This month we focus on the fourth part of our CRASH concept for success. For those of you who have not been following this series, CRASH is an acronym that stands for “commitment, relationships, attitude, skill, and hunger.” These are five global concepts that anyone from any walk of life can use to attract success.
In the short time the drumset has been around—roughly a hundred years—the skill set required to play at a competitive level has continued to increase at a rapid rate. With each passing year, new standards for speed, power, and creativity are set, yet the majority of the drumming game can be boiled down to several big-picture concepts. We’ll address those concepts here.
TECHNIQUE, TOUCH, AND TONE
Great drummers know that you have to learn proper technique so you can develop a quality sound on the instrument. Tone is achieved through the use of proper technique. Learning the techniques that are grounded in rudimental and symphonic drumming styles can lead to creating an excellent sound on the instrument, which is a musical attribute that separates amateur drummers from true professionals.
Ask yourself the following questions. Do you draw the sound out of the instrument and make it sing? Are you at one with your instrument? Is your drumset an extension of your personality and a vehicle for your creative voice? These are things that are developed from countless hours of repetitive practice alone in a practice room and then applied by playing music with other musicians.
TIME, FEEL, AND GROOVE
Ultimately the drummer’s role in a band is to keep time—and to keep the time honest. Although every great musician knows that all members of a band are responsible for creating a solid time feel, a larger part of the responsibility falls on the drummer’s shoulders.
In its simplest form, time can be divided into two categories: perfect and human. Perfect time can be achieved by playing in sync with an inhuman electronic source like a metronome, drum machine, or computer. Human time can flow in a truly emotional and intuitive way. Like the ebb and flow of the ocean’s tide, human time can push and pull in spots in the music. An example of these human tendencies would be pushing the time forward during choruses and laying back in verses. Perfect time doesn’t necessarily always feel good, and human time can sometimes be too human. So our challenge is to play great time but also make it swing, rock, and groove.
The art of grooving and making time feel great is a skill that comes from studying the great drummers that have come before us and emulating their feel. You can fine-tune this ability by playing constantly with great musicians that hold you accountable for the groove. How do you know if things are grooving? Watch for a packed dance floor, bobbing heads, fists pumping in the air, smiling bandmates, and increased record sales!
COORDINATION AND COLORS
One of the first steps in learning to play the drumset is handling four-way coordination. The initial learning curve can be fierce. (It was for me!) Even if we learn to play just one simple beat, we can continually change the feel, lope, and character of the groove by playing subtle rhythmic variations with each limb. Master simple grooves with many variations and you will be well on the path to a creative and fulfilling musical career.
Since the drumset is a collection of non-pitched sound sources, the drummer has to look for interesting ways to alter its sonic characteristics. You can affect the sound and mood of the music by playing with brushes made of metal or plastic or with dowel bundles of different thicknesses, by using riveted cymbals, by swapping the type of bass drum beater (wood, plastic, or wool), and by employing various muffling devices (such as tape, Moongel, or notebook paper). You want to paint sonic pictures, so it’s crucial to have a full palette of creative ideas and sounds.
PERSONALITY AND PEOPLE SKILLS
No other instrument is as direct an expression of the player’s personality as the drums. Play your personality on the drums and watch like-minded people find their way into your life. They will seek you out. Remember the old phrase “Birds of a feather flock together”? It’s true! Don’t hold back. Let your personality soar on your instrument, and your soul will resonate and affect people in meaningful ways.
Don’t forget to also focus your attention on people skills. Music is a group art form, so try to perfect your bedside manner. I’m always pleasantly surprised to meet a doctor who takes time to ask about my lifestyle, diet, stress level, and overall mood, and likewise I’m always disappointed when a doctor barely looks me in the eye and quickly writes a prescription for some drug he’s peddling. If you’re easy to get along with and possess a team-player mentality, you will be playing a lot of drums with a lot of people.
Knowing how to take direction from bandleaders, artists, and producers is vitally important as well. Don’t take suggestions and criticisms personally. Have a servant attitude, and give, give, give! If a client asks me to play 16th notes on the hi-hat during a recording session, I play 16th notes with a smile on my face. Taking direction and criticism without being offended or becoming angry is a great skill, and it’s one that will make people remember you and recommend you to their friends. Ask yourself: Am I easy to work with? If there’s hesitation before you answer, then you may have to work on that bedside manner.
RUDIMENTS AND READING
Understanding rhythmic values is essential for mastering any instrument. Rudiments are the anatomy of drumming. Singles, doubles, flams, ruffs, and other rudiments can be combined endlessly to express creative music.
My ability to read rhythms has saved my career countless times. On many occasions, after losing a drummer, an artist or band has asked me to leave for a tour the night before a run, without a rehearsal. I’ve filled in with opening acts after the drummer gets injured or leaves the tour for a family emergency. If I didn’t have the ability to listen to a record and scribble out cheat charts with important rhythmic figures and phrases notated, there would be no way for me to help in those situations. By being able to read and write music, I developed a reputation as a go-to guy who can fill in for bands with little to no rehearsal and make it sound like a finely tuned machine. I firmly believe that reading music is the single greatest thing you can do to improve your chances for sustainable success in the music business.
The best way to learn to read music is to get together with a qualified teacher. A great place to start is to work from Ted Reed’s classic book, Progressive Steps to Syncopation for the Modern Drummer. There are also countless books on the subject of reading different types of charts. Great drummers can interpret any chart, or make their own chart, on the spot.
CLICKS AND LOOPS
The ability to play tightly with a click track and loops is an imperative skill for working in today’s environment. In fact, it’s an expectation. Church gigs, wedding bands, Top 40 acts, tribute bands, gigs on cruise ships, and headlining touring groups all incorporate clicks, loops, and backing tracks these days. You can develop your comfort level by practicing daily with drum machines or loop programs like Reason, Ableton Live, and Stylus RMX, or by purchasing affordable and fun play-along packages like DrumFun’s Turn It Up and Lay It Down series. The more you play with clicks and loops, the more comfortable you will become. If your band is planning on playing with clicks, loops, or tracks at a live show, be sure to practice with those sources for a long time at rehearsals so that everyone gets comfortable. The live stage isn’t a place to take chances. Prepare in advance.
An understanding of many musical styles can make a big difference in getting (and keeping) gigs. It can also help set you apart from other drummers. Over the years I’ve researched rock ’n’ roll, roots music, New Orleans secondline, Latin and Caribbean rhythms, and many other styles. I’ve played polka, cumbia, big band, small-group jazz, classical, experimental music, old country and western, Nigerian Afropop, reggae, and so on. I’ve played the Grand Ole Opry with Pam Tillis and Vince Gill and with the country rocker Jason Aldean. If you understand the common elements that tie these various styles together, you can more easily jump between them. You never know when you may be asked to shift between styles on a recording session or a Vegas-style variety show. Embrace the wide variety of cultures and musical styles the world has to offer, and don’t paint yourself into a stylistic corner.
Success can also be defined as when preparation meets opportunity. You never know when you’re going to be asked to stretch past your comfort zone. The best way to prepare for these situations is to have as wide a comfort zone as possible. Know how different drummers play. Know your styles. Know how to read. Know how to write your own charts. Know how to play with a click. Know how to program loops. Know how to play percussion. Be in the know, and never be out of work.
Rich Redmond is a Nashville-based touring/ recording drummer with the multiplatinum country rocker Jason Aldean. He has also worked with Kelly Clarkson, Bryan Adams, Jewel, Ludacris, Lit, Joe Perry, Miranda Lambert, Steel Magnolia, Thompson Square, Rushlow, and others. For more info, visit richredmond.com.