Composing for Kick Drums 2

Sparser Kick Drums

In general, sparser kick drum patterns will be less energetic. As with the First and Third pattern, a sparse approach is generally useful for leaving space for other instruments. Taking this approach, the kick typically only emphasises the first beat of the bar, and sometimes a secondary beat (secondary in importance – not necessarily the third beat). It can also be a very effective way of giving a section or whole song a slower pace without slowing the tempo. With a busier snare or other percussion, a very sparse kick can be very ear-catching because there may be implied beats or expected beats that aren’t there.

Denser Kick Drums

In general, denser kick drum patterns will be more energetic. In the context of the whole drum kit and other percussion, a lot more emphasis will be placed on the kick. This can be a problem if the snare or other percussion is also big and/or busy. For a balanced approach, it might be better to combine a dense kick drum pattern with sparser, smaller snare and other percussion. If If the kick drum is particularly prominent (such as in many dance genres), the other instruments may need to be thinner than usual to accommodate as well. On the other hand, a dense kick drum pattern is a good way to emphasise a heavy sound with a strong rhythmic focus. The best example of this is heavy metal, where there are extended passages with double-kicks (constant kick drums on 8th notes or even 16th notes!).


Most kick drums notes fall on the beat – meaning they are played on quarter notes (also called crotchets). The two patterns discussed last time (Four-on-the-floor, and First and Third) have kick drums played only on the quarter notes. Sometimes, however, it sounds good to play the kick drum on an “off-beat” – in between the quarter notes. Notes played on off-beats are less stable and (mostly) less predictable than notes played on the beat. If you have a lot of notes played off-beat, and not as many notes played on the beat, the whole patteren will feel more unstable, more unbalanced, and more unpredictable.

With a careful balance of on-beats and off-beats, funkier patterns are possible. These balance stability with instability on a moment-by-moment basis. Typically there will be a kick on the first beat (the downbeat) of every bar (or only every second bar!) to ground the listener and begin from a point of stability. In the middle of the bar, however, the kick may be played at various points on or off the beat. This creates a constant push/pull between stability and instability, and can make a pattern much more exciting and interesting to listen to. The effect is heightened when the kick only plays on the downbeat every second bar – so the other bars don’t even start with a kick.


Some very interesting things can happen when introducing swing to kick drum patterns[1]. To hear the swing on a kick drum, it already has to be playing off-beat (that’s how swing works – by delaying the off-beats). When a kick drum is swung, two things happen:

  1. The kick plays later than expected – meaning the listener is kept waiting in expectation for a (very) brief moment. This contributes to the push/pull of stability and instability, which is also related to expectation.
  2. The kick aligns closer to the coming beat – meaning it emphasises the anticipation felt by the listener.

This further emphasises the subtle push/pull of the kick drum pattern.

More coming…


[1] Sometimes I rhyme, but not all the time.

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