Why Do Lead Singers Pick On Drummers?
- By Andy Doerschuk
- Published April 27, 2010
Drummers don’t just sit at the back of the stage because that’s where our drum riser happens to be. We tend to get shoved back there figuratively as well as literally. If you need evidence, do a web search for the phrase “drummer jokes,” and watch as the stereotypes pile one atop the other. Not convinced that they reveal a hidden prejudice against your drumming brethren? Okay. Try replacing the word drummer in any one of those jokes with an ethnic slur and see what happens the next time you repeat it in a crowded room. Better bring your boxing gloves.
If we only occasionally had to endure being the brunt of a joke, there really wouldn’t be any problem. But some musicians still feel that drummers are somehow less musical because we play rhythms and beats instead of chords and melodies. And nothing riles me more than a lead singer who likes to blame the drummer for everything – real and imagined – that goes wrong onstage while onstage.
I’ve seen this one far too many times. The lead singer counts off a song. You’ve got the tempo locked into your internal metronome a couple clicks before the first downbeat. The band comes in at precisely the tempo the singer specified, but by the eighth measure he or she demonstrably turns to you and yells, “Will you pick it up?” with a scowl – as if it was somehow your fault that the singer counted off the song too slowly.
So you bite your tongue and pick up the tempo. And for a verse – or even worse, half the song – the groove wobbles backward and forward while the band tries to guess the proper bpm and find a pocket to lock into. I’ve seen this throw off a band so badly that it can render an otherwise jumping dance number to an embarrassing train wreck.
The drummer did nothing wrong, but the singer definitely blew it. Counting off a song at the wrong tempo is like starting to play a solo before you tune up your instrument. Actually, in my opinion, if a song happens to start off a tad slower or faster than usual, professional musicians – and professional singers – should be able to make it work, especially without having an onstage hissy fit.
Here’s another great one that I recently saw. You’re in the middle of a song, and without turning around, the singer puts one hand down and makes some kind of circular motion toward the drummer, as if someone was running in front of you and wanted you to catch up. What exactly is the meaning of this inexplicable signal? Well, my first instinct tells me that the singer wants the song to speed up.
But it might also mean, “give me more.” But more of what? More volume? More ghost notes? More fills? It’s hard to say, so you know what I do? I give them more of everything while slightly picking up the tempo. I don’t do it to be malicious. I’m simply trying to fulfill the wishes of a singer whose mind I am unable to read.
Yet more reasons why we drummers must stick together.
Five Ways To Spot A Drummer
- By Andy Doerschuk
- Published in the October 2010 issue of DRUM! Magazine
(Left) How could this guy be anything other than a drummer?
While nobody likes to be stereotyped, it’s hard to deny that drummers share certain character traits, and some are quite quirky. Even those of us whose demeanors have more in common with techies or dentists can reveal a unique tic that hints at a background in the percussive arts.
So imagine you’re at Starbucks sipping a latte. You spot someone across the room that seems familiar, even though you’re positive you’ve never seen that person before. Something tells you he or she is a drummer – you aren’t sure why.
But I know why. Here’s a list of things you might have seen that when personified within a single individual almost guarantees a drummer is in your midst.
1. Black T-Shirt
Many people enjoy wearing back t-shirts, but most wear other types of shirts and colors too. Drummers don’t want to think about fashion that much. They have other things on their minds: Practicing, gigs, more practicing. Plain black works, but printed shirts tell you something about the drummer’s preferences. Sometimes it’s scary. And if you see a sweat stain on the chest, be it fresh or salty dry … bingo. You found a drummer.
2. Rhythmic Tics
Marriages break up because of this one. The guy at Starbucks is sitting in a chair looking at his iPhone while his right leg is bouncing at about 160 bpm. Or he taps out single-stroke rolls on the tabletop with his fingers, or clicks his teeth together in time. He isn’t aware he’s doing it, doesn’t realize how weird he looks, and doesn’t care anyway. He’s working out a drum part in his head.
More abstract, harder to spot – it’s a certain kind of grandiosity that is both street and celeb. Many drummers have a big personality. We like to show off onstage under spotlights. We don’t blend into the background. We’re often loud even away from the drum set, although that also might have something to do with deafness.
