Eleven of today’s most forward-looking players ponder how drumming will evolve as we hurtle ever deeper into the twenty-first century.
In its hundred-year history, the drumset has been adorned by temple blocks, timpani, and bass drum heads with nature scenes painted on them. The introduction of the hi-hat, Rototoms, Octobans—and bass drums with no front heads at all—reflected and nudged forward the musical obsessions of the day, and eventually entire drumsets would spin in the air, be aided by powerful electronics, and explode in size with additional bass drums, toms, and snare drums and enough cymbals to equip a large marching band.
Drumming vocabulary has expanded to an even larger degree. From the New Orleans pulse of Paul Barbarin, Baby Dodds, and Zutty Singleton to the big band majesty of Jo Jones and Gene Krupa, drumming became faster and louder, swung harder, and grooved with greater might. The gods of technique arrived in the hands of Buddy Rich, Elvin Jones, and Tony Williams, equaled by magicians of subtlety such as Max Roach, Mel Lewis, Shelly Manne, Roy Haynes, and Jon Christensen. The big band drummers influenced classic-rock legends like John Bonham and Mitch Mitchell, who in turn fired the manic imagination of metal firebrands like Dave Lombardo and Danny Carey, who subsequently pushed modern maestros like Travis Orbin and Matt Halpern yet further. Fusion kings Vinnie Colaiuta and Dennis Chambers inspired legions of hip-hop drummers, while the hip-hop programming of J Dilla influenced everyone.
So what of drumming’s future? What will happen when computers become even further integrated into our daily lives and playing routines? How will such buzz phrases as “the Internet of Things” and “Industry 4.0” change the way drummers interact with their environment? A basic understanding of electronic instruments, which is already a required part of a working drummer’s vocabulary, will surely become more ingrained in our skill sets. Or will some as yet unknown drummer or technology alter the game entirely?
We posed these questions and more to eleven drummers with their fingers firmly on the pulse of today’s music. Here’s what they had to say.
“The pace at which technology is developing now is exponential,” says Jojo Mayer, drummer/co-leader of the live electronica band Nerve, which has recently released its third studio album, Ghosts of Tomorrow. “We’ve never dealt with that before. The future will be less.
“The nature of Western drumming as a whole, it’s a huge universe, but in terms of vocabulary we are limping thousands of years behind the Indians and what they already understand. Western drumming is really young. How people perceive Indian rhythms is more refined; it’s a higher resolution.
“I also think drumming will return closer to its roots,” Mayer goes on. “I don’t think physical drumming will disappear completely, because it’s fun. But as far as people who understand this refinement of drumming vocabulary, their gear will become simple again. We will create more vocabulary on less gear.
“When you look at the development of culture in inner cities, there’s less physical space to drum without disturbing people. Kids begin playing drums now on electronic kits, but electronic drums don’t communicate in the same way. We still rely on MIDI, an outdated protocol. There will have to be an open-source platform for electronic drums, which is not being supplied by the usual subjects for obvious reasons—because you cannot exploit that economically.
“We live in a time when people don’t create, they curate. People curate sounds and styles—they like things, but they don’t make things. We recycle and microwave the twentieth century to death. But for drummers, once we have open-source protocol for electronic drums, that will be a game-changer. When we have electronic drums that are intuitive and can be built to our personal specifications, they will become tools for creative artists. That will open the door to the future.”
“Drumset has been a defining commonality of popular music since before I was born,” says Robert DeLong, a drummer/frontman whose music incorporates elements of electro, alt-rock, and pop, and whose sophomore album, In the Cards, was released last September. “But a live drummer is now someone who plays to tracks, who has an SPD-SX where their rack tom would be, and whose drum sounds never appear on the recording. Yet the sound set of kick, snare, cymbals, and toms persists, stronger than ever, and so drumset lives on, evolved.”
