Cue the Drummer Jokes!
Playing Drums with MIDI Guitar


I’m thrilled to bits about a show I’m playing Thursday eve in San Francisco featuring two guitarists of impeccable skill and taste, plus me.

Teja Gerken and I are co-hosting a monthly solo guitar night at El Rio, my groovy neighborhood dive.Our guest is the amazing Eric Skye who, among other things, plays gorgeous solo guitar versions of classic Miles Davis tunes. If you happen to be in cold, cold San Francisco this week, stop by and say hi!

I’ve been doing the digital looping thing with Mental 99 for a few years now, and man, trying to work out solo arrangements with live-looped MIDI drums has been seriously humbling. You know all those jokes we love about how drummers speed up, slow down, drool, and generally disappoint? I can do all those things and everything else a drummer does, except occasionally play a competent groove. Some of the problems have to do with MIDI tracking in general, and some are simply general suckage. Man, it sure makes me appreciate my brilliant musical partner Dawn Richardson, who never speeds up and drools only rarely.


But those who can’t, teach. So I whipped up a little tutorial on playing drums with MIDI guitar. The first half covers the moves, and the second half features a live improv based on my fave afrobeat pattern. (Tony Allen is my rhythm god.) It also includes some of the hybird synth/guitar sounds I’ve been exploring, like double single-not lines an octave lower, mixing trashy guitar and trashy organ, and of course, space pigeons. (I stole the organ line from my pal Robin Balliger.)

In other news: I’ve been speaking to the ultra-knowledgable Rob Hull from Tube Depot about creating a minimalist DIY amp kit inspired by our conversations here. Lots more details to come. Tube Depot has a track record of making real nice amp kits, and Rob’s documentation/build instruction are the best in the biz. I reviewed their cool tweed Champ clone kit here.

Oh — anyone score any good holiday presents yet?

21 comments to Cue the Drummer Jokes!
Playing Drums with MIDI Guitar

  • NotSoFast

    Love it. How do you come up with your drum patterns? Invent, “transcribe”, midi steal? Any tips there ?

  • Oinkus

    So much info to work with and manipulate ! Would paralyze me in a live setting, I try and avoid thinking , it hurts my brain! Very cool Joe, curious what that Strat is/was , I can’t remember the build you did on it ? All in all that is some great work, good luck with the show. Stay safe and have fun !

  • Roger

    Awesome! love that stuff right there. I don’t have the midi going on myself, but I do progam and mess with my guitar FX to try and come up with ‘drum’ patches that will make my guitar sound more ‘drum’ like. And regardless of what anyone may say, live looping up some good grooves is harder than it looks!! Great job as always.

  • What is that nifty sound at 6:20 or so? Sounds a bit like (and I really do mean this as a compliment) a Casio VL-1. I really, really dig some of the samples and demos that I’ve heard of that ridiculous over-achieving calculator.

  • wrangle

    I really like some of those grooves you’re coming up with—that method definitely opens up a lot more possibilities than simply triggering a sampled drumloop.

    I have to say that one of the most valuable things I’ve ever done as a musician (in my case, I’m using that term loosely) was to play drum kit in a three-piece band. It’s hard to understand just how unforgiving the instrument is until you’re the guy who’s asked to play a “train beat”.

    • joe

      Oh man, don’t I know it! I feel entirely humbled.

      I sometimes wonder, why not just trigger a loop, especially since you about to loop whatever you attempt to play in real time? Obviously, this is a very personal call. But to me, there’s something about playing all parts, even if many are looped, that feels more organic and musical to me, if not to audiences. Perhaps I’m kidding myself!

  • mwseniff

    Joe the demo is quite interesting, you seem to have a good handle on the midi drums. If you are having triggering problems make sure the midi pickup is really locked to the guitar physically, double stick tape is not a good permanent solution. Beyond that just keep playing midi-guitar and you will solve any other triggering issues with your hands. But it sounds like you got pretty decent midi technique overall.

