The Politics Of Sitting In

I’m like all you guys. When I go somewhere to see a band, be it a club, or even a social function like a wedding or private affair, I get the urge to sit in and kick the band in the butt. Perhaps after over thirty years as a working drummer, I still feel I have something to prove. I’ve stopped analyzing it. I just like to sit in.

Ok, you’ve decided you want to sit in with the band. The bass player is solid, the guitarist cooks, and the girl singer looks like Jennifer Lopez. What do you do?

I start by approaching the drummer and identifying myself as a fellow drummer. Immediately, there’s a bond. I guarantee you 95% of the drummers out there, unless they’re headed for the bathroom, the bar, the buffet table, or some hottie that’s been giving them the eye, will be more than happy to talk with you. Schmooze. Talk drums. All drummers are related anyway. We’re family.

When the time seems right, pop the question about sitting in. If the drummer thinks you’re straight ahead, he or she might agree immediately, or most likely, will refer you to the leader. This scenario will occur most often at a wedding, where there is almost always one person who calls the shots. If that’s the case, repeat step one, be direct, and make your request.

If the answer is affirmative, agree ahead of time on a couple of tunes you and the band know, and go over any directions the leader or drummer might give you on endings, breaks, song structure, etc. Most likely, the leader will call you up after a few songs, but not always, so make sure you’re available when they announce you.

When you get behind the other guy’s drums, DO NOT ADJUST ANYTHING UNLESS YOU ASK FIRST! And do not retune the drums to suit your tonal preferences! Some drummers are picky about their settings, so don’t mess with them if the drummer says so. Period. Deal with it and just play. If you get the green light to change stands and settings, do so sensibly, make a mental note of how things were set, and make an effort to return heights and tilter angles where they were previously.

When the music starts, open your ears and listen attentively, keep your eyes on the other band members, especially anyone trying to give you signals. Play solid time, tasty fills, and don’t try to imitate Neil Peart or Keith Moon. Think Ringo Starr or Mel Lewis instead. Play only what’s necessary to make the music work. This is NOT the time for a blazing display of chops.

And it goes without saying, if you break something, be prepared to reimburse the drummer and offer apologies profusely.

Of course, the leader or drummer might refuse to let you sit in. If that’s the case, don’t, I repeat, don’t argue and push the issue. Accept their decision gracefully, thank them, and sit down. Yes, it hurts, and it’s a disappointment, but speaking from experience, how would you like it if you allowed some ying-yang to sit at your drums, and then have him absolutely suck, causing your band embarrassment and thereby endangering your gig? I’ve seen it happen.

I’ll tell you an unfortunate story. About eleven years ago, my wife, daughter and I were visiting my parents in Richmond, Virginia. They belonged to a country club, and dad was involved with booking the entertainment. A popular attraction at club functions was a 16-piece big band called The Kings Of Swing. My folks had grown to know the leader, after the group had played the club several times, and mom finally asked him if her son could sit in on drums next time we came down for a visit. He said “sure, no problem,” so during July 4th weekend when I asked “Bruce,” the leader, if I could sit in, he suddenly forgot about his conversation with my mother, and passed me on to his new drummer, who winced, made faces, hemmed and hawed, and finally refused my request. Disappointed, I mentioned it to my father, who grew angry, and in his usual aggressive, take charge manner, began heading toward the bandstand to give “Bruce” a piece of his mind. I stopped him with the explanation that they made their decision, and I wouldn’t want some irate senior citizen harassing me at a gig.

Of course, my father never hired the group again. They lost the gig. I later heard the band broke up. And although I extracted a little satisfaction over that, the really unfortunate thing was that my mother, who had grown up during the swing era and had told me stories of seeing Gene Krupa with Benny Goodman and Buddy Rich with Artie Shaw, passed away fifteen months later from cancer and never got to hear me play with a big band.

The point is this: Sitting in is fun, but only if the band agrees. If they say yes, be courteous, professional, treat the drummer’s equipment like gold, and have a blast. If they refuse, don’t make a scene, don’t argue, and for heaven’s sake, don’t do something stupid that causes the leader to think, “typical drummer attitude.”

Lord knows, we don’t need to instigate anymore “bad drummer” jokes.