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Drummers Can Sing!

Article by Jillian Mitchell // April 02 2007
Drummers Can Sing!

Okay, so you have mastered the “Floating Feet” technique, and John Bonham’s “Moby Dick” solo is yesterday’s news to you, but... can you drum and sing at the same time? That’s right, I said it, sing! That constitutes three things (count 'em: drumming, breathing, and singing) all at once. Yes, it is as crazy as it sounds!

Now, I know a lot of you are probably thinking “what the heck do I want to sing for, I got enough on my plate," but eventually even the most stubborn minds change their tune. There is just something about singing that’s so irresistibly enticing. Just look at esteemed drummer/vocalist Phil Collins: "At first I didn't like singing. I didn't think it was a respectable gig, you know. There were steps to do - ostentatious clothes - wiggle your ass a bit. It just wasn't respectable like drumming is.” Alright, so there is a very cheeky stigma attached to singing, yet for some reason, countless drummers risk their respectable reputations each day and flirt with the temptation.

Perhaps this whole singing thing isn’t quite as discreditable as once perceived. I mean, even Collins pulled a 180 and invented a way to respectably balance his rep as a drummer while assuming the position of Genesis’ lead vocalist. Not only did his notorious vocals aid in the band’s immeasurable success, but it also initiated a sort of Phil-mania that spun out a prosperous solo career. Indeed, singing drummers have been a popular commodity in the very wiggly and ostentatious world of rock n’ rollers, and “stick-singage” (as Don Henley puts it) inevitably preserves the band’s dwindling fundage as well. Tempting, isn’t it?  Need more proof? Check out these virtuosos, none of whom died in bizarre gardening accidents: Don Henley (The Eagles), Levon Helm (The Band), Nigel Olsson (Elton John), Ringo Starr (The Beatles), Sheila E.,  Mickey Dolenz (The Monkees), Kelly Keagy (Night Ranger), Jimmy Marinos (The Romantics), Gil Moore (Triumph), and Aaron Gillespie (Underoath). Even Karen Carpenter of the popular 70s band The Carpenters and Soundgarden front man Chris Cornell (pre-Audioslave) took stints at the kit before becoming full on vocalists. And we can’t forget Dave Grohl, who maintains a successful career in both drumming for Queens of the Stoneage (post Nirvanna) and singing lead vox for the Foo Fighters.

To become a high caliber, multi-tasking musician, you must pay specific homage to the three C’s: concentration, coordination, and control. Oh yeah, and practice, practice, practice! The most rehearsed drum fills may propose a challenge again whilst you strive to reach that ball-breaking high note in, for instance, Boston’s “More Than a Feeling”, but practice makes perfect. Even if all you desire to do is dabble with harmonies here and there, you still need that sort of natural flow or je ne sais quoi that predecessors such as Collins, Henley or Helm fluidly exude. In an interview with Modern Drummer, Levon Helm confessed, "Sometimes there are spots in certain songs where it's a bit tougher going from a chorus to a verse while you're singing and drumming. The Band always tried to put sing-along choruses in a lot of our songs, and the gear-shifting between those different sections, combined with having a mouthful to sing, can get a little challenging at times. But if you can just ride it, 'let it go' and don't count it out too strictly, singing while drumming becomes second-nature."

Obviously, it takes practice to rise to that stage of the game, so here are a few key pointers that will aid in overcoming the minor technicalities you will face on your journey to rock-star status. First and foremost, posture is one of the most important aspects of singing. In laymen’s terms, basically the chest cavity is where it all goes down, and the most pleasing vocal results occur when the torso is fully straight. Even though you’re glued to your throne, it is important to try to emulate the best “singer stance” that you can. Be conscious of that posture when reaching for a cymbal or a floor tom; your voice will thank you.  

