"...when you master them, they make your grooves deeper and your drumming even more fun.

Mastering Ghost Notes: A Beginner Drummer's Guide to Subtle Beats

The More Subtle Side of Drumming

What’s the difference between another drum intro that you’ve heard a million times and the sickest drum groove to dazzle your ears all week?  

There are a few viable answers, but what a lot of newer drummers might overlook is the power of ghost notes. They can transform the simplest beats into filthy grooves that hold your attention and make you move. They’re a powerful weapon in a drummer’s arsenal, and when you master them, they make your grooves deeper and your drumming even more fun.

Table of Contents

What is a Ghost Note?

Let’s start with the basics. Ghost notes, as you might guess from the name, are notes played at very low volumes. They’re almost like filler notes in the middle of a rhythm that can add more body of sound and dimension to your playing. 

Most of the time, you’ll use ghost notes between accented notes in a rhythm. Take the classic beginning groove where you play 8th notes on the high hat, 1 and 3 on the bass drum, and 2 and 4 on the snare. Now, add a note to the snare on the “e” of beat 3.  You can play that note loud and proud, or you can play it softly and subtly. When you keep it subtle and quiet, you’ve added a ghost note.

What Does a Ghost Note Sound Like?

Quite simply, a ghost note sounds like a snare drum note, but much quieter than the usual ones you’d hear. Now, in theory, you could also play a ghost note on another drum, like a bass drum or a tom-tom. But the reality is that–generally speaking–ghost notes are just low volume snare drum notes. And that is what they sound like, just quieter notes played on the snare.

Why Do You Play Them?

The point of ghost notes is to increase your range of expression. You can use the subtlety of the notes to paint broader pictures and add a lot of texture to your grooves.

Have you ever looked at a mountain range? Is it notable just because of the highest peaks, or do you notice the colors and shapes and textures at the base of the mountains too?

Your accents in a groove make up the peaks, and that’s important for defining the beat. But, the textures are what captivate your eyes for long periods of time. And those textures can be added with ghost notes.

Here’s another way to think about it. Your accent pattern is what makes people tap their feet. “Back in Black” by AC/DC is a great example. You have this very clear pattern that lives on the quarter notes. Beat 1 is the bass drum, beat 2 is the snare and that repeats: beat 3 is the bass drum again and beat 4 is the snare drum again. 

This beat, as simple as it is, grooves like crazy.  Make no mistake about it; in the hands of Phil Rudd, a simple beat like this can become a genuine work of art. It’s hard not to tap your feet or bob your head when you hear the drums on this track.

But ghost notes are what make you move your hips instead of just tapping your feet. They’re “the something extra,” and you’ll find countless examples in jazz, big band, and funk. But, they show up a lot in rock too.

How Do You Use Ghost Notes?

As is always the answer in music, it depends. Ultimately, the music and the moment have to guide you, but when you’re exploring ghost notes for the first time, simplicity is your friend. 

Focus your ghost notes on unaccented off-beat moments. Although ghost notes can be placed anywhere, initially, you might try aiming for the “e”s and “ ah”s in your rhythm. As pointed out earlier, you can put ghost notes into even the most basic of grooves. The goal is to create a movement that is left unexpressed by the accented pattern.

Examples of Ghost Notes

In music, the best way to understand a concept is to listen to it, so let’s look at a few classic examples of ghost notes.

The first example we can explore is brought to us by Death Cab for Cutie. This might not be the first group that popped into your mind to learn about ghost notes and drumming, but the intro to “Grapevine Fires” is a wonderful display of ghost notes. Jason McGerr is a skilled drummer and in the first 15 seconds of the song, you can clearly hear how he uses ghost notes to deepen the triplet groove.

Check it out here: 

Next up, we can listen to a great example–a bit obscure for some of you—from Oz Noy’s song “You Dig,” featuring the great Keith Carlock on drums. Watch the video below and listen to how Keith uses ghost notes to great effect throughout the song. Watch Keith’s hands and you’ll notice the smaller strokes he uses on the snare drum for his ghost notes. Keith’s groove absolutely kills and his use of and skill with ghost notes is definitely part of the reason.

For a third example, we change things up a bit with a little funk. Throughout “Cold Sweat,” Clyde Stubblefield is redefining smooth grooves, and the ghost notes paint the picture. Compare the intro of the song to the drum solo (starts at 4:21).

Are Ghost Notes Hard to Play?

In all honesty, yes. 

At first, just like most new technical skills in music, ghost notes are difficult.

But if you put in the work, you’ll be able to learn them. Below, we’ll talk about how to play them, and how to practice and develop facility with them.

