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Warning: Reading this Will Make You a Better Musician

Article by Jayson Brinkworth // October 02 2007
Warning: Reading this Will Make You a Better Musician

I am sure this title has your attention already, if it was only that easy. This month I have decided to tap into a very important resource for my article, the musicians we as drummers work with. In spite of all the bad drummer/guitar player/bass player/singer jokes, (I have never heard any good keyboard player jokes, let me know if you have some) their insight means a lot to me. When I understand what these players need from me to do their best, I can deliver this along with my own style and ideas.

I have found, in all my years of playing, musicians rarely talk about this subject. As we gain more experience as players, we intuitively pickup on this and are able to deliver accordingly. Just stop and think about how you play in your band or with other musicians: Do you play with a solid time feel? Do you play the proper feel for each song? Are you dynamic in your playing? Do you play the song and keep the music moving ahead throughout? These questions can go on and on, and we should review them with ourselves constantly, we do want to be better musicians, right?

Although there are many questions, I have only asked three to a group of close friends. The people whose answers appear are highly qualified musicians and are among the elite in Canada. I have had the pleasure of working with all of them, and they bring out the best in all the players on the stage (another quality we should all aspire to as musicians). There names appear above their answers, and their personal credits are too long to list. Feel free to Google them to find out more.

Take the time to ask fellow musicians these questions. Also put the shoe on the other foot and ask ourselves the questions with regards to the other musicians in the band. This can be a great real world practice tool, and help us deliver what is necessary in all situations.

My three questions are listed below. Feel free to contact myself with any insight and thoughts on this very important subject.

1. In your opinion, what are some important skills a drummer should have to make him/her valuable to any music situation?

2. Name some drummers that have influenced your playing on an instrument other than drums?

3. How important is it for a drummer to also play and understand a melodic/harmonic instrument such as piano, guitar, etc?

Shane Chisholm (freelance bass player, singer, songwriter)

1. I prefer a drummer who is familiar with the style they’re about to engage in, and that they approach the musical environment with strong work ethics, preparation, a positive outlook and respect to the artist, music, rhythm section and soloists.  

2. No Particular order: Kenwood Denard (Jaco), Paul English (Willie Nelson), Slim Jim Phantom (The Stray Cats), Charlie Watts (The Rolling Stones), Futureman (Bela Fleck and the Flecktones), Prince (Drummer/Engineer/Producer/Writer/Session Player on just about every instrument he records).

3. The ability to communicate well is a major asset in the music business because it helps you think and react fast and effective especially when there is little time to rehearse and quick changes have to be made just before show, you will also have the added advantage of helping with arrangements and adding opinions about enhancing a performance piece when need be.Understanding other instruments help you understand your role of playing the music as a team I believe teamwork is the most important thing about playing in a band I always thought of a band as a big keyboard´╗┐´╗┐—each finger works independently utilizing melody, harmony, rhythm, tone, taste and feel but they are all connected to one brain. When it all comes together like that you don’t have to think on your own because you all think as one and that in my opinion is the best moment in time.

Mike Norman (freelance keyboard, guitar, sax, singer, producer, arranger)

1. The most important aspect for me is having a drummer who serves the piece of music they are playing, recognizing the needs of the team whether it be how simple or difficult the piece of music it is, volume, intensity etc.

2. Steve Gadd, Carlos Vega and Steve Jordan are favorites, but virtually every drummer I've heard or played with teaches me something about music.

3. I think it's essential to understand the instruments, even if they don't know the specific vocabulary in terms of theoretical knowledge. Knowing how they sound and work independently as well as their role in a band greatly influences what a drummer may or may not play.

Wendell Ferguson (freelance guitar player, singer, songwriter, funnyman)

1. Well aside from the obvious talents of having good time, taste, chops and equipment, a drummer should understand song form. Every song has sections and a great drummer understands that each section should feel good and yet be unique from the other sections. That is to say the verse pattern should vary from the chorus pattern and the solo pattern from the bridge, etc. And knowing song form allows the drummer to set up these changes. Also I'm usually always pleased when a drummer asks to see a lyric sheet at a session. That means they want to understand the intent of a song and underscore the content of the song... not just plow through it. Also being well versed in different styles of music is a bonus. They can draw from different feels with authenticity. i.e. Latin music, salsa, ragas, soca, mariachi, etc.

2.  As far as drummers influencing me on instruments other than drums, all I can think of is at recording sessions when you're playing in the rhythm section and the bass player locks in with the kick drum and the rhythm guitar locks in with whatever the hi-hat and snare are doing. That combination is the foundation of the recording. If you mean, has a drummer influenced me by another one of his skills, there's Levon Helm with his relaxed feel, vocal ability and lyrical content. I know Robbie Robertson is credited with many of the Band's compositions but Levon has disputed that. He was, for me, the voice of The Band.  

3. It's certainly not required to play another instrument, but it's always refreshing when the drummer can call out the changes to a song at a gig, or talks coherently about "building on the five chord," that sort of thing. It's always good to know more and to take up a second instrument. It helps you understand your primary instrument better. The more you know, the more you realize you don't know.