“The creative process for drummers is opening up with the ease of technology,” Stella Mozgawa of the alternative groove band Warpaint says. “A lot of popular music is sample based, and understanding that is part of the skill set for drummers. But technology is changing all the time. With Native Instruments’ Mouth, for example, you can sing into a computer and it will translate it into MIDI, which can be changed into a drum-machine pattern or a melody or a synth pattern. With technology, drummers can just play the drumkit, or they can play the kit and transpose those ideas into different textures. It opens up different parts of the drummer’s brain.
“The most exciting technology I’ve seen do this is Sunhouse’s Sensory Percussion,” Mozgawa adds. “Triggers have been around for decades, but Sunhouse is using triggers with seven or eight different possibilities, as opposed to the basics. That allows drummers to have the capacity to influence the music so much more than when they were only playing the kit or a sample pad. Sensory Percussion triggers samples and uses the actual drumkit. It will enable drummers to start marrying the two in a really successful and creative way. Then drummers will have control over a larger part of the music that’s being produced.
“There are a lot of purists in the drumming world who have shied away from electronics, because there are certain feels you can’t get unless you’re actually playing the drums. This kind of technology, where the electronics are incorporated into the drumset and are so sensitive in the moment, might bridge the gap between the drumset purists and the people who program drums. It will be a catalyst for more technologies to incorporate human touch and human feel and ideas. If drummers can invite the positive elements of technology, there can be a healthy collaboration between technology and the mind of a drummer—together they can make something that can’t be replicated.”
“The future of drumming is going to be changed by technology,” Matt Garstka of the contemporary metal band Animals of Leaders says. “The Internet has already had a huge impact on the drumming community and everyone’s access to information.
“But it’s a double-edged sword. For example, when the gospel-chops scene began, it helped drummers to better themselves and push the boundaries. But you lost some musicality in the mass population. There’s always a dual effect.
“Generally, there will be more people who use technology. It’s already happening—drummers are programming ideas that they can’t play, or they’ll audition an idea using technology before they learn it.
“As far as my style of drumming in the jazz-metal scene, it’s more typical for people to use technology to program an idea than to play it. In the future, I hope people use technology more as a learning tool than as a writing tool—a vehicle to help you learn 11/16 or 15/16 or other difficult time signatures. You can program those over a quarter note.
“The drumming community overall is growing. As you do now, you’ll see drummers playing to videos online who don’t think of quality control. But the drummers who are willing to put in the extra time and research are going to find greater inspiration and information. Those people are going to be the future of drumming. Those people will excel.”
“I believe the greatest evolution in drumming will appear not in the art itself but in the way we consume it,” suggests Meytal Cohen, whose career was built on her widely viewed drum-cover videos and who is currently promoting Alchemy, the debut album by her hard-rock band, Meytal. “New media has transformed the way in which we are now able to learn new techniques as well as showcase them for the entire world to see.”
When asked to name a specific player he thinks is pushing the art of drumming forward, Mark Guiliana, whose Jazz Quartet recently released its debut album, Family First, chuckles and says, “The first person who comes to mind is Tony Williams. Tony’s so timeless. I keep returning to those records. And they’re still just impossible. The second would be Aphex Twin, who technically is not a drummer. But his programming has influenced me in such a profound way—dare I say it, almost as profound as somebody like Tony. He’s truly at the forefront of developing a new language that people are trying to emulate, but it’s coming from a non-drummer perspective. And one of my biggest modern-day heroes is Jim Black. I first became aware of him when I was in college and I started going to all of his gigs. He kind of blew me away, and still does.”
“The music industry as a business model has been changing rapidly over the past ten years,” says longtime Shakira drummer Brendan Buckley, who has also recently performed with pop singer Daniel Powter, Brazilian singer Roberto Carlos, contemporary country singer-songwriter Shelby Lynne, Asian pop star Leehom Wang, R&B producer Dallas Austin, and Singaporean pop star JJ Lin, among others. “It kept ramping up, but since 2000 the whole business has been shrinking. Studios go out of business, because not everyone is recording albums in big, fancy studios. Tours are shorter—people go out for three months instead of two years and hit the major cities. Instead of recording an album over two weeks they do it in two days. Instead of recording in a studio, you’re in a glorified garage. Everywhere, from top to bottom, everything is switching and shrinking.
