely comfortable with this pattern — he spent a lot of time
practicing this. He’s improvising, he’s able to switch patterns and throw things
in on command, which is another really just insane level to get to. But the good
news is that most of what he’s doing in the improvisation with the right side is
based on a handful of stickings, meaning I don’t need to be able to play
everything against this ostinato. I only need to be able to play say three or
four key stickings and if I can master those three or four stickings I should
be able to play everything on this page. The first sticking or the first pattern
that I need to master is a triplet sticking which is just ‘hand foot foot’. If
I can master that I’ll be able to play this, this, this, this. Then if I can just
master a second sticking, that’s gonna get me most of the way through this
piece. And that second sticking would be double strokes. So ‘foot foot hand hand’
‘foot foot hand hand’. He’s doing a lot of really interesting stuff with
orchestration: he’s moving the double strokes around the kit on different
toms, he’s accenting snares and you know not accenting others, but they’re all
based on double strokes, so if I can internalize that on a really deep level
and then start playing around with the orchestrations, it’s gonna sound like a
lot more than it actually is, right? Cuz it’s just double strokes at the end of
the day. Then for this next part it’s back to the triplet sticking now.
Something interesting happens in this bar here which is still a triplet
sticking, but now it’s been shifted over one note, so the accent is not on the
first triplet, it’s on the third. And over here we have the same thing but with the
triplet accent on the second note. And if I can master those three
variations on this one sticking, that’s gonna allow me to play all the way up
through here. And then here at the end finally in the last two bars we have two
new stickings, and that would be: paradiddles, which only happens for about
well like two and a half beats. Okay? So the paradiddles only happen once and then
there’s a five sticking here which would be ‘hand foot hand foot foot’. But that’s
it. 90% of this solo is comprised of the
triplet sticking in different permutations and double strokes, and so
if I can master those two stickings that’s gonna get me most of the way
there. And then just to play these last two bars if I can throw in a couple
paradiddles and that five I’m gonna be in really good shape. I have put a lot of
time into practicing these kind of rhythms and this kind of coordination,
very deeply over a period of many, many years, and although I had never worked on
these exact patterns before I’d worked on similar enough stuff that I was able
to pick it up, you know, relatively quickly. Given this short time constraint, I was
able to get it up to maybe 60 or 70 percent of the original tempo but I can
tell already that I’ve reached the point of diminishing returns, and even though I
was able to learn technically how to play all the notes correctly in the
space of three days, it’s gonna take me three months or longer — maybe three years
to get it up to Virgil’s tempo, and so since this is such an enormous time
commitment I’m not gonna spend the next three years practicing Virgil’s patterns
so I can make this video I’d rather put this video out and then spend those
three years working on my own musical concepts. So I tend not to spend a lot of
time practicing ostinato patterns that people have already done because it is a
really time-consuming thing and in the very best case if you are able to
emulate that perfectly, then you just spent you know the last however many
months becoming a clone of something that has already been done, so I’d rather
say “go watch Virgil’s video, he already did it and mastered it. I’m gonna go
spend that time on my own music.” And hopefully that will create something
that is at least valuable to me, and maybe interesting and new for other
people as well. So since we’re talking about layered grooves and side against
side coordination and Virgil Donati I thought this would be a good opportunity
to bring up some of these transcriptions that I made ten years ago — can you
believe that? Ten years ago, while I was studying at Berklee. This is the intro of
The Thinking Stone solo, which you heard earlier. This is a transcription of the middle
section which is this crazy drum slash guitar solo thing. Allan Holdsworth on
guitar. And there’s some really really nuts stuff down here. And this is a
transcription of Quantum Factor, which is another song that features this kind of
coordination on the same album. I actually covered this song. I played it
at my senior recital. There’s a youtube video on it that I did in 2010 or
something. I have used this coordination by the way in a couple of my own songs.
There is some of this coordination happening on a Sungazer song called Bird
on the Wing. Anyway that’s one example where I’ve
used it, using double snare drums and toms and stuff to get sort of a soloing
fill effect on one side, plus the constant groove accompaniment on the
other side. And there’s also some of this kind of
coordination happening in a song called Level One. Anyway I think we’ve reached
the end of this video so I want to thank Austin for inspiring this video. Virgil
is without a doubt one of the most advanced drummers that has ever lived
and I think he’s made enormous contributions to this instrument. I think
he’s helped push things forward and raise the bar for a lot of people and I
find that really inspiring. That’s it for this video. Thank you so
much for watching, as always. Stay tuned for more stuff coming soon. I will be at
NAMM by the way this weekend if anybody is there in LA, so hope to see you in LA.
If not I’ll see you on the road with Sungazer after that on the East Coast,
and otherwise I’ll see you in the next video. Thanks for watching.

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