Let’s Hear It For The Sub

“I’m a substitute for another guy,” Roger Daltrey croons as The Who’s “Substitute” blares from my iPod dock. Boy, I can relate. I play as a sub for a band’s full-time drummer at about half of my gigs around the San Francisco Bay Area.

One here, another there — they really add up. I land a one-shot sub gig every so often for a wedding or backing an artist passing through town, something like that. But otherwise it’s permanent part-time work, in my case, subbing for full-time drummers in two busy bands. I enjoy it, but like anything else, there are advantages and disadvantages.

For one thing, the handful of extra gigs nicely fills out the calendar and sweetens the pot at the end of the month. And it’s fun to juggle different styles and repertoires, depending on the gig du jour. Playing a variety of set lists makes everything feel fresh, helps me come up with new ideas, and keeps my chops up.

On the flipside, while in theory it might look like a sub can turn down a show without feeling as much guilt as a bandmember, try playing that card one too many times and you’ll run the risk of the bandleader calling another drummer next time he needs a fill-in. You have to be available when the phone rings.

If you’re going to be a sub, be a good sub. I like to know the band’s full-time drummer, his personality, and licks. I try to closely approximate his parts to make the other players feel comfortable with the groove and confident that I’ll make the changes. I watch closely for cues and try to hit every break sharply.

Things can change, though. I’ve been subbing in the same couple of bands for a while, and my parts have quite naturally evolved. I don’t sound exactly like the original recordings I once studied to learn the material. As my personality has slowly seeped into the arrangements, something funny happened — I stopped feeling as much like a “substitute” drummer.

But I have to remind myself that it’s really not my band. The gig is about having big ears and low expectations. So when the audience goes crazy after a drum solo, or we play a big, rowdy festival, or I’m asked for an autograph by an enthusiastic fan, I simply try to enjoy those moments for what they are.

So bless the subs of the world — those unsung heroes who step into your shoes for a few moments to keep your universe in rotation while you celebrate your girlfriend’s birthday, go on vacation, or take a better-paying gig. It’s hard to imagine life without them.