4. Time-Zone Disconnect
Starbucks again. It’s 9:00 at night and everybody is ordering dessert and decaf, except the guy in the black T-shirt. He orders a triple espresso. Alternative scenario: It’s 11:30 a.m. He rolls in with his hair messed up, bleary eyes, and wearing sweatpants. Still orders a triple espresso.
5. A Logo
It can be on virtually any kind of personal item: a backpack, a wallet or keychain pulled out of a pocket. The ultimate is a T-shirt. Seriously. If the Starbucks guy is wearing a black t-shirt shirt with a big, hairy Zildjian logo – or Pearl or Pro-Mark or anything else – totally ignore the first four bullet points. Just walk up and introduce yourself. He’s a bro.
Touring Inside A Pressure Cooker
- By Andy Doerschuk
- Originaly published in the September 2012 issue of DRUM! Magazine
I took a bullet for the cause in late June, when I dragged my new and still gleaming set of red sparkle Reference Pure drums out to Parking Lot A of AT&T Park in San Francisco. I was working at the Percussion Marketing Council booth, where we offered free drum lessons to any and all comers at the 2012 Warped Tour.
Not long after we finished setting up, a guy in a road-worn leather jacket strolled by, checked out the kit, and asked what we were up to. We began chatting and I learned he was going to play drums with Jukebox Romantics that afternoon on the stage nearest the PMC booth.
It turned out he was filling in for the band’s regular drummer for the first half of Warped. I asked how they were traveling, and he explained they were in a 12-seater van, “but we’re not pulling a trailer, so we’re carrying our gear in the back. It’s pretty cramped inside.”
In fact, it was so crowded they had to sleep in the van sitting up, shoulder-to-shoulder. “Wow,” I replied, “are you getting any sleep at all?”
“Maybe an hour or so a night,” he laughed as I faked a jaw drop. “But we’re all friends – it’s worth it.”
Truth is, it doesn’t matter if you’re sleeping in a 12-seater or bunked in a luxurious tour bus, when you’re on the road for an extended tour, it’s vitally important for everybody to be friendly. Otherwise, it’s like trying to survive in a pressure cooker turned on high.
My friend, the Latin jazz drummer and teacher Chuck Silverman, equates the experience to being on a boat in the middle of the ocean. “There’s nowhere to go but into the water,” he says. “You’d better know how to get along in many, many situations.”
But what do you do when there are tensions in the van and you still have months left on your itinerary? I once found myself on the road with a bunch of guys I barely knew in the mid-’80s. The initial run of gigs was great. Everyone was excited about the tour, joking around, having fun. But within a couple of weeks it became obvious that the lead singer had a problem with me.
At first he was just kind of sarcastic. But when his comments became snarkier, I finally asked where the hostility was coming from. “I don’t know,” he said. “You just kind of bug me.”
How do you deal with that? My solution was to clam up and ride it out, but it was too late. The friction had poisoned the atmosphere in the van, and spoiled everybody’s experience, onstage and off.
So if you dream of touring with a band, it’s important to have a good attitude when you’re on the road. Learn to be the type of person other people want to sleep shoulder-to-shoulder next to and your phone will keep ringing.
To Pull Tone From A Drum Takes The Right Touch
- By Andy Doerchuk
- Originally published in the July 2012 issue of DRUM! Magazine
When a 1995 interview with Zakir Hussain turned to the topic of tone, the tabla maestro confessed something surprising. As a child prodigy in India, he’d been consumed with developing technique while being all but unconcerned with the implications of tone.
It wasn’t until he began playing with western musicians in the ’70s – long after he’d become a worldwide sensation – when he began to consider the artistry of tone. If I remember correctly, he credited the Brazilian wild man Airto Moreira for opening his eyes to that school of thought.
Zakir was right. A command of tone stands alongside technique, dynamics, and empathy as powerful tools to add human emotion to music. He was also right that western musicians are highly attuned to tone. I think some are even a bit obsessed with it.
On more than one occasion I’ve found myself onstage between songs staring aghast at a guitarist making an arduous series of microscopic adjustments to one of the stomp boxes on his pedal board while the audience waits for the next song. “Seriously?” I generally ask myself. “Would it matter if he had a bit more echo, or a bit less flange, or whatever it is he’s fiddling with?” I suspect not.
Case in point: I used to play with a guitarist named Carlos Guitarlos, an L.A. bluesman who became a local legend in the ’80s with Top Jimmy & The Rhythm Pigs. I was always amazed by his ability to adapt to virtually any instrument. He could, and often would, plug literally any guitar into any amplifier and make it sound good without fancy effects boxes.
