Wedding Drumming 101: A Crash Course

Wedding

Maybe it’s that dorky cummerbund, or the seemingly endless rendition of “We’ve Only Just Begun” during the first dance. For whatever reason, wedding gigs have earned a bad rap. Sure, they lack the trappings of rock concerts — with the limo rides, after-parties, and groupies — but in fact, many talented musicians make good livings playing these events. Some even have fun doing it.

Etiquette

Playing in a wedding band has many challenges, and the principal one is being able to play a variety of musical styles well. Fortunately, that’s also one of its greatest pleasures: Few gigs cover such a wide stylistic range. Having high school and college jazz band experience is certainly helpful. You need to have an extensive database of songs in your head, be familiar with typical song forms, and have a good set of ears — yet be able to fake it when necessary. It helps if you have an easy-going personality and can roll with on-the-spot changes. However, if you have a hot-tempered Type A personality and are prone to sudden outbursts of anger, consider starting and leading your own band.

Many different kinds of bands work the wedding circuit. These include small jazz groups that play instrumental standards, occasional vocal numbers, and some pop music. You’ll also find large society orchestras with woodwinds and horns, a rhythm section, and several vocalists. These bands usually require reading skills, since they play carefully written arrangements. There are also smaller groups, which often have a sax player, rhythm section, and a male and female vocalist. These outfits can change a set list to reflect current songs more quickly than a larger group, which usually has to buy charts.

Some smaller groups use backing tracks that require the drummer to play along with a click track and nail the form of the song. While some groups are well rehearsed and always use the same group of players, many rely on skilled freelancers sight-reading charts. Unless you join a forming band, you may never rehearse with them or even meet them until the gig. One band I worked with several years ago averaged ten musicians, but other than the leader, I rarely played with anyone else in the band twice. Whenever an audience member asked how long this group had played together, it was an effort not to look at my watch.

Party bands play functional music to announce and accompany traditional wedding events, such as tossing the garter belt or cutting the cake, as well as providing background and dance music. If you’ve never played an event like this, the typical three-hour wedding gig consists of a dinner music set and two dance music sets. The dinner music set features low-volume, instrumental jazz and Latin standards played while the guests dine. Occasional speeches can interrupt the music (keep in mind that it’s bad form to yawn).

You may be asked to play as the bridal party and newlyweds are first introduced and enter the room, and later during the cake-cutting ceremony. The “first dance” usually follows dinner, and allows the photographer to get good shots of the newlyweds. This is sometimes followed by a separate dance with the full wedding party. After this, the dance floor is opened to the rest of the guests, the dance music starts, and the drinking really begins. If the reception includes a garter and bouquet toss, bands will often play a march as the single men and women are called to the dance floor. One band I worked with humorously played Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” and Ted Nugent’s “Hey Baby” for this segment. Be prepared to play a cheesy song like “Night Train” or “The Stripper” while the garter is removed. Drummers usually perform a buzz roll to set up the garter and bouquet toss, and the band will play some sort of brief fanfare or fast theme after the cursed object has bounced off the chandelier. Most of this occurs during the second set, leaving the final set for dancing.

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Sometimes a cocktail set will precede the dinner set, and occasionally the party wants the band to play overtime. Bands are contracted for a set length of time, say 9:00 to 12:00. Bandleaders are very precise about stop and start times, and have had tons of practice ignoring drunken chants for “one more song.” You’ll only play past the contracted time if someone comes up with OT money. If the dinner is running behind you may end up playing two dinner music sets and one dance set in which all the wedding events take place, increasing the likelihood of OT. At some corporate events, the presentation, auctions, raffles, awards, and speeches can eat significantly into your playing time. I’ve done gigs where I only played for half an hour. Don’t worry, you’ll be paid for a full gig.

The term “wedding band” may be a bit of a misnomer. If you play in one of these bands your work may actually be divided between weddings, corporate events, bar mitzvahs, country club events, and the like. Fortunately the repertoire for each type of event is largely the same. Golf banquets, charity auctions, or corporate parties often require the band to play “stingers” to transition professionally between the presentations. Stingers are those short snippets of songs you hear played while a guest walks from the curtain to his chair on late night talk shows.

