I like things that are simple. I try to be as simple as possible in the decisions I make as a musician. But something I’ve discovered: This isn’t simple at all! It’s actually really difficult.
This idea of simplicity not actually being simple has captivated my attention as a drummer for years now. The truth seems to be this: If you’re playing something simple really well, then what it’s taken to get to that point is actually very complex. It’s an entire process. Here’s what I do….
1. Discover the underlying subdivision of the groove. To play even a “simple” quarter-note pulse, you have to realize all the possibilities of where the notes can fall, thus determining “where” the groove can be played. Most commonly the subdivision in a quarter-note pulse won’t progress past an underlying 16th-note feel.
For example, sing “1-e-&-a, 2-e-&-a,” and so on, while you play a quarter-note groove, or an 8th-note groove for that matter. Discover that 16th-note pulse underneath and become well acquainted with how it feels. Note: Most likely the guitar player will be emphasizing or blatantly strumming 16ths, so the quarter-note or 8th-note groove will lock really well. Knowing this underlying pulse will also help you create fills that are more interesting and dynamic. (Listening example: Steely Dan, “Gaslighting Abbie,” Sonny Emory. Sonny actually plays the 16th-note subdivision in the intro and then switches to an 8th-note pattern, all the while maintaining that strong underlying pulse. Super-groovy!)
2. Listen to the lyrics. The lyricist tells me everything I need to know in creating the right groove and pulse for the song. A lot of times I’ll ghost on the snare along with certain syllables during the verses. This fills up the sound and also creates a nice textural cushion for the guitarist to strum over. (Listening example of building a groove around the melody and vocal rhythm: Phil Collins, “Take Me Home.”)
3. Get the right gear. Not everyone thinks your eighty-pound bell-brass snare sounds amazing all the time. It might, but be open to the possibility of selecting the right gear for the right music. On this point, crafting the right snare sound may put you ahead of the pack. Maple has a great amount of crack and some very tasty overtones and is typically more saturated tonally. This can be great. But maybe the producer or bandleader is looking for a drier sound. In that case, maybe go with a thin aluminum shell with some dampening on the head. Don’t be afraid to ask questions, explore, and experiment. Every drummer should be continually pushing the envelope tonally. It’s an enormous spectrum.
4. “Mix” your sound. This is particularly important in supporting pop and acoustic-guitar-driven music, particularly in a live setting. We’re all at least fairly familiar with an audio mixing board, where you can vary the volume settings on each individual channel or input. Imagine each limb of your body being a different channel whose volume can be turned “up” or “down” depending on the situation. I call this dynamic interdependence.
5. Play only your personality. You aren’t John Bonham or Lars Ulrich. Sorry. Be you. There’s always something phenomenal to learn from all the great drummers out there, and that can be so inspiring. But when you sit down at the kit, express the voice that only you can express, which is YOU. I can’t think of a better example of someone who completely embraces his personality on the drums than Chad Smith of the Red Hot Chili Peppers. When he sits down and plays, it’s very apparent that he’s comfortable with himself and isn’t afraid to express that personality.
Chad Elrod is a New York City–based drummer, playing with the band Hypodive and the Americana pop act Man in a Crowd. He is a producer, performer, and educator, with a recording studio and lesson facility in Brooklyn called the Greenpoint Recording Company. Chad has studied drumming since a young age, beginning at the Seattle Drum School of Music under the instruction of founder Steve Smith and Jason McGerr. Chad has also recorded and performed with Precise Device, Lemessey, Jesse Butterworth, Mr. David Musicworks, the University of Montana Jazz Ensemble and Afro Cuban Ensemble, and Seattle Performing Arts Jazz Combos. He loves his wife of five years, Annie, going on road trips, and hanging out at coffee shops.