The audience at Royce Hall began clapping along to a number performed by Woody Allen’s New Orleans Jazz Band the other night, and it was obvious right away that many couldn’t hit the exact beat to save their lives. But then clapping in a metronomically perfect way is hard even for experienced drummers. I used to drum for a couple of bands in my early 20s and I learned that hitting the snare drum at exactly the right instant, 75 or 100 times during a song, was actually kind of hard.
In a mathematical sense the perfect whap of a drumstick upon a snare drum happens within a very tiny realm, and the truth is that many drummers hit the snare slightly outside this perfect instant — a millisecond before or after. Most people don’t realize and couldn’t care less, but once your ear and your sense of timing is attuned to the variations, you can tell when a drum beat is missing the sweet spot and when it’s precisely dead on (or damn close to it).
If you were to look at a sound wave chart that identified the exact sweet spot for a snare drum hit and wanted to assign numerical digits to the area just before and just after this, you could blow the chart up and use a ruler and calculate as many as 100 marks in the general area of a true beat. Or theoretically 1,000 or 10,000. But let’s deal with a more comprehensible 100. In theory there would be only one truly perfect hit among 100 marks, obviously at the 50 mark. Many if not most drummers hit on the 40 or 45 mark, or on the 55 or 60 mark. I know that during my brief history as a drummer I would get tired late in a set and I would start to be “late” or sometimes “early” as a way of compensating for this.
No one else would hear it, but I knew I was missing the perfect beat over and over, and it would bother the shit out of me.
For me, one of the greatest snare-hit kings of major classic rock bands was Charlie Watts of the Rolling Stones. It was amazing how close to the perfect mark he would come, time and again, over and over. I also love the perfect snap of those session drummers on ’60s Motown songs. I know I feel an amazing electric thrill every time I hear a drummer who’s exactly on it.