A Quick Note: This is part of a series of posts about “How To Not Be a Dumb Musician”. These posts outline common frustrations associated with certain types of musicians in an attempt to become better musicians. Enjoy.
Drummers are to the band as Iron Man is to The Avengers. They operate a little differently from everyone else on stage. While The Hulk, Captain America and Thor rely on their natural (or super natural) abilities, Iron Man comes from a completely different background (in his case, a crazy awesome high tech super suit that also has a waaaaaay better version of Siri on board). Even though Iron Man is different, when The Avengers come together, they can do some serious… avenging.
Drummers, you guys come from a totally different world. A world where rhythm is king and chords are a different language. But guess what? The rest of the Avengers, ahem, band is frustrated with you. It’s not your fault, you just have Stark-ly different upbringings (pun absolutely intended). Here’s how to not be a dumb drummer.
Why The Band Is Frustrated With You
The main cause of everyone’s frustration is that you act more like a drummer and less like a musician. That sounds messed up, but let’s unpack that a little bit.
What Drummers Do
Drummers love drums. They love the sound of drums, playing complicated rhythms, and generally geeking out about drum culture. The upside to this is that the international drumming community is a close-knit group, much tighter than any other instrument. The downside is, when you stay in the mode of “all-drums-all-the-time” it annoys the hell out of the rest of the band.
What Musicians Do
Musicians love music. They love the sound of a variety of instruments, how those instruments can work together, and the community that comes with playing excellent music. A truly great musician appreciates good music of any kind, whether their own instrument is being played or not.
Think Like a Musician
Please don’t misunderstand me, drummers are awesome. Everyone else in the band wishes they could be as coordinated as you and have your signature Robert Downey Jr. sarcastic swag. But you need to start thinking like a musician, rather than just a drummer.
What You Can Do For Yourself
Here’s a few things that will take you to the next level.
Know Your Tempos
You should know your tempos like it’s your job, because it is. Memorize the tempos of the songs you need to play so you can pull it out of thin air with incredible accuracy. Playing The Macarena at 200bpm can have some serious repercussions.
Obviously you should always practice with a metronome. When you do, be conscious of the tempo you’re playing to. Memorize what that feels like and internalize it.
Know Your Forms
You have more power than you think. And with great power comes great responsibility (is Spiderman in The Avengers?) A well placed, tasty fill lets the rest of the band know, “WE’RE GOING INTO THE CHORUS.” An empty space where that fill should have been makes the rest of the band doubt their place in the song, and in the world.
Don’t do that to them. Know the form of the song like the back of your hand and give clear indications of new sections. It’ll tie the whole band together.
Focus On Groove Over Chops
Just because you can play an over-the-barline fill that’s displaced by a 16th note doesn’t mean that you should. Doing that will confuse the band. Don’t leave them hanging upside down (Wait, why isn’t Spiderman in The Avengers? They’re both Marvel, right?)
It’s far better to be the drummer who can play rock-solid time, make the groove feel great, and play simple tasty fills than the drummer who plays insane fills and then gets off beat and confuses the band.
Know How To Play Softer, Not Just With Hotrods
Look, hotrods are stupid. They were invented by drummers who said, “It’s drums man, I can’t play softer!” Great drummers take full advantage of dynamics and use them to bring a whole new level of musicality to their playing.
The first time I saw Jeff Hamilton Trio play live, I was blown away! Their arrangements were incredibly original, and their solos were mind boggling, but what really grabbed me was their use of dynamics. At one moment they’d be blaring loud, the next moment you could hear a pin drop. This drew everyone in the jazz club in closer and made an incredible musical experience that I’ll never forget. (Remember the jazz club scene in Spiderman 3? That’s why he’s not in the Avengers)
Learn how to play soft without sounding weak and incoporate those dynamics in your playing. Now you’re thinking like a musician.
What You Can Do For The Band
Here’s some specific things you can do that will up your credibility with the band :
What Not To Say: “Em? What’s that mean?”
Just because you don’t play chords doesn’t mean you don’t need to know how they work. There’s nothing more frustrating to the band than having to say, “Let’s start from the E minor before the bridge… oh, drummer, that’s uh… what, 5, no 6 bars before the bridge? Yeah” and as soon as you start you realize you’re not together. (btw I just looked it up and Spiderman actually did join the Avengers in the comic books, but not until the 2000s)
Learn about I, IV, V, vi (which makes up a ton of music), what those sound like, and how to recognize them. Ask any other instrumentalist in the band and they would be happy to tell you all about it.
Instead Say: “Oh, starting from where the Em is before the bridge? Cool, here we go.”
What Not To Say: “Keys? You mean like my car keys?”
Again, you need to know this stuff. The best drummers are fully aware of everything happening musically. They know if the guitarist jumped to the bridge too early (because the bridge starts on the minor 2, which hasn’t yet been played in this song) and can adjust accordingly (and save the band a major train wreck in the process).
I once witnessed a drummer in a big band rehearsal go over to the trumpet section and ask to see the “Bb line at bar 33” in their music so that he could make sure and hit that rhythm with them. Are you kidding me?! That drummer was the most aware musician in the whole band!
You don’t need to know absolutely every note that’s being played, but the more you know, the better you’ll be able to interact with the rest of the band. The best drummers know this stuff because they’re not only great drummers, they’re great musicians.
Instead Say: “What key is this in? Come on man. It’s in G. Even I know that. ”
All of this can be summed up this way: be an excellent drummer, and an excellent musician. Know the drum stuff you need to know and be excellent at that. But also be aware of the rest of the music happening around you. You are part of a team after all, and it’s better that way. I mean, Iron Man was a good movie, but The Avengers is the third highest grossing film of all time. And seriously, when are they gonna put Spiderman in the Avengers movies?