The best drummers are not always the best. Did you know that you also don’t have to be the best drummer? Do you think I’m crazy to say something like that? Aren’t we all supposed to strive to be the best drummer we can be?
Let’s think for a minute about the great famous drummers past and present. Many use different drumming techniques, play different styles of music, have different levels of ability, play different sizes and types of drums and cymbals, use different sticks and brushes and are different ages.
There’s a lot of variation between famous drummers. Some of my favorite famous drummers are 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, Chris Dave, Mark Guiliana, Teo Lima and many others. When I hear these drummers play only a few measures, I can pretty much figure out that it’s them.
The best drummers have this
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 there is something else that sets them apart. They have an easily identifiable and unique sound.
Their sound is their voice. I would argue that this is infinitely 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. Drumming mechanics are going to get you far for sure, but it’s the process of transcoding that technique into sound that makes us all unique.
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, 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 several other drummers combining that with my own unique sound. If I had to put a percentage on it, my sound is probably 20% other drummers and 80% 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 I sound like ME!
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 on the back of 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 late forties, 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.
How to develop your sound like the best 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 small person to an adult. In the beginning, you’re imitating great drummers and that’s good! You listen and play along to those recordings. It gives you a good foundation of what’s already been done.
What is often neglected in drumming education is learn the language of music. In drum lessons, we mostly learn drumming language. Things like paradiddles, rolls, grooves and other things are the focus of our studies. Learning the language of music and in particular, Jazz music, will help you much more. The best way to do that is to listen to and absorb other instrumentalists’ playing.
Check out my blog post DRUMMING GIGS. LISTEN TO GET MORE. I teach you how to listen effectively to other instrumentalists.
The instrumentalists I listened to
When I was young, I listened and played to a lot of the Ray Brown Trio albums. Ray’s bass sound is unmistakable and I can identify him on almost any recording he is playing. I developed a really strong quarter note pulse in my playing because of Ray Brown. That came from all those years playing along with recordings of his trio and the Oscar Peterson Trio, in which he was the bassist.
In Ray’s recordings, the great Jazz drummers I listened to most were Jeff Hamilton (Ray Brown Trio) and Ed Thigpen (Oscar Peterson Trio).
The great Jazz pianist Ahmad Jamal, is another person from whom I learned the language of Jazz. One of Jazz’s most famous drummers, 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 playing, I didn’t know it, but I was also absorbing Ahmad Jamal’s playing.
Miles Davis teaches my drum students Jazz language
Miles Davis is another great musician I 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 start to understand Jazz language.
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. 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 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, you will naturally learn the language of Jazz. It’s going to help you develop a musical sound, a musical voice, not just a drumistic voice.
As a final thought, I just want to share the pitfall of the “best drummer” thinking. If we think we have to become the best drummer in the World (better than anyone else), just realize that somebody is going to be better than you in the future. Even if everyone agrees that you are the “best” drummer now, someone else will come along to snatch that crown away from you.
There are a multitude of drummers better than me. 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 post is helps you develop your sound and think about connecting your sound to the music. Doing both of those things is going to get you so many more playing opportunities. Thanks so much for reading and KEEP ON DRUMMIN’!
You might also like my blog post THE BEST DRUMMING TECHNIQUE to learn about the power of the Moeller Technique!
PREPARE FOR YOUR JAZZ GIGS. Download high-quality, effective DRUMLESS TRACKS. Improve your time, feel, comping and soloing. Learn to play better with real musicians.
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Also check out my BEYOND DRUM BEATS PODCAST. If you are pursuing a career in music and drumming, this podcast is a valuable resource.