Want more drumming gigs? I’m going to tell you the one thing that will get you more drumming gigs than anything else. It will probably surprise you.


I can hear you saying to yourself, “What the heck! This is a drumming blog!” Well, hear me out.

Do you really want more drumming gigs?

If you really want to get more drumming gigs, then don’t listen to the drums. Listen to the other musicians in the band when you’re playing or listening to music. This simple shift in focus, will help you understand your place in the music and know clearly what is appropriate to play. After listening to all of the other instruments and vocals, listen to the drums last.

Develop BIG ears for listening to the other instruments.

You see, drummers are just like other musicians. We’re pretty self-centered about our instrument. Well, drums are the best anyway, right? So, everything we play on the drums has to be connected to the music and what’s happening in the music. Without that connection, we’re just soloing on our instrument for one person only, ourselves. SOLO, SOLO, SOLO, SOLO….This is one of the things that gets drummers a really bad reputation.

How NOT to get more drumming gigs

Here’s a typical scenario for how to not get more drumming gigs. We show up to the gig. We play a whole lot of really loud and fast stuff. We think we’re impressing musicians and maybe some attractive person in the audience. We pack up our drums and go home.

How come they’re not calling me for the next gig???

Then we sit at home thinking, “I was badass!” I played my butt off at that gig. Man, I was cookin’! I just don’t understand. How come they’re not calling me for the next gig???”

Me in my Berklee days around 1992 learning how to listen.

Okay. Hey, look, I’ve been there. When I was younger, I had this habit of listening to recordings and lifting out a particular fill or a groove that I liked. Then I’d try to fit it into all of my playing situations. As you might guess, that didn’t go so well. It was like a music train flying off the tracks from a really high bridge straight down into a ravine. A train wreck!

Around that same time, listened voraciously to Jazz drummer Tony Williams and his recordings with the great trumpeter Miles Davis. I used to try to copy what he played and insert it into playing situations. It just didn’t sound good and I couldn’t figure out why it wasn’t working. It worked so great for him. Why not for me too? Well, here is the reason, CONTEXT. CONTEXT IS KING.

Tony Williams’ amazing playing

So, Mr. Williams was responding and playing in the context of a constantly evolving musical situation with other human beings. His playing was inspired from the music. It wasn’t some preconceived drum lick idea, drum fill or groove. He didn’t show up with a bag of drum tricks and say, “I’m going to play a Six-Stroke Roll over here. Then, I’m going to do a little spang-ga-lang, a snare pop and a big cymbal crash.”

It wasn’t like that at all. He was really in the music. He responded, interacted and communicated with the other musicians. That’s what was happening and why his playing was so incredible!

What does the music need?

Musical context is most important

Recently, a subscriber on drumming4life.com asked me a question about the Single-Stroke Four brushes video I posted. He asked if he should practice this pattern at really fast speeds too? My response was to think first about the context in which you are using any drumming pattern. So with a groove, a hand pattern, or a rhythmic idea, think, “What does the music need?” This is my thinking on all of my drumming gigs.

Some things we play only fit into a specific musical context. They’re not going to work with everything. Drumming is not a one-size-fits-all approach. In a Swing context, the Single-Stroke Four works great with brushes for ballad tempos up to about 180 beats per minute.

The Single-Stroke Four loses its smoothness when you start going too fast. Above 180 BPM it starts to get choppy sounding. It becomes like drum gymnastics which is missing the point of playing with brushes.

How to listen on the drum gig

Can you guess what these door handles are?

Once you are able to master this skill, more drumming work will be coming your way!

So let’s talk about a specific example of how to listen and really connect with the music. I’ll use a Jazz quintet with piano, bass, drums, sax and vocals as an example. You might also check out my post MUSIC DYNAMICS FOR DRUMMERS to learn about another thing related to listening.

On all of my drum gigs, from start to finish, I always think about what’s happening in the music. I’m not thinking about how I’m going to fit my latest drum lick into every song. As I said earlier, it doesn’t work that way. I need to practice all of the drummy things that I want to learn in the practice room. I never practice them on a gig. It’s important to keep my ears open and stay focused in the musical moment. If I do this, I can hear rhythm, phrasing, dynamics, etc..of the other instruments and I’m going to respond to those things.

