These exercises involve a couple of items that some of you might not own, so apologies for that. If you can afford it, I suggest you go out and get them because they're useful tools, not only for creativity, but as this article describes, the development of your general rhythmic coordination.
The things you'll need are some sort of keyboard that can be used to play the sound samples in drum creation software, and the software itself. On the keyboard side of things, I like the full sized 88 weighted key types, but for just playing drums, you don't need 7 octaves; a 49 key job would do fine.
There is however one very important thing you'll need your drum software to do, and that is trigger different samples when you hit keys hard or soft. Some of them merely increase the volume as you play harder, but this isn't enough. If it's to sound anything like a real drumkit, the harmonic characteristics have to change too. As you hit harder, they should brighten up as well as get louder.
If you don't have any of these things, you can do something similar to these exercises on guitar; they are after all developed from a set of picking exercises that I described in my Picking and Fretting Fundamentals lesson.
Why It Is Useful To Learn To Play Drums
The importance of great rhythm should not be underestimated. The guitar's natural habitat is groove music. It's a percussive instrument. Even though it looks a bit like a violin, it has much more in common with the percussion section than the strings.
You could think of the guitar as a six piece drum kit that also tries to sing, but much as we love it, no amount of volume pedals, wahs, hammers, bends, and slides can make it match the human voice in the singing department. It behaves too much like a drum for that, but that's okay. What it lacks in mid-note dynamic diversity, it makes up for in attitude. Anywhere where a drum groove fits, the guitar will be just fine, and so practicing drumming really does make you a better guitar player.
The other reason (the one I originally wanted to play drums for) is because generic drum pattern presets can never quite match what you're doing on guitar. Coincidental interplay is nice, but it's better and more rewarding if you can make it happen deliberately!
One of the early things I noticed with these exercises, was that they serve as a warm up for any instrument. It seemed that warming up has less to do with getting the fingers used to running around the fret board, and more to do with getting the central nervous system firing in a rhythmic way.
After playing through these exercises, I usually ended by creating a little drum groove just to make real world use of what I'd been doing. Then I'd pick up a bass guitar and stick on a bassline, and I found I didn't need to warm up, I could play snappily pretty much straight away. I've found that whenever you improve your musical coordination in one area, the beneficial ripples spread throughout the whole of your playing.
The exercises simply get the fingers used to bashing keys in a rhythmic way. Pick a couple of neighbouring toms that sound good together, and start playing some simple two fingered patterns. You need to move through these patterns in a systematic way with the goal of seeking out the ones that feel awkward, and smoothing them out until they feel as comfortable as the easy ones.
So set the metronome to a comfortable pace, and begin with fingers 1 and 2 of the right hand playing 16th notes in the following way:
So you can see that we've progressed systematically through every possible four note combination involving fingers 1 and 2. If you've never played keyboards, Some will be much stiffer than others. 1212 and 2121 for example were the most awkward for me, but you don't sweat over it, just go through the exercises every day, and let them catch up naturally. If you're finding things particularly awkward, a good thing to do is to alternate between playing the pattern in 8ths and 16ths. Feel how relaxed you are during the 8th note bit, and try to retain this for the 16th notes.
The next thing to do is apply this system to all the other two finger groups of the right and left hands. So do exactly the same thing described above for fingers 1 and 2 of the left hand. This hand will probably be weaker than the right, but again, that's the point, we're searching for weaknesses, so celebrate their discovery.
Now apply the same set of exercises for fingers 2 and 3 of the right and left hands, then 3 and 4. And that's stage 1 completed.
Do this every day for as much time as you feel you need to make a little progress. Don't rub it into the ground and turn the whole thing into a torture session. Just let it happen naturally. Be a bit like a child. They don't try to use their toy tools to become The GodKing Supreme Lord of Carpentry, they just enjoy the doing, but at the same time they're learning tons about shape, colour, texture, weight, balance, hand-eye coordination etc. They just don't know it, and that's the secret! What they certainly do not do is grind away for hours on one element. 10 minutes and let's do some other thing, but learning and progressing all the time.
Stage 2 Hands Together
The ultimate goal of stage 2 is to be able to play varying rhythmic patterns on one part of the kit with the right hand while playing slightly different varying patterns on another with the left, but unless we're super-talented freaks of nature, we probably won't be able to just dive straight in with a blisteringly tight, dynamically diverse, syncopated drum groove that would impress the pants off an entire African village and a troop of visiting Latin American percussionists, so we're going to need to break things down. If you try to just jump straight in with whole grooves, you'll find it hard to identify the bits that are causing the disruption. This is the value of breaking things down into manageable chunks, and then working systematically through a set of variations.
Depending on how old you are, you might need to break things down to a greater or lesser degree. Apparently the younger you are, the greater the amount of new information you can process at one time. If you're older, you need to deliver new information in smaller packets, but you can still get there. It just takes a little longer, and requires a little more perseverance, but the development of better musicianship is nothing if not a test of your metal.
Stage 2 Exercises
The first issue I became aware of with the hands together exercises was that the left and right hands felt comfortable if the left hand had the steady rhythm role, and the right did the intricate, rapid-fire fills, but it was really clumsy trying to do it the other way around.
For example, I could keep a steady rhythm of 8th or quarter notes with the left, and then play 16th note syncopated varying patterns with the right. But if I tried to do it the other way around with the right keeping the steady 8th note pattern, I found that when I tried to dip in with some 16th note patterns with the left, I had to think about it a lot more, and that by trying to play more intricately with the left, the right would either lose its steady pulse, or try to shadow the left by playing the same intricate pattern.
You can appreciate how this could cause problems in a real world scenario. Say for example you wanted to play a steady 8th note pattern on hihats or cymbals, while at the same time a syncopated groove involving 16th notes on the kick and snare.
So the first hands together exercises I created were based on keeping a steady 8th note pattern on the hihat with the right hand, while working my way systematically through a variety of 16th note patterns. Keeping them as minimal as they needed to be for me to get them rhythmically tight, and non-disruptive to the pulse of the right hand.
So while keeping a steady 8th note pattern with the right, I'd play something like 1 e, 2 e, 3 e, 4 e etc. That is to say if 16th notes are 1 e & a, 2 e & a, etc, then I was playing the first two 16th notes of the four.
After I got comfortable with that, I tried the next two: e &, e &, etc. Then the next: & a, & a, etc. And the final one of that little group: a 1, a 2, etc.
The idea being that you exhaust every variation, and then keep increasing the complexity in a gradual and systematic way. So the next group involved things like: 1 e a, 2 e a, 3 e a, 4 e a, etc. During this section the one that seemed to cause me trouble was the: e & a, e & a, etc. Don't know why but the right hand always seemed to lose its steady 8th note pulse whenever I tried to throw in a e & a.
So I broke it down even further, and just did the e & bit on its own for a while, then the & a part on its own, then brought them back together, and pretty soon it stuck. You might not need to go this far into bitesized pieces, but whatever sized packets you can cope with, the basic concept of breaking down, reassembling, and working systematically through all the variations you can think of remains the same.
At this point, it would be best for you to take the essential idea and use it to work through your own set of exercises that are based on your own needs not mine, but I assure you that by focusing all your attention on pure rhythm, your general all-round musicianship will improve.