Shawn Beavis (freelance bass player, singer)

1. A good drummer must have good, no, great ideas. In today’s computer-driven music this may be the most important skill a drummer has to offer as far as a studio session goes. A drummer should have a good ear to what is being played around him or her. Any drummer can play a million licks but the one who can lock in with not only the bass player but the whole band will get my vote every time.

2. I like any drummer who listens to the rest of the band and doesn’t just play for the sake of being heard. Some of these players are Abe Laboriel JR, Mike Thompson, Tyler Stewart, Lars Ulrich, Kevin Churko, and Neil Peart,

3. It is important so the drummer understands what other instruments can do for a song. It is good to know how a player uses their instrument to compliment other instruments in the band.

Ken Burton (freelance guitar player, singer, educator)

1. First and foremost, take the bull by the horns. Play like you mean business. That doesn't mean hack and bash like a bull in a china shop, but play like you're driving the bus, not following behind on your tricycle. Even pianissimo parts can be played with confidence. Count the tunes in! A drummer's the time keeper and conductor. That's part of his job description. Granted, some tunes I'll want to set the initial pace of the tune depending on my mood but generally, I want the drummer to make his metronome settings for the tunes in advance and count the tunes in like he means it. As well, there are exceptions when the music director or lead vocalist may conduct tempo changes, dynamics etc. but I'm talking in general here. If you're used to falling in like dominoes after the initial riff for the tune is played, I say great, but leave that for your gig at the legion or your Monday night blues jam at Jimmy Joe's. Don't be doing that on my gig. Chops are definitely important but you better be able to keep solid time first.

2. Steve Gadd, Neil Peart, Dennis Chambers, Frank Beard, Graham Lear, Phil Collins, Gary Husband.

3. Makes it easier to communicate on arrangements if a drummer has some type of keyboard/guitar knowledge, even an ear for harmonic changes.

Nick Czarnogorski (freelance bass player, singer)

1. From my perspective, a drummer needs to have solid time and feel. I love being on a gig with a drummer that gets the right feel for a Zeppelin tune, and in the same set if we do an Al Green tune, or a Bob Marley tune. He plays the right feel for each style of music. Obviously, as a professional, you have to be prepared and have your homework done for the gig, but after that kind of stuff, most important to me is feel and sense of time.

2. The drummer that single-handedly changed my playing forever was Randy Cooke. Spending a few weeks on the road with him, playing together every night, changed my feel and my pocket in ways that no college or university program ever could. It's partially inexplicable, but for any of my bass students, I always recommend getting into a situation where you can play with an amazing drummer on a regular basis to learn that special something that is much more difficult to get on your own.

3. Although it's not mandatory for a drummer to know another harmonic instrument, I think that any musician that has facility, even if it's a little, on other instruments always makes one a better player.  I wouldn't gig on the piano, or drums, but can tinker around a bit on both, giving me a wider understanding of music as a whole. I have to admit, it's nice to be on a new gig where the drummer is cueing the chord changes, either in absolute terms, such as C-sharp minor, or calling out numbers for chord changes. Having knowledge of another instrument is never a bad thing, so why wouldn't a drummer want to know his way around a guitar, or a piano, or even a saxophone?

Dennis Marcenko (freelance bass player, singer)

1. Being a bass player, I feel that there are things that some drummers have and some drummers need more of. One of the qualities that I feel is at the top of the heap is time and groove. This goes without saying since these two qualities are the main purpose of any drummer on stage and in the studio. When standing beside a drummer I feel a great and solid feel coming from some drummers and then there are the ones that make me work a lot harder to bridge the gap between the drummer and the rest of the band. When I have to work harder to get a good feel happening on stage I tend to lean towards tequila to kill the pain that always happens in my stomach whenever I have this unfortunate duty to perform. Lord, help me, I need the money and will take a lot of gigs I don't want to take even if I know that I'll be paired up with some guy that can't wait to "show the world all his chops "in every bar of the song. The older I get the more I simply turn those gigs down but now and then I find myself on stage or in the studio with these clowns and at the end of the day I'm fuming in the corner and silently plotting my revenge. 

A great quality a drummer can have is restraint. Some people call it taste. A drummer who is mature and confident can sit back and simply play the song without having to reinvent every verse and chorus in a new and exciting way by trying to show me and everyone in the room how "cool" it is to play the beat backwards and throw snare shots in "just like Stewart Copland". Play the song!!!!!!! Play it like it was originally done and provide a solid foundation for the rest of the band. When you do your own album you can play whatever you want but in my opinion some of the best rhythm sections are to ones that are never noticed. These are the guys that will probably get a lot more work since they can be trusted to not get in the way.

Be inventive. There are times when you'll lose a kick pedal or a piece of equipment but remember that the song has to be completed and the whole world doesn't have to know that you have an issue to deal with. Finish the song.

Do everything in moderation. Everything, including your intake of alcohol. There will be gigs where there will be an unlimited bar service and this is not the time to see how much vodka you can put into your system just because it is free. If you do go over the top then, sadly, that will be what you are remembered for. If you don't believe me then go ahead and try it out. Do it a few times at a few gigs with a few different bands and see if you can pound back a whole case of beer before the night is over. It won't cost you a dime. Let me then project a bit into your future. I'm seeing a shovel in your hands and you wearing really dirty clothes and you are in a trench watching the band drive by with a drummer you don't recognize. 

