Thoughts on Developing Your Own Musical Voice
One of the things I mentioned in last month’s column was how I feel there are way too many drummers who sound alike in the field today. Of course, this is nothing new. Each musical era has a wave of common approaches to playing the instrument, like when the Beatles hit and everybody had to have a Ludwig black oyster pearl kit so they could look and sound just like Ringo.
Your unique musical voice can be developed in many different ways. You could be recognized for the specific sound of your kit, or a certain playing style could become your calling card. Or maybe it’s a unique drumset setup and stage antics. Just keep in mind that the great drummers are recognized primarily for their approach to playing music. Developing a “sound” that’s uniquely yours, simply from the way the music feels when you’re at the kit, is very difficult.
Some players just seem to be blessed with originality from birth. But very few things are truly original; rather, they’re a combination of one’s experiences and influences. Great drummers mix up their study of what came before them to create their own musical stew. So how do you develop your musical voice? Let’s take a look at a few ideas.
Don’t let your thoughts be too much the opinion of someone else. I have gone through these phases myself. You get really excited about a record or a band with a great drummer, and you think, I want to do that! You set up your kit like the guy, buy the same cymbals and drumheads, and maybe even cut your hair similarly. This is an awesome part of discovering your own identity. Be excited, and let your passion influence your development. But understand that you are not that drummer, and you will never be that drummer. Make sure that you draw from many musical opinions and directions. Don’t get too hung up on one vision. Research that drummer’s influences, and go back and see where he or she came from, to help you form a deeper opinion on that particular approach to the instrument.
Find your pulse. The idea of having a strong presence at the kit can be broken down into one word: pulse. Having a pulse is different from playing with unwavering time. A drum machine keeps great time but has no pulse. This is why it often feels sterile when you hear a quantized programmed beat. Producers started cutting loops from actual recorded performances, instead of sequencing parts on drum machines, because performances have a human pulse. To me, an effective pulse is a combination of timing, dynamics, note lengths (articulation), and good musical decisions. You need to have solid time, or the pulse can break down. Your time doesn’t have to be perfect, but it must be relative to the target tempo. This means that if you start at 110 bpm, you don’t want to be rushing to 120 during fills and dragging down to 100 in the bridge. A key component of solid timekeeping is controlling subdivisions. You need to be able to keep the subdivisions consistent and not rush the smaller/faster notes. Inconsistent subdivisions will create a weaving feeling that never settles into a solid pulse.
You also have to play with contrasting and effective dynamics. You shouldn’t yell at people through your instrument in every song. You don’t speak like that, so don’t do it on the drums. Communicate through small- and large-sounding notes and phrases. You should also be able to control the sustain of your notes and apply energy and relaxation in the feeling behind what you play. Think about articulating patterns like a horn player would articulate a melody. Finally, learn how to make appropriate musical decisions through listening, playing with others, and studying.
Document yourself. We know the great drummers because we’ve heard the great drummers. Documentation is a large part of creating an identifiable voice; great drummers who’ve played on many records are easier to recognize. For instance, I’ve heard Phil Collins play many times on the radio and in concerts. As soon as I hear his roomy, compressed drum sound and his open time and fills, I know it’s him.
That said, there are also well-documented drummers who don’t have anything particularly unique happening. They blend into the music so much that they’re hard to recognize. Their execution could be perfect, but their musical voice just doesn’t seem to surface. This is the challenge of a session drummer: to play what is correct for the situation while stamping it with your signature. Great actors, like Robert De Niro and Dustin Hoff man, do this. The way they deliver the words puts a unique stamp on the scene.
As drummers, we need to know how we want to deliver our script, which is the song. Think about the “why” behind what you’re being asked to play, and ask yourself, What am I bringing to the music? Then get out there and make yourself heard! The more gigs, records, and videos that exist with you playing drums on them, the easier it is for people to hear “you” in them. I own about a hundred records that Steve Gadd plays on, and I can tell within a few bars that it’s him. Of course, Steve has a very personal and unique approach to music. But part of the reason I know his sound so well is because I’ve heard it so many times.
As the Gandhi quote implies, to lose yourself in the service of others is relevant to developing your own musical voice. To do that, simply play what’s correct for the situation. Through continual study, experience, listening, working, and always attempting to make good musical choices, you’ll find that your sound begins to develop. Understand what you have to offer, and deliver the “script” of the song with your unique stamp on it. Use what came before you to support your decisions, but don’t rely on that as a template. Discover who you are today, but ask yourself, Who will I be in the future? Keep studying, practicing, and working toward becoming the musician you want to be. Create often, and let the world hear it!
Russ Miller has played on recordings with combined sales of more than 26 million copies. His versatility has led him to work with a wide range of artists, including Ray Charles, Tina Turner, Nelly Furtado, and Andrea Bocelli. For more info, visit russmiller.com.