A drumming cartoon made the rounds on the Internet and had an impact on me. In the first panel, a bandleader watches a drummer’s blazing display of chops and says, “You’re amazing.” In the second panel, the drummer plays a simple kick and snare groove, and the bandleader says, “You’re hired.”

I’ve always taken the second image to heart by focusing on groove, feel, tone, creativity, and the recording process. In this role, the drums work more as an ensemble instrument by supporting the song from within. However, the drummer in the first image of the cartoon represents a large part of what we do as well—the role of the drummer as a soloist or featured instrumentalist.

This brings us to important questions that the cartoon doesn’t address: What gig is this drummer being hired for? Is it a recording session or a live show? Is it a drum cover, where the goal is to get millions of YouTube views or a spot at a drum festival? Each of these situations can demand different approaches, and how you tackle them can determine whether or not you’re chosen.

Recording Sessions Versus Drum Covers

For most recording sessions, the drums need to find their place within the mix of the other instruments and vocals. This can often lead to simple parts, including sections of a song where the drums aren’t played at all. While the drums can certainly be a featured element of the song’s production, other instruments need their own space in the track. The lead vocals usually rule, so don’t stomp on them.

In a drum cover video, a familiar hit song is often treated as a backing track to a featured drum solo. In this format, the drums need to sound great and offer a unique, technically impressive, and visually compelling presentation. There’s also a great deal of latitude in a drum cover to add a lot more notes than what’s found on the original version. Viewers generally know the song, so they want to see you bring something fresh.

Live Situations

There’s a middle ground where you can often split the difference between the more tasteful approach of a recording session and the more over-the-top interpretation of a drum cover, and that’s the live performance.

In a live situation, it’s important to know a song’s original parts and be able to pull them off exactly as recorded, especially if that’s what the gig requires. However, it’s often the case that you play more notes and more dynamically to bring the song to life on stage. The original studio part is the foundation for the live drummer, who then adds to the beat, plays fills, and expands the parts as the song develops.

Case Study

Here’s an example of the three approaches. A song I recorded a few years ago, Alicia Keys’ “Girl on Fire,” showcases how simple a drum part can be in the studio. When I received the call for the session, the song was written, the role of the drums was clearly defined, and the producer had a precise concept of what he wanted them to sound and feel like. The groove featured six notes—four on the bass drum and two on the snare. There were no cymbals, toms, fills, or additional percussion parts. (Check out the recorded version on Keys’ album Girl on Fire.)

In that scenario, my job was to create the sounds, quickly execute the part, and then get out of the way so that the rest of the production could be completed. This wasn’t the time to slip in licks or impose my own artistic vision. In fact, pulling a stunt like that would’ve been an excellent way to make sure that I never got called again. Time is money in this type of situation—don’t waste either by trying to give them something they don’t want. The drums are performing a supporting role and are only one part of a bigger picture.

Now search YouTube for videos of how Alicia’s drummer approaches the same track live. The original studio part is there, but he develops the beat as the song progresses, brings in other parts of the kit, and adds fills. And here’s the mark of a professional musician: the drummer holds down the backbeat and groove throughout the performance without any mind-bending chops or insane fills that would steal the spotlight. The singer and song are still the main focus.

Now let’s contrast the recorded drum part to what’s needed for an effective drum cover of “Girl on Fire.” The recorded part is sparse, so the focus is on the feel of the groove and the huge, roomy sounds of the kick and snare. If you were to simply play the existing drum track on camera, it would probably be quite boring to watch.

Search for “Girl on Fire drum cover” on YouTube to check out examples that other drummers have posted. Notice that everyone has a different approach. Some play fewer notes, while others play many more. Everyone is adding his or her own spin on the track—and that’s great!

When creating a drum cover, bring every bit of your musical self that you want the world to see, and don’t be afraid to go crazy with it. But be aware that the song still exists underneath your drumming. Be respectful of the song so that you don’t completely obliterate it under a barrage of complicated playing. Use your ears, and be musical.

When approaching any musical situation, make sure that you understand your role. Are you the backbone that supports the song from within? Are you the featured soloist or main focus? Or are you somewhere in the middle, playing a supporting role while taking the spotlight when it’s appropriate? Any of those three paths can be perfectly appropriate. Just make sure you bring the right mindset.

Dylan Wissing has played on albums by Drake, Eminem, Kanye West, Alicia Keys, John Legend, and Jay Z, and has scored commercials for AT&T, Citibank, Reebok, and Banana Republic. He is also the lead percussion instructor at musicschoolonline.com. For more info, visit indiestudiodrummer.com.