BY DAVID JARNSTROM, ILLUSTRATION BY MITCH O’CONNELL
It’s quite possibly the most exciting moment in a young drummer’s life. Your band has managed to string several shows together, taking you far away from the familiarity of home and the regional hot spots you’ve been diligently gigging on the weekends. You’re finally going on a real tour.
Nothing beats the feeling of pulling into a faraway city for the first time, knowing you have a show to play (no matter how small it may be). But if this is your first foray into the world of rock and roll on the road, you’ll likely have a handful of questions as to how it all works.
I learned the ropes the hard way, but that doesn’t mean you have to. Here are a few pointers to help you hit the ground running and focus on what really matters — dominating the stage.
1. PACK LIGHT
You’ll want to be as streamlined as possible when on tour. Certainly be prepared with enough sticks and heads (and a back-up snare and kick pedal if possible), but do you really need that extra rack/floor tom? How about that third crash cymbal and accompanying stand? Learn to do more with less. You’ll soon realize the benefit of having fewer pieces to set up and tear down every night for a month.
The same goes for clothes. Just like with drum gear, don’t lug around what’s not absolutely necessary. Bring a week’s worth of clothes and take advantage of opportunities to do laundry. Under-packing is also wise because you’ll most certainly come home with more stuff than when you left — like T-shirts from fellow bands.
2. GET HARD CASES FOR YOUR DRUMS AND CYMBALS
You’ve made an investment in your gear — now keep it safe. While “gig bags” can be quite a bit cheaper than hard cases, they offer significantly less protection. If you are dropping the money anyway, do yourself a favor and go all the way. You’re far more likely to maintain resale value on your equipment, and you’ll only have to buy them once (unless you change drum sizes down the road).
Hard cases make it much easier to pack your gear into a van or trailer, as well as stack in a corner at the club after your set. Also, pick up a hardware case with wheels! It’ll be the best decision you’ve ever made.
3. GET RENTERS INSURANCE
Go even further in protecting your gear and cover it with renter’s insurance. It’s cheap (about $100 a year) and you can cover not only your gear, but also any valuables you may have brought on tour (laptops, mp3 players, cameras, clothes, etc.).
Unfortunately, theft on the road is a common occurrence. Music venues aren’t always in the nicest parts of town, and band vans are an easy target for those looking to make a quick buck. One unlucky band I knew had their entire trailer stolen!
Gear can also be lifted right from the venue. I know bandmembers who have had guitars, pedals, laptops, and bags taken from various clubs. Don’t let it happen to you!
4. BRING PLENTY OF HEARING PROTECTION
Earplugs will protect your hearing not only while you’re playing, but also when you’re in the club watching bands before or after your set. They are easy to lose and get filthy fast, so grab a box of twelve pairs at a pharmacy before leaving town. Stash some in your stick bag, backpack, and coin pocket in your jeans so they’ll be quickly accessible in any situation.
Earplugs can also provide relief when traveling between gigs and your guitar player insists on listening to Dragonforce at max volume while it’s his shift to drive (noise-cancelling earphones for your mp3 player are even better in this instance). It’s also helpful to have something to stick in your ears when sharing a motel room with five other people and sleep isn’t coming because your bass player is sawing logs a few feet away.
5. BE EFFICIENT BEFORE & AFTER YOUR SET
Learn to set up and tear down your kit quickly. Changeover between bands can be stressful, so the quicker you can get on and off stage the better. Remove your cymbals and break down hardware after moving it off stage. Ask someone (soundman/woman, stagehands) where you should move your drums before you play so you have an idea where you are headed after your set.
Case up your drums and cymbals and break down your hardware as soon as you can. This will ensure your cymbals don’t get knocked over or beer gets spilled all over your kick drum. Storage space is often limited so stack your cases and make your pile of gear as small as possible.
Don’t go off to socialize before taking care of business. The venue’s employees won’t want to wait while you to break down and load out after last call.
6. GET USED TO PLAYING OTHER DRUMMERS’ GEAR
You might not always have the luxury of getting to play your own gear. Before long, you’ll find yourself in a scenario where you are part of a seven-band bill and there isn’t enough time for a full changeover between sets. Or perhaps the club is too small (most clubs in Manhattan, for instance) to stash gear for all the bands. The sound guy/girl might be finicky and demand all the drummers play a house kit.
Eventually, if you’re fortunate and your band becomes successful enough, you’ll have no choice but to play unfamiliar backline kits for fly dates, festivals, and international tours (the benefit here being you can sometimes ask for specific sizes and brands).
Get used to it as soon as you can and embrace the variety. It will make you a more versatile player over the long haul. You might even find something you like better than what you currently play. Another benefit that the savvy touring drummer reaps from sharing is avoiding the hassle of setting up and tearing down (though using your own snare and cymbals is a common courtesy).
While it can be a major drag to play someone’s kit if it’s crummy and outfitted with two-year-old, pocked-out heads, look at it as a challenge. The great drummers sound like themselves no matter what kind of tubs they’re wailing on.
7. WATCH OTHER DRUMMERS CLOSELY
Touring offers a great chance to see a variety of players up close, usually from the side of the stage or behind the kit. Take advantage of these unique vantage points to pick up new tips and tricks. You can learn something from everyone, even if it’s just deciding what you don’t like.
Take note of how hard other drummers are hitting, how well they maintain tempo, and how they execute fills. Are they “busy” players? Do they play along to a click or backing tracks? Do they incorporate any kind of electronics in their setups? How about the tones they get from their cymbals and drums? Is it better than yours? Observe how they tune their drums before the show.
You can also sit behind different drummers’ kits and see how they like to set up. You might find that something you’ve never tried really works for you, like bringing your snare up or down, adjusting the tilt of your toms or cymbals, or changing the height of your hi-hats or throne.
8. BE HEALTHY — AT LEAST SOME OF THE TIME
When you’re a young player, it’s a lot easier to eat Taco Bell three times a day, stay up all night, and still play well. But at some point, you’re going to get sick and/or turn in some bad performances. Try to strike a balance between health and junk food, water and booze. Eat fruits and veggies whenever you can, and load up on vitamin C. Stay away from soda and candy whenever possible. And get some sleep! Once you get sick on tour, it can be really hard to recover.
9. DON’T BE A WALLFLOWER — NETWORK!
Having good social skills is a huge asset in this business. There’s strong camaraderie between drummers, and it’s best to befriend those you’ll be on tour with sooner rather than later — you never know when you’ll be in a pinch and need to borrow something!
Also, don’t talk to just drummers. Meet as many people as you can — other musicians, tour managers, promoters — these are all people who might hook you up with your next gig!
Whatever you do, don’t be a jerk. Word spreads quickly in music circles and the last thing you want is to be known as someone who is difficult to be around. You certainly won’t get recommended for future drum auditions. Most often, just being a good person is more valuable to a band than how slick your chops are.
10. FIND A GOOD “ROCK JOB”
Very few musicians survive solely on their art — especially these days. Unless you still live in your parents’ basement, you’ll likely have to supplement any band income with a day job. Find an employer that will give you the flexibility to leave for long periods of time, yet will let you work upon your return so you can start making money for the next tour.
Service-industry gigs are among the best “rock jobs” to have. Try to find a restaurant/bar/pizza joint that is consistently busy and allows you to take home cash every day. This way you won’t have to wait for a paycheck if you get home at the end of the month and rent is due in five days. Do a good job (you’ll get better tips) and endear yourself to the manager so he or she will give you shifts upon your return from the road.