Just recently came across this Mike Portnoy interview on Drum Talk TV. Very cool interview where he talked about odd time signatures and groove.
From around the 10:33 mark:
I spend so much time playing odd time signatures and a lot of people ask me about that, and these are 2 schools of thought.
There are people who play odd time signatures that know exactly what playing in 15/8 is and playing in 19/16 is – There are people that technically know that stuff. Then there are people like in Soundgarden that play in 7 or 5 all the time but I would probably venture to guess they don’t even realize it, because they’re playing by the way it sounds, or the way it feels, and there’s something to be said for both. Now I”m at the point where I could feel pretty much any time signature. I don’t have to count it out. I can recognize it, just from the feel and the sound of it. But it’s also nice when you can count it and you do understand it. Because once you understand it, you can dig a little deeper and you can start breaking up the phrasings into different combinations and things like that – which is something I’ve always done. I think in the early days, the most important is to sound and feel right, you know, rather than it being a mathematical equation on a piece of paper.
I think when it comes to groove, first and foremost, to me, is it’s always about the kick and snare. Everything else is just icing on the cake and back in my old Dream Theater days, I used to think more about the icing on the cake, and I would spend a tremendous amount of time with the nuances. As time went on, as I grew older and as my tastes changed I realize those nuances are nice, but at the end of the day it’s about being the anchor and the groove and what is a kick and snare doing and a lot of times now, if I’m writing with the winery dogs, like the first album and as well as the new album that we’re currently making, we wrote both albums at Richie Kotzen’s house and he has a drum kit there that is literally kick, snare, ride and hi hat, and that’s it. No toms, no splashes, or chinas or anything. Kick, snare, ride, hi-hat and I’ve written now two Winery Dog albums, you know, writing the songs on a kit like that. Because at the end of the day, that’s what the groove is. Kick, snare, and then either the hi-hat or the ride. A good song, and a good groove and a good drum beat and a good performance is based around that. Everything else is icing on the cake. The icing is nice, but you’ve got to have a good cake first.
This is eye opening for me. I think as a non-drummer, it simplifies the writing process for me greatly. Knowing that I can set the foundation of what I’m looking for in my demos with just the kick and snares (even for odd time), I can ball park the feel of it with just those two in my programming, and let the real drummers do their thing when it’s time for the real thing. I can move on and concentrate on the parts for the other instruments. I’ve been doing that more so without knowing it, mainly because of my limited knowledge of drums, but it turns out that the strategy was valid!