The modern drum kit recently celebrated its centennial anniversary, proving its importance to a wide range of music. Early 20th century recordings did not feature drums as prominently as in rock era recordings due to the difficulty in capturing loud sounds without distortion. Here’s a look at how today’s drummers contribute to bands with creative and performance talent for live and recorded work.
Timekeeper of the Band
The most important role the drummer plays in a band is keeping a consistent beat. This minimal requirement must not be breached or it can cause other musicians to play out of time. Good experienced drummers who have put in years of practice usually know how to keep a steady beat and add variety to keep the sound interesting. When all the musicians trust the drummer’s timekeeping ability, it allows for a tight-sounding performance with all the players in sync with each other.
Energizing Music with Rhythm and Pulse
Another role of the drummer is to be the pulse of the band. The bass drum often kicks on the first beat of a measure, helping set a pulse and definition to the rhythm. In many ways the drummer sets an overall energy level for the band that helps lift the energy of bandmates. Even when the rhythm is heavily tied with guitars, keyboards or wind instruments, it’s the drummer accenting certain beats that locks in and shapes the rhythmic energy.
Flexible Playing Style
Drummers who are trying to make a career out of regular live playing on the local circuit often need to expand their musical tastes to accommodate popular musical trends. Many times the most money made at the local level is playing familiar cover songs, so it’s important for career-minded drummers to at least understand the various genres happening in the current music scene. Some styles like rock and hip-hop require heavier beats than more traditional forms of popular music.
Simple Playing Mixed with Subtle Techniques
One thing a drummer cannot afford to do is overshadow the vocalist either by overplaying or pounding the drums too loudly. Many times in live settings the drums are mic’d by the sound engineer, but there are also times when the drums don’t require amplification, such as with acoustic performers. In those cases the drummer might switch to brushes to help keep softer beats underneath the singer. Regardless of style, it’s usually a good idea for the drummer to keep the beat simple and add in brief rolls leading to structural changes like choruses.
Listen to Band Input
Another important role for the drummer in a band is to be a good listener to what other musicians are saying. Drums are typically a background instrument, but they also can form the basis for what other musicians do. In recording drum tracks are usually laid down first and then all the other parts are built on top of a solid foundation. Even though drums are more in the background, they still have a presence and help hold the rest of the recording together.
So it’s important for the drummer to know what other band members think about how well percussive elements work with different musical ideas. Sometimes too many good ideas on top of each other can clutter a mix. Keeping drums simple helps prevent this problem. There are times, though, when it’s okay for the drummer to show off talent, but it’s best to have conversations about the arrangement so that everyone’s on the same page.
Even if the drummer is the band’s most talented player, he or she must still listen to the leader of the band, which is often the singer, main songwriter or sometimes a manager. Usually someone who understands arranging, such as a producer/musician, has a deep impact on a band’s sound as far as professional musical development. But it’s still the person paying for a recording who usually has the most influence on the final product’s sound. In that sense, the drummer must be willing to take direction to meet project goals.
Raise the Band’s Credibility
It usually goes without saying that the drummer has to strive for perfection in terms of hitting beats on time accurately. One wrong beat can raise eyebrows in a crowd. Precision drumming comes from a huge investment in practice time, so anyone playing on that level will be in demand as a core musician for a band. It’s also important for the drummer to express appropriate dynamics for a given song so that softer drumming accompanies softer vocals or instrumental passages.
Bringing these drumming skills to a band often determines if the group has a legitimate chance at getting gigs. Many times local club owners just want bands who can keep a crowd dancing, which often comes down to the drummer’s steady beat.
Add Creative Elements
Even though a drummer’s job is pretty straight-forward and is often thought of as the most mechanical dimension of a band, there’s still room for percussive creativity. Drummers often mix up different sounds from their kits to enhance an arrangement. Rolls and fills are brief interludes that allow the tight structure to break the monotony of the same beat. Much of the variation comes from mixing in high-hats and cymbals to create diversity.
It’s often overlooked that drummers interact with the melody of a performance. Each component of the drum kit is tuned to a certain frequency. Sound components like toms make deep booming sounds while a snare generates a high pitch. Adding bells and cymbals gives the drummer a wider range of frequencies to play with.
Beginning drummers often start with a 4-piece set which includes a kick drum, snare, floor tom and mounted tom, which they may supplement with cymbals and pedals. As drummers get more proficient, they add more diverse percussive elements to the kit.
Mentor the Band on Rhythm and Timing
Sometimes the drummer is the most talented or most experienced musician in the band. In those cases a drummer can be a driving resource that improves a band, taking it from a beginner to intermediate or advanced level. Not all singers, songwriters or guitarists understand rhythm and timing as well as a seasoned drummer. Singer/songwriters may write in odd time signatures that lead to complex arrangements. A drummer who understands time signatures can learn nuances easily or suggest an adaptation to be more standard, making it easier for other musicians to learn.
The best drummers tend to be strict about structure and open about feel. When structure is tight and feel is free-flowing, the band is in position to create magic for the audience. One way a knowledgeable drummer can share insights with band members is explaining what each piece of the drum kit does. For guitarists and bassists who have never played drums, this knowledge can be mind-expanding.
Great drummers whose main passion is music often play other instruments such as guitar, bass or keyboards. The more a drummer understands the melodic and harmonic elements of a song, the more he or she can enhance the melody with their access to a diversity of sounds.
Contribute to the Band’s Personality
Not that many drummers are well known on a massive level compared with vocalists. Ringo Starr stood out in history as the drummer of The Beatles partly because he projected a humorous personality in their movies and interviews. In some ways his personality has overshadowed his playing, but he also did innovative things on drums that weren’t done before or since. As a left-handed player, he said he learned to play upside down doing rolls very differently than other drummers.
Another famous drummer who stands out in history is Neil Peart of the band Rush. Like Ringo, Neil also wrote songs for his band. Much of the mystique of Rush has been that a three-piece band can create such elaborate sounds with deep lyrical messages. Neil, regarded as a philosophical poet, was a driving force behind the band’s songwriting and performance innovations. Stewart Copeland of The Police is another famous drummer whose innovative percussion helped define new directions in rock.
Dave Grohl is another well known drummer who has redefined the role of the drummer. As Nirvana’s drummer he mainly kept a low profile, but on the first Foo Fighters album he played most of the instruments including drums. Moving to vocals naturally put him more in the spotlight, but he continued to maintain his image as a leading modern drummer.
A musical unit without a drummer sounds very soft compared with one that’s pounding out a steady beat. In that sense drums can be the life of the party, but usually the foreground music must be captivating as well. The crowd often must appreciate the overall band sound to recognize the talent of the drummer. When it comes to putting together a band, it’s best to ensure the drummer represents the heartbeat, dynamics and the energy of the group.