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Playing Great Songs on the Drums

Article by Jayson Brinkworth // April 02 2008
Playing Great Songs on the Drums

This article is dedicated to all the songwriters out there, whether you are a drummer or other instrumentalist. My inspiration for this article comes from one of the great songwriters/drummers, Chad Cromwell, and is based on a comment he made in an interview a couple of years ago. He stated that he doesn’t play drums on songs; he plays songs on the drums; very profound. What exactly does this mean? What is the difference? And who is Chad Cromwell?

First off, Chad is a great drummer who is a well rounded studio veteran, and has played and recorded with the likes of Mark Knopfler (Dire Straits), Neil Young, Jackson Browne, and many others. This comment struck a chord (pun intended) with me as I have had the opportunity to play and record some very well written songs for plenty of artists and writers. Chad’s statement is based on the mental side of drumming (mental and drumming, have you heard these in a sentence together before?), and is the approach to our instrument and how it fits within the music we are playing.

When we started playing drums, all of us wanted to play our favorite songs on the kit. These songs vary with all of us depending on our age, our musical tastes, and our surroundings. For me, it was songs by Toto, Steely Dan, Paul Simon, and many others; and it was the drumming at first that caught my ear. The likes of Porcaro, Gadd, Purdie, and Keltner were the heroes, and we all know how their grooves shook the planet. I wasn’t even paying attention to the arrangement, chord progressions, or lyrics. Those drum parts rocked my world.

As I got a little older (and wiser), I was paying more attention to why the songs themselves were moving me, as well as the drum parts. How did these players know the exact part to play on these amazing songs? Who taught them this skill? Is this even something that can be taught? These questions were in need of answers, which I searched out by listening to plenty of songs from different genres to get “inside” the workings of a well written song. I also talked to many writers, producers, and musicians about the craft of songwriting, and how they interpreted drums on their material.

A well-written song almost plays itself: what does that mean exactly? This means that we could hear a song with only a vocal and a guitar or piano, and our ear will be able to fill in most of the other parts almost effortlessly. Could you imagine being on a recording session and the artist brings in a bare bones demo of a song like “Fire and Rain” by James Taylor. The drum part on that song supports the lyrics, melody, and harmony throughout; this is what a great drum part should do! Thanks to Russ Kunkel for his brilliance on this song, the brushes, and the fills. His drumming sounds like fire and rain—more on this in a bit.


The first step to this is using our most important tool, our ears. We need to tap into the mindset and parts that these great drummers play. Go back and listen to James Taylor, Steely Dan, Fleetwood Mac, Boz Scaggs, and any other records that have great songs. When you are listening to these songs, the first thing you need to do is to listen to the lyrics, and all of the other instruments besides the drums. This is key as too many drummers just listen to the drum part and can’t get past this to get inside the song. We need to pretend that there are no drums at all and just observe the song this way (easier said than done).

As you are listening to the song, ask yourself a few questions: What is the mood of the song? What is the story about in the song? How do the dynamics move throughout the song? More importantly, does this song even need drums? Does the key of the song change? This list goes on and on, but we need to care about all of these elements to make us better musicians.

One of the best albums of late to exemplify all of this is John Mayer's Continuum. Steve Jordan is a true master of playing songs on the drums. His total commitment to every note is very apparent, and he tells a story with the drum parts alone. The best thing about this is the story is told without a lot of notes, as all good stories are. One element that I have been practicing for some time now is to get my ideas across on the drums with the least amount of clutter and babbling. I want to say the most by playing the least and have clarity and definition in the parts I play.


The easiest way to explain this concept is to have a look at a great song and go through the parts. I have chosen James Taylor’s “Fire and Rain” for this explanation. The reason why will be apparent after you examine the song as a musical witness (thanks to Billy Ward for that term).

First of all, what is James Taylor singing about in this song? There are a few interpretations of these lyrics. The Suzanne that he refers to is believed to be a close friend that has passed away. The "flying machine" reference is to a band that James was in that had broken up. So here is the overall lyrical breakdown of the song: Verse one, the death of a friend. Verse two, James Taylor’s battle with depression. Verse three, James Taylor’s stay in rehab. I know this all seems quite dark (he was only 20 when he wrote and recorded this song in 1970), but to help tell this story, we need to know this information.

Russ Kunkel’s use of brushes is brilliant, sticks wouldn’t tell this story. I have listed the song section by section and detailed some key points that I think make this some very musical/story telling drumming. Also it helps to listen to the song and follow the notes that I have listed below:

  • Intro: Acoustic guitar and keys.
  • Verse One: Acoustic guitar, keys, cello and vocals.
  • Chorus One: The drums bring in the chorus with a three note fill (brushes on the toms—what a tone!) Pretty straight, bass drum plays a samba pattern and follows acoustic guitar in measure 3 and 4. One light crash on the 1 in measure 7 and the stop is on 1 in measure 8. Busier tom fill in measure 9 to bring in verse 2, sets up the new part of the story.
  • Verse Two: Drum pattern stays the same as the chorus. Measure 4 has an open hi-hat on the & of 3 and snare slides to the & of 4 (I believe this sets up the next lines of “My body’s aching"). The bass drum pattern changes in measure 5, giving the second half of the verse a different motion. A snare fill brings in chorus two.
  • Chorus Two: Fill in measure 2, push the & of 2 with bass drum and crash followed by a tom fill. Also measure 4 has a fill with bass drum and crash on the & of 3 and a tom fill. These fills are adding the “fire and rain” with the sounds and textures used. Stop on the 1 in measure 8, and a tom fill again in measure 9 to bring in verse three.
  • Verse Three: Drums are a little more dynamic than in verse two. Crash on the 1 in measure 5 represents “the cold wind” he just sang about. Listen to the cello holding down the root note through this verse. It is so powerful as it ever so slightly crescendos. A snare fill brings us into chorus three.
  • Chorus Three: Measure 2 has the push on the & of 1 and this fill is longer than chorus two. Also fills in measures 4 and 6 create more “fire and rain." Stop on measure 8. Measure 9 has a tom fill with less notes than the previous times, but this is where Russ Kunkel gets out his “paint brush” and goes to work.
  • Outro: The outro is eight measures long until the song has completely faded out. Listen to the aggression on the toms and crashes, especially the crash on the 1 in measure 3. Very cool interaction between the tom fills and his left foot on the hi-hat. It seems like the whole story has finally built up so much that he just has to get his emotions out.


One thing we should have learned through this process is that Russ Kunkel is a brilliant drummer. Another is that the drums can tell a story, and support the lyrics and melody in a song. If you have never listened to a song with this much detail, you are cheating yourself out of becoming a very musical drummer. This is what I call “getting inside a song," and we need to do this to become better players.

I would love to hear drummers like Russ Kunkel and many others talk about these drum parts and how they approached the song. There are so many techniques in drumming, but it all comes down to communicating our ideas with clarity, confidence and musicality.

Do yourself a favor and sit and analyze your favorite songs section by section. You will thank yourself for taking the time.



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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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