So you want to become a pro drummer! Congratulations on your decision! In this blog series I’m going to spell out for you the 5 things every drummer needs, to become a professional working drummer.
My goal, my mission, everything I want to do and accomplish with this blog, is to turn drummers into musicians. Yes, it’s very important to me to do this and I’ll tell you why. I’ve got a few drummer jokes I want to share with your right off the bat.
Joke #1: So how do you tell if the stage is level? The drummer is drooling from both sides of his mouth.
Joke #2: How can you tell the drummer’s at the door? The knocking speeds up.
Joke #3: How do you get a drummer off your porch? Pay him the 10 bucks for the pizza. (Ouch!)
Joke #4: How’s a drum solo like a sneeze? You know it’s coming, but there’s nothing you can do about it.
Joke #5: How do you get a drummer to stop playing? Put music in front of him.
A pro drummer is more than a beat maker!
Okay, every instrument has these jokes, right? Everybody gets it but drummers usually get the stupid jokes. We get the ones where people think we’re really, really stupid. I do want to say though, that there’s a reason for these jokes.
People often think of us as basically beat makers with no regard for dynamics, tempo or musicality. Basically like self-serving Neanderthals! Over the years, we’ve seen drummers like that. I’ve played like that too at times. So there’s kind of a reason for the reputation. Even so, I’m sick of hearing the way people talk about drummers. They talk about us like we don’t know what’s going on in the music and on the gig.
There are times however, where drummers really don’t know what’s going. They’re not connected to the music. They’re just playing whatever they want to play. My goal here is the connect you with the music and make your playing as musical as possible.
The real reason behind writing this blog is to help you get gigs! I know that you want to play drums and play lots of gigs! Well, I’ve been playing a long time and the thing I’ve learned is that there are some key, fundamental, very important ingredients that every drummer needs to have in order to get those gigs.
A drummer with a destiny
So I’ve been playing professionally now for almost 35 years. Hard to believe because it’s passed so quickly (I wish life went a little slower). When I started out playing drums, I was a little bit older than most. I started at 15 years old.
Even though I had to wait until I was 15, I knew I wanted to be a pro drummer. I didn’t know how it was going to happen but I knew it was my destiny. That destiny really came together when I was 16 years old. I went to a great Jazz camp and the featured drummer/clinician was Jeff Hamilton.
If you don’t know who Jeff Hamilton is, go check him out on YouTube. He’s got lots of great videos. He’s so musical and swings hard. When I saw him play for the first time at that camp, he blew me away. I said to myself, “THAT’S WHAT I WANT TO DO!” Every fiber of my being said, “I WANT TO BE LIKE THAT.” I wanted to play at a high level making great music with other people! I didn’t know how I was going to get there but I knew I would.
A-List pro drummer
I had a lot more hair in those days. If you have seen recent pictures of me, I uh, don’t have so much hair up there. It comes out of my ears and nose but that’s another topic altogether. It doesn’t really seem fair.
Anyway, so I figured out since then, there are basically five things that really clearly directed my path toward becoming an A-List pro drummer and I really want to share these five things with you. In this blog post, I’ll share the first two.
#1 Have a deep passion for drumming and all things rhythmic
The first thing that you need to become a pro drummer is a deep passion for drumming and all things rhythmic. So if you’re growing up and siting in class making drum beats on the desk, and the teacher says, “Hey, knock it off!” That’s a sign.
If you’re at the dinner table as a kid, banging out Neil Peart or Buddy Rich drum fills on the table, then that’s another sign. Pay attention because maybe there’s a passion for rhythm.
I knew I wanted to be a drummer from the age of seven. In elementary school music class I tried violin and saxophone but I always noticed the drums. They always seemed super cool! I don’t know why. I just thought they were.
When I was in sixth grade, I got really into Break Dancing and early Hip-Hop music too. I think those times really strengthened my sense of rhythm. Thank God, because I grew in an area of the Midwest where white bread and a-rhythmic music were king. Breaking and Hip-Hop transformed my life and my whole sense of rhythm.
