What do drummers mean when they state, “I serve the song” (or “the music”)? If so many of them are “serving the song”, why do I hear so many singer-songwriters complaining about drummers?

Should drummers play-dumb, or play simple, to serve the song…or is “serving the song” an apology? It goes to the roots of the drumming experience…

As in “I’d be drumming a different way but…” It brings to mind Papa Jo Jones’ instructional album The Drums (circa 1970), in which he urged drummers to play with the band, not for the band.

Paul Motian serves the music

Therein lies the fundamental contradiction in drumming. At once it’s supposed to be noble, measured activity seized with the control Billy Gladstone exhibited at Radio City Music Hall and charged with abandon. Theatrics, specifically high sticking, are okay either way it goes.

Reader/legendary Saint John, NB drum instructor Joe McIntyre believes that drummers have gone back to vaudeville. Joe claims that drummers have taken a step back, witness the fact that they’re judged by criteria more appropriate to the realm of entertainment than music: “How many musicians who play other instruments are judged by how many notes they clock in a minute?”

Back in the day, the Leedy Drum Company used to publish drummer news and tips, including so-called stunts—clever moves guaranteed to wow audiences and elicit the respect of musicians. We do it to ourselves—that’s one take on the matter. When it really hurts is when we’re at a social gathering and we respond to a question about what we do. Inevitably this sort of question is close behind: “Well, do you play anything except…the drums?”

The carnival of drumming

I can tell you that my own first brush with a drummer at age 4 revealed 2 essential attributes, that sum up to flare and control. The venue was a farmers field, now long stuffed with condominiums, which featured shallow, round craters, filled with water in spring time. When a child would go missing, they’d drag the craters. That’s another story but shows that you need serious real estate to host a Barnum & Bailey circus, a huge, multi-tented affair. At night, my dad and I sat under the great canvas dome watching the dazzling display of animals interacting with humans. To me, it seemed that The Drummer was the ringleader. He was precise, meticulous, and obviously well-schooled (even if he learned on the street); and he was playful and broad in his strokes. I took careful note of how he punctuated a lion leaping through a ring of fire vs a human being shot from a cannon. I realized the respective strengths, and effects, of catching the 15” splash cymbal as opposed to thundering from floor tom to bass drum. Occasionally the drummer would solo without catching shots, let loose real flourishes, and would up the buzz level already crackling that night under the big top.

That was heavy. And the experience later puzzled me in the context of me reflecting on the role of the drummer. Yes, that circus drummer was playing music, serving songs and serving the band.

He was also serving the animals and working the crowd. Even today I can picture him, hear him, and feel him and the wow factor remains. I wonder, is this why I took up drumset? In fact, it would be years and the advent of The Beatles before I acquired a drumset. Now here was charisma and adrenaline—and great tunes. But the drumming, while nimble and expert, was not particularly elaborate. Hmmm.

Drumming is the new vaudeville” (Stanley Spector)

I remember seeing Buddy Rich as a youth and becoming increasingly pissed at a concert that I couldn’t hear his time playing in the swirling swell of his ride and crashes, which he struck expertly and a little too frequently for my liking. I’d see him again and I’d have the same reaction until I caught him and band near the end of his life. The hall filled up and I imagined Buddy, busying up and nailing the punches amid crackling snare drum rolls, bass drum pumping, and cymbals washing. But it didn’t come to be.

Buddy stunned me. Like our house cat, who at age 19 strangely crawled up 2 flights of stairs to sniff the air one last time before giving up the ghost, Buddy seemed to have returned to nature. I’ve mentioned this before but to me it bears on the current discussion. His time playing was so articulate, clearly stated without spill over, that it seemed to me he was speaking of some rumbling of the drums he’d grown up with and felt obliged to revisit.

Ah, it’s all just talk. But Buddy was on a mission of sorts, quite obviously. He’d gone back and was playing a replica of his 1940s Slingerlands, including massive 28” bass drum. That’s a statement! Similarly, he was using a Zildjian Amir ride (budget model of the 1980s) that was crystal clear and reminiscent of some of the oldest rides in my collection, such as a 1940s K, once a band cymbal, all clangy and beautiful.

