Professional Songwriting Tips For Drummers

Multitask Mojo

Drummer/Songwriters Have Twice The Fun

Drummers are pulling double duty more often than you would think, serving both as composers and compulsive beat makers, while enjoying the extra revenue from those sumptuous songwriting royalties. To better wrap our minds around this unique creative process, we picked the brains of prog-metal master Mike Portnoy from Dream Theater, Charlie Benante from thrash legend Anthrax, and Brian Vodinh from melodic hard-rock outfit 10 Years, to see how beatsmithing might influence their songcraft, and vice versa.

For these accomplished players, there lingers the burning question: Are they drummers or songwriters first? “I’ve always said I’m a guitarist trapped in a drummers body,” says Benante, feeding his two-year-old daughter some lunch at home in Chicago. “The weird part about it is I play more guitar off stage than I do drums. If you see me in the house I’ll usually have a guitar in my hand, but I don’t enjoy the feeling of playing guitar on stage. With the drums I have a certain bit of security surrounding me. Literally.”

You would think stage position would be a minor consideration in one’s musical vocation, but not for this double pedal demon. “That’s just the way it is. Maybe I’m just so used to sitting down on stage and being behind things. I mean, I’ve done it a few times. I’ve played on stage with guitar, and I do enjoy it when I’m sitting down and playing an acoustic. For some reason I enjoy that a lot better than standing up and playing guitar. I kind of lose myself when I’m doing that.”

Vodinh, whose charming Tennessee accent belies his Vietnamese heritage, is first and foremost a songwriter — he just happens to play drums. It’s a good thing too. As the 10 Years members discovered early on in their career, Vodinh was the only one who could keep time. “So I was like, ’I’ll play drums for a little bit,’ thinking that, ’Well, I’ll do this for now and then down the road I’ll pick the guitar back up again.’ That was 1999. It’s been this many years and I’m still behind the kit.”

For Portnoy, trying to prioritize one craft over the other misses the point: “I don’t know how to answer that question,” he says, seemingly at a loss. “The drums are incredibly important, but to be honest, it’s just one element of the big puzzle for me.”

Mike Portnoy

CALLING ON THE MUSE. One thing these guys can agree on: They have no control over when inspiration strikes. “It’s absolutely as random as it gets,” says Vodinh, who mined Division’s lead single, “Beautiful,” from the rubbish heap of pop culture — specifically a Miss America pageant he happened upon while channel surfing. “The girls are absolutely gorgeous, but then they start talking and you’re like, ’Oh, my God. They’re so superficial,’ and I sat there, and I swear to you I don’t know where it came from or how it even popped into my head, but 20 minutes later the song was done.”

These inspired moments are equally unpredictable for Benante, if less convenient. “Sometimes I’ll be driving in the car and I’ll have an idea, record it on the little recorder I carry with me, [or] I’ll leave myself a phone message. There’s been so many times when I’ve been without stuff like that and I’ll be like, ’Oh, I’ll remember,’ and I never do. And it’s like, ’Aw, that could have been …’ But if it’s a good enough riff it will return.”

Portnoy, who also sings into his voicemail if a promising melody bubbles up from his subconscious, was exposed to many styles of music at an early age while hanging around the studio where his father did a radio show. His eclectic tastes are often reflected in Dream Theater’s music. “My iPod is 160 gigs filled with everything from AC/DC to Frank Zappa,” he says in his Long Island accent. “I listen to so many different things from simple stuff like U2 to heavy stuff like Lamb Of God and everything in between. My love for music and listening to other artists is what constantly inspires me to go in different directions with Dream Theater and anything else I do.”

When you compare drumming to songwriting, their relationship seems as remote as a Neanderthal’s grunts and Cole Porter. In Benante’s case, pounding skins was fun but he knew he could do more, so he taught himself how to play guitar. “I really couldn’t convey what was inside of my head to the other guys with just the drums,” he says. “It wasn’t possible because I couldn’t be very musical.” At first he imitated guitar gods like Jimmy Page, but young Benante soon broadened his listening horizons by playing along to the radio late at night in his Bronx bedroom. “I’ve always loved Joe Jackson,” he says. In fact, one of Anthrax’s best albums, State Of Euphoria, contains a cover of “Got The Time,” one of the most beloved singles of the new wave canon. “His first two records: Look Sharp and I’m The Man were just awesome. It had this punk/jazz sound to it. I just love those records.”

Vodinh grew up in a household that was musically divided between his dad’s love of Beethoven and a mother who liked to crank Elvis and ’50s bebop. These competing disciplines gave him the fundamentals of composition, but when he wrote his first songs around the age of 11 or 12, he sensed something was missing. “I knew that there needed to be verses and choruses but it seemed to me, melodically, I wanted to explore a lot of different realms and I was always really intrigued by vocals — [some] of my favorite things to write are vocal melodies and harmonies.”

By high school, Vodinh showed promise on classical guitar, and eventually landed a scholarship at a music academy in Spain with a master who studied under Andrés Segovia. But he ended up turning it down. “When you’re 17 or 18, for me, I was all about the rock and roll and the partying.”

While Portnoy is known as a technical player, he has what he admits is a flimsy grasp on the rudiments, Berklee education notwithstanding. While attending the prestigious institute, most of his time was devoted to harmony, theory, and composition — all the things he would later use in his songwriting arsenal — with only one class per day devoted to drumming. Still, he can probably rest assured that people won’t hear any mistakes or fumbled notes on his record. “I don’t know,” he offers. “When I see other drummers — Virgil [Donati] or Thomas Lang or Mike Mangini and their technical abilities — I walk away with my tail between my legs. I just feel like the sloppy metal drummer when I see people like that.”

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