Billy Joel’s Advice to become a pro musician (pro drummer)
So basically, the thing is, rhythm has got to move you. It’s got to move you physically and emotionally. It’s as if you intuitively connect with rhythm. Now, a few years back, I was watching really great video on YouTube with Billy Joel.
He was at the University of Pennsylvania doing a seminar. During the Q & A session, one student asked him if you have to be born with musical talent. Mr. Joel’s answer was great.
In sum, he said there is a certain amount of innate skill involved but you have to develop it. He also mentioned that you shouldn’t have to question yourself too many times whether you want pursue a career in music. If you do that, then you’re probably not cut out for music. Music (drumming) has to draw you in and make you feel that there is nothing else in the World you want to pursue.
The unbeaten path of a pro drummer
I think Mr. Joel was saying that you have to overcome a lot of obstacles to be a professional musician. If you want to become a professional drummer, it’s not an easy path. Take for instance, the Corona Virus problem which cancelled all of my gigs for a few months. I could have given up but that’s really NOT an option for me. If you really want to do it, you know, come Hell or high water, you’re gonna do it!
Billy Joel’s point is that you’ve gotta have that passion. You’ve got to have that drive because you have to make it through the lean times. You have to make it through the tough times. That gumption and passion to really learn your craft and instrument, have to be inside you. So it’s not something you can do half-assed. You can’t just say, “Well I think I’ll do just a little drumming today.” If you want to be a professional, you gotta be all in.
#2 Get a good drum teacher
So when I was starting off playing, I thought the best way to learn drums would be to find someone who is already good at it and learn from them.
Now sometimes I’m at a gig and another drummer will come up to me and say, “Oh, I really enjoyed listening to you blah, blah, blah.” Then I say, “Thanks for coming to the show! Oh, so you play drums?” “Yes.” “So who did you study with?” I ask this because the drumming community’s pretty small in every town and I’ll probably know the teacher. Then the drummer says, “Well, I’m self-taught.”
I just have to stop for second after catching my tongue. I don’t want to say what I’m thinking but what what I’m thinking always is, “I’m so sorry to hear that.”
Learn from a pro drummer
I know it’s a badge of courage in the Music Scouts to learn on your own and it really shows a lot of dedication for drumming. That’s cool but…it’s a whole lot easier if you can just find someone who’s already doing what you want to do and learn from them!
Someone who’s got a tested instruction method to help you play the music you want to play. I mean, isn’t that the point? We want to play music. We want to have fun! That’s the reason we start off playing music in the first place. We want to have loads of fun! So you’ve got to find somebody who’s going to help you get to the fun.
Your drum instructor needs to be both a respected player and teacher
So, here are some tips on finding a good teacher. You’ve got to find a respected professional drummer who loves to teach. You need someone who’s a really good player and teacher, both. Some drummers are really good at playing and some at teaching but you’ve got to keep looking until you find someone who’s great at both.
That’s very important because some drummers are really great players but they can’t explain what they’re playing. If you ask them, “How did you do that?” and they say, “I really don’t know. I just play it.” then it’s just second nature for them. They don’t really know how to explain what they’re playing. You need someone who can communicate step-by-step, how to do things.
You also have the theoretical teachers. They don’t have so much performance experience or a performance background to know what’s most appropriate to teach and what’s not.
You need an instructor to teach you things that are not just exercises and concepts, but the things that are useful in the real world of music and performance. So you’ve got to find somebody who is really good at both. Find the great respected professional drummer that can also explain things clearly for you to understand.
Your drum instructor needs a comprehensive drum method
I think your teacher also really needs to have a comprehensive drum instruction method. Something that covers the fundamentals you’ll need to know to play any style of music. Again, my goal is to transform drummers into musicians and to play with more musicality.
Musicality doesn’t necessarily mean Jazz. I’m mostly a professional Jazz drummer but I play a lot of different kinds of music. I can hit hard I can play softly. I can play Hip-Hop and Funk and all kinds of things. Okay, maybe not Speed Metal or Death Metal. That’s not really my thing and it looks kind of painful.
On a related note, if you’re interested in learning about the most powerful and effective drum technique, check out my blog post THE BEST DRUMMING TECHNIQUE.
