15 Steps To Becoming A More Creative Drummer

The last 20 years has seen the rise of digital audio workstations (DAWs), such as Pro Tools and Garageband. These recording software programs have come way down in price and are now often used in home studios. Loops replacing drummers, plug-ins, and quantizing drum performances to a grid are more and more common.

These technological advancements are now vital to many songwriters, engineers, and producers out there, but it begs some important questions: Yes, loops are easier, but are they better? Is it really necessary for so many pop songs to use quantized drum performances?

While people are composing exciting new projects in the privacy of their own homes, much of what makes it to the mainstream seems incredibly dull. From the drum patterns to the harmonic structure to the melody is lacking the spark found in popular music from the ’60s and ’70s, for instance. Compare a current hit by Rihanna to a past one from Aretha Franklin, and you might see where I’m coming from. Would today’s mainstream pop be helped by human drumming? It certainly couldn’t hurt.

A group dynamic that squanders original thought and risk-taking might be the culprit here. The following list of suggestions will hopefully help you find creative solutions to compensate for these issues and keep the creative fires burning. Keep in mind, though, that artistry is in the eye of the beholder. In other words, what you think is a creative drum groove or lick may or may not seem so to the audience or your bandmates.

1. Practice Like Billy Ward

A friend of mine recently went to a Thomas Lang drum clinic and had a transformative experience. Lang talked about the huge amount of time that drummers waste noodling around the kit when they could be practicing diligently. It’s hard to deny his point: We could all practice more efficiently. However, noodling around on the drum kit can also be a great way to practice, if done right. Billy Ward, in his exceptional DVD Big Time, demonstrates one of his practice techniques: He noodles around until he discovers something that sounds promising to him, then reproduces and develops it further. Billy Ward is one of the most creative drummer on the planet, so it’s worth giving his method a fair shake.

Practice through noodling also builds spontaneous creativity. When I play a jazz or rock gig, I am often asked to make something up on the spot. Noodling has better prepared me for these moments.

The following is an exercise that combines noodling with organized practicing. The songo is one of my favorite grooves to play and teach.

Start out by playing a basic Songo to warm up.

DRUM! Notation Guide

15 steps to creative drumming

Now begin to noodle around within the pattern. In other words, alter the sticking, add additional bass drum and/or hi-hat notes, orchestrate the sticking around various sounds sources, and change the rhythmic structure. Here are two patterns fleshed out in this way.

2. Make Sound-Driven Decisions

Creative drummers often allow the sounds of the drum set to determine what to add or take away. In this tribal pattern, high-frequency rim-clicks meld well with lower frequency toms and bass drum notes. 15 steps to creative drumming {pagebreak}

3. Respond To Other Musicians

Whether performing live or in the studio, your ability to listen and react to other musicians is paramount. The following are some of the more common ways to interact with other players.

Following: Special moments occur in performing when – planned out or not – you find yourself playing hits with some or all of the band. A good example of this is the call-and-response portion in the chorus of “I Got You (I Feel Good)” by James Brown.

Contrasting: The main guitar/bass riff from Stone Temple Pilots’ “Vasoline” utilizes a droning 3:2 polyrhythm. Eric Kretz plays this swampy paradiddle-based groove as a contrast.

Call And Response: To illustrate the concept of call and response, here’s a “jazzercise“ inspired by the great Peter Erskine. The bass drum calls and the snare responds. Of course, here you’re not communicating with other musicians, but talking to yourself. This kind of back-and-forth banter with yourself (or others) is a necessary part of being a creative drummer.

Imitating: This can be just as annoying as having someone repeat back every word you say. However, there are times when this can be effective. Paraphrasing (repeating back a lick in your own way) also works well.

Getting Out Of The Way: The following passage is from Eric Hernandez’ performance on Bruno Mars’ hit single “Locked Out In Heaven.” This Stewart Copelandesque hi-hat riff happens during a breakdown in the second verse. Getting out of the way involves playing with taste and subtlety, and Hernandez demonstrates this with style.

Leading: From time to time, you will find yourself in a musical environment where you take the rhythmic reins and others react to you.

15 steps to creative drumming

4. Listen, Transcribe, Learn, Modify, And Go Back For More

Why reinvent the wheel? By following these instructions, you will be able use past performances by drumming icons to tap into your creativity.

