The World’s Greatest Drummer—And Other Hang-Ups

by Roy Burns

I’ve been asked many times, while presenting clinics, “Who is the world’s greatest drummer?” I usually respond by asking, “What style? Big band, rock, studio, funk, dixieland, latin, symphonic, rudimental, fusion, all-around percussion?” There are many ways to play, many kinds of music and many great players. No one player has it all covered.
If you ask ten top professionals “who is the world’s greatest drummer?”, you just might get less than ten answers because some pros I know would not answer what they consider to be a stupid question. Or, each pro might name ten drummers that he really respects musically. This last answer would more than likely be the most honest and it is the one I personally prefer.
I’ve talked with quite a few young drummers who say their goal is to become “the world’s greatest drummer”. Some people encourage this idea to become number one as though drumming was some sort of athletic event. Well-meaning parents and an occasional drum teacher will tell the student “you can be the greatest if you work hard enough.” Maybe…maybe not!
This “world’s greatest” thing can be a real hang up for many young drummers. It encourages self brutalizing and unrealistic practice schedules. I met one young guy who was attempting to train himself to sleep four hours a night so that he could have more time to practice. This is what I call overdoing it.
Some young drummers think if they practice twice as hard and long as anyone else they will automatically be the best. Again, maybe . . . maybe not!
Hours and hours of repetitious patterns played over and over in an effort to play louder and faster than anyone else alive doesn’t always produce great results. In fact, this sort of over practicing often results in a tense, over rehearsed and insensitive young drummer. In an attempt to be super impressive, this type of young drummer usually rushes drum breaks, loses the tempo and wonders why other musicians don’t want to play with him.
I’ve met young drummers with blisters and sores on their hands that were the result of practicing with extremely heavy sticks. In some instances they were using heavy metal sticks. I’ve never been a believer in metal drumsticks and from what I’ve seen, they do more harm than good, especially when used in a relentless, hard practice routine. Practicing with very heavy drumsticks will not help you play faster.
Another scary thing about metal drumsticks is the possibility of developing a bone-bruise. This is very painful and can take months to heal. Treat your hands with respect. A slightly heavier stick for practicing is fine, but don’t overdo it. Punishing your body will not make you a better musician. Developing control in cooperation with your body will help to produce a more musical sound and feel, no matter what style you play.
A balanced approach to practicing is always rewarding. Consistent practice over a long period of time yields the best results. Practicing hard can be valuable, but only if it is combined with good information. Effective, productive practicing in a relaxed manner is usually the most natural way to learn. Forcing yourself to continue to practice after you’re exhausted won’t help much. Practicing with intelligence as well as energy will bring about real improvement.
Another problem that arises partly because of the “world’s greatest” mentality is one of “attitude”. If a person really believes he is, or is about to be the greatest, he quickly becomes an unteachable. He feels he knows it all. He is critical of other drummers and acts in a superior and conceited manner.
This type of personality may also have an idol, someone he feels is great. He may imitate his idol’s style of playing, his manner of dress and speech. This type of acting is usually not much fun to be around. It gets old very quickly.
This same person may become overly competitive. He feels he has to outplay every other drummer in order to prove how great he is. The problem here is one of attention. Instead of concentrating on accompanying the other players, he may be thinking about the drum solo he is going to play later on in the set. Usually the tempo and feel suffer because mentally the drummer is somewhere else.
Young drummers also spend hours criticizing name drummers while defending their particular favorite. This is a waste of time. Each person leaves the argument with the same favorite drummer he started with.
It would be more productive to analyze what famous drummers do that makes them successful. In this way he can really learn from them, and respect them for what they do best.
A balanced approach to your career goals is always more productive than, “I’m the greatest”. The best goal is to be the very best you can be. Study, listen, talk with other drummers, play as much as possible and practice consistently. Let all of your energy go into learning music as well as drumming.
Keep an open mind. Avoid weird theories, and learn from everyone. An open mind is a balanced mind.
If you really do your best, you’ve done all you can. And if you become a great player others will hear it. If you don’t become so great, at least you’ll know you gave it all you had. If you do that, you will be the world’s greatest you!