BE MORE THAN A DRUMMERS’ DRUMMER

Man, I wish I had a dollar for all the Jazz gigs I’ve watched with wild drummers. Where they over-played the songs or launched into arena-style Rock drum solos during the fours and eights. I tell you, I’d have a pretty fat wallet today.

Jazz drumming and Jazz drum solos are not opportunities to show off. They’re an opportunity to connect more deeply with your fellow musicians. It’s an opportunity to create music together that you couldn’t do alone.

The best drummers

The drummers we admire for their drumming ability are actually not successful because of their drumming alone. Their success comes from their ability to connect their drumming to the music. They know precisely when it’s right to add in a spicy drum fill, get busier with the groove or play simply to support the band.

For example, think about the drummers we view as drummers’ drummers. That is, the drummers we think have the meatiest grooves, most fantastic chops and basically keep our chins on the floor from the beginning to the end of night.

Steve Gadd is a drummers' drummer but he is also the favorite drummer for vocalists and other musicians.
Steve Gadd at Billboard Live in Osaka, Japan

Modern day drummers like Steve Gadd, Vinnie Colaiuta, Steve Jordan, Dennis Chambers, Gregory Hutchinson, Jeff Hamilton, Peter Erskine, Jack DeJohnette fall into that category. From our drummer’s perspective, they are definitely drummers’ drummers.

They’re fun to watch and always leave us wanting more. If you ask any of the people they play with though, I’m sure you would get a different view.

You’d probably hear that they are in fact the singers’ drummer, bass players’ drummer, pianists’ drummer, guitarists drummer or sax players’ drummer. The best of the best drummers, know how to play to the music. They don’t overplay the groove or fills and never act like their gorging themselves at an all-you-can-eat buffet every time they get a solo.

Don’t play for drummers

When I was younger, I used to feel pressure to impress other drummers. Especially when I was at Berklee College of Music in Boston. You could walk down the corridor of practice rooms and hear drummers shredding their best chops. I think we all kind of got caught up in that vibe.

Now that I am older and hopefully wiser, other drummers’ opinions of my playing don’t concern me. I care how the vocalist thinks I am accompanying her singing. I want to know if the musical director thinks I’m too loud or too soft. My goal is always to make the other musicians feel comfortable with with the music.

I’ve only had a few gigs in my life where the band was all drummers. 99% of all of my gigs in 35 years of Jazz drumming, came from playing with vocalists or other musicians. This is the biggest reason why I don’t bother impressing drummers with my skill.

Drummers play a support instrument first and foremost.

Also, when I play, I am not listening to drumming (something I talk about more my blog post “Drumming Gigs – Listen To Get More“). I am listening to everyone else in the band. I want to hear what they are saying with their instruments. If I can understand their phrasing and musical language, I will then know what I can play that will complement their performance.

Drummers Chops

Regarding chops, I can shred on the drums too. In reality though, I only get to do that maybe 2% of the time on a typical gig. Sometimes I don’t do it at all. If I’m on a gig and the time isn’t strong, I may just play quarter notes on the ride cymbal all night. I mean someone’s got to be the time police to keep things in check or the music gets out of control.

Those times when I can let loose a little, like in the video below, I stay in the same musical context. I choose notes and rhythmic phrases that contribute to the overall feeling of the song. As drummers, we always have to think, “How is me being here making the music sound better than if I wasn’t here.”

Remember who pays us

If I had to put a percentage on the number of gigs I’ve played involving a vocalist it’s probably at around 80%. Lately, I’ve been getting called to do a lot of studio work for vocalists. It pays pretty good too!

Accompanying a vocalist, especially in Jazz, is an art form unto itself. Knowing when to leave space, do a fill, simplify my groove or even change my cymbal color took years of experience. It has certainly paid off too.

If it’s not a singer paying me, its a pianist, guitarist, sax player or bassist. I rarely if ever, get paid by a drummer. Certainly not the drummer in the third row of the hall who says, “Man, that was some cool drumming.” I appreciate the compliment, but I can’t pay my bills with compliments.

Focus your ears and your drumming on connecting with the other band members and they’ll keep calling you back for more.

Sum it up

So, take the pressure off. Don’t play to impress other drummers, play to support the other musicians in the band and make the music sound great.

Step onto the bandstand or into the recording studio and only think about the music that’s going on around you. It will open up many more playing opportunities for you. Musicians talk and recommend drummers to each other all the time. Be the drummer they recommend!

If you need some help with your Jazz drumming, I also teach private Zoom lessons. I’d be happy to help.

Take the music and the musicians to a level of playing they’ve never experienced. Be the foundation in the music that allows everyone, including yourself, to relax and be the most creative you can be.

Oh yeah and guess what? Being the drummer for everyone else makes the music so much more fun too! Keep swingin’ my friend!


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