The Necessity For Versatility

It’s Friday night and the phone rings. It’s a fellow drumming buddy on the line.

“Hey, dude. I’ve got the flu and that wedding band I’m with has a gig tomorrow afternoon. Can you cover it for me? It’s a $300 gig for you.”

Your jaw drops at the thought of grabbing three hundred big ones for a few hours work, as your friend continues.

“It’s a Polish/Italian wedding, so you’ll have to play some ethnic stuff, then the usual standards, Top 40, a little swing, a little Latin, some classic rock and current dance music. You’ll have to play some brushes. You can handle that, right? Can you help me out, man?”

Brushes? You mean those plastic things used to clean teeth? You suddenly have a sick feeling in your gut as you stutter, stammer, and make some lame excuse why you can’t make the gig, leaving your friend to call some other lucky soul.

Needless to say, this is not a good position to be in.

The cold, hard truth is that you have been brought up on a steady and unceasing diet of Neil Peart, John Bonham, Mike Portnoy, Billy Cobham, Dennis Chambers, Terry Bozzio, and even Ringo Starr and Charlie Watts. Not to disparage any of those talented guys, but listening to nothing but rock and fusion drummers isn’t going to do anything for your versatility.

When I was a kid studying drums with my unforgettable teacher Carl Wolf, he always said to me, “Bobby, a drummer has to know how to play everything, not just hard rock!”

He was dead right, and those words of wisdom still apply in this new century.

So, if you’re deficient in some styles, what do you do to expand your horizons and increase your marketability?

First, make a list of every musical style you feel insecure about and find a good teacher who can show you the basics of each style and feel you are uncomfortable with. Tell him you want to gain the versatility to cut many styles of music. Don’t worry if you can’t read music (although you should learn!), a qualified, experienced teacher who’s also a working drummer, should be able to show you the rhythms you’ll need to cut a wedding gig. Bring a tape recorder and record the lesson with the teacher playing, then you attempting the same patterns. This will provide you with a guide, something with which you can listen to and practice at home.

Then, visit your local drum shop and rent any instructional video that pertains to what you need. Head out to your local record/CD/tape store, peruse the used and cutout racks and pick up a few things that look like they might help. There are dozens of budget priced older big band swing music cassettes out there, as well as Latin recordings, and the always available standards by singers like Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, and many others. You can find countless titles in the budget bins for $3.99 and less. Places like K-Mart and Wal-Mart are good places to find cheapie recordings.

After you have done all this, then head to the ‘shed and practice, practice, practice!

There’s no need to become the greatest living expert on the meringue and tarantella. And you needn’t memorize Johnny Mathis’s entire songbook either. The goal is to become well rounded enough so you can pull off anything a band might require you to play. The modest financial outlay to gain versatility will pay dividends, either immediately or over time.

And for heaven’s sake, if you have never played brushes, buy a pair, and check out Clayton Cameron’s great video “The Living Art Of Brushes.” Clayton, who plays with Tony Bennett, is undoubtedly the world’s leading exponent on the subject. His brush playing is nothing short of magnificent.

After you’ve gained the knowledge necessary to play almost any type of gig tossed your way, think of how good you’ll feel the next time your friend gets sick and calls you to cover one of his gigs.

The self confidence you will gain by becoming versatile will be priceless.