The Tasteful Drummer’s Secret Weapon
As drummers, we spend so much time developing technique, expanding our musical vocabulary, and obsessing over the components of our drumset. All of that is important and essential for playing the instrument well. But it’s equally important to develop the ability to closely listen to the music to make appropriate, artistic choices in regards to which role the drums should play in the song—if any.
Grammy-winning producer, songwriter, and musician Dave Tozer has worked with Kanye West, John Mayer, and Justin Timberlake, and he produced John Legend’s massive hit “All of Me.” I spoke with Dave about the role that drums play in a song from a producer’s standpoint, and the effect that their absence can have. We discussed three scenarios that a drummer might encounter that emphasize the power of leaving space. These are songs with no drums, songs where the drums enter partway through, and songs with intermittent dropouts.
Songs Without Drums
There aren’t any drums in John Legend’s “All of Me.” With the song being such an iconic hit, I wondered if it was always intended to have such a sparse arrangement or if they ever tried it with a drum part. “On that particular song, it did not happen,” Tozer explains. “With certain songs, there’s a loftiness that hangs there when you don’t put percussion on it. To me, [percussion] can kind of bring it down to earth sometimes.”
This is a key point to emphasize. Although I’m assuming that almost anyone reading this article will agree that drums are super important, we have to keep in mind that they’re not always needed. The fact that “All of Me” was one of the biggest hits of 2014 demonstrates that the listening public doesn’t demand drums on every song.
Entering Later in the Arrangement
Next, Tozer and I discussed “In the Air Tonight” by Phil Collins. The drumset part in that song is a masterful display of taste, technique, and artistry, and we’re still talking about it thirty-five years after its release. Yet we don’t hear a note of live drums until almost four minutes into the track. The impact of its classic entrance fill is enhanced further because the drums have been silent for more than half of the song.
Tozer says, “That song is a great example of the weight and loftiness I was referring to on ‘All of Me,’ with those dark chords and [Roland] CR-78 drum machine before the fi ll. Everybody anticipates that part, and it’s such a big tension release when the drums come in.”
How might you incorporate the lesson of “In the Air Tonight” into your own playing? Let’s say you’re working on a new song and have a really cool fill that you’re sure will be the centerpiece of the drum part. Examine the arrangement to see if there’s another point to enter rather than right at the top. Would that fill work as your entrance into the second verse? How does it sound if you drop out at the bridge and then use the fill to explode back in to the solo section? Another classic technique is to have the drums stop playing in the third verse and then come back in for the outro choruses. Oftentimes drums sound more powerful when they seem to come out of nowhere.
Dropouts are short periods of silence within a beat or arrangement. They can be as brief as a single 8th note, or they can last a couple measures. These devices were first employed back in the early days of drum machines and sampling in the 1980s. “I was heavily influenced by hip-hop as a kid,” says Tozer. “And one of the things that style of production brought to the table is [the concept of having] the drums cut out in the middle of a verse to highlight a line.”
This production style happens naturally while creating an arrangement in a DAW on a computer screen. But Tozer applies these same techniques onstage in his role as musician and musical director. “It’s interesting, directing a band and having rhythm sections do that,” he says. “As a drummer, you’re still performing as you always would, but you’re thinking about the arrangement more like how you would hear it on a recording.”
When applying this concept to your own playing, approach the song as a producer would. Focus on the big picture, and examine the impact that removing small bits of your drum parts could have on the overall arrangement and feel. When the drums are unexpectedly silent, your ear immediately focuses on what the vocals or other instruments are playing.
Be aware that you’ll need to be extra vigilant about not rushing or dragging during the dropouts. Spend time in the practice room working on it, and record yourself to make sure the drops and entrances are sounding clean. Also, it’s a good idea to let your bandmates know when and where you’re planning to drop out. Some musicians freak out if the drummer suddenly stops playing, so avoid causing a train wreck onstage by giving everyone a heads-up beforehand.
The Sound of Silence
How you incorporate silence and space into your playing ultimately comes down to one thing: listening. When you’re creating your parts, analyze the song from top to bottom so that you understand the overall arc of the composition and the emotional impact that the drums should bring. Experiment to discover if your parts are adding value or if the song would sound stronger without them.
Your goal is to create the perfect part, whether that involves an incredibly dense performance throughout, sitting out entirely, or something that falls in the middle. “I would say that being compositionally oriented as a drummer is really a great thing to think about,” says Dave Tozer. Every song has different rhythmic needs. Just don’t forget about the emotional impact of some strategically placed silence.
Dylan Wissing appears on albums by Drake, Eminem, Kanye West, Alicia Keys, and Jay-Z, as well as commercials for AT&T, Citibank, Reebok, and Banana Republic. He’s a Modern Drummer Reader’s Poll Nominee (Studio) and lead percussion instructor at musicschoolonline.com. For more information, visit dylanwissing.com.