The Most Important Skill To Get Drumming Work

Want more drumming work? In this article, I’m going to share with you the one thing that will get you more gigs than anything else. It might even surprise you.

The next time you’re playing with other musicians try this. Don’t listen to the drums. This might sound strange there’s a very good reason to do this and it will definitely get you more drumming work.

The players that get lots of drumming work know how to listen

If you really want to get more drumming gigs, then don’t listen to yourself play the drums. Listen instead to the other musicians in the band when you’re playing.

Even if you’re listening to recorded music, try not to listen to the drums. This is a simple shift in focus that will help you understand your role in the band.

It will also help you know clearly what you should play at any time in the music. After listening to all of the other instruments and vocals, then listen to the drums.

Listening the right way will get you more drumming work.
Develop BIG ears for listening to the other instruments.

As drummers we’re just like all other musicians. We like the sound of our instrument and like to listen to it.

Everything we play on the drums though, has to be connected to the music and what’s happening in the music. Without that connection, we’re just basically soloing on our instrument for ourselves. SOLO, SOLO, SOLO, SOLO….This is one of the things that gives drummers a really bad reputation.

The way we don’t get more drumming work

Here’s a typical scenario for how to not get more drumming work. 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.

Then we sit at home thinking, “I was sooo good! That gig was a blast! Why don’t they call me for the next gig?” This scenario has definitely happened to me.

I was still figuring out the listening thing at Berklee.  I didn't have so much drumming work then.
Me in my Berklee days around 1992 learning how to listen.

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, I listened a lot 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 note-for-note into playing situations.

It didn’t sound good when I played it and I couldn’t figure out why it wasn’t working. It worked so great for Tony Williams but why not for me? Well, here is the reason, CONTEXT IS KING.

Below is one of the recordings I listened to a lot. I’m using affiliate links which are a convenient way to get your music and an easy way to support this blog. Thank you🤙

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.”

Instead, he was really inside the music. He responded, interacted and communicated with the other musicians through the drums. That’s why his playing was so incredible!

Musical context is most important

A subscriber on my YouTube drumming channel asked me a question about my Single-Stroke Four brushes video. He asked if practicing the pattern at really fast speeds is helpful too.

My response was to think first about the context in which he is using any drumming pattern. So with a groove, a hand pattern, or a rhythmic idea, think, “What does the music need?” If he thinks this way, he’ll know exactly how fast to play the pattern.

Some things we play only fit into a specific musical context. They’re not going to work with everything. Sure, it’s good to practice playing everything at different speeds.

It’s important though, not to think of drumming as a one-size-fits-all approach. For example, in a Swing context, the Single-Stroke Four works great with brushes for ballad tempos up to about 180 beats per minute.

The pattern loses its smoothness when you start going too fast. Above 180 BPM it sounds like drum chops rather than something that blends with the music.

How to listen during your drumming work

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.

All of the new things I want to learn basically stay in the practice room. I don’t practice them on a gig. This allows me to keep my ears open and stay focused in the musical moment.

If I do this, I can hear the rhythm, phrasing, dynamics and color of the other instruments. Then I can respond to those things musically.


Another article you might enjoy goes deep into drumming dynamics and how this will also increase your drumming work.


Drummers with big listening ears get most of the drumming work.
Ear door handles. Well, there’s a first for everything!

The key here is to listen. In the beginning, it takes more focused concentration but gets easier with time. Once you are able to master listening, more drum gigs will come your way.

So let’s use a specific combination of musicians to demonstrate listening and connecting with the music. I’ll use a Jazz quintet with piano, bass, drums, sax and vocals as an example. Let’s start with the bass player.

1 – Listen to the bass player

Listen to the bass player first to get more drumming work.

The first person I listen to on all of my drum gigs, is the bass player. Here’s a list of things I focus on:

  • Is the time on top of the beat, on the beat or behind the beat?
  • Am I locking in with them? “Locking in” means, are we connected in our time and feel.
  • Is there space their groove or do they play many notes?
  • Is their volume soft, normal or loud?

