Phrasing by Fran Merante

I would like to share with you a phrasing concept I am sure has been done before but I did however think of it on my own. You may have even discovered this already but in case you haven’t I’m going to lay it on you.

The best place to start is to probably tell you where the inspiration for this concept came from.  I was listening to some stuff that Vinnie Colaiuta did with Frank Zappa and there I was again – shaking my head and rolling my eyes. You know, listening to the typical “out Vinnie licks” and saying “Man…. the guy is just incredible with how he phrases.” You never hear another drummer play the same kind of phrases that Vinnie plays; the ones that take you so far away from the quarter note but yet always bring you back perfectly to “one”.  I always used to just write them off as “Vinnie licks”- the ones that you don’t even bother to try to figure out because it’s a “Vinnie thing”.

Well one day I became courageous and asked myself how he does it.  I just tried to make sense out of it. About the same time I began my adventure, I read an article where Neil Peart made this remark about Buddy Rich’s playing: “It’s not so much trying to figure out what Buddy played but it’s trying to figure out how he thinks.” This is where the little light went on for me. I started thinking to myself that Vinnie, along with Weckl and all the other greats, probably don’t use the same approach or method every time they play a tune. In other words, when I am following one of their tunes and counting in MY usual fashion – 1,2,3,4,- it is possible that they are notthinking the same thing and that is why the licks sound so “out” to me.

I asked myself the question, “ How does he take the time so far out and always get back to one”? It’s got to be a difference in how he is keeping time.  So, how do I keep time?  I count.  Ok, so let me change the way I think about counting.

So now I will explain my concept. Just be aware that I am not saying that this is what they do or how they think. It is an educated guess as the result of my asking “why”. When I use it however, it sounds pretty close to the “Vinnie thing”.

In 4/4 time we are all taught to count 1,2,3,4 or 1 e an du, 2 e an du,etc…or whatever subdivision you like.  In this method, we phrase over 4 beats.  We have all counted this way since we made the choice to become drummers.  In essence, counting determines how we will phrase.  So, if we change the counting, the phrasing should change too! For example, if we are going to play a two measure fill in 4/4 time we normally would count 4 quarters in each measure for a total of eight quarters – 1,2,3,4 – 2,2,3,4 is a popular method. What we are doing is dividing the two measures up by cutting them right down the middle, four quarters in each measure. This is dictating a particular way to phrase the fill. So let’s change it. We have a total of 8 quarters. Instead of starting our counting over after beat 4 of each measure, we can use any combination of numbers for counting the fill as long as it equals eight. For ex. 1,2,3- 1,2,3,4,5 or 1,2, – 1,2,3,4,5,6..  We always hear where we say “one” as the perfect place to start our phrase. So if we change where one is said then the way we phrase will be changed.  It just makes sense. So you’re probably saying “ all Fran is saying is to throw in some odd time measures.”   Well, yes. That IS what I am saying. But because we are so used to approaching things the same old way all the time, the only time we use are odd time skills is when the time signature tells us to. We rarely THINK of utilizing them when the time signature is 4/4.

Ok, so what happens when we are in 4/4 and we need to fill over ONE measure? There are only four quarters so there isn’t much we can do as far as coming up with different combinations of counting to equal four. Right? WRONG! There ARE only four quarters to a measure of 4/4 but there are also 8 eighth notes. Count the eighth note instead. Remember, do not count the eighth notes 1+2+3+4+ but turn the +’s into numbers – 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8. Use any combination you want as long as it equals eight. How about filling over TWO measures counting the eighth notes?  Now you have 16 notes to work with and even more possibilities. You can count 3, 3, 3 and 7 or 10, 3 and 3 for example.  I’m sure you get the point by now. You can’t get the full effect of this until you try it. You will not believe what this does to your phrasing. If you record yourself doing this, count the “normal” way on the playback and you will find the Vinnie thing is starting to happen. The phrases will not fit the conventional way of counting.

Is this what he does? I have no idea, but I guarantee this will totally change your phrasing.   Have fun with this and take it to all degrees to come up with some very refreshing phrases.

In closing, I would like to say to constantly challenge yourself by coming up with alternate methods of how you approach things when you play. It is a big step in developing originality in your playing and will really blow the roof off of your abilities.

Have fun!!

Fran Merante


  1. For good examples of this refer to Gary Chaffe’s books. They are a source of information

  2. Hi Fran,
    This is the best article I have read on drumset playing in a long while. It is well written, and applies a concept I’ve never considered before. I look foward to trying it out. Thanks for the inspiration!
    David Tepper

  3. John Zion

    Loved the article Fran.

    How about posting some playing examples of the concepts mentioned on YouTube.

  4. Hey Fran,

    your way of analysing the possibilites of counting is close to the indian way of keeping time.

    first check out benny grebs “the languege of drumming”. A very good approach an making (odd) subdivisions for those who are not into it yet.

    Than check out pete locketts “INDIAN RYTHMS FOR DRUMSET”. in this book you can get deeper into thid “subdividing-time-thing”

    listen to the phrasing of indian percussionists. Theire playing is not that mach dedicated to the puls as ours is.

    I meen vinnie is not realy sounding like an indian, but perheps he has come to level were he developed an apraoch which is close to the indians time keeping .
    And beleave me, this approach is very mighty because it deals with the FACT that any rythmic phrase is a gruop of 1, 2, 3, 4, 5,…or what ever notes/beats(you have to count the pauses of the phrase too). OK we all understand that. it is simple – and that is what it makes it “mighty” – we all see: it is the truth.

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