The following tips, observations, and advice are specific to drummers, despite the touchy-feely intro. We examine key areas of technique and tuning, touch and taste. But first you’ve got to realize that your greatest obstacle is the way you perceive reality beginning with the place you call home. Home is where the hate is. You feel fenced-in. Job number one is realizing that there are no fences, not if you are going for the pot at the end of the rainbow:
Drummers, you gotta think globally. There’s more than meets the eye. Google the lyrics to the Peggy Lee song that was conceived before you were born, “Is That All There Is”.
So what if you don’t live in New York, LA, Tokyo, or London. So what if you live in a hamlet in New Hampshire or Newcastle. Everybody’s gotta live somewhere. They can’t all fit into one city. Mind you, some of the places I’ve visited you’d wonder….And so what if the Bluenote (jazz club franchise) didn’t sprout up on your main street? You do what you do where you do it and you take your signals from afar.
Local is where you hang your hat, not necessarily your hi-hats
It’s what you do that distinguishes you, both now when you’re small time and then when you’re the next idol. Subject yourself to the appropriate protocols, behaviors, and standards of musicianship.
Trust me, I realize that local claustrophobia can infect you. I’ve seen it happen to many of my colleagues. Fortunately I’ve been able to become impartial thanks to doing lots of recordings and writing for music magazines around the world.
What you perceive as insularity can put you into a spin of self-perpetuating rationales. They become your mantra. To a certain extent, you begin giving them up as your business card.
Rip up your old business card…if you have one
Speaking of business cards, you can make a few changes to show that you are worldly. For example, I’m heading to the Montreal Drum Fest and I’m designing new business cards. Since people from Germany, France, eastern Europe, and the UK will be attending, aside from the large Canadian and US contingent, I’ve put my country code ahead of my phone number on my card. It’s a small touch but affects an air of global-ness. You’ll find something similar and you’ll feel you’ve leaped over a few perceived barriers.
The local stink
I’d recommend blocking my ears when somebody proclaims he/she is the best drummer in town. I live in an urban area, population 1,000,000. I know a guy from a little town, population 4,500, an hour’s drive west who’s as solid as Eddie Bayers and can get the same sounds. You don’t want to be the best locally. You want to go beyond local, irrespective of population, because the best in town doesn’t mean squat. You’ve got to go for the globe, which means you’re in direct competition with the heavyweights of the drum world. This is good. Competition is good. It drives you to attain universal standards of performance.
Once you realize that you’re part of a larger community of musicians you’ll quit bitching and moaning about the local scene. Your peers suddenly magnify. You’re not alone in this.
You’ve read the admonitions: even if there’s only 12 people in the club, play with utter conviction and focus. Play as if there’s an audience of 250 or 25,000. Don’t let your guard down. Keep up the focus.
You took the gig, now do it~
This applies even if you’re doing covers of “The Bird Dance” and “Tie a Yellow Ribbon”. You’ve made your bed, now sleep in it. I was unable to for the longest time and, thus, I quit doing weddings rather than go to the gig with a sour face (or, dare I say, shit-faced). If you accept a gig, do it with authority. Wear the mantle of nobility handed down by the likes of Buddy and Bonzo—okay, so nobody’s perfect. You get the point.
Incidentally, when you’re covering all these (formerly called) top-40 tunes, never underestimate the drummers on those tracks. I remember despising disco when playing in the mid-1970s and getting truly rattled when DJ’s would take over in band breaks. Years later I learned I was off a little. Sistah Marmalade…jeez, have you ever checked the original drum part (James Gadson, I believe)? It’s nuts it’s so inventive and solid. Get into the song no matter what the style.
While you’re doing it, never substitute form for substance. This is one I have succumbed to often. What it means is that drummers ought to refrain from ornamentation until they’ve got the Christmas tree up and sturdily anchored. I’d tend to throw up a roto-tom when playing reggae and play rimshot 3-over-2 fills. Nobody dies and some people got the point. But it wasn’t necessary. What was necessary was maintaining an incessant one-drop feel, meaning ignoring the 1 and coming down with bass drum on 2.
Joining a universal community requires practice locally…and listening
Watch the others in the band for clues to tempo, pulse, and feel. It’s no good if you’re spot-on and spitefully stating it to your bandmates. I can’t tell you how many times my spirits have sunk listening to some club drummer state the time in some arrogant “laid-back” fashion, meanwhile dragging the tempo. That’s why when I need to dig in on a live gig and it’s difficult, I’ll pretend I’m recording a freelance date, wearing headphones, and getting with the click track, meanwhile making accommodations for band member fluctuations. Submitting to an imaginary click track is symbolic of submitting to a higher authority—always a good thing.
