Understanding and keeping track of the form of the song is, after being able to play the appropriate feel, the most important skill in a drummer’s arsenal. If you, the drummer, cannot keep track of the song’s form, you won’t be called to play very many gigs, and indeed, when you do play gigs, you probably won’t enjoy the experience.

In order for a band to put on a good performance, it’s vital that all members understand and are relatively free to play within the song form. Assuming one has a decent amount of time to learn a song, there are 2 fundamental approaches that you can take to achieve this:

  • ‘Cheat’ sheets – Rough chart style roadmaps featuring bar numbers and simple grooves
  • Internalising the form

Whilst ‘cheat’ sheets are an incredibly valuable resource for drummers to learn songs accurately and quickly and will be covered in future posts, this article deals with the basics of the latter approach. Internalising the form of a song is, in a nutshell, being able to feel the transitions of a song without counting, and is a very efficient means of learning relatively simple songs with standard structures, and for styles of music with improvised sections loosely structured over a repeating form. Over the next few articles, I shall look at several standard forms which are quite easy to internalise. The first form we shall look at is the 12 bar blues.

The 12 bar blues is a song form of 12 bars in length. Each 12 bar section is traditionally called a ‘chorus’. Each chorus consists of two 4 bar sections, A and B. The A section is repeated twice every chorus, and the B section once hence the song form is written AAB.

Each ‘chorus’ (each repeating 12 bar section) of a 12 bar blues progression generally contains 3 chords. The form is denoted AAB (each chorus) i.e. 2 4 bar ‘A’ sections, and 1 4 bar ‘B’ section which resolves the sequence and often contains the refrain of the song (the hook). The refrain is similar to the so called ‘chorus’ in a regular pop song, but is much shorter and is part of the verse rather than being a separate section. There are many examples of the 12 bar blues and I list a few here

  • Rock around the clock (Bill Haley and His Comets)
  • Hound Dog (Elvis Presley)
  • Can’t buy me love verse sections (The Beatles)
  • Cross Roads (Cream)

Catching onto the refrain is a good simple way to keep track of the form.  A good example of a refrain is found in ‘Can’t buy me love’. Here the refrain occurs at the end of the 12 bar chorus, and is “But I don’t care too much for money, money can’t buy me love”. The refrain is so catchy, very often you will instinctively know where it falls without thinking.

We can use any of these songs to practice stringing together 4 and 8 bar phrases. Firstly, choose your favourite from above (or another 12 bar blues you’ve found), and practice singing/humming the song form without the music. When you can do this, go on to the kit and play through the form in your head. You’ll find that pretty quickly playing  4 and 8 bar phrases will become instinctive and you won’t need to think much about it. Now practice soloing over the form for set bar lengths, say 4, 8, 16 etc without counting bars. Once you’ve mastered the form of this song, choose another. Eventually the 12 bar blues will become easy and instinctive to recognise and play.

Next up, American AB song form.


For more information on song forms, check out the excellent articles on songstuff.com. For a great overview, click: http://www.songstuff.com/song-writing/article/song-form-overview/

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