Van Halen to Oscar Peterson
In any style of music, you have musicality. So you need to have someone who can teach you a solid drumming foundation. You might not know right now what you’re really going to end up loving the most. I started off rocking to Van Halen and AC/DC and moved toward the Oscar Peterson Trio. Your tastes are probably going to change. So you want to have as many choices as you can to play any kind of music. Don’t be limited.
For example, if you learn Rock drumming, you can become a great Rock drummer. If that’s what you want to do, then great. If, however, you want to explore and play other kinds of music, you should probably learn Jazz. A lot of drummers say, “Oh Jazz. Ugh.” but I’m telling you, it will help you to do anything you want to do. Please remember that because I want you to have many choices for your musical future.
Learn to read music notation
Okay, so the main idea in learning to play drums is that you want to learn all of the coordination patterns, reading and listening abilities so that you can focus on the music. You don’t want to be focusing on what your right hand or left foot are doing. The goal is to graduate from basic drumming coordination soon as possible en route to becoming a pro drummer.
I mentioned READING music above. Sometimes people get really scared. They say, “I can’t read. I can’t read music!” Well, listen, it’s very important. I see online, a lot of different drummers sharing these elaborate systems for writing out drum parts and fills without using standard musical notation. It’s crazy because someday you’re going to come into contact with the REAL WORLD and the real world uses standard music notation.
If you go to any kind of recording session, somebody will give you charts and you’ve got to know how to read them. If you have a rehearsal for a big show, usually the MD (musical director) is gonna have charts. You’ve just got to be able to read!
A limited view
I teach my students how to read basic standard rhythmic notation in 10 minutes! It’s not hard but there are a lot of drummers out there who think it is. They never learn to read because of this ridiculous fear.
Not reading music is like getting to the top of a mountain and only being able to enjoy half of the view. I live in Japan so if I get to the top of Mount Fuji, and all I can see are clouds, what a bummer! It’s like only getting to see a limited view of the music. You don’t really get to enjoy the music completely. You’re not really connected to the music as much as you could be.
Reading also teaches you song form and the structure of music which is important. That way, you’ll know how to play your drum part to fit the context of the musical structure. Reading is going to be fundamental on your drumming journey.
The other thing is, reading is going to help you learn faster. ALL of the stuff that you’re going to learn will be written in standard music notation. You’re going to have rudiments, rhythmic phrasing, coordination patterns and many other things that are all going to be in standard music notation.
LET’S WRAP UP
So, find the good teacher. Don’t try to do it on your own. That’s crazy! You can supplement what you’re learning from a good teacher. That’s great! Be open. Go out there and look and research things you want to learn. Find things on YouTube but always have a great teacher for your foundational learning.
I now teach private lessons via Zoom. If you’d like to learn Jazz Drumming, contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org to schedule some private lessons. I also have a YouTube drum instruction channel called DRUMMING4LIFE.COM. Click on drumming4life.com and it’ll take you there. I have a lot of lessons and lately I’ve been focusing a lot on brush playing.
You might also be interested in some super drumless practice tracks for your practicing. Click here to check them out.
Becoming a pro drummer Part 2
In Part 2 of this blog, I’ll share about how to develop a sincere love for practicing. I love to practice. It feels so good. you gotta feel that way about practicing if you want to become a pro drummer. You’ve got to get used to the idea that you’re going to be practicing a lot and it’s a joy! Really!
The other thing I’m going to share is the need for you to perform as much as possible. Put yourself in as many different musical situations playing drums as you can. You’ve got to get mileage on your playing. You’ve got to get experience. The only way to do that is to play!
Thanks for reading my blog! I’m very happy that we connected. Please subscribe and I’m really looking forward to sharing more with you! KEEP ON DRUMMIN’!
If you enjoyed this post, you might also like my blog post LEARN DRUMS FAST.
PREPARE FOR YOUR JAZZ GIGS. Download high-quality, effective DRUMLESS TRACKS. Improve your time, feel, comping and soloing. Learn to play better with real musicians.
For fun and free YouTube JAZZ DRUM LESSONS.
Also check out my BEYOND DRUM BEATS PODCAST. If you are pursuing a career in music and drumming, this podcast is a valuable resource.