Improvising

Although not directly writing-related, it's worthwhile to talk about time, taste, and technique, because they're important for us all to consider.

When you play, do it with integrity, whether it's keeping time, playing a fill, or playing a solo. Have a plan! That doesn't mean that you should play precisely the same parts, fills, or solos each night, (Please don't!) but you should have musical reasons for the things you do. Random playing and improvising produces the kind of random results you see in the little movie to the right, here.

It's almost always wrong to go up on stage to "show people what you've got", unless the show is planned to feature you. You and/or your band can take as aggressive an approach to playing as you like, but it shouldn't be "random". To sound great and stand up to both recording scrutiny and the test of time, you have to play good parts. It's that simple.

I think we've all seen a scenario like this one...
A dance band is playing in a club, and they are "stylized", to the extent that they are playing relatively normal parts at normal volumes. At some point another drummer sits in. Several things could happen...

  • They're young, inexperienced, and technically weak, so it just sounds unsure and sloppy.
  • Or...
    They see themselves as a "rock star", "jazz star", or "whatever" star, so they play way too much, way too loud, and completely inappropriate parts, that just kill the groove. However "amazing" they might be technically, it's just so wrong that everyone hates it.
  • Or...
    They're sensible, have good time, play well and interactively with the band, and don't do especially "flashy" parts unless given a solo. (This is the person who "wins".)

Think about it in different terms...

Race drivers don't put their families in the car and drive 200 mph down a city street. Karate experts don't go around beating up people. Adults (hopefully) don't have adult conversations around children. So, musicians need to think about being appropriate, too. It's part of your skill, every bit as important as your "chops". Most musicians prefer great "feel" over chops, although the ideal is probably both. You have to work hard to achieve greatness in a real way. Being appropriate does not in any way mean that you have to be conservative. But if you want to sound good while being aggressive, your whole band needs to be on the same wavelength.

When you're new to the drums, or inexperienced, your concentration will be affected by your nerves. That might make you "wimpy", or it might make you too aggressive, depending on your personality. These things are amplified by any weaknesses in your technique. So, get over the nerves, and fix your technique! ... Pretty simple. Don't be concerned about trying to prove what you can do. Instead, focus on supporting the band, and showing some restraint. The bonus of that approach is that when you do play a fill or a solo, the contrast is greater, and has more impact on the audience. If you're "busy" and slamming all the time, your fills and solos will just seem like "bla bla bla". Below is some good general advice, for a working drummer.

Basic drum parts

One thing is certain. No one gets hired to play drum solos!

If you have impressive technical abilities, great! But most other musicians you'll work with are more likely to wonder if you'll you show up on time, look decent, remain sober, play good time, play sensible parts and dynamics, and use good taste, while still sounding energetic. THAT is what will get you work and assure you gain some respect.

So, think first about what is required. Once you understand and can play that, then think about how it might be embellished. It doesn't always mean playing more. It might be just as effective to play less, or to play more quietly. Playing quietly, while still sounding positive and energetic, is an important skill to work on, because it's simply bad musicianship to be loud and busy all the time. If you look at the history of great "technicians" in music, you generally find that they were both too loud and too busy when they were young, because they felt that they had to prove themselves. Then as they mature, they tend to simplify, and to construct fills and solos that are more exciting. Pro musicians often say, "Space, the final frontier."

Dont be a "stiff". Maybe you learned the exact drum part on a recording, for a rehearsal, down to the smallest detail. That part may not work at all in your particular band though, depending on the instrumentation, and how the other people play their parts. You start with the known material, but very often, you'll have to adapt it to reality. As time goes on, refine what you play even further. Be wary of "settling in", to the extent that you cease to be interesting. Surprise is an effective device too. Maybe the band or the audience expects a loud, blazing fill, but one night you simply go "BOOM!" on the bass drum, and leave the rest of the space empty. Often it's the things you DON'T play that will draw involuntary gasps from the audience, and it keeps the band energized too. Think...

Fills

Like any other improvising, playing a "fill" doesn't just mean "play whatever you want". No matter what, you must play something that won't confuse the band about where the beat is. If they're very rhythmically hip, and your common goal is to dazzle the audience with your technique, fair enough. But for most of us, you'll make more friends by playing things that fit with the music around you.

How? It's not rocket science. Listen to the music, and think about "where you are", and "where you're going to end up" with your fill, and use that space to make an appropriate transition. It might be appropriate (or exciting, for it's shock value) to leave the space completely empty! You might play something very busy, or very sparce. You might play at one volume, or your fill might serve as a vehicle to bring the volume up or down. Just think a little, and don't get stuck on on particular thing, unless you really believe it's the perfect thing to play in that spot. Chances are though, that there is more than one "perfect" thing to play in ANY spot.

Drum solos

The simplest, and most universally-accepted description of a great solo (drums or other instruments) is that it should "tell a story", meaning that it has a beginning, middle, and end, that serve a musical purpose.

You can approach this in a variety of ways. You could, for example, think of strictly emotional content, and play a solo that was not in time, but used a more freeform style. You could also take a "recital" sort of approach, in the sense that you "compose" a solo, and play it as though it were any other piece of prepared music. One of the more interesting approaches to me, is the one that Buddy Rich is know to have used, which is to think of a song, while you're playing a drum solo. That way, even if others don't recognize the song, (which can be a different one from what you're playing with the band) it still has a structure. (like verses and choruses)

Most musicians develop a "modular" approach as they mature. That is, they're still creating new ideas, but they have tried and true things they've done for many years that work, and which please the audience. Just keep thinking, and keep developing, and you'll come up with what works best for you. Recording yourself live and often is a great and realistic way to analyze what you did, later. Get used to recording, so it doesn't spook you in any way.

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