In Defense of Extreme Drumming
I always find it interesting to talk to drummers from different eras and musical backgrounds. This is something I get to do quite often because I work in a number of musical settings such as Country, Rock, Pop, Latin, World Musical Theater, and even Christian. Of course these genres also have a fan base that extends from children to the elderly so opinions vary with some being rather ho hum while others are rather strong.
My age puts me in the middle of the various points of view that come from either side of the discussion. I am from a more modern era than the old school jazz drummers yet not quite as eccentric as some of the younger drummers. However, I say eccentric with all due respect because this new generation of drummers is doing things that are just mind boggling even though I may not fully understand their musical vision. Nevertheless, I have great respect for drummers on both sides of the aisle.
When I talk to the old school Jazz drummers one of the first things they do is criticize my drum set. That's because I have a double pedal, a foot mounted cowbell, a remote snare drum that I use for popping back beats & timbale sounding accents when the snares are turned off. Then there is my personal favorite comment, "You have too many cymbals!" Really? I have two crashes, two Chinas, one splash and my hi-hats. I can think of several Big Bang drummers who had more cymbals than m but these guys come from a different era when most of them preferred to use simple set ups. Believe me, I understand that point of view when I have two gigs on the same day.
Such opinions of my set up don't really concern me though because I use my whole kit. I'm more of a single bass drummer but I use my double pedal for fills and fanfares at the end of songs. When I do solo drum set shows I also use it for ostinato patterns so there is certainly a musical context behind what I am doing. Either way, double bass drumming continues to bother some drummers because somehow there is a badge of honor when it comes to playing certain rhythmic figures with one foot even though most drummers would ironically use two hands if they played that same figure say on their snare drum. That is most interesting to say the least.
I have two crash cymbals because they are on either side of the my set up, which allows me to have a crash available regardless of the direction I am facing. They are the same sizes but have different sounds so they sound really cool when I hit them together. My other two cymbals are for specific sounds that one can't get out of a crash cymbal so again, I don't see the big deal. Yet, there are those purists out there that would take exception to such a thing.
I remember one time when a sound engineer told me that, A real drummer can do any gig on a 4-piece kit. Fair enough and very true but since he played guitar I decided to see how much he wanted me to shackle his creativity. For example, I asked him, Do you only play open chords or do you also play bar chords and/or other inversions of the same chords on different parts of the fret board? Or, When you solo, do you play the same notes in the same register? No answer. Sorry my friend but a 6 inch concert tom sounds nothing like an 18 inch floor tom. And, I'm sorry, how many toms did Hal Blaine have on his studio kit? For what reason?
Then you have the younger players. So many of them have phenomenal technique and their independence abilities are mind boggling. Sometimes I see them do things that just appear to be inhuman. They tend to be less critical of my set up and seem to appreciate more of the solo drumming that I do. Of course while I respect what they are doing I do wish I'd see more of an effort to be more unique in their playing. Notice I didn't say more creative because a lot of the independence things they do can only come from having a great imagination. But when I say unique I mean having that little bit of something that I would hear in their playing that identifies them in their own unique way. Being a double bass drummer in the 200-300 BPM club is commendable and requires great discipline but what does that have to do with one's individual style? That's why I suggest to these drummers to go for it when it comes to achieving technical goals but don't forget to have your grooves in order because that's what pays the bills. However, please also know that your technical achievements do in fact inspire me because when I get frustrated and can't seem to nail a new idea I find great inspiration in those who are taking the instrument to the next level because it reminds me that the impossible is in fact possible.
Then you have the drumming community as a whole. Interviews in drumming magazines or discussions at your local music store, message boards... wow, there are so many opinions of those who dare to go outside of the box. Personally, I admire drummers like Thomas Lang, Marco Minnemann, Mike Mangini, Virgil Donati and many others. Stylistically I can say that some of these drummers appeal to me more than others but I get excited every time I see their latest trick because frankly, I think most drummers are way too complacent. That's why when we see something new many of us find ourselves being overly critical because it's different and perhaps because it wasn't our idea. Then, in my humble opinion, I think some of us are a little envious because we can't physically do what another player has just done and may not ever be able to do it. I will even go as far as saying that this observation also applies to some of the biggest names in drumming who have openly criticized these drummers.
Think about it: how many videos on You Tube are demonstrations of the famous John Bonham or Steve Gadd (depending on your hero) triplet lick? How about the "Fool in the Rain" or "Rosanna" shuffle? Yes, I see the importance of having such pieces of history demonstrated because there are beginners out there discovering how to play the instrument but seriously, how many more videos do we need of the same thing? Beyond that, how many more transcriptions of the same old fills and grooves have to be featured in drum magazines every other month? Believe me when I say that I am not advocating that we forget these masterpieces because without them we wouldn't be where we are now. But drumming has expanded so much to the point of forcing equipment makers to expand their product line to accommodate the creativity of such artists who were willing to do something that had not been done before? I truly admire that.
