Think back to that first moment when you knew drums were it for you. For me, this happened after seeing a traditional Serbian folk group with a drummer who played a set of mounted bongos. Now think about the many other times when drums and music worked their magic to draw you ever deeper into their rich, beautiful, and vast world.
The five instances I’ve chosen to write about here by no means comprise a comprehensive or definitive list. I could just as easily have picked the moment I discovered doubles on the bass drum, courtesy of a beat by one of my first influences, Boris Leiner, a fantastic rock drummer from the Yugoslav group Azra, or any of the many insightful and useful ideas taught to me by my first drum teacher, Miroslav Karlovic. Maybe on another day I’d talk about Stewart Copeland’s incredible feel on “Contact” from the Police album Reggatta de Blanc, the great drumming of Clive Burr on the tune “Another Life” from Iron Maiden’s Killers, or the mind-expanding omnidirectional approach to drumming that Rashied Ali presents on my favorite album of all time, John Coltrane’s Interstellar Space.
Each of those musical moments has influenced me a great deal, and there are many more. I’m sure each one of you has a similar list. Regardless, at the risk of being incomplete and perhaps even leaving out some sounds and concepts I would ultimately consider more influential on my drumming, I submit to you the following list of five sounds that drew me in. At the same time, I invite you to think about the moments when the drums really spoke to you and the effect those experiences have had on your playing.
The Rolling Sound of Elvin Jones
Even though I was a complete neophyte, around thirteen years of age and barely conversant in the language of drumming, hearing Elvin Jones play on the John Coltrane album A Love Supreme was an unforgettable experience. It’s a testament to the universal power of art and its potential to transcend the gap between the expert and layman by projecting raw, emotional intensity. After listening to the track “Resolution,” I knew this was the way to swing. Even though I hardly understood anything about jazz at that time, such was the conviction of Elvin’s performance.
There was something else about Elvin’s playing that intrigued me: the sound he made when he rolled around the drums during his solos. Even though I could hear him rolling and accenting on the toms and bass drum, there seemed to be a steady stream of snare drum chatter running throughout as well. It was the most mysterious thing, like a drone and improvisation played simultaneously. I desperately wanted to find out how to do this.
After a lot of trial and error, I realized that to successfully approximate this sound it helps to keep the snare notes at a much lower dynamic level than the bass drum or tom accents. This makes the phrases flow better, and it provides distinction between the constant snare drone in the background and the melodies you’re improvising on the toms and bass drum. Also, sonically, there’s a certain amount of sympathetic snare buzz occurring when other drums are played, and the more open your drums sound (higher tuning and little to no muffling), the more of this effect you will get.
Gadd’s Ghost-Note Overlaps
Steve Gadd is noted for many things that have influenced today’s drummers, from his great feel to his ability to play a phrase over and over with captivating passion. One thing that may not be talked about as often is Gadd’s amazing ability to thread ghost notes throughout his beats, specifically in those moments when the bass drum and the snare coincide.
The best example of this concept is found on “Nite Sprite” from Chick Corea’s album The Leprechaun. Gadd’s playing in the first chorus of the sax solo contains a bass drum pattern that collides with ghost notes played on the snare. It’s a very subtle thing, and it could go unnoticed, especially when you consider the high speed of the track and how soft the ghost notes are played. But these overlapping parts are a crucial component of Gadd’s very fat sound.
Gadd utilizes this technique often in groove solos, especially during sections when he’s playing rhythms on the bass drum, snare, and cowbell. You can hear many contemporary drummers, such as Keith Carlock, Ari Hoenig, Antonio Sanchez, and Mark Guiliana, to name a few, using this overlapping approach to great effect.
The Moving Hi-Hat
Around age fifteen, I became more aware of the role of my left foot in drumming, especially in more interactive styles of music. Previously I had practiced the concept of playing something steady with the hi-hat foot, like 2 and 4, quarter notes, or 8th notes, while keeping all the other parts moving without interruption. But some drummers, such as Roy Haynes, Jack DeJohnette, and Dave Weckl, were utilizing the left foot in ways that I simply couldn’t understand.
Then one day my left foot just started moving in new ways, and I found myself producing rhythms that weren’t straight ostinatos. This was very exciting, but along with the excitement came doubt: How do I know these hi-hat variations are valid? What if I’m just playing nonsense? Luckily, there’s no hi-hat police that will fine you for breaking the rules. In my book, The New Frontier, there’s an entire section devoted to hi-hat foot ideas.
Vinnie’s Clear Clusters
If you’ve ever listened to Frank Zappa’s Joe’s Garage, you probably have a good understanding of how incredible a drummer Vinnie Colaiuta is. Although my favorite Colaiuta performance came about a decade later on fusion great Allan Holdsworth’s album Secrets, there are some aweinspiring moments on Joe’s Garage.
The song “Packard Goose” is chock full of goodies, from the impressive linear playing in the 4/4 and 9/8 intro to the subtle metric modulations in the dreamy, swingy middle section in 3/4.
About halfway through that middle section, Vinnie plays a broken fivenote grouping over the dotted quarter note, which is orchestrated to give the impression of a faster tempo. But it’s a fleeting phrase that happens in the guitar/drum solo section that really drew me in. For one measure, Vinnie settles on a RLRLL sticking, played over a dotted quarter note. The first R is a crash cymbal/bass drum unison, the first L is played on the middle tom, and the remaining three notes are played on the floor tom.
Try this orchestration on your kit. As you speed it up, the notes become very close together, but each should be articulated clearly. There are some great examples of these cluster ideas on Colaiuta’s self-titled solo record and on Secrets. I often use these concepts in musical sections where the excitement and intensity are high.
David Moss’s Linear Melodic Approach
David Moss was one of my teachers early on, and he was the first person I heard play in a linear fashion. I was blown away by the ease with which he moved from drum to drum, one at a time, striking a perfect balance between melody and rhythm, with a seemingly endless array of ideas. When I asked David how he played that way, he said he had no formula and that he simply spent time practicing playing in that fashion. In other words, if you want to be able to play in a linear style and make cohesive, melodically connected statements, you have to practice doing just that.
Pass It On…
The time that I spent writing this article and reflecting on the sounds that inspired me to be the drummer I am today has been particularly poignant and has reinforced the fact that we are part of a rich tradition in which ideas get communicated and then passed on, reworked, and thrown back into the mix. A heritage that began in time immemorial, when people used rhythm to imitate nature and get closer to the cycles of life, drumming is still one of the most organic ways to connect with the infinite possibilities of an ever-expanding, pulsating universe. Listen for the sounds that draw you in, let them bring you to your own ideas, and then put them back into the world to start the cycle all over again.
Marko Djordjevic, who was born in Belgrade, Serbia, has performed with Aaron Goldberg, Matt Garrison, Eric Lewis, Jonah Smith, and many others. He is the bandleader of Sveti and is on the faculty at the Collective in New York City. Djordjevic’s DVD, Where I Come From, and book, The New Frontier for Drumset, are available through Alfred Publishing. For more info, go to svetimarko.com.