Which segues to a recording date, wherein the drill is usually soundchecking the various instruments—bass drum, snare drum, toms at one level—then attacking them mercilessly when tracking. Or playing live. This is a result of adrenaline and also the natural tendency to “survive” in a mix that now includes any number of guitars, basses, keys, etc. Try and keep the threshold down.
There are good reasons other than fatigue, consistency, and dynamics. If you soundcheck at a lower peak volume, and maintain that volume when you are actually performing, chances are your ghost notes and inside stuff will make it to tape—or out to the audience.
Keep a balance. Draw tone out of the toms, don’t give them a lick and a promise. Focus, especially, on larger toms, which rarely project full tone with or without PA systems. Deliver, live-off-the-floor the “mix” you would rather hear later on the recording, whether live or studio.
This’ll get your sizzles rattling
Everybody understands the role of cymbals in generating wash—in a good sense—as opposed to their role in accenting and in timekeeping. My advice, learned the hard way, is to keep the ride cymbal on a short leash, at least in rock and singer-songwriter genres. At the same time, you need to learn how to feel good while playing the ride, especially when making a transition from, say, closed hats in verse to ride cymbal in chorus. The ride feels less defined and articulate; it’s hard to second-guess if they’re hearing it out front. When the ride feels different, and fails to project the time as clearly as the hats, the tendency is to bash. That’s got to stop. As I mentioned, I’ve gotten the sack at least once on account of my disproportionately loud cymbal work.
Drummers have trouble keeping with the click (maintaining meter, keeping time, etc) when they go from hats to ride. It’s a real issue for drummers. Know this now. It’s the difference between bouncing a beach ball and a baseball. Sort of. You can do it if you work at it.
It’s taken me a long time to feel good easing up on the ride cymbal. The reward is a fuller tone and a longer tip sustain. In addition, the sound is somehow more “natural” and I find that I can dig-in plenty. I was formerly, quite simply, blowing out the highlights, saturating the stage.
Playing the ride long-term is very much a case of accommodation. I’m not talking about weekend warriors—and we’ve all been there—but, rather, someone who goes out several nights a week, or several days, and rides steadily on various-weight cymbals. Oh, it’d be nice to score the Steve Gadd-style one-ride-for-every-style. Truth be told, I own several such rides and ought to buckle down and pledge allegiance to one and skip all this flirtation. Each shift in taper, profile, weight and pitch necessitates a fundamental understanding of how to match the attack with that of the hi-hat, among other variables.
Meaning longevity is a matter of learning the difference between firm and flailing, solid and silly, and cultivating consistency. This will keep ER costs down, not to mention chronic tendinitis, cramping, and outright seizures.
We’re still with cymbals. Here’s a simple rule: don’t use splashes, which (if you’re blessed not to know about them) are cymbals ranging from 6” through 12” or so. They’re thin in weight, some of them very much so. UFIP splash cymbals, and I’m sure I won’t get arguments on this from the Italian company’s competitors, make the thinnest, smoothest splash cymbals. And they cost an arm and a leg. If you’re a gentle, expressive drummer and don’t mind sounding vaudevillian if you go overboard on them, go ahead and tip your splashes.
Is your name Manu? No? Then forget about splashes
But the rest of you…just don’t bother with splashes. Your clever alternation between 8” and 10” cymbals—or maybe you’re going the distance and add a couple more—ends up sounding like a China shop visited by a bull.
With regard to splashes, it’s all been done. Unless you’re Portnoy or Papa Jo or Buddy Rich or Stewart Copeland or Manu Katché don’t bother. Your tonal constructs will sound silly, disembodied, and a pale imitation of the great drummers of our time and the one preceding it.
And adding insult to injury, if you’re on of those bounding rockers who feels compelled to play your bass drum loudly through all your fills, you’re extra-assured to bust up expensive splash cymbals. Which don’t really add that much here or there.
What does this have to do with fame, success, and longevity? Reputation? Well, for starters you pick and choose and become known for your artistic choices and otherwise. If all you can think of is configuring wee cymbals in center-positioned triads or twixt other real cymbals, you’re gonna be perceived as a dork.
The same goes with double pedals. Young guys in Baltimore can play all that on a single pedal. Same with Larnell Louis in Toronto: wicked on a single pedal. Jojo Mayer, too. Just say no to double pedals unless you’ve really put in the hours on right foot, and left foot, development.
