To Blast or not to Blast?

TO BLAST OR NOT TO BLAST? HOW IMPORTANT IS PLAYING FAST ON THE DRUMSET?


Recently I conducted a survey among subscribers to The Modern Beat Official, its function being to determine the kind of new courses I should be creating to meet members’ needs. The results were interesting - almost 45% of the 170 people who completed the survey said that speed was something they wanted to improve. 

I’m fairly confident I know why this is the case - and it’s not why you’d think, i.e. to be able to show off. It’s because many drummers, particularly those in an intermediate state of ability, perceive speed on the drums as an expressive tool - that is, a way to communicate with the audience on an individual level opposed to something which should primarily support the ensemble. Something we often hear is “Less is More”, but what does that mean? I would argue that speed work is actually of great importance to drummers, but to best understand how it can be applied we first need to unpackage this well-used adage. 

There exists a notion that drum parts tend to be simple, particularly in genres such as reggae or rock music. As they mature, every drummer goes through an internal uprising of sorts, where he or she tries to challenge this by incorporating unnecessary elements into their parts. It’s not until further along, when a drummer becomes more experienced and develops a more holistic sense of ensemble playing that we begin to understand ‘playing musically’. Every musician of course has a slightly different definition of what it means to play musically—that’s what makes us individual—but in my own experience it can be summed up by using the approach of serving the music. The benefit of serving the music? Simply that you are more effectively communicating with the listener. The music is less indulgent, the listener is more engaged and musical communication, despite transcending speech, is delivered in terms a listener can comprehend. I’m not saying that this always calls for simplicity, what it does call for is that the drummer listens, thinks and reacts to make their role in the ensemble optimal.

I personally feel that a drummer unlocks a new level in their playing once they begin to understand how powerful this approach is, he or she can fully understand the benefit of playing more simply, thus shedding some light on the whole ‘less is more’ thing. 

So why is working on speed important? It comes down to two clear benefits; being a more versatile player and improving your technique. Drums are actually pretty unique in that in order to play them faster, you actually have to be more relaxed - this is actually what bugged most drummers I know about the 2014 film ‘Whiplash’. While most of us are able to clearly see the narrative for what it is—a thrilling film about someone giving their all to be the best they can be—there are some discrepancies in the footage of him playing which would be fine if not for the fact that they're particularly misleading! 

Theoretically, when playing fast swing patterns your movements become smaller, you use more focused stick control and finger technique and the skip note tends to straighten rather than swing. Combining these things means that, while technically difficult, it’s far less likely you’ll develop blisters (let alone bleed) as a result! So while I can appreciate the sentiment behind this scene, at the same time I’m sure most drummers are collectively hoping it doesn’t give fledgling players the wrong idea.

It’s important to understand how faster playing can function in different genres. I grew up listening to a lot of extreme metal where speed is almost the defining factor, but funnily enough it was jazz players such as Buddy Rich, Eric Harland and Jeff Ballard who made me want to focus more on speed development. Check out this version of Radiohead’s ‘Knives Out’ performed by Brad Meldhau's trio where Ballard uses some pretty phenomenal speed work to provide a wash of intricate rhythms - think about the effect it has against the sparse keys part. It essentially transforms the piece from a ballad into something entirely different; in this instance speed provides kind of simmering intensity which (I feel) makes the track.

Now check out this footage of John Longstreth from the metal band Origin performing ‘Wrath of Vishnu’. Longstreth is widely regarded as one of the faster players, but just look at how relaxed he is - it doesn’t even look like he’s out of breath! This level of comfort at this speed only comes for the right kind of practice, which is the reason players like Longstreth, George Kolias and Mark Mirinov can handle not just four minutes of playing like this, but whole sets lasting up to an hour. 

