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Understanding Time & Basic Counting

In order to properly play any drum beat, fill, or rudiment - you must first understand the basics of counting time. This is the primary job of every drummer, and so it absolutely must be taken seriously. In this lesson, we will be reviewing 4/4 time. Don't worry about playing the beats as shown below. Instead, focus on understanding how the beats should be counted, and how the subdivisions relate to each other.

You can tap the timing out on a single drum for now. Just be sure you count out loud as you do. This will become an important part of learning new beats, and more sophisticated subdivisions in the future.

Check out the article on reading drum notation if you don't understand how to read the music measures below.

Quarter Notes

Let's start by counting simple quarter notes. Each measure of 4/4 time has four quarter notes. These quarter notes can be divided into other note values, as you will see below, but for now - let's just count.

quarter notes

1... 2... 3... 4... that's all there is to it. It's simple enough, but vitally important when first learning the drums. Whenever you are starting a new beat or fill, be sure you count each note as you go.

You'll notice there are two measures of quarter notes there. Each measure is marked with thick black lines between them, so you can easily see where each starts and stops.

Eighth Notes

Now, if all drum beats and fills only used quarter notes - things would get very boring and monotonous in a hurry. Fortunately, there are ways to subdivide notes to create a wide variety of timing options. Here are eighth notes:

eighth notes

Each measure of 4/4 time can contain eight of these eighth notes. They are to be counted in a similar manner as the quarter notes, but with "and" counted for every off-beat eighth note.

Note: You may have already noticed that the 1, 2, 3, and 4 are lined up exactly as quarter notes would be. The extra "and" notes are what makes these eighth notes. It's also helpful to note that eighth notes are connected with a single solid line along the top.

Combining Quarter & Eighth Notes

Now, time doesn't have to be stuck in a steady pulse of one set of note values. This next example shows how you can combine quarter notes with eighth notes to mix things up.

quarter and eighth notes

These are counted the same way as before, but this time you will be mixing counting techniques. Just be sure you focus on keeping the quarter notes steady. The "and" notes should fit in between a steady count of one... two... three... four...

Example: the first bar above would be counted like this: one... two... three and four and one... two and three... four and

Sixteenth Notes

When quarter notes and eighth notes aren't enough - it's time to add sixteenth notes into the mix. These are one further subdivision of time, and are fairly straight forward to count.

sixteenth notes

As you can see, there are still only four numbers in each measure. These line up with how quarter notes would be counted, but are sixteenth notes due to the fact that they are fully divided with the "e + a". You may also notice the "+" signs line up with the "and" counts from the eighth notes. They are in fact pronounced the same. So, all together, you pronounce these extra notes out loud as "e and a".

It's important to note that sixteenth notes are joined with TWO solid lines along the top of each group of four notes. It's also important to recognize how the divisions have been working so far. For every one quarter note - you have two eighth notes. For every two eighth notes - you have four sixteenth notes.

Combining Eighth and Sixteen Notes

Here is an example of how you would count a mixture of eighth and sixteenth notes that are combined over two measures. Just as the steady pulse of 1... 2... 3... 4... should stay even - the "and" counts should also be continuous and even. The "e" and "a" notes should fit smoothly in between without a slow-down.

eighth and sixteenth notes

Combining Quarter, Eighth, and Sixteen Notes

Finally, you can combine all three of these divisions over two bars as shown below. This is where it is very important that you focus on keeping the 1, 2, 3, and 4 counts as steady as possible.

full combinations

Use a metronome when first starting out, and just tap out the notes on a single drum. Set the metronome to just play quarter notes, and then fill in the other note values in the gaps between the pulse of the quarter note clicks.

Check out the drum theory and notation section on FreeDrumLessons.com for more information on counting quarter notes, eighth notes, eighth note triplets, sixteenth notes, sixteenth note triplets, and thirty second notes. All the drum lessons there include video content.

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