It's All About the Song
I don’t really listen to drummers much anymore. Of course, I still study drummers, grooves, and rhythm. But some number of years ago there was this distinct switch in what I focused on in music. I went from primarily focusing on the beat to just listening to the song. I just want to hear a great melody, and a song that moves me. If I notice the beat, it’s probably because the drummer is doing something wrong. In fact, if I’m bopping along to a song and I’m not noticing the drums at all, it’s probably the perfect beat for that tune. That’s how I think about drums these days.
It’s by no means the only approach to playing the kit, but the way I really like to dig into playing is to find a way to be the ultimate supporting framework for the structure of a song. The song isn't the platform for my drumming- my groove is the platform that supports the melody and the song itself. This perspective has shaped my playing by way of minimalism and dynamics. I like cutting away as much of the fat as I can, landing on a lean beat that doesn’t take up any more space than it needs to. But this doesn’t always mean playing simple. Sometimes it means playing something complex, but really tucking the funky stuff underneath the other instruments. To use the explanation I was given as a student about ghost notes- it’s a thing that should be felt, rather than heard.
There are still moments where drums should stand out. Certain songs benefit from the intrigue of shifting the listener’s attention from one focal point to another, and a well chosen fill or twist in groove can add that color in the right moment. Rather than playing a ‘cool fill’ in a spot, I’m often just embellishing the groove that I’ve already established on the kit. The fill might just be the ghosted thing I’m already playing, but with the dynamics turned up, or maybe I push the snare/hat thing onto the toms. Simple tricks like beat displacement can do a lot for creating a sort of pseudo-fill that creates emphasis and color, but without distracting the ear from the song.
At the core of musical drumming, that’s what the goal is. To create a great feel without allowing the drums to draw attention away from the song. I’m neither trying to draw attention to myself, nor am I trying to hide behind the song. In fact, the more I succeed at killing my drummer’s ego, the more I can immerse myself in the song and find the perfect place for the groove to sit. The drums are a part of the song, so they should not be invisible. They should simply support and strengthen the song.
To touch on the oft employed analogy of the drummer being the backbone of a band, think for a moment of a ballet dancer’s physique. In their dance routine, we are often watching the arms and legs, perhaps their hands and feet, their head or face. How often are you watching the curvature of their back or spine? It may happen as they lean, bend, or crouch in a certain moment, but ultimately, it is an aspect of the physique that lends support to the features we are really paying attention to. That is my analogy of the perfect groove.
If you’ve ever heard a song that has a ‘band’ and ‘acoustic’ version, really listen to both. Which version do you like more? I believe that, in a sense, if I prefer the acoustic version more, the band took something away from the song. Of course, there are plenty of times that neither version is better, but just different from one another. But if you are a drummer that works with songwriters and they bring their songs to you, ask yourself throughout the process if you are making the song sound better. If you can’t, find a new approach or allow the possibility that perhaps this song doesn’t need anything added to it.
I think that one of the most valuable things a drummer can do to think and play more in this way is to pay attention to studio drummers and listen to what they play on big albums, whether you like the music or not. For instance, I gained a lot of perspective listening to Vinnie Colaiuta play on Sting's "Ten Summoner's Tales", or listening to the various session players do their thing on Steely Dan's Aja. In Steve Jordan's DVD "The Groove is Here", he samples a lot of beats he played on various albums as a session drummer, and I think there is some great perspective to be had there.