Time passes, and I become convinced more than ever that the diverse elements comprising the art of drumming all work together to give us drum fanatics as good a shot at happiness and fulfillment as anyone on the planet Earth. It is more rewarding, of course, if you are an adventurous type who welcomes a challenge, for every year there are so many more skills to be mastered that those who look for the drums to be an easy ride are living in the wrong half-century.
Some of the advances I refer to are dictated in part by the changes taking place in equipment today. Try picturing an average drumset from the ’60s. Picture Ringo at Shea Stadium or Dino Danelli with the Rascals. They used simple, old-style kits. Since then, the set has been in a state of flux—a continuous phase of expansion: more toms, more cymbals, and even more bass drums.
One of the few historical figures who played as extensive a set as the average rock star in concert today was the late, legendary Sonny Greer, who was Duke Ellington’s drummer for more than a quarter of a century. His set, of course, was quite different from the modern spreads, yet very competitive size-wise, employing gongs, temple blocks, bells, chimes, timpani, etc. On the other hand, I recall seeing drummers in the ’30s with really minimal equipment: bass drum, snare drum, woodblock, cowbell, one 14″ or smaller cymbal, and no hi-hat. And they managed very nicely, thank you.
If the present tom-tom and cymbal population explosion continues, the drummer will soon be walled in behind the kit and all but invisible to the audience—a hermit who should be “heard but not seen.” In future years, perhaps, a TV camera tucked under a cymbal, and connected via closed circuit to a large screen, may be a regular part of the concertizing drummer’s equipment—the only possible hedge against being a visual “unknown.”
With a setup as extensive as this, all kinds of new, or heretofore rarely used, technical ideas become more attractive. For example, patterns on one or more drums, cymbals, rims, etc., may be played with one-handed single strokes, by holding the stick in the middle. A high cymbal, or even a high suspended drum, may be played on the backswing, with the forward motion of the arm combined with the downswing to strike some other part of the set. Then there’s the four-mallet keyboard technique adapted to the drums and called Quadragrip by the innovator, Michael Welch. (Think of a roll as performed on a triangle, in a corner between two sides, or around all three sides in a circular motion. Then try to picture the possibilities as applied to drum or percussion instrument design.)
There is a trend in rhythm drumming towards the use of either hand to lead. This ambidexterity makes sense in any case, and even more if you consider the distance involved on the expanded set. One thinks of it primarily as it is practiced by Billy Cobham, Lenny White, and others in rock and fusion, but it can also be an eye-opener in latter-day bebop. A scant few years back, Phil Wood’s European Rhythm Machine was sparked by French drummer Daniel Humair, who plays ride cymbal and all the attendant independence equally well with either hand.
Reaching to cover greater distances between drums may pose physical problems to someone not in the best of condition. A vast difference exists between the motor skills involved in a bravura performance on one of these modern drumsets and the considerably less violent techniques of any other instrument, including the rest of the percussion family. In fact, one might legitimately think of it as a distinctively different, more athletic, discipline, perhaps closer to gymnastics. How far should one go as a strength and health devotee? The “sacred brotherhood of musicians” is not especially celebrated for the monastic life. As already noted, it may be that string, keyboard or horn players can get away with having their strength somewhat impaired. Being a powerhouse percussionist has proved, over the last few years, to be a real tester. There is a Japanese troupe, On deko Za, that does occasional concert tours in this country. They are drummers who play many styles of tom-tom-like drums—from modest size to really huge—in the most physical manner imaginable. They have very tight discipline, are heavily involved in running, and practice a Spar tan life of general fitness.
Generations of drummers have developed somewhat rigid laws on the manner in which each of the four limbs is supposed to be used. Now, a new era is dawning. All manner of innovators are busily breaking the bonds of the old jazz and rock traditions that dictated what, and on what, to play. The larger and more modern sets contribute to the changing techniques. As we assimilate a whole new arsenal of skills (matched grip, rock or jazz ride with either hand, “full set” rhythm patterns, etc.), the really ambitious and future oriented among us should anticipate and prepare for the next stages. We should be building facility and firm control interchangeably between the hands and feet, with as many of the myriad combinations as may be practical. With all the four-way goodies that are there, like ripe cherries ready for the plucking, one can’t help feeling like a spoilsport in pointing out that even the most avid lifetime student can’t achieve more than a handful of these in a career. Too many absorbing, unexplored areas exist; it’s hard to know where to start.
I have been very ambitious myself in some directions; in others I missed the boat. I have always recognized that the drummers with a background of tap dancing had, on the average, far better feet than we earthbound creatures. Until recently, I thought that all there was to it was just better pedal control. I now believe that the correlation between dance and drumming is far deeper than that. It has to do with balance on the seat, weight distribution, and the use of gestures similar to the dance, to smoothly achieve the shift of position necessary for power and control at various angles. To improve all these, a broad program of dance movement could not help but be useful to the drummer. What is most dance? It’s moving to music. What is most drumming? It’s moving and hitting to make music. Dance, or other physical development techniques, can all be beneficial. For example, you might choose to try tap dancing (for the ankles), ballet or modern dance (for balance), weight lifting (for strength), running (for endurance), or karate or other martial arts (for quickness and intensity). You would not be alone; quite a few top players practice one or more of these disciplines.
It would be wise to remember, as you are fabricating your gigantic technique, not to go completely overboard. There are many less dramatic aspects to drumming, and most of these are more demanding of taste and musicianship than of swiftness and power. I’ve known quite a few really heavy-chops players, who could turn anyone green with envy with their solos, but who never quite made it in ensembles. Their problem, or at least part of it, was that they had practiced too much by themselves. They had not been sufficiently involved in the fascinating give-and-take between the percussion and other instruments that makes the performing of music on the drums such an ongoing thrill.
Some of the most revered players in history were very ordinary technicians, and some could hardly execute at all, in the scholastic, rudimental sense. What they re ally could do, sometimes to a magical degree, was to relate to the musical situation at hand, and not only support and nurture the rhythm structure, but comment with their instrument in a unique and individually identifiable manner. They had found a far more effective means of making themselves indispensable than merely becoming Olympic drum athletes.