How To Write A Drum Instruction Book

A few years ago I was looking for a way to improve my grooving in the studio. I had analyzed my recorded tracks and noticed spots where the groove seemed to ebb or flow just a little. Sometimes it happened going into a new section, or with a note or two in a fill, or in the measure before or after a fill, etc. Sometimes I wouldn’t hear anything weird at first and then a little hiccup would sneak in after a few plays. It began to drive me crazy. So I wrote a series of exercises designed to increase the precision of the volume and placement of my notes; studies that would force me to become more consistent. I went through the exercises at fast, medium, and slow tempos and ended up very satisfied with the results. My playing got more consistent and groovy. There were less pushes or pulls in the feel and time. I was cutting better tracks. This inspired me to write more exercises and practice those, too. I continued the process of writing and practicing and after a few months I had almost 150 pages of material. So I took everything I’d written and organized it into a book called Groove Control.

I really enjoyed the process of thinking up the possibilities, working through the patterns on the drums, and putting the ideas into a logical, effective order. I liked it so much that I’ve already written a follow up to Groove Control and outlined two other titles as well. I learned new things with each project and discovered some shortcuts along the way. Here are the steps I have found to be most effective for me, and some ideas that can save you a little time and pain if you decide to write your own instructional book.

1. Picking a topic.
When thinking about possible book topics focus on ideas that interest you because you’ll be spending a lot of time on the subject. Your topic should be about something you are already good at or something you want to be good at, and should be broad enough to make an interesting, varied book without being so vast that you can’t cover it thoroughly. “Drum Beats of All Kinds” might be too much to cover in one title, for example, while “Jazz Brushes in 13/8” might be too small. There are many good books out there already and you want something original, so when you’ve found a topic you like do a google search to make sure someone hasn’t already written the book you are planning to write.

2. Writing.
Once you have a topic and a music software program for your computer (I use Encore but there are other good ones, too) start thinking up and writing out every application you might use that fits the title. Say you have decided on a book called “Side stick and the Drum Set”… How do you get a good side stick sound? What are the different ways to play a side stick? When did it start? How is it used? Side stick in Reggae”? Bossa Nova? Latin? Jazz? Blues? Side stick in 80’s Rock Ballads? Try to write every combination, pattern, or exercise that uses the side stick in a drum set application. “Side stick and the Drum Set” would probably be a lousy book but you get the idea.

At some point during the writing process you’ll likely spend a bunch of time working out an idea that won’t fit with the rest of the information when you’re done. Other times you’ll wonder if there’s a better way to write an exercise while you’re already halfway through a page. Sometimes better ways will hit you after you’ve already finished and idea (or whole section) and you’ll feel compelled to do it over. You might get an idea that opens up a huge amount of work and have to decide if it’s worth it or not. In these times it’s important to keep working.

During the process of transferring the patterns/exercises into your computer you can save time by saving each page you set up, then clearing it and saving it again (with a different name) as a blank template. Often times new ideas will fit a page set up from a prior lesson. Also, create a “junk file” where you can store any completed ideas that you start to think won’t fit with the rest of the material in the end. You may find ways later to incorporate some of these ideas or their templates, and its just as easy to throw everything away after the planning is set and you’re sure what you want to keep.

3. Organizing the ideas.
Once you have a good, thorough body of work, arrange the lessons into a logical, effective order. The ideas should build in difficulty and not replicate themselves anywhere in the book. A few years ago I printed up a book of stickings, beats, fills, rudiments and rolls that I thought would be important for a beginner. I jokingly called it “How To Rock” and used it to teach out of when I started giving lessons. The first time I went through the book with a student, however, I discovered that “triplets” occurred in an exercise four pages before “Triplets” were introduced. I also had the same beat written two times in a row on one page, and once again in a later chapter. Fortunately, I only printed out twenty copies of “How To Rock” at a time, so I could correct new mistakes/typos every couple months as I discovered them.

4. Making a rough draft.
When you have the lessons together print it all out in order and put it in a binder with clear plastic sheet holders. Be sure to leave a couple empty sheets between each chapter or section for title pages, explanations, and directions. Now you can go through the book and play through everything. This a time to check the flow and look for any mistakes in the notes or text. You can also figure out the best tempos for each exercise and add those to the pages. If you imagine trying to teach out of the book you’ll find the wordage to explain each chapter or page. In writing an instructional book you want to err on the side of “too much direction” because you never know the educational level of your reader and you’d hate to have a student play something incorrectly or get stuck on how to proceed. Don’t worry about offending advanced players with too much explanation. Nobody minds reading something they already know.