Listen: One of my drum students is learning Led Zeppelin’s “Moby Dick” (studio version) for his band. To best help him get started with the solo portion, I first listened to the piece as a whole, choosing a couple (out of many) gems.

Transcribe: The following two Bonham licks start at the 2:58 mark (around the point that he switches from hand to stick playing).

NOTE: Learning to read and write music is vital in the creative process, because it is the raw material required to transcribe. I strongly recommend The Art Of Transcribing Drum Set – Books 1 and 2 – by Allen Schechner and Alfred’s Beginning Workbook For Snare Drum by Nate Brown. Or (shameless plug alert) you could check out my latest book, Drumcraft, for an unintimidating approach to attain these reading/writing skills. Also, make sure that you invest in a transcribing program such as The Amazing Slow-Downer or mimiCopy.

Learn: I am a proponent of goal-oriented practicing. One of my recommendations is “One Note At A Time.” If you have a two drum sets set up (with two players), you could turn learning licks into a fun game called “Simon.” The “leader” plays one note of the lick on the drum set and the other player copies that note (including the sticking). The leader then plays the first note followed by the second note of the lick, and the other player mimics those two notes. This process goes on until the whole lick is learned.

Modify: Taking a lick and altering it is another great strategy. Here the previous triplet-based Bonham licks are transformed into sixteenth notes.

Go Back for More: Taking it one step further, it’s smart to go back and determine where John Bonham may have gotten his ideas for the “Moby Dick” solo.

NOTE: This information may prove very difficult to find. I would strongly recommend enlisting a drum teacher to help with this pursuit.

Bonham borrowed from the following three jazz drumming icons (among others):

1. Papa Jo Jones was known for playing with his hands as Bonham does during a good portion of the solo.

2. Max Roach often played runs up and down the kit such as the first example above.

3. Elvin Jones is the king of the rolling triplet. The second example above shows a lick that he often played. Notice how he alternates leading with his right hand and then leading with his left.

Why stop here? Go to YouTube and Drummerworld and find out more about these drummers. What else was Jo Jones known for (Hint: brush playing and hi-hat work)? With whom did Elvin and Max play?

15 steps to creative drumming 15 steps to creative drumming {pagebreak}

5. Tap Into Abstractions

Fully engaging your brain by using abstractions can produce creative licks and grooves. Abstract thought may seem unrealistic to drummers who play mostly backbeats for a living. However, if you open yourself up to this possibility, you will be pleased by the result.

Put Yourself In A Box: At PASIC 2011, during a John Riley clinic, I volunteered to go up on stage in front of thousands of percussionists and receive what amounted to a 20-minute “private” lesson from John.

First, John “put me in a box,” having me improvise left-hand comping (while the other limbs played the typical jazz pattern) to a Sonny Rollin’s 12-bar blues number called “Tenor Madness.”

Here’s a four-measures sample of what I might have played that evening.

John again asked me to comp to “Tenor Madness,” now using my left hand and right foot.

Finally, John asking me to comp two snare notes followed by one bass drum hit.

It would seem that drumming under constraints would keep you from being creative, but the opposite is true. Sometimes, the more you limit the variables the more imaginative you end up being.

NOTE: To see the notation (and video) of each full 12-bar “Tenor Madness” comping example, visit my articles on OnlineDrummer.com.

Situations/Sounds Around You: Later in the clinic, John asked me play a short solo. He said, “Play the sound of an argument between a man and his wife or girlfriend.”

Here are four measures of the argument.

Emotions: This may seem farfetched, but the next time you play, try to tap into your emotions. For instance, if you’re jamming to an upbeat song, recall a happy moment in your life. If you’re playing a melancholy ballad, recall a traumatic time.

Colors: Sounds can be associated with specific colors. For instance, bright colors such as yellow and orange can be equated with the sound of cymbals. However, there isn’t a whole lot of agreement about this. Individuals often have their own way of relating colors to certain sounds.

Try this: While playing a groove, close your eyes and imagine a movie screen filled with a certain color. Did this effect your playing?

15 steps to creative drumming

6. Mix And Match

Rules and traditions are made to be broken. Combining grooves or licks across genres and morphing these elements into something new is an important tool in becoming a creative drummer.

