Saturday, July 23, 2011

Drummers Only pt 4: "Volumes, not Volume"

If we're not careful, the drums can be the most non-musical instrument in the band. Everyone else has things to work with like pitch, notes, melody, harmony, counter-melody etc.

What do we have? Timing (pt 2) and volume. This post is about playing with dynamics, or more than one volume.

Every drummer is good at playing loud. It's in our divine nature. I've never had to teach anyone to play loud. One might paraphrase this post, "The Zen of Drumming," because without soft there is no loud. Loud is only relative to what came before it. (Hmmmm, deeeep thoughts.)

Contrast is what commands our attention and makes impact. The cool swimming pool never feels better than on a 96 degree day. The Red Robin burger never tastes better than when you are legitimately hungry. Ice cream tastes best after a spicy Mexican dish. Loud has more impact after you've played softly.

Think of it this way. Any schmoe who can play a beat can play loud. Anyone. Do you want to be a dime-a-dozen drummer? Do you want your loud rock-god-anthem choruses to be mediocre? No, you don't. Read on musical drummer.

The truth is our louds stand out, have impact, blow people's hair back, when we've played softer elsewhere in the song--when we've worked up to it.

Studio recordings can lead us astray on this point. Why? Because they can record the drummer playing a nice loud snare sound and then turn it down in the mix. We hear that sound and try to copy it, but it's not copyable--unless we're in a studio too. Playing live is different. Don't worry about it--that same recorded drummer sounds differently live too.

When we choose to play the verses softer, the band will follow suit--the whole band will play with more dynamics and the whole ensemble will be more musical. The drummer wins, the band wins, the song wins, and the audience wins. Beautiful!

Caution: there's nothing worse than a drummer playing softly with loose mushy time and no intensity. (More zen coming up here.) Learn to play soft, but with intensity.

That's really vague, I know, but it also happens to be true. It's like momentum in sports; you can't define it but you know it when you see it. I can't tell you how to have intensity but I can tell when a drummer does not have it.

(Just to be clear, intensity has nothing to do with volume. And for the record, one of the hardest things to do as a drummer is playing quietly, in time, with intensity.)

For me playing soft with intensity means I'm going to rhythmically nail every 8th note on the hats and stick every kick drum precisely where it needs to be. And I don't care who in the band wants to rush because I'm playing soft--I ain't budging!

That's how I go after intensity when I'm playing soft, anyhow. All I know is that a drummer needs intensity to play soft well.

Do you want your loud choruses to rock your world?
Do you want to be known as a musical drummer?
Learn to play everything from very quiet to very loud in strict time and with intensity.

Some practical guidelines:

Way back when people read musical charts there were these great little things called dynamic markings:

pp = very soft (pianissimo)
p = soft (piano)
mf = medium loud (mezzo forte [met-zo for-tay])
f = loud (forte)
ff = very loud (fortissimo)
fff = school of rock loud (fortississimo)

When I'm charting songs for myself I always use these markings. Even when I'm not using a chart, I bet I play 3-4 dynamic volumes in a given song. Why? I want to serve the band well. I want the band to be as musical and as expressive as possible. Don't you?

To be a great drummer, be known as a drummer who has many different volumes, not just one volume--volumes, not volume.

Coming up: Pt 5 "Play the Spaces"