Ears are the most important thing. Bottom line. You have to listen to everybody. I listen to the bass player put it here. I listen to the leader who’s singing and playing rhythm guitar put it there. And I listen to the keyboard player, and I’m going, “Which one do I go with?” And I think, “The one that’s playing the song.”
When we’re young we have a lot of energy and hormones going on, so we want to make people look at us. But when you play a fill, it’s really part of an overall musical conversation. It should either make what’s going on at the time sound better and complement it, or thrust it forward, or mark it in time a certain way, or punctuate it. It’s almost like you say with your drums when you play a fill, Alright, we’re going to the chorus right now. Boom! And when you do put those exciting fills in, you’d better be going to an exciting place.
A lot of drummers slow down when they get quiet and speed up when it gets louder. Bad move. But I didn’t have great technique from the beginning. I’m a street guy. I got out there and started playing. And then later on I realized, “Whoa, I need to get my hands together.” When I began practicing more, I became better in the studio. I could play more precisely with a better sound on every drum I hit. I could play just as loud if I wanted to, but I also had much more control. And I was able to play quieter because my hands were more articulate. All these things give you confidence so that you don’t need to show everyone what you’ve got all the time, and you don’t overplay as much.
When it comes to playing in time, it’s always the drummer’s job to keep the train on the tracks. There are certain bands I play in where I feel like I’m driving a Cadillac. And then there are some bands I’ve played in where it’s like I’m on a three-legged horse. When that happens, I just have to shut it out and lay down something really strong, almost like a click track, metronomically, and then let everyone fall in.
There are times with the Robert Cray Band — maybe it’s the fourth night in a row, we’re a little tired, and the hall’s got a kind of reverb that pushes things back a little bit — when everybody’s feeling it on the backside. I’m feeling it with them. And I’m going to go back there because that’s the mature thing to do as a musician — not be a tempo Nazi where it must be 122 bpm every night.
Now, if I think it’s getting a little lazy, I’ll occasionally leave the backbeat part of it, where everybody else is comfortable swinging around it, and I won’t change the bass drum that much. I’ll probably keep the bass drum more toward the middle of the groove, but I might put the right hand a little on top. So you start to use that manipulation, and then you can hold the excitement in it a little bit when it feels like the groove’s laying back a little too much.
Obviously, getting in over your head is a great way to learn a lot really fast. But it’s vital that when you do get called to do a gig that’s not your style, you should feel responsible about boning up on what the music’s all about. It’s respectable to put your own touch on it, but when I was teaching, I would always try to get kids to authenticate the feel and groove of a particular style.
When I got hired by Rickie Lee Jones back in 1981 or ’82, I had to go to Steve Gadd school right away. I was already a huge Steve Gadd fan, but I had to sit down and authenticate what Gadd was playing — as well as I could play like Steve Gadd, or she wasn’t going to be happy — and then make it my own.