Driver’s Seat

Avoiding Common Pitfalls

by Mel Lewis

One very common pitfall of many young big band drummers is the manner in which they play their bass drum. Too many novice drummers seem to feel a need to pound the bass drum when this is not necessary at all. Pounding your bass drum heavily on all four beats tends to make the swing of the arrangement go right out the window.

This is not to say that the bass drum is not important. All the great drummers play bass drum. Modernists like Elvin Jones and Tony Williams swing because of their bass drum. There isn’t a swinging drummer around who doesn’t play his bass drum. The key thing to remember however, is that the bass drum doesn’t have to be pounded to be effective. It’s supposed to be felt like a heartbeat, rather than heard.As far as sizes go, I would never recommend an 18″ bass drum in a big band situation, yet by the same token, I see no logical reason to use a 24″ either. A 22″ is the largest you should ever have to use to get a sound that will blend well with a big band. I personally prefer a 20″ simply because of its inherent small group feeling and versatility.

Another predominant problem I’ve noted in listening to young stage band drummers is their tendency to play too much. Remember, you can’t play a lot of anything unless it absolutely means something. It has to have something to do with the music. If it has nothing to do with the music, there is really no point in playing it is there? If you’re not listening to the music then what you’re doing doesn’t mean a thing. If your primary concern is to impress someone in the audience, you’re actually listening to yourself up on that bandstand, and that of course means you’re not really listening.

The trick is not to listen to yourself, strange as that may sound. First, you should know your instrument so well that whatever you do, you do it automatically. Knowing your instrument, among other things, means knowing where everything is. You shouldn’t have to look at your cymbal. You should know where it is and you should know what it sounds like. It is absolutely essential that you know your instrument so well that you never have to worry about listening to what you are doing. You should only be hearing what’s going on within the band and within the music.

Your main purpose is to inspire the other players in the band. The band must
come first. Everything I do in my band is not to impress the audience, it’s to inspire the band to play better. The total sound of the band is what’s important, not what you as a drummer do. Nobody should stand out, except of course in a solo situation.

Remember, in a big band, when the band drops out and the soloist takes over, you are now actually a quartet, and remain a quartet until the band re-enters. It’s essential to constantly be thinking ahead in order to set up the entrance of the orchestra. You should know how the band is going to enter while you continue to accompany the soloist. How do you cover both at the same time? By having your ears wide open and knowing the chart backwards.

You must be aware of how the band is going to enter. If the band is going to come in heavy, you should be thinking about bringing the soloist up by building behind him. Conversely, if the band is entering softly, you might want to think about bringing the soloist down dynamically, leading him out. Keep in mind that you are in the driver’s seat. As a drummer, you have the power to control every situation literally at your fingertips.