Skimp On Your Sound, Pay The Price
Now that I spend most of my time doing DRUM! Magazine business on the Internet rather than in print, I’ve come to terms with the flamers and spammers who’ve elevated indiscriminate criticism to a high art, even (or perhaps especially) when they don’t have much to say. Well, I get it – it’s hard to resist leaving a comment, erudite or otherwise, when all it takes is a few keystrokes to go down in impermanent history.
Generally, I don’t take the bait when it’s clear somebody’s just trying to get under our skin, although it isn’t always easy. For example, I recently had a snarky troll respond to a link I posted on Facebook to the 70+ video booth tours and gear demos we shot at the 2013 NAMM show last January. Our Facebook “friend” sneered that the video archive was just one big advertorial paid for by the featured companies.
He was just plain wrong. We pay thousands of dollars to send our editorial crew to Anaheim every year armed with video cameras so that we can inform our readers and online members about the newest tools on the market to help them sound better. We do that because sounding good is just as important as playing well.
I’m living proof. Back in the ’80s, when I was throwing 100 percent of my energy into the pursuit of a professional drumming career in Los Angeles, I was focused entirely on technique, to the exclusion of everything else. I wanted my drumming to be the fastest, trickiest, and most complex in town. But I almost never considered how my drums actually sounded.
I remember a recording session where the engineer winced at the sound of my dead, buzzing mounted tom. “Why don’t you replace the head,” he suggested. Embarrassed, I had to admit that I didn’t have a spare head with me. He looked at me like I was insane, and never called again. Can’t say I blame him.
I still managed to accomplish many of my professional goals during this period, but continued to struggle infinitely more than other drummers my age who were kicking around Los Angeles during that same time (like Gregg Bissonette, Matt Sorum, and Mark Schulman, to name a few).
Look, there’s something close to a million other reasons why their careers took off while mine sputtered (like, for example, being better drummers!), but I can assure you that one of the big ones was that their drums just sounded a lot better than mine did.
So when we post videos from NAMM, or review new gear, or publish articles about how to tune your kit, these tips are meant to help you become more competitive, rather than to pacify advertisers.
But you aren’t alone. Limousine drivers have to invest in vehicles, carpenters must own power tools, bakers need ovens, farmers need ploughs, painters need easels, and drummers need kits that make them sound great. That’s simply what it takes to get the job done.
Between A Whisper And A Scream
Beginners working through Stick Control might think drumming is all about rudimental patterns, but they’re only partly right. Sure, it’s essential for every drummer to build a rudimental foundation, but in the long run it will be just one of many building blocks that combine and intersect to finally make up a complete drummer.
We’ve talked about these skills many times in these pages, driving home practical advice about grip, technique, musicianship, tempo, tone, and on and on. But this month I’d like to focus on one element that often constitutes the dividing line between drummers who are musicians and those trundling along with the rest of the pack. I’m talking about dynamics.
In the broadest sense, playing dynamically means a drummer has the ability to execute patterns with equal precision at both loud and soft levels. But dynamic drumming is not only about deafening volumes and near silence. Rather than being a light switch that is flicked on or off, dynamics are more analogous to a dimmer that allows any shade of luminosity, depending on what the situation calls for.
I vividly recall watching one of the most distinguished orchestral percussionists of all time, and my former teacher, the late James Blades OBE, demonstrate passages that involved dynamic phrasing. Employing the grace of a ballet dancer, the mechanics of his hands were unique, deliberate, and yet changeable depending on the amount of volume he needed to pull from the drum. His absolute dynamic control was a thing of beauty.
All drummers should aspire to the ability to shift volume with as much ease as Mr. Blades could. But there are also times when we want that proverbial room to be basked entirely in blinding light or utter darkness.
For example, I recently had a rehearsal with a bandleader who I haven’t worked with for a couple of years. After we played one of the songs, he said, “Things have changed, Andy. We now come way down on the verses and bring it up on the choruses.”
