How to be a better drummer in 10 easy steps nobody ever talks about

Essential drumming don’ts and do’s: a New Year’s gift from T Bruce

(in reverse order, or something)

Rule 1: Don’t ride a cymbal with brushes. I mean, it’s an unsaid rule that ought to be unplayed. Why? Because at very least it looks dorky. And sounds dorky. You hear the time clearly when articulating wire brushes (plastic is another unspoken tenet of timekeeping) on snare and on hats. Then comes the big fill followed by relentless quarter-notes in the chorus/bridge/solo section. Four-pulses-to-the-bar using the fan of wire brushes?

No! Those quarter-notes, which have been gaining in blunt force and brutal intensity to the end of the verse are now lost. The time thread has gone, the quarters vanished like house keys in a river of molten lava.

Flick those things as you will, tap out the time, until the veins stand out on your forehead, and you can’t do it—make the brushes sound credible on a ride cymbal.

As sure as there’s a club sandwich on the menu of Sunday brunch on a golf club menu, the time is lost if you ride a ride with brushes.

What’s more, do so and you will feel, irrespective of gender, emasculated. Ever see a long-haired dog embarrassed after an overzealous groomer chops the fur down to suede? Shamed. Unable to run with the pack.

Ride with a brush, sound like a puss.

Do so and you ought to rename your band Timmy and the Easter Seals (give me a footnote, kindly); just don’t pretend to cop Elvin Jones or Dave Grohl. You’ll be copping the cocktail circuit and you’ll be perceived as a drummer who strikes softly carrying a big purple swizzle stick.

Rule 2: Play your time on wire brushes. Otherwise there will loom over you the uncomfortable cloud of suspicion that the only reason you’re playing plastic is to save your virgin white drumheads from a premature tar-and-feathering. I mentioned it before (twice) that when I guested at a Fox scoring date session with Sol Gubin, he proudly showed me his classic white Ludwig kit and, you know it, each head was as black as if you’d emptied your pencil sharpener over them, day in day out.

By now you know I’m playing devil’s advocate. It goes without saying that if you’re one of the brilliant brush players out there employing plastic strands for reasons of tone, go to it. I can’t touch you with wire or nylon. But if you’re doing your plastic for the sake of pristine heads, God bless you in the coming year. It’s getting dirty out there.

Rule 3: Turn your snares off whenever possible. There’s only one thing more annoyingly ignorant than a drummer parting the stage with snares-on, free to rattle and chatter while the opening act bassist is soloing….

Rule 4: don’t be playing licks & fills between songs. Nobody’s gonna know when the next song starts because you’re trying out stuff in the meantime at stage volume. Shepherd: shut the flock up!

Rule 5: Don’t say you don’t read Modern Drummer when you do. I see through you and so does everybody else. Especially when they go to a party at your house and use the upstairs bathroom and reach for a magazine.

Rule 6: Don’t drive your own sense of groove like a wedge through the band. Don’t separate, unite. Listen, accommodate, reconcile…and then be strong in holding it together your way.

Rule 7: Listen to a song without playing and figure out the lay of the land. Each song can be plotted on a sort of grid—mentally or in Pro Tools. You don’t need software, though. Just establish where the basic pulse lies and how the subdivisions work. If this is difficult for you, drop your sticks and play with your hands, as if on a bongo drum on the beach (not that any one of us has ever played bongos on the beach but we imagine the scenario well thanks to American cinema). Your hands will tell you how to fill the spaces between pulse 1, pulse 2, and so on. By extension, when you fill with sticks, try and be aware of where your basic strokes will fall on the grid—those strokes that are essential to the pulse. Don’t fly off into space, even if you know you’ll come back in time, on the click, on the pulse and all that good stuff. You’ve got to keep the pulse alive throughout your fills, not necessarily by playing a backbeat but by nodding strongly to that spot where people tap their feet naturally. The music, as they say (if I got it right), is in the dance.

Rule 8: Admit that drums and cymbals look cool and that, when you have the cash, you buy arbitrarily, indiscriminately, and without heed to the existing family of drums and cymbals. This will encourage you to choose right in the years to come. You’ll have done with indiscriminate choices based on fashion & folly and you’ll be more attentive to rhythms than that on which they are played. Next stop: the larger vista, which includes melody and harmony. There’s hope here. Hocus pocus start to focus.

Rule 9: Listen to music. Not on account of the drummers on the recordings—we all do this for sure—but because the melodies and harmonies are pleasant. Learn songs in all genres; don’t just give them a lick and a promise (my Scottish coming out). Note the ways intros segue to verses, and verses to choruses, and so on. Learn lyrics (unless the song is an instrumental and never intended to house spoken/sung words).

Hint/tip: pretend you are the vocalist either live or in the studio. How would your drum part sit with what you’re singing. Would it be friendly or otherwise? Good witch or bad witch?

Rule 10: Play with authority, play loud to be sure (when necessary), but always leave yourself a margin so that you can come up or go down in volume. Or the opposite. Don’t play “from the fingers” or “from the wrists” but, instead, from the marvelous system of hinges as described by Kevin Crabb in Modern Drummer and God-given, which permit us to play efficiently at all levels. And when you do play loud and get in trouble on a noisy stage and can’t seem to find out what’s gone wrong, the paradoxical remedy is to play a little quieter. Do so and you will witness the sort of magnetism that drummers like Steve Gadd exert on the band, the moon on the tides. Loud is fine and good, I admit it; but as you mature as a drummer, you will be surprised increasingly that the drummers you figured were playing full-out were, in fact, going through the requisite motions (eg John Bonham) but were not necessarily peaking the meters. As Kenny Aronoff once told me when I was doing the article, “How to Play Loud”, for Modern Drummer, don’t saturate the room. If you are continuously shaking the room, how and where are the others going to sit comfortably?

More as we ease into 2012. I’m glad the world didn’t end as forecast. My Paiste review doesn’t come out in MD until the May issue; and there’s more to come in that quarter. Otherwise, I’ve got a little more time, in these pages, an absolutely staggering body of unpublished drumming advice, all to be taken with a grain of salt. Thanks to all my new friends in Atlanta, DC, Baltimore, LA, Washington, Texas, Colorado, Cambridge, Banbury, Edinburgh, somewhere in Australia, Tokyo, etc etc. Tbw xo January 1, 2013