My point is this; speed is far from the most important thing you can be working on, but as it can be developed only by working on correct technique, a byproduct will be that your playing will become more consistent, you’ll be more relaxed at the kit and you’ll simply be a more versatile player. It should never be a priority in your drum part (remember to serve the music!) but at least be mindful of what it can do for a track, i.e. provide intensity, momentum and help to outline the song structure. However many drummers replied to that survey saying that they wanted to work on speed, an equal number have commented on The Modern Beat speed lesson ads complaining that too much emphasis is given to speed over groove or timekeeping - I also find this particularly interesting. The musical priorities of an individual change over time naturally, it's a nice thought that younger drummers would gain insight based on a random commenter, but I'm afraid it's a process which is shaped by our immediate surroundings and influences, and is therefore different for everyone. 

The photo and accompanying quote in the opening paragraph of the post is of Blind Faith's Ginger Baker, and hope it's clear that I am in no way disagreeing with him, nor am I condoning a disproportionate focus on speed within a drummer's overall practice regimen. What I am really saying is that yes, it IS what you say rather than how fast you play, but by omitting speed development from your drumming, you're drastically restricting how you can say it.   


Making a professional Drummer

MAKING A PROFESSIONAL DRUMMER - TEN TIPS TO GET YOU STARTED

There comes a time when every drummer has to make a decision; just how seriously do I want to take this thing? You’ve put in some hard yards with your practice, perhaps you're playing in a band or two and would like to begin to establish yourself as a professional. I think it’s important to expand on the terms amateur and professional at this juncture - let’s define ‘professional' as being paid regularly for playing the drums. Bear in mind, there will always be exceptions to the rule!

It’s worth pointing out, you may be lucky enough to be playing professionally for an original music act or artist, either as a founding member or a session player - please note that while I would definitely consider the former a professional, for the purposes of this article I’m more closely talking about the latter (a session player) as it’s a little more common.

First, let’s look at a loose general breakdown of an Amateur vs a Professional drummer (again, this is at the risk of overgeneralising - I'm sure we all know someone who fits outside of both of these boxes but they're considered professional!) 


THE AMATEUR  DRUMMER:


Plays occasionally, usually unpaid gigs

Has a non music-related job

Does not have any gear endorsements

Does not teach drums 

Owns limited gear suitable for minimal musical situations. 

Does minimal practice e.g. once a week

Is not a fluent reader (of music notation)

THE PROFESSIONAL  DRUMMER:


Gigs or records regularly (ie at least twice a month) 

Owns a wide range of gear to suit myriad musical situations/styles

Practices regularly (at least three times a week)

Teaches with a competitive rate

May have a gear endorsement (this is very much down to the nature of the work)

Has a flat fee for studio work/tour days 

Reads music well

Has a regularly updated professional online profile


If you see yourself as fitting into the Amateur category  - congratulations. Being able to express yourself through drumming and music is a wonderful thing, and you're proactively enriching your life outside of work, so well done!! However, if you've decided you'd like to try and push for the next level in your playing and career, hopefully the below points can give you an idea of where to start. 

So here we are; ten tips for helping you become a professional drumset player. It’s by no means exhaustive, but they're things I consider pretty fundamental in a great professional player.

NUMBER 1 - BE GOOD

Self explanatory really, if you’re unsure then find a highly regarded musician or teacher and ask them for honest feedback - remember that you should also try to get insights from a non-drummer who is prolific in the industry, they can sometimes have constructive feedback you mightn’t find elsewhere.

NUMBER 2 - BE COOL

Be approachable, take feedback with grace and try to keep a good sense of humour and a professional attitude. An easy-going personality and positive disposition is a massive part of the job. If you read about the session greats like Steve Gadd, Gregg Bissonette, Kenny Aronoff, Josh Freese and Vinnie Colaiuta, the consistent theme is that they’re generally awesome people to work with and a pleasure to have in the studio. While on tour, don’t be that guy who goes off looking for trouble at the end of the night after the show! It’s hard enough to manage a whole band and stagecrew, and you want the manager to think of you as someone who makes their job easier rather than harder.

NUMBER 3 - BE RELIABLE 

In my opinion, after being a capable player this is the single biggest quality you should aim for. Always be on time or earlier (to account for setup), and always learn your parts well. While on tour, make sure you are easy to get hold of and always pick up the phone or reply to calls. Also—very importantly—if you cant meet a deadline, make sure you give people ample  warning rather than assuming it's ok for other people to find out after the fact.  

