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Marching to a Different Beat

January 7, 2012

Good Morning, Macketeers.

I’d like to thank you for leaving your spambots at home this time. Sadly, after yesterday’s ‘incident’, we may have to give the spambots some down time. Hopefully there won’t be too many more replications in the days to come. Never seen them do that before. Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom never covered spambots. Who knew they were omnisexual?

St. Buddy of Miles, reading from the book of Zimmerman, exhorts us not to speak falsely, and so we shall endeavour mightily to bear truthful witness on this day, the day I woke up with another headache long before the sun came up, so can you blame me for being in a weird frame of mind and not having a topic yet?

It occurs to me that I’ve never explained why I have such an abiding affection for musicians who play drums. I make this distinction from those who merely play drums, regardless of whether they are multi-instrumental or not, because there is a pretty obvious difference in the kind of music a band with a musician who plays drums can give you, as to the quality of music you get if you’re stuck with a simple drummer who just wants to keep time and maybe hit stuff really hard doing it.

I suppose the distinction could be made between ‘adequate’, ‘good’ and ‘great’ drummers, but I don’t think that’s what I mean. Naturally a great drummer has to be regarded as a musician who plays drums, but even a novice can be so if she or he wishes. It’s all in how you approach the instrument. Either you play drums in order to perform the noble function of keeping the rest of the band in time, or you play drums because you hear them musically in your head, and genuinely want to express your ideas about rhythm and time signature, and the most satisfying instrument for you to do so on is a trap kit.

I’ve known a number of drummers over the years, and whether they were good or great, I’ve always had a stronger affinity to those who treated drums as a musical instrument, rather than an instrument for keeping time. I mean, seriously, if all I want is time keeping, I can check my watch, tap my toe, or use a drum machine programmed so nobody particularly notices the difference.

Next time you listen to some music with drums in it, ask yourself this simple question: “Is the drummer ‘counting out’ time, or is the drummer driving the rhythm of the song with an ever-changing beat?” Most drummers can swing and improvise over a basic rhythm if you ask them to, but a musician who plays drums doesn’t have to be asked, and won’t be told otherwise. They know your song well enough to tell you what the song really needs, and if they drop a third upbeat and double the downbeat, and only match the paradiddle to the tail end of your vocals, you know they’re thinking musically, not merely rhythmically.

It’s not just about complexity, or even style, though that’s a big factor. Even Ringo Starr was a musician who happened to play drums, though it often must have seemed like all he did was played in straight 4/4 with little embellishment and no frilly drum solos. He was economical, sure, but he came up with a new rhythm for nearly every song, and always the cleanest, most evocative rhythm imaginable for the really great songs. He treated each song like a canvas, and his job was to give each piece the right amount of weight and shape. He interpreted the rhythm and played off of what Paul and John were giving him to play against, giving them more than they asked for every damned time, but without ever derailing them.

That’s the secret of Ringo Starr. If it weren’t so, it would have remained John, Paul, George and Pete. Pete Best was a good drummer. Don’t let anyone tell you different. He’s still playing to this day. Don’t count the man out. But what he didn’t have was Ringo’s easy inventiveness and playful style, which the guys picked up on every time he sat in for Pete, who had clearly been getting disenchanted with them anyway.

It’s not all about Ringo being the cheeky, funny little guy that the others simply enjoyed being around more. You can make friends with anyone if you try. It’s what you bring to the table that makes a friendship stick. And Ringo brought real musical talent for giving great pop songs the perfect drum beat. Even his more fiery contemporaries couldn’t claim that gift. Keith Moon, Mitch Mitchell and Ginger Baker were skilled drummers with great musical talent of their own, but they rarely focussed on giving the song exactly what it needed and nothing it didn’t. They were musicians who played drums, but their gifts were not the same as Ringo’s. Not lesser or greater, though the argument has been made many times. Ringo’s gift was what the Beatles needed. They needed a drummer who listened and heard, not heard and played to fill the spaces. Those other drummers wouldn’t have worked out as well, and rock wouldn’t be what it is today, for good or ill.

That’s why The Beatles’ music persists in holding top spot with more music fans than any other. It’s not a popularity contest. All the parts were flawlessly conceived and balanced. Even now, with very little real fiddling, the remasters make it clear that all four of them, Ringo included, were alive and working the mojo on those old tracks, and none of them overplayed or tried to steal the spotlight form the real stars: the songs.

So drummers are great, and I love me some great and complex and commanding drumming, but the real secret of great drumming isn’t how much you play but what kinds of decisions you’re making while playing. If you’re trying to play something really cool that will get you lots of attention, you may be a great drummer, but it’s only if you’re playing the smartest parts that fit the songs perfectly, or if you’re speeding up or slowing down the song to get the right tempo for the feel, or if you’re adding volume to goose the band into playing harder and getting a stronger performance at the right time, elevating the band to a higher level of power, that you’re thinking like a musician who plays drums thinks.

I love me some choppy drummers. Drummers who can play amazing fills in interesting time signatures on really big drum kits with lots of (cow)bells and whistles makes me smile every time. But the greatest drummer can’t make a song breathe if their only concern is to play the wildest, most attention-grabbing parts every time. Great drummers need to keep their sense of awe at the incredible effectiveness of economical playing, when it’s deliberately chosen over flash. Gimme flash, yes, gads, gimme all the flash. But remember, you’re playing a song, or a piece at least, and a drummer can be the most effective instigator of an invisible pop hook than any other instrument, simply because the rest of the band can keep playing what they’re playing without it sounding discordant, and the song still sticks in the minds of the listener because the drummer picked the right moment to deploy the right drum lick or shift that cements the song in the memory of the audience.

Don’t believe me? Try listening to those old Beatles records just one more time. For all the clever chromatic bass lines and tasteful riffs, it’s the little things Ringo does under the straight guitar parts that are the simplest, most memorable bits, leaving the others free to play what they like without getting hemmed in or cluttered. The operative phrase is ‘Understated Elegance’, and it works for drums, too.

I’m not saying you need to learn to play like Ringo. What I’m saying is, learn to play the songs the way they need to be played to give everyone in the band what they need to get the performance the song calls for. Rise and fall on the breath of the song. Give it air when it needs some, and choke the crap out of it when intensity is called for.

Just remember: any competent drummer can keep rhythm. It takes a musician to know when to play what the song really needs to get where it’s trying to go to. Listen to the song. Really listen. Songs will tell you what they really want if you just listen. And that will make all the difference in the world. That will make you a musician who plays drums. Best gig in the band, as far as I’m concerned.

For the rest of you Macketeers who don’t give a damn about drums, I’ll be back tomorrow with something more up your alley. Thanks for indulging me.


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