Next comes the whole aspect of the physical toll the act of drumming takes out on your body. It’s a total body workout, especially when you add the pressure of trying to produce a quality vocal sound. I don’t know many singers who could sing their best while engaged in a moderately inclined elliptical machine jaunt. It’s hard work, and sometimes it can get you down. Similarly, Henley admitted to Modern Drummer, "Playing the drums hurts my back. I used to have to hold my body in such a position that my spine got out of alignment. Between playing the drums and keeping my mouth in front of the microphone, it really twisted my whole body.” So take a hint from the greats and be careful out there. (And don’t take any crap from those cheeky vocalists either.)

Evidently, the best way to ensure a foolproof performance is to prepare. Do some stretches, some vocal exercises, and make sure you get the proper stage setup that best suits your needs. The consensus: try using a boom-type microphone; they are flexible and allow for proper posture. Keep in mind that boom setups can pick up the snare and cymbals as well, but that is not always a bad thing. Just put a mic on the kick drum and sometimes two mics are all you’ll need! But if you’re not feeling that, point the vocal mic upwards rather than at level to get rid of any interference. As for the microphone itself, the hyper-cardioid Shure SM57 or SM58 mics come recommended, as they focus on the vocals and keep out extra noise. If you’re not a fan of restriction, headsets are okay too, but just watch that posture. And first and foremost, make sure your monitor mix works for you so you’re not straining your voice to hear yourself.  

Now some of you are probably thinking, “It just looks ridiculous when the drummer does lead vocals and there is no front person on stage!” Well, true, there is a lack of visual stimuli on stage when the vocalist is restricted behind a kit, and, yes, it is terribly hard to look cool while singing and playing drums; but let’s face it; it’s hard for anyone to exude that crazy cool sex appeal of Jim Morrison or the energetic theatrics of Mick Jagger regardless of their position on stage. To each his own. If your heart is set on singing lead then sing lead! Make it your own like Don Henley. "I think people enjoy watching me sing and play the drums,” insists Henley, “It seems to fascinate people. I don't know why."  Well, I do… you’re amazing! Evidently there can be a controversy with the marketability of drummer/lead vocalists in music industry. For instance, despite their undeniable talent, both Karen Carpenter of The Carpenters and Chris Cornell (back in the 80s with Soundgarden) came under a lot of pressure to get out from behind the drum kit in attempt to better connect with their fans.

So, for all you skeptics out there, I attempted to shed some light on this issue by addressing the question to Mark Bliesener, a Music Business Consultant for Band Guru Management and Consulting, who I came across on the wonderful world wide web. I asked Mark whether or not he thought record companies responded fondly to bands whose drummer duals as lead vocalist, and he responded promptly. “Much of the focus from interested labels is on the size of the fan base," claims Bliesener, “which the band walks in the door with (and most importantly—their songs). If the drummer is the primary writer/singer and the songs are undeniable hits, no one will squawk.” Bliesener adds, “Often times it is the musicians in the band who will try and move the drummer out front away from the drum kit in an effort to reach the crowd better/close; but, in the pop pastiche world of 2007, I don’t think it really matters.” So there you have it... successful Stick Singage is certainly do-able. Even if you decide that a Levon Helm type role is not for you, you could pull a Dave Grohl and play and sing in separate bands, or you could just throw out some killer harmonies once in a while just to switch things up. But if you’re brave enough to attack any sort of “dual role”, take a tip from a fellow drummer whose comment I came across online. He suggested taking up chewing gum while you sing. Yes, that is four things (drumming, breathing, singing, and chewing) all at once. Not only does it keep your thirst under control, but if the guitarist gives you any crap or the bassist makes another mistake, just spit the gum out in his/her hair. Bonus!



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About the Author
Jillian Mitchell

As a professional vocalist (and self-professed grammar nerd), Jill brings a fresh perspective to The Black Page. In addition to earning a B.A. in music, creative writing and English, Jill has also studied vocals with Philadelphia-based vocal coach Owen Brown, known for his work with Mary J. Blige, Celine Dion, and Wyclef Jean. Jill makes up the other half of world soul group The Mitchells, alongside Black Page creator, Sean Mitchell.

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