Best drummers in the World
The best drummers in the World are not always the most skilled. Instead, they have a secret weapon that guarantees they get called for gigs. In this article, I’m going to share what that secret is and how you can get it too.
Did you know that you also don’t have to be the best drummer in the World to be successful? You don’t need insane chops, have to play 100 different drum grooves or need to be able to play in 13/16 time signatures.
Let’s think for a minute about the great famous drummers past and present. Many use different drumming techniques, play different styles of music and have different levels of ability. They also play different sizes and types of drums and cymbals, use different sticks and brushes and are different ages.
The best drummers ever
There’s a lot of variation within the best drummers ever group. Some of my favorite famous drummers like Tony Williams, Jeff Hamilton, Jack Dejohnette, Peter Erskine, Brian Blade, Mel Lewis, Vinnie Colaiuta, Harvey, Mason, Vernel Fournier, Ed Thigpen, Papa Joe Jones, Clyde Stubblefield, Steve Jordan, Chris Dave, Mark Guiliana, Teo Lima each have something unique. When I hear these drummers play only a few measures, I know it’s them.
Why do I think of them as the best drummers? If there are so many things that are different about them, what makes them so successful? Yes, they are all really good at drumming but it’s their sound that sets them apart. They have an easily identifiable and unique sound.
Their “sound” is their voice on the drums. I think that a unique sound is much more important than being the best drummer, technically speaking. Yes, we have to learn our craft and play drums well. This is undeniable.
The best drummers can play and have a sound
It’s also very important that you develop a recognizable voice or sound on the drums. All of the great drummers’ sound is the biggest reason for their success regardless of their style of drumming. Drumming ability is going to get you far for sure, but it’s the process of transforming that ability into sound that makes us all individuals on the drum kit.
So I’ve heard it said that it takes about seven years of imitation before a drummer begins to create his or her own unique sound. I’m really not sure where that came from but I think in fact, we begin to create our sound on the drums from the first note we ever play.
Your sound is your musical fingerprint
Just like a fingerprint, in drumming, we are all unique and will never sound exactly like anyone else. From time to time, people say I sound like Jeff Hamilton. Since I was 16, he’s had a profound influence on my playing. I copied Jeff’s playing for several years when I was starting out.
Over the years however, his sound has blended with all of my other drum heroes. The sounds of famous drummers like Peter Erskine, Papa, Joe Jones and Vernell Fournier can also be heard in my drumming.
So I sometimes sound similar to Jeff. At the same time, I’m channeling the sounds of several other drummers and blending that with my own unique sound. If I had to put a percentage on it, my sound is probably 10% other drummers and 90% my own.
When I started out, it was probably the opposite or maybe even 10% me and 90% other drummers. It seems like the older I get, the more my sound is formed.
Your time is one part of your sound
One important part of your sound is where you feel the time. Time is how we feel the tempo of a song we are playing. When I was at Berklee College of Music, I had a great teacher who I’ve talked about before.
His name is Joe Hunt. He has played with Stan Getz, Bill Evans and Gary Burton. He always told me in lessons that, “We play our personality.”
For example, if I’m an energetic personality, I’m more likely to play a little bit ahead of the beat and feel time that way. If I’m a laid back kind of person, I’m probably going to play more relaxed and behind the beat.
I think he was right because when I was in my twenties, I had so much more energy. I was a high energy personality AND I tended to rush everything.
Now in my early 50’s, I tend to play things right on time or a little bit behind the beat. Where we play time as drummers affects our sound. As my personality changed over the years, so did my timing and my sound.
Here’s a video of me playing some slow burning Jazz Swing. I’m sure you can hear how laid back I am playing. I definitely didn’t play this way during my Berklee days.
Your touch is another part of your sound
Another part of your sound is how you hit the drums. Some drummers have a light, airy way of playing. Other drummers, hit hard.
Technique can make a big difference in your touch and ultimately the tone you produce from the drums. Some drummers use technique that pulls the sound from the drums while others may choose to pound the sound into the drum set.
I’m not judging one to be right and another to be wrong. I just want you to know that like time, your touch will definitely impact your overall sound.
You might also like my article about the Best Drumming Technique. It’s about the power of the Moeller Technique and how I use it to get great tone from my drums.
Develop your sound like the best Jazz drummers
So then, the logical question from here is, “How do you develop your sound on the drums?” Well, it’s going to happen naturally, just like your body growing from a child to an adult.
In the beginning, you’ll be imitating great drummers and that’s good. Listen and play along with great recordings. It’ll give you a solid foundation of what’s already been played.
You’ll imitate their feel, touch, time and dynamics. You’ll store those things in your brain and body. They’ll become a part of your drumming sound.