Here are two grooves excerpted from my book Drum Aerobics that combine polar opposite genres: heavy metal with samba and jazz swing.

Try this: Play a groove from a different genre every day of the week. Once a week, morph two of these grooves together to form a hybrid. If you like the end result, write it down and keep a log for one year.

15 steps to creative drumming {pagebreak}

7. Understand Song Structure, Harmony, And Melody

Song Structure: Awareness of song structure gives drummers the framework to help shape the music from one section to the next. The following groove by Death Cab For Cutie drummer Jason McGerr shows how understanding form can contribute to a creative drum part. “I Will Possess Your Heart” is harmonically static. McGerr obviously realized his role was to build the song from beginning to end by adding rhythmic interest and intensity.

This four-bar phrase (at 3:35) is a sampling of McGerr’s playing throughout, although he forges many different groove combinations as he goes.

Harmony: As just mentioned, a basic understanding of chords can be very helpful in designing drum parts. Identifying chord types (such as major and minor) can make you react in different ways. Also, chord sequences create “seams” in the music that can be propelled forward by the just the right drum treatment.

NOTE: You many want to learn about music theory, take up a harmonic instrument such as piano or guitar, and begin to write your own songs.

Melody: Many drummers base their grooves on melody. The message of the song is quite often found in the lyrics, so learning how to support this can be very beneficial.

15 steps to creative drumming

8. Use Rudiments

Philly Joe Jones, Steve Gadd, and Stanton Moore – three of the most creative drummers in history – are all known for using rudiments in their playing. The idea is simple enough: use a one or more rudiments and orchestrate them around the kit. The key is to have a long drop-down menu of rudiments at your disposal. You can then sift through these options when the time arises, and hopefully make an informed decision.

To get you started down this road, I would recommend three books: Stick Technique by Bill Bachman, One Surface Learning by Roy Burns and Joey Farris, and my own Daily Drum Warm-Ups.

I had the good fortune of going to Stanton Moore’s clinic at 2012 PASIC, where he talked about how to apply the “rock and roll” paradiddle RLRR LRRL.

The first half of the following groove uses this rudiment, while the other half uses an inverted paradiddle. Bass drum notes accentuate the right hand, supplying the funk.

15 steps to creative drumming 15 steps to creative drumming

9. Manipulate With Feel And Phrasing

Why is JR Robinson one of the most recorded drummers in history? Is it because JR is a nice guy? That might be part of the picture, but the rest is likely due to his ability to affect listeners with his amazing feel and phrasing. If you focus on the concepts in this section, you might become the next JR.

Space: Just like in the visual arts, space is just as important as putting down ideas. It allows the artist or musician to frame their work. Using space takes a great deal of restraint.

Here is an exercise to help you develop your sense of space. Try this with and without a metronome.

Rhythmic Density/Taste: Rhythmic density involves painting with grays rather than with just black and white. It involves:

Subdividing into bigger or smaller pieces.

Using more or less limbs or sound sources.

The following four-measure phrase builds density in both of these ways.

Dynamics (Touch/Power): The ability to wield dynamics might be the most overlooked and important aspect to effective drumming.

Try this: play the above exercise from soft to loud and/or loud to soft.

Long And Short Notes: Each part of the drum set resonates differently. For instance, ride cymbals vibrate for longer periods of time than snare drums. However, by using your hand as a muffling device, even the longest ringing cymbals can produce a short sound.

The following syncopated exercise has either staccato/short sounds (symbolized by a dot) or long sounds (symbolized by an accent). Experiment using all the parts of the drum set to produce both long and short sounds.

Longer Phrases: Because of the looping/program phenomenon, short drum phrases have become popular in today’s music. Longer phrases can sometimes be perceived as more creative, so they are worth pursuing.

Try this: Create four-bar phrases using rock or funk beats. Now try eight-bar phrases. 16-bar phrases?

Sloppiness vs. Articulation: Bucking the trend of quantized music, playing a lick in a sloppy or greasy manner can be refreshing. If you try this at a gig and get a mean look, you can blame me!

Amount Of Swing: Changing the amount of swing can literally be the difference between the music feeling good or not. Take a leap of faith here; you won’t be disappointed.

Displacements: Displacing a pattern is a very quick way to create a dramatic effect. In the following exercise, the downbeat and the backbeat are displaced three times.