NUMBER 4 - MAKE YOUR PROFESSIONAL EXPECTATIONS CLEAR FROM THE START 

When approached about a recording, touring or resident position, make sure that you ask for a contract and read it thoroughly. If you take issue with anything stipulated there, the time to take it up is before the gig - not after. If you’re prompt with your communication, technical requirements and invoicing, the artist or their manager/promoter will assume that you’re a responsible professional and will hopefully treat you with the same level of professionalism by paying your fee by the agreed date and keeping you well in the loop with any concerns you may have. Obviously, you’ll be expected to keep your end of the bargain!

NUMBER 5 - LEARN TO TAKE DIRECTION FROM PEOPLE AROUND YOU

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again; I’ve learned more about musicianship on the drums from non-drummers than any drum teacher I ever had. This is because they generally think of drums in the context of the song—not the part. It's something all drummers learn with experience, but the ability to quickly and efficiently interpret what the artist or producer want you to play  is something that gets drummers hired time after time. It’s great working with an experienced artist, however if you’re working with a less-experienced person it’s a good idea to start by asking about songs they don’t like, that will give you a good idea about what not to play at least!

NUMBER 6 - MAINTAIN YOUR GEAR

Whether it’s on a record or being blasted through a big PA at a live gig the same thing applies - first impressions last, and if your drumskins are tired and dirty and your cymbals are cracked it’s going to look and sound bad. Yes, re-skinning your kit is a large expense, but this should be taken into consideration with your fee. Remember, aim to consistently deliver quality and your fee won’t come into question.

NUMBER 7 - BUILD UP A TOOLKIT/GIG CASE

Every situation has different gear requirements, but you should buy a sturdy road briefcase you can keep on hand and access quickly when you need it. Here are some ideas for things to keep in it:

  • Drum tools (dkey, cymbals felts/nuts etc)
  • In-ear monitors (molded to your own ears are best)
  • Pad and pen, for writing out cheat sheets and notes during rehearsal
  • A permanent marker
  • Moon gel, or other dampening product
  • A phone charger
  • A memory stick
  • Tape (duct, electric)

The contents will build up over time, but that’s a good start!

NUMBER 8 - USE GOOD ADMIN ETIQUETTE

Be courteous and considerate with your emailing and phone calls - avoid using colloquial language in emails to people you don’t know so well and text to ask if it’s a good time to call. Is you’re the one trying to book venues or sort a backline. try to find out the name of the person you’re after rather than writing ‘to whom it may concern’ etc. This will give a better impression. 

NUMER 9 - NETWORK, NETWORK, NETWORK

This usually means getting out and going to gigs yourself. It’s a great way to meet people who share musical interests with you, and could lead to more people coming to see you play. There’s a many a story of a drummer being plucked from a life of obscurity to performing on a global stage! It’s great to support your local scene, and getting a good idea of who sounds good and which bands are similar to yours will give you some options if you’d like to headline some shows with your band and need some support acts.

NUMBER 10 - LASTLY, TRY TO GET SOME STUDENTS 

Not only does this increase your earning potential, but it means that you’ll be exercising valuable skills like reading and writing notation, teaching rudiments and analysing what you play. It’s a good idea to teach beginners as well as intermediate players if you can - both can be rewarding in different ways. You’ll find out pretty quickly that teaching youngsters isn’t as easy as you first thought! If you think about it, teaching goes hand-in-hand with music performance, and you’ll find that most good players have taught at different stages.

How do YOU feel about these tips and way I've defined 'amateur and professional' in the article? Comment below with your thoughts!