What is often neglected in drumming education, is learning the language of music. In drum lessons, we learn mostly drumming language. Things like paradiddles, rolls, grooves and other things are usually the focus of our studies.
I don’t think enough attention is paid to connecting all of these things to the act of actually playing music with other musicians. Connecting our drumming to other musicians’ playing requires that we understand something deeper than drumming alone. For this skill, we have to learn the language of music.
Learning the language of music, more than just drumming technique and ability, is what will develop our sound much faster.
How to learn the language of music
Learning the language of music and in particular, Jazz music, will help you develop your drumming sound for any style of music. That’s because in Jazz music, we train to listen to all of the instruments in the band, not just the drums.
When you listen to your favorite recordings, try not to focus so much on the drums. Instead focus on what the other instruments are playing around the drummer. The best drummers listen to everyone else’s playing to get ideas for what they will play on the drums.
In Jazz music, everyone is listening intently to each other from the start to the finish of each song. This approach to playing will teach you how to listen and adapt to almost every other contemporary music out there.
Learn Jazz-Funk drumming at my Jazz Drum School online.
You’ll be able to listen to all of the other instruments and easily figure out what is best for you to play. That’s why I suggest that you learn Jazz language first. It will prepare you for any musical situation.
While you’re listening and absorbing the playing of the other musicians, you’ll also be developing a consistent musical, not only rhythmic, sound. This is the sound that will get you the gigs.
It’ll get you the gigs because your drumming sound will blend with the sound of the other instruments. This is very pleasing to other musicians and makes the music sound great.
In my article The Most Important Skill To Get More Drumming Work, I teach you how to listen effectively to other instrumentalists.
The musicians who taught me Jazz language
When I was young, I listened and played to a lot of the Ray Brown recordings. Ray’s bass sound is unmistakable and I can identify him on almost any recording he is playing.
I developed a really strong and fat quarter note pulse in my playing because of Ray Brown. That came from all those years of playing along with his recordings.
In Ray’s recordings, the great Jazz drummers I listened to the most were Jeff Hamilton (Ray Brown Trio) and Ed Thigpen (Oscar Peterson Trio).
The tracks from Bam Bam Bam have also been reissued in the album below.
The great Jazz pianist Ahmad Jamal, is another musician’s language I studied. The legendary drummer Jazz Vernell Fournier was Ahmad Jamal’s drummer in the early years of his trio.
I used to love Vernell’s brush playing. While I was copying Vernell’s brush work and sound, I didn’t know it, but I was also absorbing Ahmad Jamal’s playing.
I’ve included affiliate links in this article. Buying your music through me is a convenient way to get your tunes and an easy way to support this drumming blog. Thank you 🤙
Miles Davis teaches my drum students Jazz language
Miles Davis is another great musician from whom I learned the language of Jazz. I have all of my Jazz drumming students learn to sing Miles’ trumpet solo on ‘So What’ from his Kind of Blue album. That solo helps them to start understanding the language of Jazz and music.
Students then learn to play the solo on the drums. They imitate the pitch first playing higher pitches on the cymbals, hi-hat or snare drum.
Learn this exercise and many others to make your drumming more musical. Sign up for private online drum lessons with me.
The lower pitches are the toms and bass drum. You can also pitch bend your tom-tom drum heads with your sticks (One stick pushes on the head while the other one taps the head).
One of the best and most famous Jazz drummers in history, Art Blakey, used to pitch bend the snare drum with his elbow. All of this gives you the opportunity to match the pitch and rhythm of other instrumental solos.
Through this kind of practice, you will naturally learn the language of Jazz. It’s also going to help you develop a musical sound, a musical voice and not just a drumistic voice.
So don’t underestimate the importance of your sound in your success. If you’ve got a pleasing and consistent sound, you’re going to get more gigs. It’s just the natural order of things.
Focus on your touch, time and learn the language of music not only drumming. At the end of the day, you’ve got to be able to connect your drumming to what the other musicians are playing. Doing these three things will make your drumming and the music sound its best.
No such thing as the best drummer in the World
As a final thought, I just want to share the pitfall of “best drummer” thinking. If we think we have to become the best drummer in the World, somebody is eventually going to be better than us in the future. Even if everyone agrees that we are the “best” drummer now, someone else will come along to snatch that crown away at some point.
There are millions of drummers that are better than me in terms of drumming ability. Even so, there’s only one ME that has my unique sound on the drums. There’s only one YOU that has your unique sound on the drums. Your unique sound will give you much more success than drumming mechanics and technique alone.
I hope this article helps you develop your sound. Get your sound happening and many more playing opportunities will come your way. Thanks so much for reading and KEEP ON DRUMMIN’!
Do you think you have a distinctive sound on the drums?
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