Check out this article to learn how listening will get you more gigs.


2 – Listen to the pianist

Listen to the piano player second to get more drumming work.

The next person I focus my attention on is the piano player. These are the things I listen for in a pianist’s playing:

  • 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?
  • Are they filling in all of the space in the music with piano fills?
  • Are they playing loud, normal or soft?

You might also enjoy my article about Jazz drums comping. It’ll give you a better idea of what it is and how you can use it in your playing.


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 in the tune. I can then start to map out the number of measures in each section of the song (If I don’t have a chart).

Here’s a quick video where I talk down my thinking during the piano solo on one of my gigs. I touch on some of the items in my list above.

3 – Listen to the sax player

Listen to the sax player third to get more drumming work.

The third person I listen to on all of my drum gigs, is the saxophonist. Here’s my list of things I listen for in the sax playing:

  • Do they repeat 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.
  • Do they use less or more notes when they play the melody.
  • Are they playing behind the beat? Many sax players do this.

A lot of great sax players will leave open space in the music for other band members to insert some ideas. This is really fun and let’s us finish their musical phrases.

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 band members should be listening to each other all the time. That’s because in Jazz music, we’re always having a musical conversation.

An important note about sax player time

Sax players often will play behind the beat so it’ll feel like they’re dragging or slowing down. Don’t follow them but instead keep playing steady time in a consistent tempo. This is called playing behind the beat and it’s a stylistic approach to create interesting rhythmic tension.

4 – Listen to the vocalist

Listen to the vocalist last to get more drumming work.

Now let’s talk about the singer. Most of my drumming work involves a singer.

With singers I listen to these things:

  • First, I listen to the lyrics and melody of the song. Are they sad, happy or melancholy?
  • What is the overall tone or emotion of the singer’s interpretation of the song?
  • Does the singer have a soft, normal or loud voice?

All of these things affect 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 also 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. It’s important never to overpower a singer. They’re telling the story that everyone wants to hear.

The overall dynamic

On the gig, the most important thing about volume is to be able to hear everyone. If I can’t, then I adjust my volume to the quietest instrument.

The quietest player is usually the acoustic bass player that doesn’t use an amp or the singer. I’ll keep lowering my volume until I can hear every note they’re playing or singing. When I do that, the whole group comes together dynamically.

Balance your sound with the quietist instrument and you'll get more drumming work.
In Japan, I get to listen to interesting instruments in my drumming work. That’s a koto player in the front.

Confident playing is the goal for all drumming work

I didn’t list your drumming as something to listen to because the goal here is for you to be so confident in your playing that you don’t pay attention to it. Developing this confidence on your kit will let you focus 100% of your attention on the music.

We want the band to become the vocals, piano, bass and drums, INSTRUMENT. Many people but one sound. You being a confident drummer will allow this to happen more naturally.

Here’s a video of me playing with a band creating a unified sound.

One drum-related thing I want to mention is about soloing on the drums. Soloing is something that if it’s done tastefully and dynamically can really get you more drumming work.


You might also enjoy my article about how to play a great Jazz drum solo.


If you’re looking to gain confidence in your Jazz drumming, I’ve got some great courses for you at jazzdrumschool.com.

Conclusion

I’ve shared some specific examples of how I listen in my drumming work. This order of listening allows me to connect my playing with the music and other musicians’ playing. The music context I shared is a Jazz gig, but it’s the same with almost all musical situations.

Try and do this kind of active listening from the beginning to the ending of your drumming gigs. You’ll then be able to subtly adjust your playing and match the evolving sound of the music.

Take a break from listening to the drums and focus intently on what the other instruments are playing. The music is going to open up before your very ears and you’ll more clearly know what to play.

Listen to the rest of the musicians in the band first and then you’ll really understand your role in the sound. KEEP ON DRUMMIN’!

What instrument do you listen to most when you play drums with other musicians?


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