Max Roach: The Quarter Note is the Common Denominator


Max Roach (Photo by Anthony Barboza)

SKF NOTE: This exchange with Max Roach took place on July 15, 1981 at his home in Connecticut. The back story is posted here

Scott K Fish: You had mentioned something in International Musician about the importance of being aware of the quarter note. I wonder if you could elaborate on that.

Max Roach: See, the quarter note is the basic thing, regardless of the meter. It’s like the common denominator. If you’re in 3/8, or 6/8, or 7/8, there’s a relationship to understanding where the quarter note is [in ] that pulse, regardless of where you are.

The basic rudiment, for me, for percussion players, is that which is a drone: All four limbs playing just a quarter note. They can do it for five minutes. It’s like a drone.

Where it’s transparent…. Say you play the quarter note with the bass drum, and the foot cymbal, and the snare, and maybe a ride cymbal. Just the quarter notes itself. And have the kind of transparency in it, that you could hear all four limbs in concert [together]. One [limb] would not override the other.

It helps give you some kind of perspective on what the drumset sounds like collectively. Of course, you’re listening to yourself when you do that, and make sure that your bass drum doesn’t override your hi-hat.

It helps you also to understand the relationship between the timbres of the instrument: all these drums, these different thing you have around you.

And it also helps you physically, to know that maybe you have to come down heavier on the hi-hat. Or maybe you have to lighten up on the ride. Maybe you have to lighten up on the snare, or come down heavy on the bass drum.

I was talking [in International Musician] about the quarter note from that aspect. In understanding the timbre of the instrument, and also, of getting a feeling of all four things [limbs] working like a machine. So when you start beginning to separate things out — there’s a certain amount of transparency, no matter how much you’re traveling all over the instrument, if you are playing the hi-hat, or doing something else — everything is being heard. Everything should be heard.

I hate to hear someone pounding away, and [I] see the hi-hat moving, and [I] don’t hear what they hear, in relationship to what they’re doing. I know that the drummer onstage hears that hi-hat within the context of what he’s doing. He hears that. But all I do is see it.

That means, if he could, maybe, develop a system where he could make sure, maybe, that he comes down with his hands on some areas [so] that the hi-hat [sound] woud [stand] out, and it would enhance what he’s doing — because that’s [the sound] he means to do. Otherwise, [I] wouldn’t see the hi-hat moving.


About Scott K Fish
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