Aside from that, let's be honest about something. Many people will look at a drum solo like this masterpiece by Mike Mangini: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Oe8XKgOuNtk and find nothing but fault with it. As far as I am concerned it is brilliant both with its awesome drumming and showmanship. They will counter it with something say Buddy Rich did and say that this is true drumming. Well, like many drummers I have watched several Buddy Rich solos over the years and from what I can see it's a lot of the same thing, regardless of the era and filled with chops and such that was meant to dazzle the crowd. How is that any different than what Mangini did is the link provided? Yet, Mangini is giving us polyrhythms, independence, crossover patterns and many other incredible things to watch and listen to but that is still not good enough for some. Personally, I can really appreciate that because I didn't have to sit through more of the Bonham/Gadd triplet licks that most drummers can't seem to live without (Speaking of which, maybe if some drummers expanded their set ups a bit they would come up with some new ideas).
Besides, not everyone is going to approach their solos or their expanded set ups the same way as Mike Mangini. Drum solos also reveal a player's individual style and in some cases it is quite beautiful. Take the brilliance done by Horacio Hernandez during a moment at a past Modern Drummer Festival when he demonstrated how playing the drum set can be like speaking a language: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CimBeu4PWrM
Was there enough groove in that solo? Was there enough feel in that solo?
Another thing that gets criticized are drummers who are able to make part of their living doing solo exhibitions or Master Classes. Many critics say it's not musical or it's just like an extreme sport where the player is showing off. My response, so what?! This is the music industry and anyone making any kind of a living in this business, be it local or on the biggest stages knows the struggle of working in this business. Even some of the best session drummers in the world say that they don't know if they'll work next week. Therefore, as far as I'm concerned, whether you're in a high profile Rock band, a session drummer, a local drummer in a working cover band or a solo drummer who has an audience, more power to you! Keep doing what you're doing because you're lucky enough to have a demand for what you do.
That is why I applaud and encourage drummers (and other musicians) who are tired of doing the same old thing. If that wasn't an admirable trait then we wouldn't have new musical genres or updated versions of existing genres. That and the fact that by doing solo shows the drummer is not dependent on other musicians hiring them to play in their band in order to either make a living or have a chance to express themselves musically. And if one is not a group setting they don't have to express themselves in the midst of an already established structure, thus, being the captain of their own ship. Speaking for myself, I'm more than burned out on playing a Jazz piece where I spend most of the time keeping time for everyone else's extended solo just to so I can trade 8's with someone else before heading back to the head. What if I want to change meter or tempo in the middle of those 8 bars and why would that be wrong? Train wreck? Yes, but if I was doing my own thing, say, like Ginger Baker did on "Toad," then I am free to do what feels right to me. Look at the beauty Ginger was able to create because Jack Bruce and Eric Clapton got out of his way. What's wrong with the drummer NOT always having to be in a supportive role? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4Gze0PxDKgQ
I will admit that over 98% of my gigs are with a group because drummers will usually make their living playing in a group setting. I'm fine with that because I also love playing music with other musicians and prefer to do that than playing on my own. However, I have also enjoyed the challenge of creating a solo style of drumming where I adapt world rhythms the drum set, selling such an act to club owners & other event planners and then showing up and delivering the goods. It brings me great satisfaction as an artist and I am grateful to have the privilege to know that my performances have inspired others to have the confidence to try something out of the ordinary that has been weighing on their hearts as well. After all, I too was inspired by other drummers who had already done such a thing but I also made sure to do something that I was able to identify with that I also felt was a unique presentation of my own creativity.
The other reality is that not everyone is going to like what you're doing. There are genres of music I don't like, famous songwriters or bands whose music does nothing for me and even famous drummers who have inspired millions who are not a part of my music collection. Of course, this has no influence on those who find inspiration in all of these artists and that doesn't bother me because when I'm alone in my truck listening to one of my favorite drummers or some of my favorite music the rest of the world doesn't exist. I also certainly respect those who have been touched by the artists who haven't necessarily touched me. It doesn't mean that I don't respect them. I simply don't connect to what they're doing. And, I know there is music I like that some people despise and that's fine because it's not going to change my point of view on what I think of this music.
I know there are people out there who do not like my drumming style, musicians that I just couldn't connect with or other drummers out there who do not understand why I set up my drums a certain way, play a certain way or even make the time to go out and do solo drum set shows. I say, to each their own. As far as I'm concerned artistic freedom is more than just the lyrics in a song or a singer taking off their clothes in a music video. There have been plenty of times when I'm setting up my drums in a club for a solo show when people are surprised to hear that a drummer is performing on his own. I realize that it's different and may seem a little arrogant to some but to me it's all about being true to myself as an artist. I'm sure other drummers doing something outside of the box feel the same way so all of us hopefully look back with no regrets. And, as far as I'm concerned, pianists and guitarists shouldn't be the only instrumentalists who have the privilege of performing either in a group setting or as a solo performer.
Trust what you're feeling. Take a risk and when you're ready, put it out there. Even if one person likes what you're doing and can say so with all sincerity you've done something right. At the end of the day you are the only person that will be with you every moment of your life so be true to the artist within you and show us what you got because every artist has something to share.