The Relationship of the Drummer and Percussionist
Ahhh the drummer and the percussionist. Is it a match made in Heaven, or something from the pit of Hell??!!??
In the ‘professional’ world of music you have drummers (drum set guys) and percussionists (drummers that do all of the schmaltzy stuff…kind of like the “icing on the cake”). Sometimes you have really bad drummers. Sometimes you have very dreadful percussionists. Most of the time you have “percussionists” that have no clue of what being a percussionist is. They come in many forms. A lot of the time they are just guys that want to be in a band so badly that they’ll just go buy some gear and throw it on stage because playing a tambourine and hitting a few things is easy, right??? Or some “percussionists” are backup singers, horn players or maybe keyboard players that feel like adding a few more “abilities” will help them get more gigs.
If you’ve read any of my previous blogs to date, you’ll get the concept that being a percussionist is a pretty serious thing. In fact, most countries outside of the United States utilize percussion as a very integral part of their music. It’s taken very seriously. Most serious percussion players spend countless hours practicing their craft and often times countless hours of studying and trying to learn all they can about different cultures, instruments, music genres, and performance techniques. So I guess you might understand how it’s a little offensive at times when the ‘drunk chick’ wants to get on stage and play your tambourine or use one of your instruments as a coaster (it’s all happened folks…gig “war” stories blog coming soon!)
Now I can be rational about this- I know why it happens a lot of the times. Many times in music, especially in the pop world of American music, percussion is most certainly an afterthought. Usually at the most it’s shaker, tambourine, LOTS of wind chimes (mark tree) and maybe sometimes you can play a few conga patterns. So sometimes to the uninformed individual this all looks pretty simple. However, I’ve found it to be true in music that really good players always make what they are doing look simple – almost as if you can do it yourself.
So now we get into the ‘meat’ of my discussion here; the symbiotic relationship of the percussionist and the drummer and how being a great percussionist is not only knowing what to play but most importantly knowing what not to play! This is rule number one. The first mistake of most percussionists is overplaying. Believe it or not a verse, chorus or maybe a whole tune might still sound OK without your presence. This is a hard lesson for all of us to learn, myself included. Be the unsung hero. If your goal is to be in the spotlight then get those vocal chords in shape, get a microphone and head to the front of the stage. Of course there are obvious ways to get noticed as a percussionist, if you feel that need. Many of the instruments that we play are very visual. There’s certainly nothing wrong with being a visual player or having good stage presence. For me – I just say be a really good player and those that need to notice will. Learn when enough is enough and realize that your goal is to enhance the music, not overpower it.
Rule number two, for me, goes to both the drummer and percussionist. Learn to play on both sides of the coin. If you are a percussionist and can’t sit behind a drum kit and at least do some sort of semblance of a groove, shame on you! I’ve found that most percussionists that can’t play drum kit are missing one of the most important elements, which is the groove factor. The soul. The heart. Yes there are always exceptions to the rule but I’d put my money behind this theory 99% of the time. I’ve experienced it first hand many times from listening to other percussionists. On the other side, drummers should expand their horizons and learn to play percussion. You don’t have to be the next Richie Flores or Giovanni Hidalgo on congas – just know a little bit about the instruments and the musical heritage from which they were born. Knowledge is power – the more you broaden your musical scope the better you will become. When each side understands more about what each other’s roles are in music your chance as a successful rhythm section increase dramatically. Great drummers and percussionists, respectively, can come together at first meeting with no rehearsal and immediately sound like they’ve been playing together for years. It’s not only because they are great players, but that they have a keen understanding of not only their roles individually, but the other’s role and their place as a whole in whatever is going on musically.
The next point I have to make I touched on very briefly earlier. Make the music effortless – make it seem easy. My friend Jerry Navarro who is a great bass player gave me a really amazing compliment awhile back. I was actually playing drum kit at the time. For some reason I was feeling a bit insecure about my playing at that particular gig, so I asked him if my playing seemed OK. He looked at me and told me that it was easy for him to play bass that day. I had a puzzled look, then he went on to explain. His observation has been that when a drummer or perhaps other players in the band aren’t grooving, it’s almost a struggle to play his bass well. When things are locked in, the groove is deep and it’s literally effortless getting the notes out. Personally I think that this is a pretty profound observation. Ever since he told me about this, I’ve noticed it for sure. When I’m playing percussion and there’s a not so good drummer, especially when the time is bad, it really is a lot harder to play. You start thinking about the time and how stuff isn’t feeling good, and you just want it to be over. In these situations 3 1/2 minute tunes can feel like an eternity. I’m proud to say (trying not to brag) that I’ve received a lot of compliments from some really great drummers that when I’m playing percussion with them the music feels good and effortless. Be that guy – put the music first. Listen to what’s going on around you and lock in and consider the groove as a whole between yourself, the drummer, and the bass player.
This brings about my next point: Listen. Let me repeat that one again: Listen. Listen to what the drummer is doing, listen to what the bass player is doing, listen to every single member of that particular group. What does this song need? What doesn’t this song need? Sometimes it may be appropriate to listen to the singer’s lyrics and think of ‘color’ as opposed to groove. What I mean by this is that sometimes you can add a whole lot more to the music as a percussionist by providing a little color and ambience as opposed to trying to add to the groove. Maybe some chimes or a properly placed cymbal swell to create some tension and release in the music?
My final point about the symbiotic relationship of drummer/percussionist is a bit broad and “aloof.” Over time you need to develop a sense of space between the two players. If you’re fortunate enough to play with the same guy(s) for an extended period of time, this will work itself out quickly. However, if you’re like me and find yourself playing percussion with a lot of different drummers you need to start developing a bit of “spidey sense” for lack of better words to try and anticipate what’s coming up in the music. Everyone obviously plays differently and we all have our vocabulary, musically speaking, that we use frequently. Different drummers have different quirks. You need to be able to adapt quickly as you learn what they like to do in the sense of fills, feel, their time, etc. It’s about learning to not fill when they fill, pushing or pulling if the time is weird (or sometimes you just go with it), or using different textures to augment what they are doing.
As a recap, lets review the five main points that I feel are necessary, as a percussionist, to learn in order to successfully coexist with a drummer in a band/gig situation:
1) Learn when NOT to play, learn what NOT to play
2) Percussionist – learn to play drum kit. Drummer – learn to play percussion
3) Make it effortless for yourself, the drummer, and the band. Groove and augment.
5)Develop insticts as a percussionist and as a musician. Expect the unexpected and adapt to your situation
Some of the most fun gigs that I’ve done have been with another drummer, whether it’s been with my old band the Super Action Heroes (check out some music on my site on the “Demo Reel” page and the “Why Krushar?” page), or some of my most recent projects with the Drumjockeys or the Dynamites. I love feeling as if I’ve enhanced the music somehow, which is truly what I think that percussion (again, in a pop setting) does if played “correctly.” Remember: enhance the music – don’t overpower it. Listen, groove and augment!!!