As a drummer we have many advantages when it comes to supporting and helping the rest of the band. This isn’t to say that the other members can’t do the same, but as a drummer we are perhaps uniquely suited to this role.
In my experience it’s not uncommon to hear musicians moan about a drummer they’ve recently played with. You can often predict what they’re going to say, and for those of us who consider ourselves part of the ‘drummer family’, it can often be both frustrating and embarrasing. To cover the obvious ones:
‘Too loud’ (strange that it’s never ‘too quiet!)
‘Doesn’t know the songs’
‘Plays too much’
‘Speeds up/slows down’
‘Oblivious to what the rest of the band are doing’
and so on…
There are a few things that a drummer can and should be aware of that can help them be supportive and avoid the comments above.
The first thing is structure:
As a drummer we can give a huge amount of support to the rest of the band and the song, playing ‘signposts’ and being musical with our playing. First things first, it’s essential that you really learn the beats and the fills. Even in the simplest pop song there will be variations in the groove between verse and chorus and it’s important that you play these. Give every song it’s due. Never listen to the first 15 seconds and make assumptions about the rest of it!
Secondly, try to get a feel for the whole song. Think about the dynamic range, not just from verse to chorus but of the song as a whole. The comment ‘the drummer’s too loud’ is not only bad because it shows that they aren’t using their ears, but it also suggests that there is no variation in dynamics across the song. In the digital age of compression, live music has even more power to create magic through expression and sensitive playing.
This brings me nicely along to Emotion:
It’s essential as a musician that one is clued in to what the song is about. Whether you’re playing Jazz, pop or metal, there will be a meaning behind the music. Just because we don’t have a solo or a voice, we can still add value to the music and support the rest of the band. Always take the time to find out what the song is about and keep it in mind when you are playing.
The next and perhaps most important is Communication:
Of all the musicans, drummers are the ones most often accused of not listening. Our ears are and always will the most important part of our performance. As a supportive drummer you want to be listening and looking at everyone in the band, all of the time! Once again, this is where a drummer has a bit of an advantage, sitting as they are at the back, or occasionally to one side. You can still make contact with the audience, but you can see the rest of the band at the same time. This helps you pick up on, and respond to, the little cues the rest of the group make, be they deliberate or just an in-the-moment response to the music.
You can also pass communication on, helping the rest of the band to stay in touch. Within the regularity and repetition of a drum beat, a well placed and musical comment can be really effective in expressing a thought or feeling within the music. It can also help to bring awareness from the entire band to something one member is doing and trying to share with them.
With the sound sources of the drum kit that sit apart from the rest of the group in terms of frequency and timbre, it’s much easier for a drummer to play something extra without disrupting the song. This might be to bring attention to an accent, support a rhythmic phrase from another instrument or give emphasis to a particular line. I find that a singer is normally really grateful when they realise that the drummer is directly responding to what they are singing and saying. The audience will pick up on it as well and it creates a real sense of the band being together.
As a drummer you are a musician first and foremost, not the just the guy that hangs out with them. (that’s the first drummer joke so far. Stay tuned for many more :). Most importantly, remember that the audience are there because they love the songs. The more you can do to communicate and express those songs, beyond simply playing them well, the more you will give to the audience and the greater their (and your) experience will be.