How to Play Ghost Notes

Ok. Ghost notes can do cool things for your drumming, but how do you actually play them?

It’s all about contrast. You’re trying to emphasize the difference between the accented rhythm and the soft ghost notes. So, your goal is to make sure that there is a significant difference in the volume of the accented notes (louder) and the ghost notes (quieter). Truly, the real trick–the hardest part of this–is to get those ghost notes as soft as possible.

Getting your ghost notes quiet enough is where most drummers–particularly beginners–might struggle a bit.

While you’re working on that the volume, you’ll want to think about rhythm. We’re trying to add dimensions to your play, and that can feel intimidating. But it’s not so hard if you start off simply.

Try a 16th-note pattern. Before you worry about the ghost notes, just lay down a string of 16th notes by alternating your hands (right, left, right, left). Nothing special is happening. And don’t worry about speed. Start nice and slow, OK?

From there, you can do a simple accent pattern. The solo from “Wipe Out” is a great place to start. The accents come on the downbeat for beats one through five. On the sixth beat, accent the upbeat — the “and” beat — and then go back to down beats.

At this point, you’re playing regular 16th notes with an accent pattern. To get to ghost notes, try to soften the non-accented notes as much as possible. Remember that playing very slowly will allow you to have enough time to make these adjustments. Just. Go. Slow.

And when you get those unaccented notes pretty quiet…

Bam. Ghost notes.

From there, you can play with the rhythms more, move the accents around on your drums and cymbals, and have a lot of fun.

When you’re playing rock and pop styles, you’ll find that most of your ghost notes live in the realm of 16th-note patterns, but definitely explore other patterns as you get more comfortable.

As you’re practicing, remember one key element. In order to play a ghost note right after an accent, you have to control the rebound of your stick. You want to use your grip to absorb as much of the rebound as you can. Instead of letting the stick bounce up after the accented note, just keep it low.  That will allow you to more easily play your next ghost note—you’ll be in position to do so because you kept the stick low after the accented note.  

How to Practice and Get Better With Ghost Notes

If you want to master ghost notes, there are two aspects of practice. You need to train your hands, and you need to explore creativity by applying the technique to actual grooves.

For the hands, stick with the idea of 16th note patterns. Earlier I had you try Wipe Out to get the gist of ghost notes. Using that same idea, you can practice a wide range of accent patterns. Move the accent from the down beat to the “ee” to the “and” to the “ah.”

The idea is to gain comfort playing a stream of notes and freely moving the accent to any stroke in the pattern. To help you develop this, check out “Syncopation” by Ted Reed. Near the back of the book, around page 47 or so, there are a series of pages with different repeating rhythms that are sprinkled with accents in different places. These pages are a great source of material to help you work on this.

If you’re looking for more ways to expand your ghost notes, turn to the rudiments. Paradiddles and their cousins (paradiddle-diddles, double paradiddles, etc.) can help you work on alternate sticking patterns and different accent streams, all while developing your ability to feel ghost notes in your hands.

That covers the physical part, but how do you train creativity with ghost notes?

With a few exercises, you can explore a wide range of ghost note rhythms, and as you master them, you can freely place ghost notes in your grooves.

But, there’s an easier way to expand your mind. Do what everyone does and steal from the greats. Listen to your favorite drummers, and pay close attention to how they use ghost notes. Then, emulate them. You’ll come across tons of different grooves and patterns, and it will build a foundation that you can then expand upon with your own ideas.

If you’re not sure who to copy, some of the great masters of ghost notes include Harvey Mason, Bernard Purdie, Clyde Stubblefield, Keith Carlock, David Garibaldi, Vinnie Colaiuta, Steve Gadd and others.

Lastly, remember all of your techniques. Ghost notes are not limited to single strokes. You can mix in diddles and buzzes too to expand your range as far as possible. As you gain confidence, you’ll see that ghost notes give you infinite freedom, even when you’re playing the most straightforward, simplified beats in music.

PS - One Last Common Question: What is the Difference Between a Grace Note and a Ghost Note?

Good question. Grace notes are also notes played more quietly, so the confusion is understandable. 

The big difference between grace notes and ghost notes is placement. 

Ghost notes are played “on the grid,” and are just subdivisions that are played much more quietly. 

Although grace notes are usually played at a lower volume, they are placed differently; usually they are not on the grid at all, but they are placed just a hair before a given accented note. 

A good example of this is a flam. The grace note in a flam is placed “just before” the main accented note and–in terms of where that grace note is placed–it can not be expressed any more concretely than that. 

So, grace notes are all about placement; they come “just before” another note, while ghost notes reside in a specific spot that is represented accurately with rhythmic notation.

That’s it. Have fun working on your ghost notes…

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