How’d he do it? The tone was in his fingers. He pulled it out of the guitar. The way he touched the strings – bending notes, working the volume control and whammy bar, finding natural overtones, playing with feedback, adapting, adapting, adapting – made all the difference.
But can the same be said for an instrument played with sticks and pedals rather than fingertips? I think it can, and naturally, I have a story about it.
It was 1990. I had just finished interviewing Steve Gadd backstage at the Oakland Arena while he was playing on Paul Simon’s Rhythm Of The Saints tour. Gadd’s drum tech walked me onto the stage so that I could sketch a drum set diagram.
I could barely believe my eyes. The heads on Gadd’s Recording Customs were thrashed, with visible dents and worn-clear patches across the surfaces. I tapped one of the toms and got back a flat, buzzing sound. The show was just hours away. Why didn’t the kit have a fresh set of heads?
The tech laughed, apparently reading my quizzical look. “I’d love to change the heads, but Steve won’t let me,” he said. “He likes ’em like this.”
Minutes later the band came onstage to begin their sound check. I moved to the mixing console in the middle of the massive, empty cavern and listened as Gadd tested each drum.
The snare was snappy and fat, the toms deep and full with a pleasantly descending pitch, and the bass drum boomed with just enough control to add some punch to a puff of resonance. Amazing. Classic.
There had been no need to worry about the sorry state of his drumheads after all. The tone came from Gadd’s practiced hands.
How To Tame The Errant Kick
- By Andy Doerschuk
- Originaly published in the August 2008 issue of DRUM! Magazine
Just when you think you’ve finally got life figured out, reality aims a fastball right between your eyes, leaving you wallowing in the grime at home plate, gasping for breath. And strangely, that can be a good thing, because it’s important to remember every now and then that everything in life is transitory, and the only constant is change itself. I got a reminder recently while on the bandstand, and I’m still reeling.
It began quite innocently. A month or so ago, while in the middle of a gig, I happened to glance down at my pedals – something I do habitually throughout a set, just to make sure everything is working properly – and noticed the beater on my bass drum pedal swinging wildly between strokes. “Huh,” I thought. “I don’t recall ever seeing it do that before. That’s odd.” To my ear, it had no impact on the beat that I was playing, so I didn’t put any further thought into it. But whenever I looked at my pedals during the next few gigs, I noticed that the bass drum beater was still waggling back and forth between hits. I mean, really waggling.
Then a couple of weeks ago I was in the middle of a gig, and the bandleader, Daniel Castro, had just counted off a shuffle. We were playing the intro, which typically would last no more than 16 or 32 bars, but something was clearly wrong. We had cycled through the progression a couple of times and yet Daniel was still neither soloing nor singing. Instead, he was standing in front of the drums with his back to me, and appeared to be listening to something. Then he slowly turned around to face me, and trained his eyes on my bass drum.
We had comped through several verses by this point, and I’m sure the audience was as baffled by his behavior as I was. Then Daniel walked over to our bassist, Glade Rasmussen, and said something into his ear. Glade turned to Daniel and nodded toward my bass drum. And then I looked down, saw my bass drum beater uncontrollably flying back and forth, and suddenly realized what was happening.
Since we were playing a shuffle, I was laying down a simple four-on-the-floor on the bass drum – or at least I thought I was. But I quickly realized that the uncontrolled swing of my beater was adding a softer but audible eighth-note between each bass drum quarter-note. The net effect was that my hands were playing a triplet-based shuffle and my right foot was playing straight eighths.
I was mortified, and immediately began playing heel-down and with less velocity in order to control the throw of my bass drum beater. After a few measures Daniel kind of shrugged, then went over to the microphone and began to sing the first verse. Needless to say, I kept my eyes trained on my right foot for the rest of the gig, and have played heel-down ever since.
I really don’t know what happened. I did a recording date not long before, and was able to clearly hear every note I performed in the playback, and didn’t hear any stray bass drum notes. Somehow, my bass drum technique spontaneously changed on its own. I’ve been practicing my pedaling technique every night to regain the control that I once had.
Have any of you ever had a similar experience? If so, I’d love to hear that I’m not alone. Please leave a comment at the bottom of the page.