Break out of your usual rhythms.
Think about all the usual assumptions you make when you’re programming drums and rhythms for other parts. People often speak of breaking the rules… what happens when you break your own rules?
Take the kick drum for example… do you only ever place the kick drum on quarter-notes? See what happens when you place some kicks on eighth-notes between the quarter-notes. Syncopate them.
Too easy? What about placing the kick drum on the first beat of each bar? Find out what happens when you start each bar without the kick drum. Don’t just do it once or twice – do it for a whole section. Maybe a few sections. Maybe make it a feature of your next song or track.
Same goes for the snare. How often do you place a snare (or snare-like sound, such as a clap) on the second and fourth beats? Do you ever think about why you’re doing it? What happens when you shake it up a bit? Put that snare somewhere else. Listen to how the other instruments respond.
Some of these explorations might sound ‘wrong’ when you listen back. Some might make you feel uncomfortable. Some might be weird, or even interesting. Rhythm plays a critical role in establishing the way the music feels. Is it quick and nimble? Slow and lumbering? Solid as a clock? Wobbly and unpredictable? It’s right there in the rhythm.
Even if you try out a bunch of ideas and eventually return to your comfort zone, you’ll have a better understanding of why your comfort zone appeals to you. You’ll be in a much better position to deviate – even if only slightly – in a way that makes musical sense, rather than simply making random variations.
Drums are usually the main contributors to a song’s sense of rhythm. But don’t limit yourself. Break out of the usual rhythms you use for basslines, accompaniment parts, even melodies.
Still too easy? Try some less-common time signatures. Try 6/8. 5/4. Alternate between 6/4 and 4/4. If you’re feeling adventurous, go for 7/8 or 7/4. This kinds of time signatures will force you to shake up your usual rhythms. And you’ll invent something fresh.