Are You Playing the Drums?

Or Are the Drums Playing You?

by Russ Miller

This month’s quote represents a classic sentiment that seasoned drummers often feel necessary to share with younger players. By this stage in my career, I’ve witnessed many occasions when it would have been useful to repeat—at a clinic, for instance, when the drummer just couldn’t do the gig on a 22″ bass drum because his standard setup had a 20″; or at a gig where an unsteady player blamed failures in the groove on a slipping hi-hat pedal. And many of us have no doubt heard a particularly heavy-handed drummer saying something like, “I can’t play quietly on these drums—they’re too loud!” 

In my article in the September 2016 issue of Modern Drummer, I wrote about playing from the inside out. This month’s topic is an extension of that concept, but with a different focus. I was inspired to write this piece because of a situation I was in recently where another drummer on the same bill was melting down because the rental kit was missing a tom and had the “wrong” pedal. I understand that having your preferred pedal makes things more familiar for you, but saying that you can’t play the gig without it might indicate that you’re dealing with some issues that need to be addressed.

If having a pedal that operates a little better is the difference between your being able to execute the gig or not, then you’re playing it way too close to the edge. I love to challenge myself musically, but I never want to go to the stage barely being able to execute something in a performance. If you’re not prepared for a gig, your playing is going to feel uncertain—you might even wreck the show altogether.

One of the most important elements that a drummer’s playing must have is a sense of intention. If you sound like you’re putting a question mark at the end of a musical statement, then you’re not showing command. Lack of intent tends to alienate listeners and leave them feeling uneasy. This can also create the perception that you don’t have a voice in the music.

Part of our job as musicians is painting a picture for the audience. I equate a musician performing music to a visual artist painting a picture, in real time, in front of others. Our picture is auditory, and the palette is our drumset. A visual artist doesn’t let the brushes and the colors on the palette dictate the scope of the piece. He or she can mix paint together in an almost infinite number of combinations to express whatever is wanted. The final picture resides in the mind before it’s translated to the canvas.

The Sand Trap of Our Tools
In my opinion, the drums are the most personal of all instruments. No other is so customized to the particular player. That being said, many players get too wrapped up in their setup. The music you’re playing should give you inspiration for which items to use. If you add elements to your kit and then look for a place in the music to use them, you’ve stopped playing music and started playing the drums. Many great players add or subtract colors from their setups for nearly every gig, whether that means switching out cymbals or adding another drum or percussion instrument. Other drummers have to play the same music the same way every night, so their setups rarely change. Others still establish a large palette of colors that they can draw from at will. This last approach can be a wise way to go, but it involves a serious commitment to the logistics of keeping a larger setup.

Rush’s Neil Peart is a great example of someone who has adjusted his instrument specifically for the material that he is going to play on a particular tour. Over the years he added things to his kit that were necessary to execute certain parts from the band’s latest recordings in a live setting. He ended up with a huge rig, but it got to that point because the music demanded it.

Don’t allow the gear (yours or rented) to be a distraction from your craft. The pulse, feel, and dynamics of the music should come from your heart and mind, rather than being created by the limbs and the drums. Avoid being too tied to parts, such as highly orchestrated fills, that are locked to one specific setup. I tend to think of my parts in relation to the general flow of the notes. That way I can play them on different parts of any drumset, whether it’s a random rental or my preferred setup.

It’s very important to build up your core musical voice before concerning yourself too much with a particular configuration of drums and cymbals. You should strive to play a great-feeling groove with a strong pulse in any situation, even if you’re hitting a piece of cardboard with brushes. You should also be able to express a beautiful, musical statement on a super-simple drumset. From there, if you have other colors you want to work into the mix, then do it! Expand your palette as widely as you want, but just make sure all the different shades are there for a reason.

Russ Miller has recorded and/or performed with Ray Charles, Cher, Nelly Furtado, and the Psychedelic Furs and has played on soundtracks for The Boondock Saints, Rugrats Go Wild, and Resident Evil: Apocalypse, among others. For more information, visit