Jaki Liebezeit: The Life, Theory, and Practice of a Master Drummer

Jaki Liebezeit: The Life, Theory and Practice of a Master Drummer

Okay, we’ve been ranting a lot recently about Can’s drummer extraordinaire Jaki Liebezeit (1938-2017). Just over five years after his death, it’s more important than ever to focus in on his accomplishments.

And music producer and author Jono Podmore’s 2020 work is a magnificent achievement.

This Jaki Liebezeit book explores his life, but also pieces together the practical theory of drumming he developed throughout his life.

Jaki Liebezeit and the Dot Dash

Earlier this year, Nirvana’s former drummer Dave Grohl was in the news as he did a one-off performance of Smells Like Teen Spirit.

Social media went ballistic. Twitter was rampant with discussion on Grohl’s genius. We saw one guy confidently write the three best drummers ever are:

  1. Led Zeppelin’s John Bonham
  2. Cream’s Ginger Baker
  3. Dave Grohl

Now, we wouldn’t put Grohl in the top 50 drummers ever.

The over appreciation of drummers with quite rudimentary skill levels is common, as partisan fans of bands vaunt a drummer like Grohl out of favouritism. Not based on talent.

And that’s all without considering a wider field. Most Grohl fans won’t know who Liebezeit was. In fact, the wider world doesn’t know much about him.

He was a cult figure, we suppose, but by design. Liebezeit just wasn’t interested in the limelight. Even though he could have easily been in top bands, he chose smaller independent projects and rejected anything that would have brought major fame and fortune.

But the German drummer was a master—a genius. Breaking his career down, we have:

  • Germany’s top jazz drummer by his early 20s
  • Joined Can in 1968, which remains one of the most influential and ground-breaking bands in history
  • Pioneered an entirely new form of drumming (motorik beat)
  • Tirelessly documented his practical theory about rhythm
  • Dedicated his life to his practice

There were obituaries for him in 2017 in many leading publications. The Guardian noted in the man who marched to the beat of his own drum:

“The last time I saw him was at Cafe Oto in London, following a 2015 gig with Faust organist Hans-Joachim Irmler. As the venue emptied he stood alone, packing up his equipment unassisted. It made my blood boil to think of higher profile rock players with a tiny fraction of his talent who were nonetheless able to leave such tasks to roadie minions. I don’t suppose this bothered him at all. He loved to drum and he drummed to the end. And he was one of the greatest drummers who ever lived.”

But for most people the question will remain, “Who?

Thanks to Jaki Liebezeit: The Life, Theory, and Practice of a Master Drummer we now have plenty of fresh insights into an intriguing man with a mighty talent.

Jaki Liebezeit’s Biography

Born Hans Liebezeit on 26th May, 1938, the young German grew up in the village of Ostrau, near to Dresden.

He did so in pretty much extreme poverty. His household had no electricity or running water. To make matters worse, his father Karl Moritz Johannes Liebezeit died during WWII on 18th August, 1943.

“After his father’s death the war came closer to home as the Allies advanced into Germany. Jaki could remember hearing the sound of the bombers flying overhead to destroy nearby Dresden. He was just seven when the war ended and the Russians occupied Eastern Germany. He would go to the woods, playing that common and hideously dangerous game that kids in war zones all too often play: looking for shells and leftover weapons. A Russian tank crew befriended him and once he was even proudly paraded past his house standing on the tank, much to the horror of his distraught mother [Elisabeth].”

With Germany losing the war and the Nazi party collapsing, in 1945 his mother decided to take him and flee to safer regions of Germany.

The seven-year-old Liebezeit was a refugee—all of these experiences profoundly affected him for the rest of the life.

He remained steadfast in his refusal towards, and suspicion of, wealth.

Liebezeit was all about humility and avoiding the trappings of arrogance and a superiority complex. As with his exceptional skillset as a drummer, he could have joined a mainstream band and been rolling in fame and fortune. He rejected it.

Instead, Liebezeit openly embraced dilettantism (as in, encouraging amateurs to have a go at something).

By all accounts he was a great bloke. Backed up with a deadpan sense of humour, he was a big fan of Vaudeville actor Buster Keaton. And he got to see him when the actor visited Berlin after WWII.

He lived for drumming, aware his creative streak made him unsuitable for marriage and kids. Only in later life did he get married and have a son.

What typifies him is that humble approach.

There was no nonsense. Just a search for commonality through music, which is why he’d hold weekly open music sessions in Cologne.

Anyone could turn up to his studio, no matter their skill level. There’d be open discussions and, inevitably, everything would turn into a massive shared drum off experience.

We can’t think of any other modern drumming star who’s done that. Which is a fitting tribute to Liebezeit and all he stood for.

Jaki Liebezeit’s Drumming Style

After honing his jazz drumming skills during the 1950s in university at Cologne, he found the city offered a progressive and vibrant music scene.

And there he rapidly established himself as the best drummer in the business. This is also where he switched from using Hans to his nickname Jaki.

Worshipping Art Blakey and Elvin Jones, Liebezeit soon wanted to forge a new style of playing.

In fact, he was inspired to take up his distinctive drumming style when he was approached by a random hippy dude in the 1960s.

That’s motorik beat—repetition, monotony, a celebration of recurrences. He’d go on to develop his music theory, a system of dot dashes (more on that further below).