    I bought a Paia kit drum machine in 1977 or so. It made those great early cheesy electronic drum sounds. The drum machine also could store 16 – 4 count measures. But programming it was a real bummer since it was so rigid rhythmically I never really did anything that sounded good. Then came the Commodore 64 which had it’s own problems (like setting the video at a much higher precedence than audio which made it have a bad sense of rhythm) I had to multi-track the drums with multiple passes to get a usable rhythm track. When I finally got my Commodore Amiga 3000 I found out what was really causing the drum programming to suck, it was ME. It looked so simple coming up with a good drum track without having a real drummer but it was much more difficult than I ever guessed it would be. I only use my midi guitar setup to do percussion fills and simple patterns when looping stuff. In the studio I use Acid software to build drum tracks from loops I use both single hits and patterns to make very complicated drum tracks then weed out beats and patterns as needed to skeletonize the original drum track down to an almost implied rhythm at times. One big problem I have with midi is that for me a musical rhythm breathes and moves in time and tempo something midi and programmed drums don’t do well.

  • joe

    Wow — you touch on a LOT of interesting points!

    One nice thing about the TriplePlay design: the pickup is very secure in the brackets, whether you use the metal Tune-O-Matic bridge bracket (the most elegant solution, IMHO) or the stick-on bracket, which I’ve use in the strat.

    Drum simulations have gotten incredibly realistic since those Paia days. Most extreme perhaps is FXpansion’s BFD, a huge collection of huge drum libraries, deployed with disarmingly true-to-life touches, down to the microphone leakage. When parts are well programmed, they are pretty darn hard to tell from the real thing.

    But I increasingly find that, for applications like live looping, minimal or slightly abstract drum sounds seem to work best. I think it’s a bit like the way painters or photographers might blur or vignette the edges of their images. Simplicity focuses attention on the vibrant, changing elements rather than the statically looping ones. Trying too hard for realism can paradoxically highlight the fakeness. And I’m not just saying that because of the shortcomings of my MIDI drum technique.

    By the same token, cheesy, single-layer sample of—oh, I don’t know, let’s say a 1977 Paia drum machine—might be more effective than a 20GB hyper-sampled acoustic drum kit with dozens of dynamic layers.

    It’s weird, and I don’t quite understand it.

    I find that, more and more, I’m “compressing” the crap out of the MIDI signals, greatly minimizing the dynamic response. I’ve been using a new tool in MainStage/Logic: There are now “MIDI FX” inserts in the instrument channels, upstream from the audio plug-in inserts. The velocity processor plug-in is proving very effective.

    • mwseniff

      I’ve become a big fan of tuneomatics for guitar synths Roland has a similar adapter. Add a fine tuner equipped stop tail piece and it’s a great setup for me, Ive been thinking of using a tuneomatic and fine tuner tailpiece on my project lapsteel at least for one neck.

      I will say one thing for the 1977 Paia drum machine, run it thru an amp and speaker and it cuts thru a combo band like a machete thru whipped cream. It is very single minded rhythmically and only plays the tones as part of the sequence when you program it, the monitor sounds are weak it can’t be played as a set of drum pads. It does have a trigger input tho’.

  • NotSoFast

    The paradox you describes sounds uncannily like the uncanny valley.

    • joe

      Wow — I wasn’t familiar with that term till you posted it — thanks! That metaphor seems exceedingly relevant. As an enthusiastic but untalented graphics hobbyist, I went with the visual metaphor. (Like the way classical Dutch portrait painter Frans Hals would depict faces in photographic detail, but depict clothing and backgrounds is loose, sketchy strokes.) But I think the human/humanoid notion you suggested is even more relevant. Real food for thought — thanks!

  • Oinkus

    How did the show go? Where are the vids man , geez it’s been a day and a half already ?

  • i know of a actual guy that was taught afro/world beats from some drum guru that just happened to be his father in law. he's may be a solution, but you'd need 6 beers, raw elk carrion, and a rifle, and you'll be fine.

  • As the most recent midi/laptop guitar post, seems a not-to off-topic place to drop this link:
    Guitar-mounted wireless control interface from Livid, a pretty reputable shop for specialized music controllers. I’m dubious of Kickstarter, but if I was as deep into the new fangled stuff as Joe, I would be VERY interested.

    • joe

      Thanks, Bear! I just donated! Sounds great!

      I know that Kickstarter has worked out well for Ketih McMillen instruments, who make my beloved SoftStep pedal I’m sure there are horror stories too, but I know it CAN work.

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