If you want to be perceived as a professional—and you’d best accomplish this feat early on in the game—choose cymbals that work together with your chosen stick model. This applies most to ride cymbals (on which we keep time and often spend to much time to the detriment of singer songwriters armed with acoustic guitars). Choose a ride that does just that: keeps time. If I hear another drummer extolling the virtues of extra-thin rides with wobbly edges and I’m anywhere near I’m going to put that sucker (the cymbal) on the floor, step on it and turn it inside out, which guaranteed will throw the owner—the cymbal nerd who insists on measuring everything in grams, not even pounds like God intended—into convulsions.
Listen, if you’re Keltner, especially, or Matt Chamberlain, you’ve got a reason to employ extra-thin ride cymbals, namely they’ve got something musical to say. Ditto with the original Seattle grunge drummers but maybe, just maybe, that’s getting long in the tooth. Then again, maybe not, thanks to the enduring clatter generated by the likes of Keith Moon.
More cymbal advise, pardon me. I think you ought to establish here and now, lest you become known to the drum shops of this continent and the next, whether you’re going to do a Steve Gadd and stay with one funky ride that you know inside and out—sufficiently to make it work in the range from acoustic jazz to punk funk. What I mean, is maybe cease the horse trading now. You may not be the world’s best drummer but you’ll at least not become the laughing stock of drum shops across the face of the planet. I speak from experience! Stick with one cymbal or face the facts and go with several. The key here is to look for ride cymbals that serve music and not look for rides that speak to the search. I get calls from good friends, and I disparage no one on this point, who exclaim that they’ve finally found the right cymbal—the dream ride as I wrote in a Modern Drummer feature (thanks Ryan from Missouri for the nod and I’ll be back to you shortly on Tony’s Nefertiti rides—but you know it’ll be gone, part-trade, part-cash within 6 months. It takes drummers 6 months, incidentally, to admit to themselves that they’ve purchased a turd and not a truffle.
As for the one-ride-suits-all, wouldn’t that be nice? Steve Gadd still sounds as fresh as “One Trick Pony” and it’s decades after-the-fact. He coaxes, cajoles, summons, draws out tone. As I notice kan Ye West’s Graduation track 14 (not the disk with “Good Morning”) is doing to my modest B & W monitors: “remember all those Christmases when your mama would walk into the room and pretend that she’s a tree”.
Stay in focus when in comes to gear
Maybe this is a matter of perspective. Take the long view…but look wide. Come to think of it, I do just that when I shoot photos and I’ve sold more than a few in my time. I’ve had to change the body and it’s now year-5 with my Nikon D700 (my “drums”?) but when it comes to lenses (my “cymbals”?) I’m still, more often than not, affix the same lense I used when I was 18 years old. Back then Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon and MS 13 was some food additive.
Why can’t I get to know a ride cymbal in the manner I’ve come to work my Nikkor SC 55mm f1.2? I’ve gotten to know, and to exploit, its strong suits; and work around its weak ones.
If you want to truly enjoy the fruits of your labors into your 50′s, then research a little audio. Learn about ground-lifts and when you hand one to your guitarist, who is sweating owing to a 60-cycle hum, you’ll be a hero for life.
Similarly, know a few buzz words and what they really mean. An example would be my adage: Never let a sound technician put gates on your overhead mics. I know this from bitter experience. Back in the day (okay maybe a week later) I finagled a chance to play support act for legendary British guitarist Richard Thompson. My scheme was to offer to RT the suggestion that doing an “acoustic tour” must be a little boring and, hey, could my band back him for a couple of tunes. It worked; did this twice in a lifetime, not bad when you idolize a guy but never come close to getting a call to record or even play with him, right?
A lesson on becoming aware of details beyond drumming
So in preparation for my coming out with Richard Thompson I hired the best front-of-house tech I knew. Truth is, you don’t know anybody truly when you do studio work and as for live, it’s hard to tell. I hired a name tech.
Now at that juncture, I did the fashionable thing: I employed a Tama X-Hat, which is a fixed closed hi-hat pair. In a design coup, the unit offered the ability to allow the cymbals freedom to sizzle and rattle or to close tight like one of those little animals biting one of those deadly snakes. You know what I mean; I know you do.
Okay, so I configured the kit in a fairly regular fashion: one tom up, one down..maybe it was two floor toms, the record is unclear. Where did I fit the X-Hat? In the center of my set up, sort of where ?uestlove puts his tom, or did at one time. The center of my set up meant that it sat adjacent to a Sabian 20” heavy HH ride: funny what one remembers, especially when things go wrong.