15 steps to creative drumming {pagebreak}

10. Experiment With Kit Setups, Tuning, Muffling, Drum Stick Implements, And Electronics

Kit Setups: Do you feel more comfortable playing on a huge drum kit or a smaller one? Small kits promote getting the most sounds out of fewer choices, while a larger kit affords you the greatest freedom of choice. Depending on the individual, either of these could increase creativity.

Big drums? Small drums? Cymbals? Metal vs. wood hoops? Drumhead selection? The choices are endless; but if you can find what best fits your personality, body type, and technique, it will allow your imagination to flow.

Try these: Play a jazz gig with just a hi-hat, snare drum, and ride cymbal. Play a rock gig without a hi-hat (à la Keith Moon) or without any cymbals at all. Switch your toms around. Try different kinds of cymbals. Set your drum throne higher or lower than normal. Experiment with the settings on that incredibly complicated bass drum pedal. Discover found percussion. (Check out Glenn Kotche from the band Wilco.)

Hybrid Kits: Walfredo Reyes Sr., Richie Gajate-Garcia, and Stanton Moore (among others) have revolutionized the fusion of ethnic percussion with traditional drum set. Follow their lead, and find some new sounds that are yours alone.

Tuning, Muffling, And Drum Stick Implements: The way drums are tuned and muffled and the sticks that you use not only help define your style, but also effect the overall band sound.

Try these: The Hat Shake, Hat Trick, Stickball, and Jingle Kick to name a few.

Electronics: Although not every drummer’s cup of tea, electronics provide limitless options to fuel your creativity. It’s also popular these days to mix electronics within acoustic kits.

11. Stay Up To Date On The Latest Technology

Imitate Programmed Music: If you haven’t seen Jojo Mayer play, you need to do so immediately. Among other accomplishments, Mayer has assimilated the sound of programmed (electronica) music into an acoustic setup.

Try this: Learn to program drums yourself, then go back and see if you can play on an acoustic drum set what you designed through technology.

12. Access Creative Independence

Gaining jaw-dropping independence or coordination will not necessarily make you the most creative drummer in town, but the lack of it can certainly be a major stumbling block. Learning how to play jazz and Latin might be the best way to attain the coordination that you need, while making you more hirable. Here is another excerpt from Drum Aerobics. The hands play a blues shuffle pattern between the ride cymbal and snare, while the feet play in various eighth-note triplet spots.

15 steps to creative drumming

13. Excite With Metric Modulation/Time Shifting/Polyrhythms

These three rhythmic “illusions” can confuse the listener (and your fellow musician), while other times cause an unbelievable amount of excitement. Chris Dave and Ari Hoenig have taken metric modulation to a new level. David Stanoch, in his book Master The Tables Of Time, covers time shifting, a concept that was used creatively in the past by Elvin Jones, Tony Williams, and many others. Polyrhythms are another endless pursuit, which will also expand your toolkit. Pete Magadini’s Polyrhythms – The Musician’s Guide remains the seminal work on this topic.

14. Turn Off The Metronome

Practicing without a metronome or using it in unique ways can help to stimulate the creative part of your brain. Playing behind, on, or ahead of the click can make the surrounding instruments and music feel quite different. Find a drum teacher with studio experience to show you the ropes of playing with a click.

15. Be Open To Experiences Outside The World Of Music And Interact With Creative People

Don’t hang out in your drum closet all day long. By over-practicing and isolating yourself from the rest of humanity, you will lock yourself out of non-musical experiences that could add to your imagination. Make sure to listen and be open to suggestions from persons with different perspectives. Many non-drumming musicians have helped me uncover creative ideas I would have never discovered on my own.

Pay attention to the times of the day and environments when and where you are the most creative. A lot of my ideas have come while hiking in the desert with my wife, and I’ve now written seven books while propped up in bed with my dogs as my work companions.

Outro

Some people are born with more creativity than others. Hopefully, the plan that I just presented will give you some ideas on how to catch up with those artsy folks. Like most things in life, it will take hard work to makes significant gains.

It is my hope that, as drummers, if we can best tap into our imaginations, we have a better chance to help lift up the quality of music for everyone – ourselves, bandmates, and, most of all, listeners.