This past week or so I’ve been working on songs for a dep gig with a great band of local musician friends I’ve had the pleasure of working with on and off for some years. Their set is comprised of classic R&B, motown, funk and soul material, with some of the world’s top drummers in the chair on the original recordings – and so my job here is proving to be once again an enjoyable challenge!
One particular song on the list is a firm favourite with many and varied cover bands – and one which I have played on lots of occasions with several different outfits, but I would have to say that its truly sublime feel has proved to be one of the most elusive and revisited grooves with which I have ever wrestled to the point where, to date, I’ve never been happy with how I play it! …and this track was originally recorded by a guy who probably wouldn’t consider the drum kit to be his first instrument!
Superstition by Stevie Wonder. Drummer: Stevie Wonder!
First recorded in 1972, Stevie Wonder played all the parts – barring the brass, with the drum arrangement having been first inspired by (guitarist!) Jeff Beck, who Wonder was recording with at the time. If there’s an important lesson we can learn as drummers from the curious tale of this track and non-drummers’ drumming, it is to always keep open to suggestions from other members of the band!
The main groove delivers an insistent, 4 in a bar bass drum – often referred to as ‘4-on-the-floor’, with a 2 & 4 snare back beat – both pretty common in this funk/soul area and also in disco and more recent dance oriented pop music. The feature which jumps out most strikingly from the drums is the skippy ‘swung sixteenth’ hi hat feel, which dances around the clavinet keyboard riff in the intro and verses. I wonder how many drummers would have dared play this busily with the level of movement already present in the keyboard part – or how many producers would let them nowadays?! This all forms part of the uniqueness of a complete rhythm track born from the mind of just one musician. I’m going to focus on the verse and intro feel here, offering first some basic pattern options to aid players in pinning down this time feel and then develop these step-by-step toward the recorded part:
OK: stave #1 is just about the straightest pattern you could get away with if you are working on a version not dissimilar to the original recording. This simplified approach could work well if you are just starting out playing – you can let the bass and other rhythm instruments create more of the forward movement. Just be sure that you take care of business in the solid time keeping department! It is also worth experimenting with your hi hat tone here: try playing the top of the cymbals only, or accenting on the edge using the shoulder of the stick. Adjusting your foot pressure on the hi hat pedal can bring out the cymbal character you are looking for too – Stevie’s is just a little loose.
Stave #2 incorporates some accenting and sixteenth movements within the hi hat part – both are present in Stevie Wonder’s playing on this tune. Notice where the hi hats are accented early on, in verse 3 they are fully open. Get a good listen to the track and hear how this gives a sense of development and excitement – especially with the added fills – later in the song. Verse 3 really gets busy and once again, we hear the composition and playing develop in a way which is totally supportive and sympathetic to what is going to be sung in a later take. Remember – this is not a live recording!
Stave #3 is a pretty tight, one bar representation of what is going on in the intro and verses of the track. I’ve seen people play this groove with all-leading-hand hi hats (think of a reggae-ish vibe; the technicians amongst you might look at a Moeller/accented approach within the 1/16’s) but I have also seen this played with an alternating, more single stroke oriented hand pattern. Try both!
Stave #4 is a 2 bar groove, introducing a more improvised feel. Some drummers prefer the security of regular, repeating phrases in their grooves and I think it is fair to say that this would be the current trend, but having the ability to mix it up a little can provide an excellent contrast to this. Notice also the added bass drum sixteenths written here – quite tricky! It can be real tough to pick out the bass drum seperate to the bass guitar, especially when listening to older recordings: a common bass playing technique in this style is to add a kind of ‘grace note’ decoration similar to how a drummer might use this kind of bass drum rhythm, but the kick 1/16’s do appear! Listen for a subtle change in the bottom end halfway through the intro and into the first verse. The giveaway is when the bass then moves to following the brass melody in the bridge (“If you believe in things…”). You can hear the kick sixteenths as a more distinct part at this point.
Stave #5 is a bit of a bonus I threw in for good measure! Something for you to try in the second bridge (no vocal this time – sounds like it could be an edit?!) using an inverted paradiddle. I think it sits quite well. Try moving the bass drum around a little, but be sure to maintain the backbeat accent feel.
Music is about so much more than the notes on the page and if there is an artist or a song which has taught me – and keeps on teaching me – this valuable lesson, it is this song and Stevie Wonder’s delivery of it.
Work to pin-down the techniques needed to get all the notes out, but always top this off with a good sized injection of sheer joy when performing it.
Play it like how Stevie smiles.