The Drummer As Composer

The Drummer As Composer

Drummers are the best songwriters. Need proof? Dave Grohl (Foo Fighters), Pharrell Williams (too many to list), Don Henley (Eagles, solo), Phil Collins (Genesis, solo), Roger Taylor (Queen), Jimmy Marinos (The Romantics), Peter Criss (Kiss), Dave Clark (The Dave Clark 5), Don Brewer (Grand Funk Railroad), Ringo Starr (Beatles), Dennis Wilson (Beach Boys), Barry White, Jim Gordon (Clapton) — I could keep go- ing. Presently, because of how music is made and how prominent drums are in popular music, many of the most successful songwriters are more apt to call themselves “beat makers” than composers.

I’m a little biased, but truthfully, drummers are at a distinct advantage. Other instrumentalists seemingly have no idea how to write an appropriate drum part. They simply don’t know how we do what we do. Our role in the band and where we sit in the mix gives us great insight into what makes a great hook, and what is essential to the song.

The music industry is in shambles and there are really only a couple of ways for us to make money: touring, and/or publishing. Save up some money and buy a good laptop, a MIDI keyboard, and whatever DAW you choose, such as Pro Tools, Logic, or Ableton Live, and you are set. Then go to a bookstore and buy books on beginning music theory and song- writing, or just get on YouTube and watch the thousands of awesome videos on the subject. You’ll be amazed at how quickly you’re able to grasp chords, the technology, and how to get great sounds.

It’s worth conquering the fear of songwriting so that you can experience the thrill of being creative on something other than the drums. The initial stage of any creative act can be like searching for the light switch in the dark. It’s frustrating, chaotic, scary, and with no end in sight, can feel like a bunch of busy work for no reason at all. I’m not a very social person when I’m at that stage. I’m obsessive and single-minded in my search for the one thing that sets forward momentum in motion. The elusive idea is what turns the notes into a song. At times I feel desperate, but if those feelings arise, it’s usually because I deviated from my routine that keeps me sane. Just like your drumming practice routine, composition works best if you are habitual and myopic about how you go about it.

Currently I’m on a break from touring with Fitz And The Tantrums, so that means the process of writing for next album has started. My writing routine begins with extremely strong coffee followed by what choreog- rapher Twyla Tharp calls “scratching.” She equates the beginning stage of creativity to scratching a lottery ticket or clawing at the side of a mountain to get a hold. The tiniest microcell of an idea will get me going. Com- positions never come to me in their entirety. One bar, one chord, one cool synth sound, one vibey little hook, or a happy accident is all it takes to get it going. At the very least, songwriting will make you a much better drummer. So I implore you to try composing music. You won’t regret it.