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Picking Your Spots

Article by Jayson Brinkworth // February 02 2010
Picking Your Spots

This month I want to touch on our role as the drummer in a band and give you a few tips on how to stay employed and keep your phone ringing.

First off ask yourself, “What is my role when I play with other musicians?” The answer is pretty obvious at first, to play drums and create energy. But there is so much more to what we do, or should be doing.

Our role spans a wide range of responsibility, from being the dynamic controller to directing traffic through the arrangement of a piece of music. We, along with everyone else in the band, are also responsible for keeping very good time. We also need to play with confidence so the band knows they can trust us hitting things behind them.

Drumming has been minimized a lot by other musicians, but ask those players what it is like to play with a bad drummer versus a really good drummer and they start to see our value as a musician.

The drums are 95% of the time a support instrument for the melody and harmony in a song. We don’t have solos like the other players, nor are we at the front of the stage in the spotlight. But once we grasp our role and embrace it to it’s fullest, we can make the earth move with our focus and commitment to our job and responsibility on the drums.

I had the good fortune of attending the Montreal Drumfest in 1993. I learned a lot and met some great players, a few of which have become good friends of mine. There were many highlights from the weekend:  Antonio Sanchez and his independance freakshow, Flo Mournier and Cryptosy, Gary Novak’s trio doing an instrumental bossa version of “Tom Sawyer”, Billy Ward’s musical genius, Tommy Aldridge’s Rock and Roll and Jojo Mayer’s right foot and chat time after the clinic.

Amongst all of this was a performance—and the point that one very groovy Randy Cooke made so clear to all of us that day. Randy hit the stage with his boundless energy and spirit and launched into a solo that was out of this world! Once he finished and the applause died down, everyone was waiting for him to breakdown the licks and tricks we had just witnessed. Instead of this his exact words were, “Well, I have never been hired to do that, so let me show you why my phone keeps ringing.” Can you hear a pin drop? Randy went on to play a 45 minute set of tunes that he has recorded, playing along with the studio tracks minus drums. The styles ranged from funk to R & B to jazz to heavy rock to country to latin to pop to, well you get the point. Randy Cooke has chops oozing out of every pore in his body, but Randy gets hired to groove like mad and make every band he plays in sound great.

With Randy’s great playing and attitude, he has gone on to work with Ringo Starr, Dave Stewart, Mick Jagger, Five for Fighting, Ian Gillan and this list goes on and on. He can play a solo for days, but Randy knows how to pick his spots.

How do we learn to pick our spots? Can this be taught? How do we know what the right spots are?

Well the first thing to understand is that experience and time are the only things that can teach us this lesson. Also the music we listen to and how we listen comes into play in “getting” it. We have to set our ego aside and ask lots of questions and not be afraid of the “not knowing” and being honest with ourselves.

One of the first things we have to embrace is the sheer brilliance and (what appears to be) simplicity of players like Charlie Watts, Ringo Starr, Phil Rudd, Jim Keltner, Benny Benjamin, Pistol Allen, Uriel Jones, Russ Kunkel and many others. When listening to these players, have you really listened? All the details: crashes (or lack their of), fills and where they fit in the song, how they setup different sections, dynamics and creative ideas with sounds and tones on the kit.

It is one thing to listen to a piece of music, but put on your musician ears and pay attention to all details. This takes a lot of mental energy, but it takes even more to play the parts correctly. One thing I find students don’t want to do is exert a lot of mental energy. But the payoff is priceless in the long run.

What if the players listed above aren’t your cup of tea (which is funny because they have all changed drumming in one way or another); what does this mean? Well even if we listen to Neil Peart, Gavin Harrison, Mike Portnoy, Dave Lombardo, Bill Bruford, Billy Cobham and other progressive players, they still pick their spots. These players are typically busier than Charlie Watts but exercise restraint and discipline throughout the music they play, even if there are many notes flying by.

When we are playing with our band or jamming with friends, we should keep some important things in mind. Do we need to crash on the 1 every 4 measures or at the start of every section? Do we need to play a fill every 4 measures? Are we paying attention to our dynamics and feel, or have we become too excited and let it all go? Is our playing taking away from the parts others are playing and singing, or is it supporting and making those parts sound even better ?

When we play in a band, we are there to serve the music, it is not the other way around. A great quote I heard years ago goes like this: a musician is asked, “What is your favorite song?” and his reply is, “The one I am playing at that moment.” Brilliance!

Once we start really getting inside the music we listen to, I mean really getting inside the music, we will start understanding how to pick our spots. Play a song with your band and place only three crashes in the most perfect spots. Can you do this, or does your mind wander and you play them all over the place? Take away fills you normally play in songs and see if the song can breath a little more. Listen to Fleetwood Mac songs; Mick Fleetwood has a very unique approach and can really get us thinking about all of this stuff.

As musicians, we are so used to hearing ourselves and our parts from all of the practice we do. When we interact with other musicians, we have to place more value on listening to the other parts and not ours exclusively. This boils down to the old chicken and the egg adage, which came first? For all of the songs we have learned over the years, think about this: What do you think came first when the song was being written: the drum part or another instrument that shaped the drum part into what it became? There are definitely songs that the drum groove was the starting point, but most music starts out with a guitar/keyboard lick or rhythm, lyrics or something else that the drummer had to mold his part around.

Next time you are out on a gig or jamming with friends, think about what the listener is hearing from the band. Do they hear players that are listening and focusing on picking the right spots to help the listener really hear the song that they are playing?


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About the Author
Jayson  Brinkworth

Jayson Brinkworth is an accomplished drummer, percussionist, vocalist, educator and writer based out of Canada. He is co-owner of the Saskatchewan music school Music In The House, as well as the founder of both the Regina Drum Festival and The Stickman Drum Experience.

Jayson proudly endorses Yamaha drums, Sabian cymbals, Vic Firth sticks, Evans heads, Impact cases, Kickport, Flix, Future Sonics and Mountain Rhythm. Visit Jayson online at www.jaysonbrinkworth.com.

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