Wardrobe

You’ll need a black tuxedo, cummerbund (the pleats face up), bow tie, dress shoes, and white and sometimes black tux shirts. Dry clean your tux regularly. I once used a sub who acquired the not-so-affectionate nickname “Stinky” from the band. If you have long hair, bring a ponytail holder. Even though the desired look leans toward conservative, you may need a loud Hawaiian shirt and shorts for outdoor summer gigs.

Gear

Sometimes there isn’t a set list. But even if there is, you may deviate from it as the bandleader reads the crowd. Many will simply call out the next song toward the end of the current one. At reading gigs, sometimes a leader will just call out chart numbers like, “64 — 103 — 216.” When he does that, pull those numbered charts out from the book and place them behind the current chart in the order called. Often, you have to do that while playing a song.

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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.

Don’t Be Punctual

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.

Big Ears

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.

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Be Flexible

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.

Don’t Bring A Seat

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.

Be Polite

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.

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Dynamics

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.

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Grooves You Need To Know

Most successful wedding bands feature very talented musicians and do not play the “Chicken Dance” or “The Hokey-Pokey.” Instead, you’ll find most wedding bands play a mixture of jazz, Latin, Motown, disco, contemporary pop, and some ethnic music. You will need to know a variety of Latin grooves. In the world of bandleaders, there’s usually only “bossa” (nova) and “Latin” (which translates to “you figure it out”). While there is no substitute for being familiar with the actual songs you play, if you have a variety of styles under your belt your ability to fake a song can become undetectable. If you’re playing in a society-style orchestra you should also be familiar with common ethnic styles like the horah, polkas, samba, cha-cha, mambo, rumba, soca, reggae, and many others. Let’s check out some grooves you’ll need to know.

Two-Beat

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This common groove is prehistorically simple and couldn’t be more widely used. It’s played for a variety of older dance styles, and also works for rock, country, polkas, horahs, Dixieland, and jazz. If the leader calls out a song you don’t know, using this pattern can work until your ears figure out whether it’s a compound or simple meter feel.

Ballad

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Ballads are usually easy and are played in either 4/4 or 12/8.

Swing

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You’ll need decent jazz skills to adequately cover swing tunes like “In The Mood” and Frank Sinatra classics. Most of the time, think swing, not bebop. Depending on the type of band you play with, the dinner music set may let the musicians stretch a bit.

When drum set players perform Latin or other ethnic songs on a kit, we imitate the effect of several percussionists. Our ride cymbal’s bell is used to cover cowbell parts, our bass drum covers the surdo part, our pedaled hi-hat is a shaker rhythm, rim clicks impersonate the clave part or conga slaps, and our toms become congas. There are a lot of grooves here, but they’re all required for this sort of work. Don’t hesitate to learn variations of these patterns. These are some of the trickiest grooves you’ll need to know. You like to practice, don’t you?

Disco

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Think four-on-the-floor. Disco grooves may be more fun for bass players, but facility playing two-handed sixteenth-note grooves, upbeat grooves, and 1 e & 2 e & cymbal variations is needed.

Motown

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You can play Motown songs in a more modern backbeat style, but if you know this groove and when to use it your R&B playing will be much more authentic.

Shuffle

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Knowing a basic shuffle and a two-handed shuffle are useful for making ’60s-era rock and blues songs sound authentic. Playing a Purdie shuffle over a ’60s song will either make you sound inexperienced or too hip for the tune.

Rock, Funk & R&B

Wedding

Basic rock grooves can fit a variety of styles. Four-on-the-floor works well for a lot of older songs. Funkier grooves work for funk and R&B. When in doubt, outline the bass player’s rhythm with your bass drum. Ah, teamwork.

If you don’t play brushes, learn. A detailed description of even basic brush technique is beyond the scope of this article, though there are some excellent DVDs and books available on the subject. YouTube and its brethren can also be helpful ways to learn some basic motions and techniques. The ability to play jazz ballads, mid-tempo, and up-tempo songs with brushes is required in most bands. It’s also a good idea to know some brush grooves in 3/4 for jazz waltzes. I often play with a brush in one hand and a stick, mallet, or dowel rod bundle in the other for contrasting timbres. On some gigs I never pick up two sticks.