Buddy was tired, clearly fading but his eyes were alive with something, as I witnessed at the top step up into the tour bus, where I stopped dead. Buddy was right there, smoking, and I caught his gaze for maybe 6 seconds. That long.

Buddy had answered any burning question I might have harbored, if not at that moment then over the course of his show earlier that night.

I’ll never forget that stare, under the glow of the tour bus marquee reading what it is. Maybe the reefer smoke, thick in the air of the dressing room earlier on and not entirely absent on the Greyhound, had something to do with my perceptions. All that’s real about that night is the simple truth that Buddy Rich, over a long career, embodied drumming excellence. Tonight he’d proven it could go both ways. He could serve a song in a lavish, embellished manner or he could go like a bullet to the heart of it, playing little but his razor ride, barely touching the toms. Either way, his control of his instrument and his adherence to the arrangements were firmly contextualized in a deeper pulse that rumbled like the tour bus.

Gospel drumming: serving the creator but not the song?

They’re busy as the devil. Do they serve the song? Many of today’s gospel drummers find the genre a forum for exciting displays of chops, including wicked double-pedal kick and out-of-this-world blinding tom passes. It’s attractive stuff as you’ll witness on gospel drumming websites and channels. Disciples are zealous and their ranks overflowing.

Then you get somebody like ?uestlove, who grew up playing lots of chops but suddenly turned the other way. I respect him for the directness of his statements, both on the drumset and in interviews, in which he’s expressed a misgiving or two about the true nature of gospel drumming. Point is, ?uestlove is digging deeper into the hole, patiently and with measured strokes; he’s not slinging bits of earth skyward. There’s something in his simplicity that is every bit as rousing as the flying fills characteristic of gospel exponents.

You could say that contemporary gospel drummers, who are the fusion drummers of our era, employ chops to exalt and serve the creator…if not necessarily the song. Maybe the song is not the end point in the chain of service. At any rate, gospel drummers serve a demanding master.

Whence cometh “I play for the song”?

I first recall hearing someone state they served the song in the mid-1980s. At the time, the first wave of fusion drummers had broken and receded: Billy Cobham, Lenny White, Carl Palmer, and a host of ostentatious rockers like AJ Pero. At the time, I reckoned that serving the song was a waving of the flag for simplicity—by those who could play anything they wanted, and by those who might be a little deficient in chops and were apologizing for not departing from the basics.

Put another way, it seems that “serving the song”, as the expression has evolved, connotes either a drummer can do so much more but chooses (or the producer has chosen for him) to play bare bones beats, or as a rationale for incapacity to do anything that departs from the beat. Either way, I believe the argument if fallacious and the expression founded on embarrassment for not taking some other approach than same old, same old.

What about Peart?

If simple drumming is “serving the song”, what do we make of Neil Peart? Do we dismiss him? He’s been truly serving the song for as long as I can remember and I’m getting old. The man takes great pains to construct, destruct, reconstruct in a manner that is truly compositional, albeit not in the traditional sense of melody, harmony et al. Agreed, Neil’s default dynamic level is loud. And busy at the same time. Then again, why not? It makes perfect sense after a listen to his 3-disk DVD package Taking Center Stage: he designs his drum parts per situation and he’s in a loud rock band. If he conceives elaborate drum parts that sit well in the surroundings, more power to him. It’s not as if he’s a one trick pony. In fact, he’s worked hard at his craft and stays open to new techniques and he brings everything to the table as an equal partner in a trio.

Neal Peart on a simple kit in search of clarity

And, indeed, what do we make of Gavin Harrison (Porcupine Tree, educator) whose refined detailing and stunning chops smoke anybody out there? A lot of Gavin’s bits go under the radar, completely unnoticed by the drummers who remain spellbound by his more extravagant roundhouse fills and sudden double-stops. I’ve watched him adding light and shade all the while, fluttering across the metal rims and dragging thumbs across his tom heads, conguero-like, not for show but to enhance mood via use of timbres.

