You don’t need a lot of equipment to play an event. A 4- or 5-piece kit is enough. You should have at least one crash, a ride, and a pair of hi-hats. A splash cymbal, second crash, and even a second ride cymbal (with rivets for brush playing), a tambourine, a shaker, and a cowbell can be very useful too. I’ve done gigs like this with just one small tom and a couple of cymbals when space was tight or when the load-in was really difficult. It’s a mistake to bring a larger kit with two floor toms, simply because the staging is often shallow and another musician may wind up standing in front of you. I try to minimize the number of floor stands I use and keep any boom arms that point outward as short as possible. You’ll need a variety of stick sizes with different beads to vary your ride cymbal sound, brushes, multirod dowel sticks, and a pair of mallets. I usually use heavy-style brushes with thicker bristles to cut better when I’m not miked.
If you join a band, the gear requirements may be more specific. I’ve played in a few bands that used backing tracks and a click track, so I also needed some headphones, or I.E.M.’s (in-ear monitors), and a small mixer or headphone amp. The main band I now play with mikes my drums, so I bring my own microphones, cables, and clips, and a Roland SPD-S for percussion sounds. A double pedal isn’t necessary, though I always bring one whether I use it or not. When something breaks on my main pedal, I’ll have the part to borrow off of the slave. That habit has saved my butt twice. It’s also a good idea to carry a tool kit with duct tape, screwdrivers, Allen wrenches, replacement screws, and other spare parts for anything likely to fall out or break. Extra heads are useful — I always carry a spare snare batter head (and sometimes an extra snare drum), but doing regular maintenance on your gear and changing your heads periodically should suffice.
Be early. Show up half an hour before the gig with just enough time to set up, and you may not get called again. The vagaries of traffic, weather, the availability of hotel elevators, security, and locating the load-in point in downtown hotels all conspire to make musicians late and give band leaders ulcers. Give him a break and be the one musician he doesn’t have to worry about. If you’re always early, you might get the call before a drummer who always runs a bit late.
Listening helps. I played a gig several months ago and the harried leader counted off a tune 1-2-3-4. Surprisingly, the song was actually in 3/4. If a leader says mambo, he could have really meant rumba, or didn’t know the difference between them, so let your ears rule. Keep your eyes open. Even if the female vocalist has a nice figure, try to keep at least one eye on the leader and on any other helpful musician for ending cues and stops. If you can sing backup vocals you’ll be more employable.
In fact, be a contortionist. You may find it necessary to simplify a groove, mix a bit of one feel with another, or change how you’d normally approach a song to fit in better with the band. When I work with busier players I often simplify my playing. You may occasionally be asked to move your gear from one location for the cocktail music to another for the dinner/dancing sets. This is a hassle, even with a small set, but complaining about it doesn’t help. I’ll leave the bulk of my equipment in the second room and take the bare minimum to the cocktail area. A smart leader will get a little extra money for you if this happens.
Bring a throne. Some gigs are long, and a comfortable throne can be a butt saver. My gig this weekend begins with two hours of jazz trio followed by three hours of dance music with the full band and a chance of OT. Some gigs are “continuous.” That means there are no breaks in the music — you play nonstop for three or more hours. If you bring a cheap, hard seat to gigs like these, you’d better stock up on Preparation H.
The leader has probably been dealing with a stressed-out bride for months, just so you could waltz in, have some fun, and collect a check. If her drunken brother keeps calling out “Free Bird” resist the urge to show it to him.
I can play very loudly, and I have the tinnitus to prove it. However, the first time I play with a band I always make a point to play softly. Often I’ll use brushes even when I might just as easily choose to use sticks. If you’re too loud too soon, the leader will watch you all night. For rock, Motown, and disco, drive the band without overpowering them. When playing jazz, play sparse and quiet accompaniment behind bass solos and other softer instruments. Try to drop your volume when starting a verse to make room for the singer. Don’t play a fill every chance you get or you’ll seem insecure and overbearing. Leaving a bit of room in your playing lets someone else add to the musical conversation and helps you sound more professional and courteous.