Moeller Technique – The most important breakthrough in drumming since…..ever

Moeller Technique - The most important breakthrough in drumming since…..ever

What sort of picture do you suppose the average non-musician has in their head of a stereotypical drummer? The calm, pragmatic thinker who hones his/her craft over years and deftly executes only-the-most-tasteful musical nuance, or the cro magnon basher sitting away at the back furiously pummelling the skins and ignoring the other band members (the propagation of whom was almost certainly helped by everyone’s favourite, this guy)

The beauty of the drumset of course is that both are entirely plausible which makes the instrument so accessible to beginners and advanced musicians alike - but with drummer jokes and clickbait articles aside, I would argue that drumset is the instrument which most defies preconceptions. Despite the fact that a drummer is technically ‘bashing’, technique has evolved to the point that it has become one of the most (if not the most) ergonomic mainstream instruments. Sticks are thrown and caught - an analogy I often use with students is that you’re sitting there bouncing tennis balls. The fact that we’re always moving actually alleviates risk which one might encounter with other instruments which require you to position yourself abnormally for long periods of time.

However, before we can smugly sit on our laurels as ‘the most comfortable on stage’  we can lament one important fact - in order to get to that level of relaxed ease of playing we have to go through stages of developing efficient movement - and it’s no mean feat. In fact, it’s a knife edge; overplaying without efficient movement can do a huge amount of damage, and I’ve seen many fledgeling drummers succumb to repetitive strain injury - generally due to not releasing the stick at the point of impact.  

If there is one technique which managed to propel the musical art of drumming into a new level it has to be the Moeller technique. The reason I think it’s worth writing about is because it epitomises what makes drumming so unique - that is, having the effect of requiring more effort than it actually does.

The technique made its first appearance into the widespread drumming audience via the legendary tome The Art of Snare Drumming, its author Sanford A. (Gus) Moeller being well known for donning his snare drum and marching 248 miles over 10 days from Madison Square Garden (NY) to the armory in Boston in September, 1930. When he finally put down his sticks that day, bystanders were amazed to see that, upon close inspection, he reportedly had no calluses or blisters - thus proving his point that his method was the most ergonomic.

Evidently this publicity stunt paid dividends, as Moeller's book became a bestseller while influencing countless other publications - not the least of which being Jim Chapin’s Advanced Techniques for the Modern Drummer. At a time where the rise of conventional drumset playing had seen a decline in the uptake of rudimentary study, Moeller’s teachings on technique and the importance of stick control sent ripples across the global drumming community and are now permanently ingrained in drumset technique -  one would be hard-pressed finding any drummer who is set on disproving the efficacy and massive application of practicing the humble accented paradiddle. 

Check out this great video of Jimmy Chapin—a student of Moeller’s—demonstrating the technique wonderfully. 

Like I mentioned earlier - a cool thing about drums is that a beginner can get on and play something cool in ten minutes. The reason you should be showing them the Moeller technique for the next ten minutes after that is because it will make everything else they play sound, look and feel better. 

There are amazing breakthroughs in drumming every day, from how they’re played (check out Binkbeats ‘Little Nerves') to some innovative marrying of technology which gives a player an edge in a market that’s constantly blurring the line between what’s physically possible and what passes as standard on a professional stage (check out the Soundbrenner wrist metronome).

You might be able to produce some pretty cool stuff without investing time in the Moeller technique, but if you want to become a serious player it should be something you incorporate into practice everyday - because it’s been a long time since a tool that powerful has appeared in drumming, and something tells me we’ll be waiting a while to see the next one. 

The Art of Effective Practice

THE ART OF EFFECTIVE PRACTICE

When someone asks me how they should be practicing, my first response is always two questions; “What do you want to be good at?” and “How good do you want to be?”.

 Besides the fact that the normal answers are “everything” and “the best” it’s important to consider that the recipe for effective practice can change A LOT depending on their answer to this question. For example, if a student replies that they want to be pushing themselves to be the best they can be and to play predominantly reggae, that tells me that I need to first help the student identify important stylistic elements of reggae music to work on, but then I need to take the ‘bread and butter’ elements’ of drumset practice (i.e. rudiments, technique, independence etc) and validate them in terms that the student can understand easily. While most drum teachers will tell you that learning a 5 stroke roll will benefit your playing, many of them struggle with justifying to students why it’s worth persevering with working on them until they actually sound good, particularly when the benefits are not always evident in the music they listen to.