“I don’t think it’s a sinking ship, though,” Buckley continues. “I think of it as evolving. So making money as a drummer is getting more difficult. You have to hustle. You have to negotiate. If you have your hourly rate, people are always asking you to give them the ‘bro discount.’
“In my position I feel that I don’t have to make myself more attractive. In L.A. I’m surrounded by fantastic drummers who have great time; they can all tour, they can all record. You’re not trying to be better than your friend; you’re trying to be good at what you do. If you’re the right guy for a project, maybe your style or touch or signature is what they want. Perhaps you’ll get the job. If you have a generous circle, everyone helps each other.
“An upcoming drummer will need to have his or her playing together, which sounds simple, but it’s a lifetime of work. A good Facebook page is important, but can you play your drums well enough to be paid? Can you groove and understand arrangements? Can you give options? Are you on time? Can you memorize two hours’ worth of music without messing up? Can an artist take you on the road for six months without you getting arrested? These are simple concepts, but this is what all drummers have to focus on if they want to work now or in the future.”
“I’ve noticed this resurgence in ’70s-style dance grooves,” says Tyler Ritter of Moon Taxi, a popular Nashville-based band that recently released its third studio album, Daybreaker. “But I love how some groups are fusing those feels with more contemporary electronic sounds. I really like that approach; it’s an interesting mix of the classic and contemporary. In the long run, it’s all about making people dance.”
Drummer/leader Evan Stone, whose poetic, political, and funk-laced Translucent Ham Sandwich Band released its debut album, Music From the Future, last year, tells Modern Drummer that, indeed, the future of drumming is a subject he thinks about a lot. “I believe that as the future unfolds,” he says, “the art of drumming within music—both popular and otherwise—will begin to see a variety of more complex ideas coming from the drum chair, which may include elements of metric modulation, odd time signatures, and over-the-barline ideas that the general population will come to accept, comprehend, and feel in a more natural and organic way. A raising of the intelligentsia bar, so to speak!
“After studying the progress of drumming and drummers over the last ninety years,” Stone goes on, “we can see that each new generation developed a better sense of ‘metronomic pulse/time,’ which doesn’t necessarily reflect a more organic, ‘feel’ sense of time. The future will hopefully provide us with more ‘feeling’ drummers and fewer ‘thinking’ drummers.
“We as a drumming community must remember that every genre of music and its prospective ‘feels’ within those contexts is founded upon the principle of the drumbeat and the varying syncopations within those beats. This is what determines ‘feel.’
“Drumming is the most primal of all instruments, and the organic experience of music and its beat must remain entrenched within it, as I believe that society as a whole would have a difficult time adjusting entirely to the removal of the human element in rhythm.
“Although I do not believe that artistic drummers/musicians are a dying breed, I do think there is a danger in having the future of recorded popular music dictated by machines, only to be mimicked and reenacted by a live musician.”
“With all the advances in technology and changing musical styles,” says Tim Kuhl, who plays in Sean Lennon’s psychedelic pop band Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger and who recently released the tablet-generated LP 1982, “the role and the future of the drummer remain the same: Make those around you sound better.”
“I think in the future drummers will need to be self-reliant,” says Camille Gainer-Jones, who’s performed and recorded with Roy Ayers, Roberta Flack, Heavy D, Christian McBride, Cyndi Lauper, and the Dream Logic, and who is out supporting her solo album, A Girl From Queens. “They should have their own bands and be able to write and produce, along with some marketing skills. Embrace all technology, from reading music to programming to playing other styles. Being flexible and open is how I see the future of drumming.”
Interviews with Matt Garstka, Stella Mozgawa, Jojo Mayer, and Brendan Buckley conducted by Ken Micallef; interview with Mark Guiliana by Jeff Potter.