They went really wrong alright. Somehow the sound tech decided to extract discrete signals from the X-Hat and the ride. He gated the ride mic and maybe the X-Hat mic. What happened is that when things got cooking in RT’s “Night Comes In” and I went to the ride, it went to the audience as a sucking tone—a bead striking a heavy cymbal and generating a pingy, long tone, which was aborted untimely by the gate. Shwsss! Shwsss! What human being in their right mind would gate a cymbal. I mean, come on! Sure, they’d get the Fairchild in gear and Ringo’s ride would be sucked up and released. That was cool—although it puzzled me when I was a kid: was the man running his hand across the cymbal? Don’t laugh, Dave Mattacks does that to quell sustain without enduring the tone of a grabbed cymbal; meaning he runs a hand gently but firmly from bell to edge. At any rate, I digress.
Can you imagine how I felt when I heard the board tape of the gig with Richard? Shit, talk about “Night Comes In”! Indeed, “can there be another day?” Fortunately for me there was another occasion—another half-hour set with Richard Thompson. But my inattention to detail blew my first time up to bat. I don’t know whether I struck out or walked but point is I didn’t garner the praise nor the boost in self confidence I sorely felt (or knew in the second example) I deserved.
The tank is dry, reads empty, and your hand is a claw
There may be another day but you won’t deliver another set on the previous one if you don’t drink your fluids—not literally, your…forget it. But read on. Learn now to drink lots of water, lots of fluids—not alcohol, or at least don’t figure it into the equation. Alcohol sucks the water out of your system as much as, or probably more than, coffee.
This summer I suffered dehydration again. The particular manifestation I enjoyed was the way the muscles in my hand/arm/forearm began seizing up and cramping.
I’d vowed after last year’s bout I’d maintain sea level during the hot festival season; but it happened again. The cramping is often crippling. Slow intake of lots of water, and, as my doctor indicates, Gatorade and such, will help enormously. I’m told Scotch whisky will suck the fluids out of your body, too.
Stay loose; listen beyond your druthers
If you want to be in it for the long roll, you want to learn to change, turn around on a dime. This includes tuning your drums. I’m very much attached to a Steve Jordan style backbeat and don’t intend to give it up anytime soon. During the 1970s I learned to despise what I typified as the “Eagles snare sound”, meaning fat, muffled with a wallet, wanting in personality (and ring) but these days I’ll go any way the music dictates and it’s a satisfying feeling. Just like when last year I discovered The Roots, which was the gateway to a whole genre I’d dismissed as “grade school poetry atop dumb sequences”. Wake up Mr West, Mr West.
Discovering The Roots was arguably the biggest single change in my career because it pitted my yearning to learn new techniques against my deepest-held musical predispositions. It doesn’t matter if you discover urban music. Or Celine Dion—well, maybe it does matter—but the point is that you want to listen to a lot of music. You want to end your days saying, “Remember those lads, Blood Sweat & Tears…that drum fill in ‘Spinning Wheel’?”Jeez, that’s getting so tedious, guys my age saying, “They don’t make good music anymore, not like when we were young”.
Widening listening happens will inform trad jazz players that to play rock they need to adopt a completely different balance; take, for example, John Bonham’s even attack when submitted to a 2-mic job in “When the Levee Breaks”. Equally significant, close listening reveals all sorts of tricks about tuning. You’ll hear, for example, that the Bonham Sound does not emanate from big drums tuned loose and muffled a wee bit, but, rather, from big drums tuned really high and left unmuffled. And played in the balance you hear on the final mixes; they didn’t have to boost the snare drum!
Takes a while but if you keep listening to a lot of music representing diverse styles you will prevail and you will work longer and wider than your peers. I know it applies to me. I’m current drumming with people less than half my age and I was born, jeez, ten years or so before the Kennedy era.
Again: you gotta listen to lots of music if you’re gonna play toons
Has it come to this? That a drummer, of all people, is counseling fellow musicians to listen to music? What is this?
If you’re not listening to music, where are you taking your signals from?
When we were young (some of us, at least) listening incessantly. And when we got older, and when some of us grew up, we kept listening to everything under the sun. And we derived sustenance from this pleasant regimen. And ideas came to us. We didn’t have to go looking in Drum! magazine or at Internet forums.
The music will make our careers long if we follow it closely because if we listen closely it will guide us along the right path.