Drummers - Everyone Sounds Like You or You Sound Like Everyone Else

Uncategorized Sep 07, 2020

Russ’ Blog 3/2016

I wanted to speak about our playing (“product”) development.  This topic is one, that I’m asked about a tremendous amount.  Also, I’ve found it to be one of the most difficult to speak about and work on myself!  One of the things I’ve mentioned a lot recently, was how I feel there are way too many drummers that “sound alike”, in the drumming field today.  Of course, this is nothing new.  Each musical era, has a wave of common approaches to playing the instrument.  There was a lot of drummers who played the same in the big band era as well!  Every era has even seen it’s share of drum kit emulation.  Of course, when the Beatles hit, everybody had to have the Ludwig “Oyster Black Pearl” Downbeat kit, and look & sound like Ringo.  We had the double bass era, the (8) concert tom era, the big drum kit (with some orchestral percussion era), the hanging floor tom era, the small tom fusion era, the huge electronic rack era, the “power tom” era, the broken and old…“a new kit is un-hip” era, the “only vintage kits sound good” era and now, the small snare drum, with cymbals leaning the wrong way era!  Obviously, I’m joking around a bit, but there is a percentage of truth in all of this.  It’s not just in playing drums.  We know that this happens in the clothing industry, movie scripts, personal computing devices and just about everything else.  Your musical voice and presentation can be developed in many different ways.  You could be recognized for a specific “sound” of the kit.  Also, a certain playing style that is unique visually could become your calling card.  Maybe it’s your unique drum kit set-up or even your stage antics!  But, the great drummers were recognized simply for their approach to playing music.  This is the real deal…taking the hard road approach.  But, let’s face it, as car guys always say (I’m a “car” guy) , “the best roads are the ones with no one else on them”.   Developing a “sound” that is uniquely yours, simply from the way it feels when you are at the kit, is very difficult.  Some of the great players, seemed to just “have it” or be blessed with it from birth!  This seems frustrating.  But it is not true.  Most things are not truly “original”, but a combination of one’s experiences and influences.  A great drummer mixes up their study of what came before them and it creates their “musical stew”.   Almost every “unique” drumming great, had solid influences leading the eventual development of the sound that we heard and recognized.   

How do we develop OUR musical voice, is a combination of a few things, Let’s take a look at each one.

1.) Don’t let your thoughts be too much the opinion of someone else

I have gone through these phases myself.  You get really excited about a record or band with a great drummer and you think, “I want to do that”!  You set your kit up like the guy, maybe buy the same cymbals or heads or even, cut your hair like them!  This is awesome!  Be excited and let it influence your development.  But, you are not that drummer and you will never be that drummer.  It is like inventing something that has already been invented.  I’ve invented a few things for the musical instrument business.  Almost every time it happened, someone in the company would say “Why hasn’t anybody done this before?.  I’m sure this is said of every great invention, because when it’s a good idea, it seems so obvious.  I would say, “because we are doing it”.  The drummer that you are so excited about, already invented that.  You to need make sure that you get many musical opinions and directions.  Don’t get too hung on one vision.  If you think “but that’s what I really like”, then perfect.  Research that drummer’s influences.  Read a few articles or interviews about who he listened to.  Go back and see where he came from.  By just doing this, your take on those guys, will form a new opinion of that approach.  There are several drumming greats that are very “close” to the view of a player previous to them but they “slanted” it a bit, to create a new or updated version.

2.) Understand the components (technically) that create YOUR sound.

There are technical aspects that need to be understood to develop your musical voice.  These are also key components of just being a great musician, so you should have them anyway!  But, by understanding what these are and working on them, it can help you push your development in the right direction.  The concept of having a “presence” at the kit can be broken down into one word, “pulse”.  Having a pulse is different than playing great time.  We have an entire lesson called “Creating Pulse and Feel” in thePathway!  A drum machine has great time but no pulse.  This is why it feels “sterile” when you hear a quantized program part.  The entire “loop” industry is proof of this.  People started using loops instead of sequencing the drum parts, because someone played it and it has a pulse.   “Pulse” = time, dynamics, note sustain lengths (“articulation”) and good musical decisions.  You need to have solid time or the pulse can break down.  Your time doesn’t have to be perfect (we are not machines and there are many great recordings with bad timekeeping! ) but it has to be “relative” to tempo.  This means, if we started at 110 B.P.M., we are basically playing at 110, not rushing to 120 during the fill and down to 100 in the bridge section.  Also, the second component of timekeeping is subdivision.  You need to have control over the subdivisions and not rush the small notes, this will create a “weaving” feeling and never settle into a solid pulse.  You have to play with contrasting and effective dynamics.  You shouldn’t yell at people through your instrument in every song.  You don’t speak (hopefully) verbally to people like that, so don't do it on the drums.  Communicate through small and large sounding notes and phrases.  Control the sustain of notes and apply energy and relaxation/release in the feel of what you play.  Articulate the patterns like a horn player would articulate phrases.  And finally, grow as a musician through listening, playing and studying. This is to make the correct musical “decisions”.  These are the technical parts to developing a solid musical opinion.  Again, please attend the “Creating Pulse and Feel” lesson in the “Physical step” of PercussionPathway.com.

3.) High levels of “Documentation” are also a key component to “voice recognition”.

Finally, we only know the great drummers because we’ve heard the great drummers!  Documentation is a large part of someone’s “voice”.  I’ve heard Phil Collins many times on the radio and in concerts.  As soon as I hear the room mic’d/compressed drum sound and his open, time and fills, I know it’s him!  The great drummers who have done may records, make it easier to recognize their sound.  This being said, there are also well documented drummers who don’t have anything in particularly “unique” happening.  So, they blend in too much to the music and are hard to recognize.  This is the challenge of the session drummer.  The execution could be perfect but their opinion musically, just doesn’t seem to surface.  Play what is correct for the piece and situation while stamping it with your opinion.  The great actors do this.  Robert Dinero and Dustin Hoffman can read the same exact script.  Dinero delivers the same exact words in one way, Hoffman in another.  They are both great, yet give the words and scene something very unique and stamp their name on it.  The director then chooses which one he feels works for his vision of the movie.  It’s a bit easier to “compare” because they are saying the exact same words, in the same scene.  But, we need to understand this and know how we want to deliver our “script”,  the song.  Why are we asking you to do it this? What is the musical opinion you are you bringing to it?   The great drummers all do this, consciously or not.  If they didn’t we wouldn’t recognize that it was them.  Our lesson in the documentation is that you need to get out there and make yourself be heard!  The more gigs, records, and videos that exist with you on them, the easier it is to hear you in them.  I have about 100 records or more with Steve Gadd on them, I can tell in a few bars that it’s him.  Of course, Steve has a very personal and unique approach to music but part of the reason we know it, is  because we’ve heard it, so many times.  The Commercial step in the Pathway has tons of information regarding marketing and presenting you and your playing.

Through continual study, experience, listening, working and always attempting to make good musical choices and serving the music, your ‘opinion' will begin to develop.  Understand what your opinion is.  Deliver the “script” of the song and/or band with your stamp on it.  Use what came before you as security for your decisions but not as a “template”.  Discover who you are today but ask yourself the question: who will I be in the future? Keep studying and practicing, working towards the musician you want/dream to be.  Create your invention and let the world hear it!  Stay on the “Pathway”!!

Russ Miller


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