This article is the first in a series about 5 things that helped me to become a successful professional drummer. If you’re thinking about pursuing a drumming career or just expanding your drumming hobby, these things will help you.
A professional drummer is more than a beat maker
People often think of drummers as beat makers with no musical sense. Basically like Neanderthals with drum sticks.
Over the years, I’ve seen drummers like that and I’ve played like that too at times. So there’s a reason for the reputation. Even so, I’m tired of hearing the way people talk about drummers. They talk about us like we don’t know what’s going on in the music.
There are times however, where drummers really don’t know what’s going on. They’re not connected to the music. They’re just playing whatever they want to play whether it fits the music or not.
It’s time to change our reputation drummers. Here are the 5 things will help any drummer become a professional drummer.
How long does it take to learn drums?
I’ve been playing drums now for almost 35 years. It’s hard to believe because time passed so quickly (I wish life went a little slower). When I started playing drums at 15 years old, I was a older than most.
Even though I had to wait until I was 15, I knew I wanted to be a professional drummer. At about age 23 I was gigging a lot and had turned professional.
So for me it took about 8 years of dedication to be making decent money playing drums. Check out my article about 5 ways to make money playing drums.
In the beginning, I didn’t know how it was going to happen but I knew professional drummer 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 really hard.
When I saw him play for the first time at that camp I said to myself, “THAT’S WHAT I WANT TO DO!” “I WANT TO BE LIKE THAT.”
The first two things to be a professional drummer
I had a lot more hair in my early drumming days. From that time until now there are 5 things that clearly directed my path toward becoming an A-List professional drummer. In this article, I’ll share the first two.
1 – Have a passion for drumming and rhythm
The first thing I think you need to become a professional drummer is a passion for drumming and rhythm. If you were the kid siting in class making drum beats on the desk, and the teacher says, “Hey, knock it off!” That’s a good 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 good sign. Pay attention to these moments because you might have 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 looked fun.
When I was in sixth grade, I got really into Break Dancing and early Hip-Hop music. That time really helped me feel rhythm from my head to my feet. Breaking and Hip-Hop transformed my whole sense of what was possible in music.
Billy Joel’s advice
So rhythm has got to move you. It’s got to move you physically and emotionally. A few years back, I was watching an inspiring Billy Joel lecture on YouTube.
He was speaking at the University of Pennsylvania. During the Q & A session, one student asked him if you have to be born with musical talent. Mr. Joel’s answer was great. He said we have certain amount of inborn musical skill but we 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 do.
The path of a professional 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 always going to be an easy path.
For example, the pandemic cancelled most of my gigs for 2 years. I could have given up but music is what I do. Quitting never entered my mind.
Billy Joel’s point is that you’ve gotta have passion for music. You’ve got to have drive because you have to make it through the tough times.
The gumption and passion to learn your craft, have to be inside you. It’s not something you can do half way. If you want to be a professional drummer, you gotta dive in 100%.
2 – Get a good drum teacher
When I was starting off, I thought the best way to learn drums would be to find someone who is already good at drumming and learn from them.
Sometimes I’m at a gig and drummer will come up to talk to me. About 50% of the time drummers will share that they’re self-taught. They’ve never had any private instruction.
I just have to stop for second after catching my tongue. I don’t want to say what I’m thinking but what I’m always thinking is, “I’m so sorry to hear that.”
Learn from a professional drummer
I know it seems courageous to learn to play drums on your own. It does really show a lot of dedication for drumming. I think though, it’s a whole lot easier if you can just find someone who’s already a solid drummer and learn from them!
A drummer who’s got a successful instruction method to help you play the music you want to play. We play drums because we want to have fun so find someone who’ll help you get to the fun as quickly as possible.
Some of my drum teachers over the years from left to right and top to bottom: Doug Auwarter, Jeff Hamilton, Todd Strait, John Cushon, Joe Hunt and Noel Okimoto (center).
A respected player and teacher is best
It’s always best to find a respected professional drummer who loves to teach. You need someone who’s both a really good player and teacher.
The respected player who also teaches
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.
It’s very important because some drummers are really great players but they can’t explain what they’re doing. If you ask them, “How did you play that fill?” they’ll say, “I really don’t know. I just play it.”
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 on the drums.
The theoretical teacher
There are also the theoretical teachers. They don’t have much performance experience or a performance background to know what’s most appropriate to teach and what’s not.
They end up giving you heaps of drumming exercises that may or may not actually help you play in the real world of music.
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. Keep searching until you find a respected professional drummer that can also explain things in a way that you understand.
A complete drum instruction method
I think your teacher also really needs to have a comprehensive drum teaching method. Something that covers the fundamentals you’ll need to know to play any style of music. A way to help drummers become musicians and play with more musicality.
Musicality doesn’t necessarily mean Jazz. I’m mostly a professional Jazz drummer but I play a lot of different styles of music. I can play heavier music like Hip-Hop and Funk and soft Jazz ballads with brushes.
Drumming technique is also very important to both play your best and avoid injury. I have another article called The Best Drumming Technique that clearly explains the drumming technique I recommend.
Van Halen to Oscar Peterson
Another reason for learning solid drumming fundamentals is they will give you more opportunities to work.
I started off rocking out to Van Halen and AC/DC and later moved toward the Oscar Peterson Trio. Your tastes might change as you learn more on the drums. Give yourself as many choices as you can to play any kind of music you want to play.
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 drumming. A lot of great drummers like Steve Gadd, Vinnie Colaiuta, Chris Dave, Mark Guiliana and others have a foundation in Jazz drumming. It helps them play almost anything that comes their way.
Learn to read music rhythm notation
Learning all of drumming coordination patterns, grooves and drum fills is a lot easier if you can read rhythmic notation. Reading allows you to learn these skills more quickly so you can focus on the music.
Sometimes drummers get really scared about reading music. Online I also see a lot of elaborate systems for writing out drum parts and fills without using standard musical notation.
While those may work now, that style of notation isn’t going to help you on stage or in the recording studio. The real world of music uses standard music notation.
If you go to any kind of recording session, somebody will give you music charts and you’ve got to know how to read them. If you have a rehearsal for a big show, the MD (musical director) is gonna have music charts.
You’ve just got to be able to read music and your drum teacher can help you learn this skill. I teach my students how to read basic standard rhythmic notation in about 10 minutes.
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.
Not reading music is like getting to the top of a mountain and only being able to enjoy half of the view. It’s only getting to see a limited view of the music and you’re not really interacting with it as much as you could be.
So, figure out if you have the passion for drumming and rhythm. If you do, find that great teacher and let them help you learn to play drums. It’ll be so much easier than doing it on your own.
You can supplement what you’re learning from a drum instructor with other courses like those at my jazzdrumschool.com or YouTube videos. It’s great to be open to new information but always have a private teacher for your foundational learning.
If you’re ready to dive into the world of Jazz drummer, you can sign up for a Zoom private drum lesson at my store. Keep swinging my friend!
When was the moment that you decided to be drummer?
Be sure to move on to Part 2 of this series, I’ll share about how to develop a sincere love for practicing and the need for you to perform as much as possible.
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