The good news is, a teacher worth their salt will be able to easily directly relate ‘bread and butter’ drumset learning to all musical styles, and the better they are at showing students examples with audio or video samples (or even better, demonstrate it themselves) the more likely the student is to work harder on them. If you don’t currently have a teacher then it’s a good idea to seek one out - if you’re having trouble finding one or are in an isolated area you can check out some great free lessons here.

The important thing here is that a student understands the ‘why’ they need to practice what I’m asking them to - I feel like this question needs to be answered before the ‘what’ is even on the table.

So with that out of the way I can say that for me, effective practice can be achieved using one simple adage: “It’s not practice if you can already do it”

You might think that sounds ridiculous, but let’s think about this. If you have this statement at the back of your mind whenever you’re touching your drumsticks outside of performance, what you’ll have to do is automatically justify what you’re working on in your head. It’s worth noting that there’s nothing wrong with sitting at the drums and playing a simple, steady groove for ten minutes, but rather then telling yourself you’ve practiced, call it what it is - that is, warming up!

Of course, there are a few ways you could frame it. You should be practicing with a metronome, in which case you could label it ‘practicing timekeeping’ or -  if you’re experimenting with inter-limb dynamics you could call it ‘independence practice’ but it’s important to note that it’s a small part of your overall practice routine. If you approach each time you practice by thinking you’re going to work on something you can’t already do and then work on it methodically and correctly, I absolutely guarantee you’ll make progress faster than ever before.

I’m not in any way saying that you shouldn’t play stuff you can already do—in fact I’d recommend it—just make sure that if you’re going to call it practice, you’re consciously working on something other than going through the motions of playing the pattern. If you apply this philosophy to the things you consider ‘fun’ during your daily routine, then that in itself is a form of effective practice, because (presumably) you actually want to play the fun stuff, and you can then go from calling it messing around to actual structured learning.

Let’s go for a best-case scenario in which you have the time, discipline and rehearsal space to practice once a day for 35 minutes. If we define effective practice as developing as quickly as possible with as little practice as possible, then let’s go with this blueprint for a routine:

Warmups/stretches - 2 Mins

These are a must if you intent to practice with the same intent and energy that you bring to a performance.

Play some grooves with a metronome - 10 mins

Timekeeping, Independence etc. Maybe even change where you put the metronome placement to help you internalise varying meters - there are so many ways you can categorise this kind of practice.

Rudiments - 10 mins

Five stroke rolls, Double Stroke rolls and flams are just a few of the rudiments which manifest in your playing - no matter which style you play. Your ghost notes will become more consistent, and your general stick control will mean your playing is tighter and  more confident.

Prescribed Exercises - 10 mins

These are specific exercises your teacher will give you which address certain holes he or she has pinpointed in your playing.

Warmdown/play to a song - 3 mins

Try to relax and enjoy playing to the song - don’t be afraid to imagine you’re playing to a big crowd!

If you’re like a lot of people and work fulltime with a family, you’re probably thinking that the above schedule would be nice, but let’s face it - is totally unrealistic, then you should try this method:

Aim to try and fit in at least three of these routines a week.

Rudiments - 10 minutes                                                                             Any one thing off the daily routine - 15 minutes

As long as you’re conscious of the fact that you’re working on improving an aspect of your playing, the practice is effective by default - that’s why it’s so important to define everything you’re playing as fitting into one of the general categories that exist in many routines like the  daily routine above.

Electric Vs Acoustic?

ELECTRIC VS ACOUSTIC:
CHOOSING YOUR FIRST DRUMKIT

This is a discussion which has definitely been doing the rounds for the last few years - that of whether or not students should invest in either an electric kit or an acoustic kit. This is a question not so easily answered for us drummers, it’s a little clearer for, say guitarists and bass players, because the electric/acoustic version both have very distinctive characteristics and aren’t easily interchangeable, while the main aim of electric drumkit manufacturers is to imitate acoustic drums as precisely as possible. For the purposes of this post, let’s refer to electric kits as ekits, and acoustic as akits.