Okay. I get it. But being a loudmouth, I had to ask, “On all the songs?”
“Yes, on every song,” he replied.
“But that’s not necessarily true of every song we play. Some of them demand that we keep the groove chugging along at approximately the same volume level throughout.”
He rolled his eyes.
“Okay, I’ll bring the verses way down on every song,” I consented.
But I don’t think that’s very musical. Applying the same rule to every song creates a sameness that eventually dilutes the effectiveness of dynamic phrasing. Shouldn’t some songs be loud, others be soft, while the rest shift between those two poles to varying degrees?
Of course, I know there are many popular songs that come down on the verse and up on the chorus. But there are plenty of others that barely change at all dynamically. “Lust For Life” by Iggy Pop, “Sex Machine” by James Brown, “Give It Away” by the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and “Born Under A Bad Sign” by Albert King are just a few incredible songs that come to mind. Go on Spotify and check them out for yourself. I’d love to know what you think.
Are You As Unique As You Think You Are?
We live in an era of conformity, where vocals are Auto-Tuned beyond perfection, Pro Tools can conceal any flaw, and drummers wouldn’t dream of veering far from the click. God forbid if a final mix doesn’t sound like everybody else’s.
Don’t get me wrong – I don’t blame anybody for playing the game. You should work to acquire whatever skills it takes to advance your career in the music business. After all, almost all musicians hone their craft by learning riffs and licks played by those who came before them.
In some cases such simulation, when applied creatively, can rise to the level of mastery. In her jazz work, Cindy Blackman-Santana has often been lionized for channeling the spirit of Tony Williams. Gregg Bissonette not only perfected the feel of Ringo Starr’s deep groove, he even became Ringo’s drummer of choice in the All Starr Band.
There are also incredibly gifted chameleons like Vinnie Colaiuta, Steve Smith, and Bernard Purdie, who refuse to be typecast. They walk straight from a rock session into a jazz gig, and sound perfectly in character at each performance. But is there a definitive Colaiuta sound? If so, where would we find it – in his work with Sting, Frank Zappa, Chick Corea, or Megadeth?
Indeed, a signature sound doesn’t come easily, even for many of the world’s greatest drummers, which makes it extra special when you hear one who has developed a unique style that remains identifiable over the course of decades. For example, I like to believe that I can recognize Ginger Baker after hearing only a couple of bars of his outrageously pulled-back pocket and deep-throated tunings, no matter if he’s playing rock, jazz, or blues.
The same goes for Elvin Jones, whose powerful, skittering drum style is at once utterly musical and mathematically baffling; Zigaboo Modeliste, whose convoluted, loose-limbed take on funk is often copied but never equaled; and then there is John Bonham, whose balance of heaviness and finesse, brains and brawn defined his every performance.
It’s difficult to identify the special ingredient that makes it so hard to reproduce these drummer’s styles; but that’s the magic part. Perhaps, instead, we should hope that it never is definitively quantified and bottled, since such elusive factors are often the most delicious to ponder.
There’s No Such Thing As Shortcuts
Between sets at a gig in San Francisco, I happened to run into an old friend who is an impassioned writer, hardcore blues enthusiast, and college-level journalism professor. We started chatting, and I asked how his job was going.
He shrugged. “You know ... it’s going.”
“That doesn’t sound very encouraging,” I responded. “What’s going on?”
“Well, to be honest, it is a little discouraging these days. A lot of my students have really poor reading skills. Some of them are practically illiterate — no kidding — and yet they seem to believe they have what it takes to be a journalist.”
“Wow. So what do you do for them?”
“I just do my best, but the problem actually goes beyond their reading skills. Many of them seem incapable of critical thinking, as if they’ve hardly read any books or newspapers. Seriously — a number of my students couldn’t name the candidates in the last election if you put a gun to their heads, and they’re of voting age! We’re raising generations of ignorant adults, which I find very frightening.”
I shook my head and went back onstage to start the next set.
