Where’s the Art?

Thoughts on the Current State of Affairs

I thought I would throw myself right into the fire for the New
Year with a heated topic. I’ve experienced a lot of discussion regarding the artistry in music and drumming in recent years. I think every generation goes through a “What is happening with music”? phase. But in the past decade or so, we’ve seen an almost unprecedented decline in artistry in popular music.

I’m defining artistry as the effective use of the four key elements of music: rhythm, harmony, melody, and, often, lyrics. We’ve been hearing music that’s lacking in several of these components. Some of the most popular songs today are literally void of harmony, with minimal to no chord changes. Also, the lyrics are questionable, leaning toward the remedial and profane. Rhythmically—our main concern—we hear mostly machines looping four-on-the-floor house/disco-style beats with little syncopation. I’ve gone to see friends, who are great drummers, on tour, where they’re barely audible in the front-of-house mix, overshadowed by backing tracks playing the core drum parts. The live drummer is there merely to add to the spectacle of the show.

The entertainment aspect of the business is nothing new, but it seems to have taken over the music scene. We can’t fix the entire industry, but we are responsible for our contribution: the drumming and rhythmic foundation. I can remember only one other time where machines all but devastated the role of the drummer, and that was the mid-1980s. Back then, machines were brand new, and anything that’s new will often get overused and misused.

Drummers responded to the machines by creating sample-like tones on the kit (like Terry Bozzio’s stacked cymbals) and by utilizing electronic drums (the original Simmons kits). Players worked on their timekeeping to compete with the now perfectly quantized parts played by the machines. Drummers were forced to step it up in terms of playing.

This brings me to my main point for this column: It seems that the drumming world has rebelled from the challenges in the current music scene. I hear more music being performed with machines then ever, such as in the current burst of EDM (electronic dance music), yet I see fewer drummers using electronic gear. Also, it seems that more and more drummers are concerned with honing skills that have very little, if nothing at all, to do with the current developments in music. It’s as if drummers have decided, “Whatever. I’m just going to practice cool drum stuff and have fun playing, because there’s so little opportunity to play music nowadays.”

So, our dilemma: Do we rise up and compete with what’s current and expected in the music business? Or do we widen this divide between popular drumming and what’s required in popular music? Many drummers seem to be more concerned with playing a cool solo on YouTube than getting a gig and doing records, sessions, and tours. I’m sure music hasn’t leaned in this current direction because of a lack of artistic contributions by drummers. It’s most likely due to technology enabling people with a lack of musical depth to be involved in the scene. But the outcome is still less opportunity for drummers. Do we take off in another direction?

I recently had a phone conversation with the great jazz drummer (and originator of this column) Roy Burns. He said, “Drummers spend 95 percent of their time working on things they use 5 percent of the time.” This couldn’t be truer than it is right now. I see drummers every day who can play amazing chops around the toms, blaze double bass licks, and spin their sticks like magicians. Yet these players can’t play a solid, nice-feeling beat. Or they can’t play with brushes, play quietly, be effective in several genres, compose a musical solo, or swing. These are the fundamental skills of our job, but it seems that many of us have begun to lose sight of what we’re trying to do.

I’ve never met a drummer who, when asked why he or she started playing drums, answered, “Because I would love to get a lot of hits on YouTube.” They all say they want to play in a band, do records and tours, and so on. Yet these same players don’t spend even 20 percent of their time working on learning grooves, playing with a click track, building effective dynamics, developing a strong pulse, getting their electronic tones together, or dealing with the other key ingredients to achieving a successful musical career.

I love all of the “drummy” stuff, but if you look back at the lineage of our instrument, you’ll see a much different approach. Papa Jo Jones was an excellent showman! Watch some clips. He had great crossovers (he used a second floor tom to the left of the hi-hat), and he did a lot of stick flips and twirls. But he was also one of the pioneers of swing, a top brush player, and a star with the biggest musical acts of the day. He was a flat-out amazing musician. Buddy Rich was a great showman as well, yet he’s arguably one of the best musicians and surely the top drummer in history. Later on, Keith Moon was a visual spectacle, but he was also a fantastic rock drummer. He played great parts with the Who and was one of the originators of busy yet musical drumming. The ’80s had players like Tommy Aldridge, who’s a wonderful soloist and stick-twirl master. He also has a deep pocket and played on some of the biggest rock recordings, with artists like Ozzy Osbourne and Whitesnake.

I could go on and on about amazing musicians who were also great drummers. We need to make sure that we bake our cake before we put the icing on top. So the real questions for today’s “karaoke band” situation are: Did the artist show up with all this stuff programmed and tell the drummer, “Just play under the tracks”? Or did the drummer play too much, so the artist resorted to using loops to stabilize the rhythmic foundation of the songs? This may have happened during the production of the record. Artists might say, “Let’s just program it,” because they either don’t have the musical depth to understand why they’d want to use a great drummer on the track or they don’t think live drums can provide the tones they want.

It’s our job to educate the world that the drummer can do these things. Maybe it’s about having a great-sounding and effective electronics rig that can compete with what those
guys are programming. Of course, it’s definitely about showing people that a good live drummer’s groove is far superior to that of the machines.

This puts a spotlight on the fundamentals of the drummer’s role. Do you have the right sounds for the music? Are you up to date in terms of gear? Are you a dominating presence when it comes to playing in the pocket, so that the artist wouldn’t think about programming the drums on the record? I’m as guilty as anybody of missing the mark at different times in my life. I love drums, and they are my life’s work. And I love seeing amazing facility on the instrument—it’s inspiring. But we need to make sure that we’re covering the core requirements of what drums need to do in music. If we don’t, we don’t work. And we have nobody to blame but ourselves.

Find out what you’re missing. Don’t be the guy who can play double kick flurries at 300 bpm but can’t play a solid shuffle beat. If you’re in a very distinctive band situation that demands only a certain thing, fine—provide that at its highest level. If not, you need to be a well-rounded musician with the tools to play a lot of things with a lot of different people.

There’s a quote by the poet/philosopher Khalil Gibran that makes it clear. To paraphrase, “Art begins where the obvious stops.” Everybody can see that playing drums really fast or flashy is cool. When you turn drumming into a sporting event, it’s easier to compare players. But very little of that leads to doing what most of us want to do, which is to play great music.

The artistry of our craft lies in what’s not so obvious. When moments happen that feature the drums because that’s demanded by the music, it’s much more effective. Look at the classic drum parts that have affected you through the years. I’m willing to bet that the ones that really mean the most to you came from hearing them as a part of some awesome music that you love.

To sum up, don’t count on the obvious things to draw attention to yourself. The art begins where the obvious ends.

Russ Miller