Despite the fact that the popularity of ekits (and abundance of manufacturers) has effectively played a part in driving the price of acoustic drums down, many drummers and drum teachers still insist that students practice on an akit. The way I see it is this: if you understand the differences, it kind’ve makes sense to have both at your disposal, but if you don’t have that luxury I would say go ekit.

Let me explain:

The main reason for practicing on an akit is to learn to use dynamics as well as to develop a muscle memory of the ‘feel’ of acoustic drums; that is, how skins react, and how your body reacts.

Almost all other aspects of you playing can be worked on with an ekit - however, if you intend to play live, akits are definitely the way to go because of that level of dynamic control. These days, ekits are so advanced that many players do opt to use them live, however - kits like this tend to be very expensive, and can be a pain to rehearse with if you lack the appropriate amplification.

Those ‘other aspects’ I mentioned earlier are things like independence, rudiments, speed, timekeeping etc can all be practiced effectively on ekits, and because you’re more likely to practice when you know your neighbours won’t call the cops I would say buy an ekit if you’re a beginner. It’s just good to keep in mind that A) Once you’re ready to start gigging the expectation is that you’ll be using an akit and B) Acoustic drums will feel quite different so it’s important to maybe rehearse as a full band with an akit.

Here are some good ways to prepare for transitioning from electric to acoustic:

  • Set your drums up based on an acoustic layout - that will generally mean having quite a big gap between them; try to go by standard drum sizes (14” snare, 10,12,14” toms etc).
  • Be aware that you’re probably relying on the volume knob. As a general rule ekit players tend to have underdeveloped left hand dynamic control, so just make sure you’re not deafening everyone with that snare!
  • You'll go through more sticks
  • Akit drum rims and cymbals tend to really chew through the sticks (this lessens as your technique improves), while the same pair can last for years on ekits.
  • Measure your car boot first!
  • This may sound like a joke, but trust me, packing and transporting drums is going to be way easier if at least the biggest part of your akit (the kick drum) can fit in your whip!

I personally am lucky enough to have a great ekit (Roland TD25K) and several acoustic kits. The way I approach it is by using each for specific kinds of practice; I use the ekit to learn complicated written notation, foot speedwork, learning/creating song parts for sessions etc. I almost exclusively use acoustic drums for working on dynamics. the So with these thing in mind, it’s a good idea to go through a pros and cons list for each.

ELECTRIC DRUMKITS

Pros

  • Very quiet
  • Less Expensive
  • Can play along to backing tracks at low in-ear volumes
  • Takes up less room
  • Heads hardly ever need replacing
  • Easier on sticks
  • Can be plugged into a PA (foldback monitors are a must!)

Cons

  • Less portable (believe it or not)
  • Relies on power (or amplification, in a rehearsal scenario)
  • Unrealistic feel
  • Unrealistic dynamics
  • More complicated to use for gigging (also doesn’t sound as good live).


ACOUSTIC DRUMKITS

Pros

  • Better for practicing technique
  • Usually more customizable (in regards to drum/cymbal positioning)
  • Better for practicing dynamics
  • Sounds better live
  • Doesn’t rely on power

Cons

  • Chews through sticks/drumheads
  • Needs mic’ing up (depending on venue)
  • Noisy practice (Be sure to use earplugs!)
  • Good drums and cymbals can be really expensive

So there we have it. Like most musical choices, it’s largely down to the individual and the style of the music, e.g. if it were a Drum n’ Bass gig, an ekit would be appropriate - whereas you’d likely be fired by the bandleader if you turned up at a jazz gig with one!

Like I said before, if you’re a beginner then my advice would be to go with an ekit because, if anything, it’ll enable you to practice whenever suits you (rather than hours that the neighbours aren’t home) and you’ll progress faster. Sometimes it’s good to think of it like automatic vs manual gear shift in cars - learning the road rules and basics in an automatic is great, but any serious driver will tell you that only a manual will teach you to understand the gears (and therefore controlling the vehicle) better. Kinda the same, but different!