The following morning, in a case of unforeseen synchronicity, DRUM! publisher Phil Hood emailed a link to an educational drumming site. “It’s interesting how they emphasize that there’s ‘no scary theory or sight-reading’ in the lesson videos,” he wrote.
It struck a nerve. Every so often after I post a link on Facebook to a notational drum lesson from our website someone responds, “What, no video?” I’m always tempted to write back, “What, you’ve never bothered to take a couple of hours to learn to read drum notation? How serious about drumming are you?” Of course, instead, I let the comment float away into cyberspace.
But as that thought swirled around with the memory of my previous night’s conversation, I wrote back to Phil: “It’s a compelling sales pitch — but I think it’s kind of irresponsible. It’s not at all that hard to learn to read music; especially drum notation. When you encourage young drummers to skip that step in their development, you’ve denied them access to a library of tried-and-tested pedagogy that has helped generations of drummers become better players and professionals.
“I believe mentors should do exactly the opposite — excite the desire for education and improvement by pointing students toward the best resources and skills rather than hyping get-rich-quick schemes.”
Take it from me — you won’t get rich by skipping a vital step in your development. I can’t tell you how much I regret never learning to play brushes believably, for example. How many more opportunities would I have had if I had studied Latin drumming or learned to play to a click earlier in my career?
My list goes on. What’s on yours?
A Tale Of Two Gigs
We sell the dream at DRUM! Magazine. Scattered throughout our artist interviews and career columns are suggestions that if you practice hard enough, network tirelessly, and keep a good attitude, you might be among the lucky few to climb to the top of the drumming game.
It really can happen. But even when it does, the glory can too often be short lived. Here’s a typical scenario – your band gets a recording deal, lands a manager and booking agent, and winds up on the Warped Tour playing for huge crowds and selling tons of merch at every stop. It’s the most fun you’ve ever had with a pair of sticks.
And yet, with rare exceptions, most bands – including yours – will break up sooner or later, often following a decline in record and ticket sales (i.e., you’re all starving!), or because of proverbial “creative differences” (aka, you hate each other!).
Lots of folks at this crossroad decide to move on, go back to college, and find a steady job. The rest, perhaps like you, who decide to remain in the music business and chase the dream, face a career that might very well be punctuated by ups and downs.
To illustrate: I recently played a pair of back-to-back gigs. The first was on a Friday night with an instrumental surf band at a wine bar in the affluent San Francisco Bay Area suburb of Danville.
I assessed the gig as soon as I walked into the place. Tall ceilings, brick and wood paneled walls, marble counters – the dimly lit room was elegant and half filled with a crowd of well-dressed couples who sipped wine as we set up our gear.
We played our first song as quietly as we could so as not to ruin the ambiance (thank God for dowel rods!), nailed the last chord and … nothing. No applause. The second and third songs landed with a similar thud.
It’s not that we sucked; the audience just didn’t care. They were so preoccupied with their dates they could barely even glance in our direction. We finished the night, collected our pay, and slunk home.
I was on the road relatively early the next day for a gig in Roseville, California, about a three-hour drive from my house. A hard-rocking band I play with was opening a show for Sammy Hagar And The Wabos at the legendary singer’s newly opened Cantina.
The city closed off three blocks of downtown Roseville for the larger-than-life bash. Our stage was set up with professional P.A. and lighting systems, a huge drum riser, great monitors, and stagehands to help us hump our gear.
A thousand people who had won tickets from a local radio station were ready to party by the time we hit the downbeat. The crowd erupted in wild applause after every song. Our 90-minute set flew by. I drove home buzzing with adrenaline, replaying the show in my head.
Sunday morning, when I considered the last two shows over my first cup of coffee, it felt like a great weekend. Who cares if one gig was better than the other? I played drums for 1,050 people and earned a healthy paycheck.
So if you plan to be a survivor in the music business, learn to bend with the breeze, and enjoy the roller coaster ride along the way.