Going Unplugged For Fun & Profit

Ok, Ok, I know the whole “unplugged” music thing has been done to death by MTV and just about every major record label looking to cash in, but the plain truth is, if your band is able to chill out, strap on acoustic guitars and lay back, being able to play “unplugged” might get you into a few lower volume rooms that would never have talked to you before. And as a drummer, it will present new challenges insofar as playing the same old material in fresh and different ways.

A few years ago, my band’s schedule looked a tad barren during the months of January and February, so something had to be done to fill the calendar. I checked out a small restaurant/bar that featured low volume music located a half hour from my home. When I say the place was small, I mean REAL small. There was no way the band was gonna be able to play here at normal volume, much less fit our equipment. Then it dawned on me; go in unplugged. I gave the owner my usual booking shpiel and he gave me a date. The rest of the band agreed, so we were set.

First, I decided to scale back my equipment. Actually, I pulled my old red sparkle ’61 Leedy set out of mothballs. The set had (I’ve since sold them) a 22′ bass drum, 12″ and 14″ toms, and a 5″ chrome snare, perfect sizes for a small space. I also decided to change my cymbal setup. I used a very dark, ancient A. Zildjian ride cymbal I’ve had for years, a 16″ crash, a 10″ splash, and a 14″ Wuhan China for color…smaller cymbals for a lighter approach and attack.

Next, I brought various percussion toys…shakers, a tambourine, maracas, claves, for use on quieter tunes that didn’t require drums. The bass player and guitarist learned a few light ballads for the occasion, so I had a chance to be ultra subtle and tasteful, a nice change from our usual electric blues/rock assault.

We also decided to scale back the PA system. We left our large Peavey SP-5A speakers at home and mounted two monitors on stands for use as mains, with one monitor upfront. This setup worked just fine. Smaller room-smaller PA. Everything was relative.

So much for the preparation. The gig itself was a lot of fun, musically speaking and otherwise. Our guitarist, playing an electrified acoustic instrument, adjusted his style to incorporate some very nice Pat Metheny-like jazz licks in songs that previously had sounded more like, well, Eddie Van Halen, if you can picture that. Our bassist played as usual, only at lower volume, and the newly added MOR ballads worked out fine with me using hand percussion only.

Speaking of style adjustment, I had to do some of that also, but the challenge proved to be exhilarating. Rethinking my normal drum parts involved some thought and some resourcefulness on my part. I used Pro-Mark Hot Rods, brushes, and Pro-Mark 5A sticks, which are lighter than my usual Carl Palmer signature models. With the lighter approach, I was able to switch over to traditional grip for the entire gig, something that never happens otherwise.

Going unplugged gave me new freedom to play around with certain songs that had been growing stale when played in our usual highly charged manner. There was space for me to create different parts-a new accent here, a well-placed China crash there. I felt positively inspired.

The gig was a resounding success for the band. The audience loved it, we had a good time, and the owner, who was all smiles, offered us more work with a raise to boot. He even booked us for St. Patrick’s Day at almost double our usual fee. Yeah, we had to learn several Irish tunes and wear green shirts, but so what?

The corned beef and cabbage was on the house and we even got the crowd to sing along on the Irish tunes. Not too shabby.

Going unplugged will not only broaden your band’s marketability and allow you to play rooms you may not have a had a chance to get into before, it will stimulate your creative juices as a musician and afford you the privilege of going home from a gig without ringing ears for a change.