Motorik beat went on to form the very foundation of what Can was. We’ve covered this in tracks like Ege Bamyasi’s Vitamin C and Tago Mago’s Halleluwah.

Plus, the exceptional metronomic style is clear on Oh Yeah (1971).

But Paperhouse is arguably the most thrilling example of his style at work. Listen to him kick in from 2:00. It’s bloody incredible!

That’s the heart of why this book exists. The reason he has this reputation. Ultimately, Jaki Liebezeit was an astonishingly good drummer.

We can’t think of any band, even with The Stone Roses, Led Zeppelin, or The Who, where one drummer is so utterly integral. Guitarist Michael Karoli was also brilliant and a driving creative force, but without Liebezeit there was no Can.

“Michael functioned as the social glue of the band. He was a charming, funny and disarmingly honest man who essentially everyone loved. The well-documented tensions between Jaki and Holger Czukay [Can’s bassist] were largely derived from their roles. A drummer with the precision and principles of Jaki was never going to take lightly to a bass player dropping notes around his beats without the most concrete of reasons, and the mercurial Holger was anything but concrete. This produced a tension that is great for the listener but was not such a joy to live with …

He still had to keep Holger’s playing in check, which naturally spilled over into their personal relationship, described by writer David Stubbs as ‘pugnacious’. Despite this, Holger and Jaki were drawn to each other, the two ex-refugees often travelling to gigs together and forming a production team.”

After Can split on amicable terms in 1979, Liebezeit spent much of his time in Cologne, where he was a crucial part of an open, progressive music scene.

He co-founded Phantom Band and then Drums Off Chaos.

That was when he began heavily developing out his ethnographic knowledge of language and rhythms, culminating in a deep search into the very core of what makes a groove a groove.

Jaki Liebezeit’s Dot Dash Music Theory

If you’re interested in music theory, the Jaki Liebezeit book is worth it alone for its extensive analysis. We’ll cover it in brief here, but recommend the book for the full details.

“Through daily sessions in Weilerswist, this scorched earth became the beginnings of a systematic rebuilding of music theory rooted in the ergonomics of drumming that developed in the Dot Dash system. Beats were codified as filled or empty circles, like programming an early drum machine. These circles would represent a beat or a rest, left hand of right, strum up or down, on or off. Simply alternating between these wasn’t enough, as reducing by a factor of two would lead to one: to stasis. No music. But with even a slightly more complex pattern (but never with more than two identical dots in succession), using repetition, reversal, half-time, double-time etc., whole systems could be developed, as the patterns could be applied to chords and harmonic structures and even dynamics.”

That’s the basis of the E-T rhythm system.

Throughout the ’80s, ’90s, and ’00s Leibezeit began exploring the concept of rhythm in finite detail. It led him to document patterns that look this.

Halbton Cirkel

It’s a semitone circle with the 12 major and 12 minor chords depicted as triangles. Other sketches show patterns created by connecting each pitch on the semitone circle.

E-T system derived from connecting pitch on the semitone circle

This E-T system codified looks like this.

Liebezeit's dot dash system

There are rules to the system—four of them:

  1. Dot is a stroke with a hand. Dash is two strokes with another, but with the duration of two dots.
  2. Play the dots and dashes with alternating hands.
  3. For the second dash, that has to be quieter than the first.
  4. Add drumming accents after a dash.

But that’s it. It’s quite simple once you learn the basics, then a player can make whatever they’re drumming as simple or complex as they want.

How does that look with drummers playing?

Well, onto.systems put together this. It’s the work of Victor Burton’s drumming basepoints, his interpretation of it. You can click on the below image for a closer look.

Liebezeit's dot dash system by Victor BurtonThat highlights what you can do with the system if you want, turning it into a type of Morse code for drumming.

So, this was all at the heart of Liebezeit’s playing. Not a wasted beat, everything methodically planned out.

And you can hear this in Drums Off Chaos. Liebezeit was part of this collective for the second half of his life, working alongside many drummers and musicians in a Cologne studio.

Riot Material documents a bit more on the above in its excellent feature:

“Jaki had early on codified in his head his drumming rules – first developed in his work with Can, then refined and expanded upon in collaboration on solo projects by Can’s Holger Czukay and Irmin Schmidt, Jah Wobble, his own Phantom Band and Drums Off Chaos, and in an excellent series of recordings/performances with Burnt Friedman called Secret Rhythms – their proper application and vast musical potential was and is a never-ending thing of articulation, analysis and contextual musical-historical view.

The rigour and discipline with which any player must apply the E-T system, and a very strictly adhered-to focus on the system’s rules, allows for an invigorating freedom of individual expression for its players, along with valuable new perspectives on the very act of drumming.”

Everything detailed above is what Jaki Liebezeit worked on tirelessly throughout his life. Working away, drumming, documenting, theorising—his ultimate goal was to piece it all together as a practical theory of his life’s work.

However, his sudden death of pneumonia aged 78 blocked that.

We must be highly thankful for Jodo Podmore, and contributors Manos Tsangaris, Maf Retter, Reiner Linke, and Gero Sprafke for taking the time to ensure this wasn’t lost to the world.

Jaki Liebezeit: The Life, Theory, and Practice of a Master Drummer isn’t so much a book, more an essay on music theory based on a genius drummer who dedicated his life to the cause.

A fascinating read, then. And if the above intrigues you at all… get a copy!

Dispense with some gibberish!

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