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Patrick Carney: Seven Steps To Simplicity

6. Learn To Unlearn

This type of negative capability is usually prescribed for players whose creativity has been stifled by chronic sight reading and institutional dogma. But it also applies to a blood ‘n’ guts player such as Carney, who became more solid by letting go of the compulsion to overcompensate for a lack of chops — a tendency exacerbated by the fact that the Keys are a two-piece and he is responsible for filling 50 percent of the songs’ space without the benefit of backing vocals. “It’s just ten years of playing and finally getting comfortable enough and confident enough to play something that isn’t trying to be flashy or trying to be different or all dramatic.”

Patrick Carney

Carney’s Setup

Drums Ludwig Classic Maple (Gold Sparkle)
1 24" x 18" Bass Drum
2 14" x 6.5" Black Beauty Snare Drum
3 13" x 10" Tom (in snare basket)
4 18" x 16" Floor Tom
5 16" x 16" Floor Tom

Cymbals Paiste
A 14" Signature Hi-Hat (with Sound Edge bottom)
B 18" 2002 Crash
C 22" 2002 Ride

Patrick Carney also uses a Ludwig Black Magic snare drum and Ludwig hardware, Tama Iron Cobra bass drum pedal, DW 5000 series hi-hat and cymbal stands, Remo heads (PS3 on toms and bass; Ambassador X on snare), Vic Firth 5A sticks, Paiste Giant Beat cymbals, and LP cowbell.

The hopped-up vibe of El Camino called for mostly clean, straightforward beats. Problem was straight eighth-notes were counterintuitive for a player who thrived on spontaneity and emotion. “When I sit down with a drum set and want to just play just to play, it’s similar to something like “Go Getter” [from Brothers]. That’s kind of more where I play from, stumbl-y and stutter-y. Like a s__tty version of ’70s African funk. That’s what I play like when I’m just playing, not recording or in the band. So then it just so happens that when we made this record, it’s like the first time I actually was capable of playing drums like a traditional rock band would have.”

The uptempo propulsion of “Sister” is a perfect example of this cut-and-dry approach. “That’s a really, really basic drum beat,” he says. “I mean, it’s probably appeared in, like, 25,000 songs [in pop history]. Doing something like that, you try to make it your own if you can, maybe move into the bridge and into the chorus in a way that breaks up the familiarity of the beat.”

Most of El Camino’s beats are immediate and concrete, whether it’s the no-fuss chop of “Mind Eraser,” the boogaloo of “Stop Stop” or the percolating train on “Gold On The Ceiling.” In many ways the increasingly spare yet rich and full sounding style of the drumming has been a process of subtraction. In The Black Keys’ earlier days the slower blues-ier stuff was something Carney approached with his gut, not worrying about whether it was correct or not. “Lonely Boy”’s straight shuffle which Carney admits he could never truly play before, demonstrates his joy at a rediscovery of the essentials. “We have, like, 110 songs or something since we’ve been a band and I’ve never used that beat before. And it’s one of the easiest beats to play. I think that for a lot of things we are almost like a band in reverse.”

7. DIY Till You Die

We asked the self-taught Carney whether there was anything about his approach that he would like to improve. He mentions a few types of fills and time signatures, and when pressed, that he would not be opposed to taking a lesson. But you can tell he’s not serious and that he’ll do no such thing. “I’m kind of stubborn and have this attention-deficit problem to the point where I find that I learn the best if I just kind of figure it out on my own, you know? Listen to what other people are doing and pay attention to that and just kind of try to break the code myself. I have to learn hands-on.”

That philosophy is applied broadly to The Black Keys’ career: deciding what label to sign with, when to put out records, how to record, and so on. “That’s the most fun being in a band, actually, is when you are completely in control of everything as far as the creative side and the decision making and stuff,” he says. “It’s kind of a trip.”

The refreshing thing about speaking with Carney is that you get straight talk instead of glib statements about practicing six hours a day and committing Stick Control to memory. “I’m not a very good drummer,” he says as we wrap up our hour together. “But that’s the thing: Kids that were in my high school jazz band were focused on being good. They weren’t focused on being creative, and none of those guys ever became musicians. And then all of my friends who are musicians, they were never focused on being the best.”

The Keys’ drummer never claimed to be a role model and never will. But something about the institutionalization of the rhythmic urge and drum pedagogy in general rubs him the wrong way. “Sometimes when you read magazines like Guitar Player or whatever and a lot of the musicians are focused on being the best and going to the Berklee School Of Music and doing all these things, that’s one route,” he says. “But the teach-yourself, have-fun route is also a viable route. I recommend that route.”

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