You have to know the music when you go into a gig. It really shows if you’re unprepared. I even write out transcriptions from the CD of every beat, every fill, and so on. The most important thing I do is write the tempo in the upper right corner of the page. So many drummers don’t think of the tempo of the song. I use a metronome, a song starter, to check my tempo when I count off a song. At the very least you should take time to sing a verse of the song in your head before you count it off.
I play sixteenth-notes into double-stroke rolls with my hands, then sixteenth-notes into doubles with my feet for about half an hour. I do all the stretching too. I do yoga at home and on the road and simple stretches using the sticks to pull and lengthen muscles is really important. It helps you play licks and ideas that you want to play.
So many drummers forget that 50 percent of drumming is what you do with your sticks and your feet, and the other 50 percent is the business side — showing up on time and being professional. “On time” is “late,” and “early” is “on time.” You need to be an hour early to check your gear and get situated. Being friendly, congenial, and positive makes a good professional too. Show people you’re professional and you’ll get more gigs.
You have to create an open ear situation. Grab everything you can with your ears. Listen to tempo, dynamics, lyrics, your bandmates’ parts, rhythmic ideas, the audience, and how your drums fit in the overall picture. If someone takes off in a jam you need to listen so you can add to it or counter off it. You can do so much with big ears. It’s essential.
Drummers have more control over the dynamics of a song than anyone else in the band. Use your hi-hat and cymbals to create the appropriate dynamic level. And when you do fills make sure they lead into the next section. I think it helps to play the bass drum underneath the fill so the bottom doesn’t fall out, then make the downbeat the exclamation point. It helps create dynamics and makes things much more exciting and interesting.
You can’t play every lick at your highest energy level. You have to consider the elements: hot lights, bad air circulation, the song intensity, and the length of the set. Make sure you have a fan near you, wear loose clothing, and drink a lot of water. I drink tons of water. And don’t forget the earplugs. You only have one set of ears.
People always get their gear in top shape for the recording studio, but it’s really important for live gigs too. The soundman, the monitor guy, and the house guy can work so much better with you if you’re prepared. Maintain your bearing edges, keep the heads fresh, and take time to tune them properly. Check your cymbals for cracks. Bring a gig rug to keep the drums in place. It’s smart to always check that your sticks are strong and to replace them as soon as they start wearing down. It’s better to change sticks between songs than have one break in the middle of a fill.