Gavin Harrison (Porcupine Tree) serving the music

Gavin Harrison serves the music by asserting individuality

Then again, maybe Gavin’s playing in a different sort of band than the next drummer. Nobody’s gonna tell me that at his busiest Gavin is not serving the song.

Their point to me was: Does playing for the song require dumbed-down drumming?

I drive a VW New Beetle, Mexican-made and 9 years old, passed to me by my spouse, who bought another vehicle. My Ford Taurus had bitten the dust and I gratefully accepted the red bug, which can hold more drums in the boot at the back than the larger Taurus!

Thing is, I’m an aggressive driver and the Beetle doesn’t track aggression so well. The light turns green, I slam pedal to floor, and it stutters and farts twice. Doesn’t hold a candle to that powerful rental car that became my instrument one Sunday morning near the corner of 23rd Street and 9th Ave in New York City, when I did a magnificent turn about, not a three-point turn but a Steve McQueen arc that placed me directly facing the entrance of the Chelsea Savoy, from which I’d just checked out. I’d forgotten my funky burgundy leather shoulder bag, which contained my Nikon. Only a fool, or one who couldn’t cut it, would have allowed themselves to enter the slip stream on the west side highway. My chops and my instrument allowed me to serve the song (and dance) that day.

My red bug is not such an instrument. On the other hand, I play a different tune when driving at home in an urban center one-tenth the size of NYC.

Drummers must similarly play in context each time they play with people. It means listening, playing in time, phrasing and embellishing with a nod to song form. And lyrics ought to count for something, too. That’s possibly my saving grace and the reason I did so many recordings with singer-songwriters. I can’t count the times one of them remarked after a take in the recording studio and a query from me: “Jeez, a drummer who listens to the lyrics!”

Seems to me that lyrics hold the key to mood as much as changes, except when we’re talking “baby, baby, baby”. I couldn’t begin to tell you how I go about complementing lyrics, though. Most often, I feel I’m barely hanging on, barely making the team, but happy to be in there batting.

Base hits or home runs

It’s neither one nor the other. If I’m serving the team, as when as a youth I played five years with a Little League team, we’d win on the merits of control and placement. Sure the home runs were welcome. But sometimes they didn’t serve the team. What appears to be a home run might be out of place if the team needed one of those amazing hits that go right over the pitcher’s head, especially if the “home run” is caught by the right fielder. You gotta listen to the coach and huddle with team the team before stepping up to the plate. You could go up there and place a hit each inning; and lose the game.

I guess if you’re truly not serving the song, you’re not listening. Maybe you’re flashy, and that’s got its merits to be sure, but you’re letting the team down. You realize this when the phone stops ringing. Still, if you wish to continue, in the face of mounting evidence to the contrary, to play busy when inappropriate, there’s hope for you: drum festivals. Just kidding!

Count your blessings

What I mean is that if a drummer is fortunate enough to be playing songs to stadiums—or just to 15 people in a cellar on Monday night, I can’t imagine what would be more rewarding than playing songs. It’s that business about the essence of music and communication, as embodied in the sage statement, It’s all folk music, ain’t no horses playing it.

A call to action: Everybody’s gotta serve somebody

Let’s refrain from stating I serve the song. Think about it: Your work will speak volumes about your service. If the pages remain empty, perhaps you are guilty of: (1) over simplicity when elaboration on basic themes is called for or (2) of over embellishing when a less elaborate statement would make the point more vividly. And serve the song.

Let’s begin by taking a good hard look around us: are we watching the other musicians on the stage, working off their body language, comping—not clouding—their phrasing? And as Ringo did when he recorded “In My Life” with The Beatles, are we adding value and substance or are we simply drumming? To me, Ringo’s accented hi-hat preceding backbeat on 4, is a stroke (pun intended) of brilliance and a reflection of good taste. Forget what he can play, it’s what he did play that solidifies his enduring contribution to music. A little more elaborate but simple in concept is Larry Mullen Jr’s slightly dragged 16ths in “Pride”.

Ending off on two drummers I’ve enjoyed interviewing at length, I figure I take inspiration from both Thomas Lang and Paul Motian.

Sometimes service requires acts of daring. Others it’s a matter of simple acts rendered quietly. Both serve.