This is the part of the process where you get to play a lot. It takes time to go through all the patterns. But it’s important to feel the flow of the lessons and get another typo check. And this is the time when you start to see an improvement in your playing, which is always very exciting.

5. Making a master copy.
When everything seems to be in a good order print out a final copy complete with any other text pages that will facilitate the book’s use: cover page, introduction, chapter number pages. (Or however you choose to break down the material. Part 1, 2 3? Section A, B, C?). Maybe a page about the author, or any further studies the student can check out, recordings to listen to, conclusion, quotes, etc. You can include as much or as little as you like, and this will be your final copy, which can be given to a printer or publisher (on paper, disc, or PDF) for duplication.

6. What about a CD?
Most books today come with a CD so the reader can hear the exercises. If you choose to include a CD with your book go through the rough draft and figure out what you think might be important for the student to hear, then choose the exercises you’ll record and put track numbers next to them. You might also want to include a page that lists all the tracks and the exercises they correspond to. Recording a CD can be cheap if you have a studio at your access but you’ll also have to have it mixed, mastered, and manufactured, so it can add up.

Once you know what you want to record be sure and put in some extra practice time on those exercises so you won’t waste any time in the studio. It’s good to start every track with a four beat click so the student can play along. After that you can do each pattern as many times as you want. CD’s can have up to 99 tracks but you don’t need to use them all. Groove Control is a long book so I decided to go with all 99. Word of advice: since most of the tracks on the Groove Control CD were only 5-10 seconds long I thought I could do it all in one day. Big mistake. By the time we got the tones and had recorded all day I was starting to get shaky. (Just as the hardest examples were coming up.) I got it all done but it wasn’t easy. I recommend allowing yourself two sessions. Get as much as you can on the first day (you may even finish!) but stop when you’re tired. Then you can start fresh on the second day and make sure everything sounds great. A badly played CD isn’t as effective for the student, and it won’t do much for your credibility either.

7. Getting it published.
There are many options for publishing. One is to seek out a major publishing house. (Mel Bay, Alfred, Manhattan, Belwin Mills…) Major publishers will print up real nice copies and sometimes subsidize your CD recording costs. They will also give you distribution on a national and sometimes international level. Major publishing companies usually give the author 10% of retail for each book which, for an average priced title, comes to around $2.50 per sale. They will also sell you as many copies of your book as you want for cost (half price) so you can make about $12.50 per book if you sell them yourself. This works well if you have a lot of students. The down side of a big publishing company is that they often have too many other titles to push your book for you, so most of the orders you get will have to be self generated.

Another route is finding an independent publisher. If you have a good idea and some energy you may be able to find a small company that will work with you. For Groove Control, I went with a small company called Oakland House Press. They covered the recording and printing costs and we wrote up a contract detailing our goals, responsibilities, and profit splits. If your publisher has some money, they can also provide an advertising budget (which will go against future book sales.) The distribution with indys might not be as vast as a major publisher but it can get the ball rolling. And indy publishers usually have less titles so there’s more time for them to market your book and try to get it reviewed in magazined and websites.

The last possibility is to print the book yourself. You can take the material to a local printer and have them bind it in any way you choose. I like spiral ring bindings because they lay flat and also keep costs down. “How To Rock” was 96 pages and cost $12.80 per copy to print. I didn’t have a CD with it so I sold it for $20. Since I was only selling it to my new students I was never going to make a huge profit. But it helped a little, and the book made my teaching easier because the lessons were set up in the order and priority I chose.

Printing it up yourself isn’t a bad start. Without the distribution, you will have to contact each store yourself and convince them to carry your title, but even if no one takes it on, you can sell and teach out of it, and you’ll have a nice, clear version of your book when/if you decide to pitch it to a publisher later.

Writing a drum instruction book is fun, gives you another form of income, improves your playing, allows you to teach whatever you think is important to know, with the exercises you choose, in the order you want. All it takes is time and enthusiasm.

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One thought on “How To Write A Drum Instruction Book

  1. dolf

    Thanks for the tips Steve.