Ghost notes are a little like the drummer’s secret recipe for a tasty groove; people don’t necessarily know they’re there, but they make all the difference.
For those of you who don’t know, ghost notes are essentially lighter strikes (often on the snare, but not always) that you can slot into beats to give them a little more flavor.
They’re so named because they’re intended to be so lightly played, that like non-corporeal forms (or ghosts), Internet message boards all over the world are flush with skeptics and believers debating their existence to this very day (that was a joke – a really funny joke).
There are a couple of ways to play ghost notes and I’ll leave the choice of method up to you, though for me, it’s frequently dictated by the tempo of the track I’m playing and where the ghost note falls. You can either strike the snare with your usual force, then use the momentum of the rebound for a ghost note, or you can play the groove with a lot of focus on stick control.
Really, you can play them however you want, because I am not the boss of you.
Ghost notes are usually written as a regular beat head with brackets (parentheses) around it, although on the notation software I’m using, the closest I can come to that is a regular beat head with a full circle around it. You’ll figure it out, I promise.
Also, there’s some variation in the direction of the beat stems for the kick and snare, just because I’m trying to give you the rhythm in its most readable form.
However, like any trick in a drummer’s arsenal, ghost notes should be used sparingly. While they’re fun to play and give you the vibe of a funky deity, they don’t jive well with all genres and can take up a lot of sonic room, leaving no space for the other band members.
With the disclaimers now out of the way, let’s get to some grooves to help you up your ghost note game.
Ghost Note Volume Control.
This groove is to be played on the ride, with the black diamond representing the bell. This exercise is mostly about being able to comfortably place ghost notes in a bar without fluctuating in tempo. If you do it right, the ghost notes should drive the groove while slipping under the radar.
The hardest part (at least for me) is hitting the bell of the ride and placing the second ghost note one 32nd beat later. It’s tricky, but rewarding. Definitely start slow with this one.
Rebound Practice 1.
Bernard Purdie (if you don’t know, look him up) has been cited telling drummers to not worry about the ghost notes as they’re just rebound. With that in mind, this exercise is aimed to train your ghost note rebound muscle (if that’s a thing).
Rebound Practice 2.
In a similar vein to the last exercise, this is about training your speed and control when playing ghost notes. It’s almost overkill in that you’ll find yourself playing 5 snares in a row, but don’t worry, you can keep the tempo low – this is all about control, consistency and beat placement.
Rebound Practice 3.
This exercise takes elements from the previous 2, in that you’re dealing with pre and post backbeat ghost notes. Again, the idea here is to be able to control the volume and placement of your ghost notes consistently. In the second bar, the backbeat snare is off the beat, which is a different sensation to deal with, but important nonetheless, because you never know where you’re gonna need the ghost note to drop.
Rebound Practice 4.
This is the kind of rhythm a drummer will butcher if they’re not careful. The 3 snares in a row can be a challenge when the tempo gets higher, which is exactly where the tempo should be going with this exercise. It’s about stamina and control and I wanna see you break a sweat, private!
This groove is a fun breather from all the 27-snares-in-a-row stuff I’ve showed you previously. The idea here is simply demonstrating the other ways to use ghost notes, in order to give your snare batter a rest. The main cymbal here is the ride, while the hollow diamonds are meant to be the hi-hat. Try to keep the hats light while controlling the rebound beat placement, as the tendency can be to really crush them into place, but that sounds real bad.
Shuffles can be a little tricky to notate, mostly because there’s a lot going on and so much of that is the human feel that a computer can’t really replicate.
Jeff Pocaro, of Toto, said the groove for Rosanna came from combining Bernard Purdie and John Bonham drum parts. It’s a super satisfying groove that relies on nailing the triplets between the hi-hat and ghosted snare. Once you’ve got that down, you can have a lot of fun with this one.
For comparison’s sake (and because I’ve already mentioned him a few times), this is the Purdie Shuffle. Again, it’s tricky for a computer to represent all the humanity in this groove, but this is the jist. I’ll let “The World’s Most Recorded Drummer” tell you the rest. Just be warned, this video is addictive and incredible – the man spends 6 minutes firmly in the pocket of a metronome-free grove, while laughing and ‘splaining it to ya. Oh, and it starts with a really loud “Owwwww!”