I always thought that one of the best things about playing drums is to be able to have constant opportunities of turning the world into a better place for the common man to be in – happier, sometimes. It’s a thing we can do by simply playing our instrument to a good song. Playing in a ball, for example, can be quite a ball. And it’s also a great way to meet musicians, too, because our instrument works to its best purpose in the company of at least another one (well, preferably two, I’d say).
But, of course, drums can’t do that alone (except to us, crazy folks). To achieve such merriment, they are to be played along to music that moves people’s hearts and souls – also bodies, sometimes. Other than in some very few magic moments in the popular music industry (of which Gene Krupa’s drum solo on “Sing Sing Sing” may be the best example, ever), drums can’t produce such effects, by themselves, when played as solo instruments. No matter what anyone might say in contrary, playing drums is most entirely about stating time, pulse and rhythm to any given musical piece, that is, harmony and melody cannot be conveyed through drums, ordinarily.
In popular music, in fact, even while they are usually the first instrument to be recorded and mixed down, and despite the fact that they figure quite prominently in any final mix, drums are, usually, a kind of “secondary factor” to most of the music in which they figure, originally. Even in groovy popular music. There, drums seem to be the core, and do pump breath into any life groovy songs might have. But what comes first, in the process, as an element of creation, is usually the tune itself, not the rhythmic pattern adhered to it. (Yes, there are exceptions, but there has never been, nor there will ever be a three minutes drum solo on your Top 40 Radio station.)
On the other hand, the simplest of songs is capable of amazing force. As far as proving the sheer strength of songs goes, we just have to recognize that one of the true geniuses of marketing in the twentieth century has built a whole career, and sold millions of records, just by having had one single stroke of perception about it. His name is Ray Connif. All he did was turn a universal liking, spread all throughout the civilized world, into a tangible musical format. He just focused on the fact that everybody likes popular song melody sing-along, no matter in what language or rhythm songs were originally in. So, he took away the language barrier by substituting them for la-la-la, or whatever, and took away any possible musical barrier by over-simplifying the arrangements, thus making already popular music all the more accessible. He created the extra proven popular music fail-proof guarantee. No matter how poor the arrangements might be considered, he and his band became popular worldwide, right from the very beginning, all because he had chosen the right stuff to build upon: Popular songs. I figure he well deserves it, bless him, his trombone and his wig.
These are facts of life that do not take away any brilliancy from our instrument of choice. Much to the contrary, as far as pop music is concerned. Mr. Connif, for example, has been able to make rhythmically over simplified versions of the tunes he covers only because they had already been “well established” in their original grooves. We have to recognize that a good groove, the heart and soul of drumming, may help record’s sales in a major way. And properly stating a groove is, indeed, what playing drums is all about.
Or is it not?
Although I might seem to be digressing, right from the start, the point stated above is, to me, more than necessary to show that what I’m about to say makes good sense. It could all be resumed in a sentence: “Drums are instruments for accompaniment”.
My worries about stating unequivocally such a simple fact come from having followed, lately – on message boards, here, in the internet –, discussions with comparisons between the “technical wisdom” of any given drummers. Usually, an “old timer” has been compared to “contemporary drummers”, in a prejudiced way for the senior. Such an attitude derived, perhaps, from ignorance of the importance of history, in itself, and that of any “old” drummer, in particular. It came to a point where it has been said that any of a few given “new” contemporary drummers could wipe Buddy Rich off the floor, with their thrilling chops, on pieces Rich has recorded. Well, I’ll be…
This is quite beyond defending Rich (who does not need it, at all, and would have laughed those quotes out of the blue with one of his quick wit jokes, was he alive). The thing is that we seem to have reached a point where, for some, extra cool technique seems to be considered as something better than being able to lay a solid groove. Or the sheer capacity of doing “a kazillion single strokes per minute”, now measurable and turned into a sport, on its own, may be considered as a determinant factor for recognizing any quality in a drummer other than that of his being fast, alone.
To me, all that is pure nonsense.
If my meaning is hard to get, then read Bob Cianci’s article “Blazing chops vs. real world drumming”. Or just try to imagine how it would be trying to make people dance on drum chops alone for a single minute. Or how surrealistic it would sound to have a crowd singing the notes of a popular drum solo (I reckon it could be quite nice, but…)
So, to begin this new series of articles, one thing must be straightened out, just to get it out of the way: The first (and main) thing about creating a new song piece is not about playing. It’s about perception, understanding, feeling, adequacy to a context. Chops mean next to nothing when we contribute to the birth a new popular song piece. Forget all about them, lay your technique loose and just open your ears for the main element: The music you are about to get into, lyrics and all. That is the starting of the process of creating good music in a pop song format, which might end up turning the song piece into something not less than magical. For one thing, one might even agree that one tune needs no drums at all.
One thing, though, is mandatory, in my opinion, if the job is to be really well done, and that is to have a true liking for songs. (Or a consistent knowledge of song format, but I guess one thing hardly comes without the other.) There’s nothing wrong about not liking songs… unless you play them with a frown. It usually feels as nice for those who listen to a song played by a non-enthusiast as is does for those who dislike songs and yet insist on playing them, no matter how professional they might be. You might end up as a talented drummer making a poor job of playing a pop song. Nothing wrong with either song or instrumentalist, just a pair not made for each other. But the song can’t tell, can it?
Of one the greatest songwriters of all time, to me, is David Crosby (from “Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young”). Listening to songs he did, like “Triad” (from the live CSNY album “Four Way Street”) is always a thrill. He’s one of the most sensitive, funny and intelligent human beings alive, and it’s a true honor to music that this man has chosen it as a profession.
In an interview he gave to journalist Steve Silberman, in 1995, David said something that summarizes what playing songs should be about: “Jeff’s (Pevar, guitarrist) most powerful weapon is his ability to play not the notes, but the song. There are lead guitar players who like to play lead guitar, and there are lead guitar players who like to play songs. It’s a definitive difference in approach. Jeff loves songs. He’s up there, trying to tell the same story that you are. Ever since I started to play music, my great joy has been submitting to a thing greater than myself, created when musicians link up, making something big in the air over our heads that speaks with one voice. That’s my life. That’s what I came to the party for.”
Want to join the party? Welcome. But, first, you’d better honestly answer yourself the question: “Do I like songs?” Or: “Am I good a professional enough to surpass my dislike for the song format and do a proper job in creating drum parts for songs or playing songs on session calls?”
Please note that there’s nothing wrong if you don’t like songs, taste is indisputable. Anyway, even if you don’t like them, as listener, I figure you might well give yourself a fair chance of being involved in the process of creating one or two, as a musician. You may turn to get the liking of it.
And as for me, oh, yes, I do love songs – very much, always did.