2. I want to start off by saying that we have South America, a whole continent below us that plays very differently than we do in North America. Listen to drummers that play Latin music and you'll hear a whole different approach to rhythm. That makes me play bass very differently than how I play when I'm doing a country session. Who are these drummers? Hmmm, probably all of them down there. 

3. This is a very important question. I do sessions with a drummer or two that are very well versed in music because of their understanding of instruments other than drums. Perhaps they first started on piano or guitar but these drummers can go into a studio and get handed a Nashville number chart and see the whole picture and have an idea how the song will sound without having heard it before. Now I'm being selfish here but on the west coast we have a drummer we call "The Wrist." I know that if I'm doing a gig that I haven't done before and if he's on the drum seat he calls out the changes to me of songs I don't know. He'll say, "Here we go to the four" or "We're coming up to the five" and nothing on this planet makes me feel more comfortable then knowing that I can do a good job at a gig even if I am dodging a bullet with the drummer's help!!!. These are times when a drummer can be worth his weight in gold and if you want to be called for many gigs know and understand music from top to bottom!

This is an addition that I feel is very important. I am a working bass player that gets called to do gigs at the last minute and there are a few drummers I know that show up not having done any homework at all and do not know the songs that they will have to play. This can be very frustrating for any bandleader and everyone else on that stage. There are drummers who show up at a gig with a clean shirt, great attitude and charts for every song. These are the drummers I want to go into battle with any day of the week. Learn the songs.

Jay Buettner (freelance guitar player, singer)

 (Jay commented in general on all three questions)

I've been very spoiled in my musical life and got to play with some great drummers. I've always paid a lot of attention to them because I used to be one. I think a drummer's feel is almost like a pride thing; the really great ones are always striving for the deepest pocket. 

One of the biggest skills a drummer can have is to be able to make it feel great without making it be loud. Playing with a drummer that has one volume is no fun. Everyone plays differently depending on how they can hear themselves. Drummers that are sensitive to what the rest of the band is doing (especially the singer) or what the song dynamic is, are always an asset. They seem to think more like a vocalist whose part needs to blend and they always compliment the band.

Great drummers also seem to really understand song form. They know how to treat different sections of a song and breathe life into it. They include everyone and everything in their pocket. All of my favorite drummers are like freight trains but they acknowledge everything on stage and react to it.

Brad Johner (Songwriter, producer, 2007 CCMA male vocalist of the year)

(Brad answered with regards to two of the many drummers he has worked with. Kevin Churko is a great drummer, as well his production/engineering/songwriting credits include Brittney Spears, Shania Twain, The Corrs, and most recently Ozzy Osbourne)

I'll pick Mike Thompson as an example. Mike also plays a bit of bass guitar, piano and sings too. He's very alert on stage as to what everyone else is playing and really plays with the rest of the band when it comes to instrumental runs and vocally accented lines. Playing with Kevin Churko for some time, he understood the show thing and could make the transition from song to song seamless, quick and painless. As a producer, he understands how a drummer accents what the other guys on stage are doing too. 

Donny Parenteau (Multi-instrumentalist, producer, songwriter)

1. I would say to love the music he is playing and have a great attitude to the entire band.

2. I have done studio work in Nashville playing Fiddle and Mandolin and have worked with and have been influenced by drummers like Eddie Bayers, Milton Sledge, Paul Leim, James Stroud. They all came with a different feel and approach to music that made you blend in with the (magical pocket).

3. The main reason for me would be to sing harmony and understand what the other band members are doing. This will only make you all a tighter unit.

Jack Semple (Guitar Virtuoso, singer, songwriter, producer, arranger)

1. He/she must have a good groove. They must make the music “feel" good.

2. Great drummers like Buddy Rich, Dennis Chambers, and Dave Weckl prove that you can be an incredible player if you work hard enough. Buddy Rich performance videos inspire me every time.

3. It is important that a drummer understands the potential and limitations of other instruments so they can communicate more easily with fellow musicians.

John Dymond (Freelance bass player, session ace, producer)

1. I think above all, in the studio, good time along with a good feel. Some drummers have great time, but feel like a drum machine, others have trouble playing with the click track, but generally feel great. Unfortunately today, I think you need to be able to do both. Those guys are never out of work.  Having great sounding drums and being a good hang are important but won't be enough.

2. I guess since I starting playing in the 70s some of those guys influenced me. I was a huge fan of Leland Sklar's bass playing, so I loved Russell Kunkel's drumming.  Also the newer Nashville guys, I had the privilege of playing with Eddie Bayers, whom I learned a lot from. I regularly work with my friend Gary Craig, who feels like a million bucks.

3. Always a plus I guess, but I don't think it's a deal breaker. I think having the ability to interpret a song, and what is needed to get that song across is the most important. Most of the best drummers I've worked with have that ability. They usually find a great part, and play only what is needed.




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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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