Back in the May, 1982 issue of MD, I wrote a column entitled “Questions, Questions, Questions, And A Few Answers.” That column had to do with the many questions that young drummers ask themselves and others. Over the years since then, I’ve traveled quite a bit, doing clinics and meeting drummers. I find that there are young drummers today asking some of the same questions, as well as some new ones. So I thought it was about time to address a few of those questions.
First, let me say that I don’t find it at all surprising that today’s young drummers have lots of questions, even given the amount of drumming information that is readily available. As a matter of fact, it seems quite natural when you consider the conflicting attitudes among professional drummers and teachers, and the conflicting statements they often make.
A prime example is the seemingly eternal question: “Why do some teachers recommend practicing the rudiments, while other teachers and pros say they are a waste of time?” For me, the answer is easy: Rudiments in themselves are neither good nor bad; it’s all in how you use them. Rudiments are sticking patterns and combinations of single and double strokes, and are the drumming equivalent of scales on a trumpet or guitar. Like scales, they can be good to practice for control, but they are not meant to be a substitute for ideas. I would suggest that a young drummer practice a variety of sticking patterns—not just the rudimental ones.
“Do drums ever get wood fatigue?” The person who asked this one felt that his old snare drum just did not sound like it did when he got it. I explained that I had never heard of “wood fatigue.” In the case of guitars, aged wood is considered desirable. Some of the old Slingerland solid-maple shell snare drums are highly prized, and usually sell for more than a new snare drum. I eventually suggested that the drum probably just needed new heads, new snares, and perhaps an adjustment of the snare strainer. I recommended a drum shop in the area that specialized in repairs and reconditioning.
Here is another seemingly eternal question: “Some drummers say that technique is a bad thing and that you don’t really need it to play well. Is this true?” Well, first of all, I would want to define “tech nique” to make sure that we are talking about the same thing. To me, technique means control. It does not mean thrashing the drumset as loudly and as fast as humanly possible. However, it takes control just to play good, simple time. It takes control to play rhythmic figures in tempo and with a good feeling. Technique, like the rudiments, is good or bad depending upon how it is used. For example, I’ve seen and heard drummers who can play fast, but who have difficulty playing in tempo. Speed alone doesn’t really equate with technique. It is better to play slower, with good time and under control. Remember, it takes some technique to play even the most simple patterns musically.
At first, I thought this next question was a joke. A young drummer explained that he had purchased a machine-hammered Sabian cymbal. He had read in Modern Drummer that Sabian also makes a line of fine hand-hammered cymbals. He decided to improve his machine-hammered cymbal by “hand hammering” it himself. After a few solid whacks, he had managed to produce a number of deep cracks in the cymbal. His question was: “Is the cymbal guaranteed?” I replied, “Not anymore!” After all, no product can be guaranteed against abuse, even if it is done innocently due to lack of information or a misunderstanding. Believe me, this was no joke, because he showed me what was left of his cymbal after the clinic. If you are not sure about a product, write the manufacturer (or Modern Drummer) before making “improvements” or repairs. It will save you money and agony in the long run.
The following question comes up a lot: “Do you tune your drums to definite notes?” The answer is that it is virtually impossible to get a true pitch from a drum that has two heads on it. On a single-headed drum, it is easier to get an actual pitch, especially if the drum is played near the edge (such as on a timpani). However, with the various drumheads that are used (two-ply, center dot, etc.) plus the muffling that most players use, a definite pitch is not possible. High, medium, and low (depending upon the size of the drum) seems to be the best that can be achieved. When a number of drums are tuned so that they have some contrast from one drum to the next, it is possible to “suggest” or “approximate” melodic ideas. Joe Morello’s famous recording of “Shortenin’ Bread” with Dave Brubeck is a great example of suggesting a melody line on the drumset.
This question seems to be another one that just won’t go away: “Can you play a one-handed roll?” My answer is no, and I have never seen anyone else play one either. However, it is possible to create the illusion of a one-handed roll. The most often-used pattern to create this effect is as follows:
If the right hand moves about the set from drum to cymbal, reinforced with the bass drum, it will seem as if the left hand is playing a roll. Many good players use patterns like this one. The effect is quite a good one for soloing.
A young drummer asked me the following question at a clinic in Europe: “Could you please demonstrate some reggae beats?” I replied, “No, I can’t. Although I do listen to reggae music, I’ve never had the opportunity to play it. So, rather than fake it, I’ll have to pass. Sorry!” After the clinic, the young drummer and his friend came up to me and said, “We loved your answer on reggae. It was really honest.” I said that I appreciated their comment and that it had seemed to be the only way to respond at the time. We also chatted about the fact that no one drummer plays everything. The beauty of music and drumming is that there are so many different ways to play and that all of them are valid. This probably contributes to the situation regarding conflicting attitudes among teachers and pros, and the resulting confusion on the part of young drummers.
Music is so vast that there is room for everyone. Certain styles of music require specialized techniques and approaches. A symphonic snare drum technique won’t prepare you to play timbales in a Latin band or a double-bass setup in a heavy metal group. Each situation requires a certain amount of technique, experience, and understanding. With this in mind, all questions are good ones—even if, at first, they seem funny or naive. A sincere question always merits a sincere answer. A sincere question is special to the person asking it.
One of the reasons that Modern Drummer is so successful is that it is a forum for questions to be asked and answered, even if the answers sometimes seem to conflict. In my opinion, sometimes it is better to know which questions to ask than it is to know the answers. If you keep asking questions, you will learn. So if you have a question, ask it, even if it doesn’t seem like a great question. Go to clinics, write Modern Drummer, and keep asking questions! Every now and then, you will get a really good answer.