The key here is, listen, listen, listen. In the beginning, it takes a huge amount of concentration but gets easier with time. Once you are able to master this skill, more drum gigs will be coming your way!

First, listen to the bassist

The first person I listen to on all of my drum gigs, is the bass player. How is his or her rhythmic groove. What is their time and feel like? Does the bassist leave space in the music or are they playing kind of busy? Am I locking in with them? “Locking in” means, are we connected in our time and feel?

Next listen to the pianist

The next person I focus my attention on is the piano player. What kind of rhythmic patterns are they playing? Is my rhythmic accompanying (or “comping” for short) complimentary to their playing? Are we creating rhythmic counterpoint together? Am I playing too much or is the pianist really busy? Are they filling in every nook and cranny that I’m trying to play?

If it’s a new song for me, I’ll also listen to the chords. When I hear the resolution of the chords, I know we’re going to a new section. I can then start to map out the number of measures in each section of the tune (If I don’t have a chart). I’m also listening to the pianists dynamics and responding appropriately on the drums.

Thirdly, listen to the sax player

The third person I listen to on all of my drum gigs, is the saxophonist. During the sax solo, are they repeating rhythmic motifs or riffing on ideas? I can hook into that. As a drummer, that can be a lot of fun. Are they leaving space for me to complete or add to their melodic ideas? Some of the best sax players I play with do that.

We’re having a conversation.

They’ll leave an open space in the music for the other players to insert some ideas. They won’t try to play every single note. They’ll leave out things and let us finish the phrases. It’s a lot of fun.

Sometimes the sax player will repeat my rhythmic ideas back to me or take that rhythmic idea and go in another direction. That’s one way I can tell if the sax player is listening to me too. In fact, it’s important to note that ALL members should be listening to each other all the time. We’re having a conversation.

Finally, listen to the vocalist

Now let’s talk about the singer. Many of my drum gigs involve a singer. With singers, the first thing I listen to are the lyrics and melody of the song. Are they sad, happy or melancholy? What is the overall tone or emotion of the song? That affects how I’m going to play the drums. Depending on the emotion I may play brushes or sticks, play soft or loud, relaxed or high energy. Sometimes, it depends what the lyrics are communicating.

Some singers have very small voices and some are very powerful. The dynamic of the singer’s voice also changes how I play.

The most important listening on all drum gigs

The most important thing I’m listening for is if I can I hear everything. If I can’t, then I adjust my volume to be able to hear the quietest instrument. The quietest player is usually the acoustic bass player that doesn’t use an amp. I’ll keep lowering my volume until I can hear every note that bass player is playing. When I do that, the whole group comes together dynamically.

In Japan, I have really interesting drumming work! That’s a koto player in the front!

These are some examples of listening to connect your instrument to the music and other musicians. You’ll want to do this active listening throughout all of your drum gigs, not just at the beginning. It’s like sound checking 10,000 times during your gig. If you use active listening, you’re going to be able to subtly adjust your playing to match the evolving atmosphere of the music.

Confident playing is the goal for all drumming work

Did you notice I didn’t say anything about listening to your drumming? That’s because the goal here is for you to be so confident in your ability to play on the drums that you don’t pay attention to your playing. Instead, you hear the unified sound of the group. Check out by post, GOAL SETTING FOR DRUMMERS to learn how to get the most from your drum practice sessions.

The band then becomes the vocals, piano, bass and drums, INSTRUMENT. It’s no longer individual instrument sounds. You become one sound. That’s the goal. I shared an example of a Jazz gig context, but it’s the same with almost all musical situations.

One drum-related thing I want to mention relates to soloing on the drums. Soloing is something that if it’s done tastefully and dynamically connected to the music, it can really get you more drumming work. If you are looking to earn money drumming, check out this blog post.

Let’s recap

So, on all of your drum gigs, it’s time to stop listening to yourself. Take a break from all of that and focus intently on what the other instruments are playing. The music is going to expand before your very ears! It will then be revealed to you, what you should play. Listen to the rest of the musicians in the band first and then you’ll REALLY understand your role in the sound. Thanks for reading! Please be safe out there and as always, KEEP ON DRUMMIN’!

Also check out LEARN DRUMS FAST to learn how to learn faster in all of your practice sessions.

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