Getting Into Character
by Jeremy SteinkolerI had a drum student for a number of years who went on to study acting at a prestigious program in England. He was an extremely bright and sensitive kid, whose enthusiasm for drums was second only to his passion for acting. We were talking one day about the similarities between acting and drumming, about the notion of “getting into character” both for different acting roles and for playing drums on tunes with different feels. For many drummers, an intuitive feel comes only from many years spent playing various styles of music and from listening to hundreds or even thousands of recordings. But there are many shortcuts you can take to attaining the appropriate feel for a song if you pay attention to what the song is asking you to do, and have some degree of independent dynamic control of your limbs.
Unfortunately for most amateur drummers, they approach many subtly (or sometimes even grossly) different songs with the same concept and dynamic. They rely on a handful of trusted comfortable beats that they can play fairly well at a consistent tempo. Too often, drummers limit their ability to really bring out the musical potential of a composition by falling back on their limited vocabulary. But even more often, drummers fail to define the tune with a musical feel by a lack of listening and musical sensitivity, or “getting into character.”
Most professional drummers know instinctively that every song calls for its own technical, conceptual, and musical approach. They also know that how they play is just as important as what they play. I’ve heard countless drummers in BandWorks (the Rock ‘n’ Roll band program that I run) play parts just as they’re written, note for note, as the drummer on a recording played them. But even they will admit that they sound nothing like those great drummers they’re trying to emulate. So what gives? How can two drummers playing the same part at the same tempo sound completely different? How can one drummer sound so much better?
It’s not the drums – it’s the feel. Most of us have heard this word before, or maybe even used it when we didn’t completely understand it. Playing with a good feel for a song has to do with finding the right musical character, the right attitude or feeling for a song to make it sound good. And truthfully, if you sat down five great drummers to play the same song, they might all play with a slightly different feel. But they would all sound good. There is no “right” part to play, there is no “correct” feel. But there are lots of ways to sound good or bad.
Choosing What to Play…
Naturally, part of sounding good has to do with coming up with a good part, or choosing what to play. Pay attention to the rhythms you’re hearing from the rest of the band in order to come up with a part that makes rhythmic sense. You need to have an understanding of how your 4-limbed part fits rhythmically with the bass line, the rhythm guitar part, the keyboard part, etc. in order to make a decision about how to best compliment the other parts you’re hearing. Is it best to mirror the bass part with the bass drum? Or weave them together with some overlap? Should the snare stay on 2 and 4, or should you play it more syncopated, or with ghost notes to fill out the groove? By increasing your vocabulary as a drummer, you’ll have more ideas to choose from to create parts that work well. And by listening to more music, you’ll develop better instincts for what sounds good and feels good.
And How to Play It
What really separates great drum parts from good ones is the way that they’re played. Does the tune swing? To what degree? Should the groove be played on top of the beat or slightly behind? How tight is the hihat? What part of the stick should you hit it with? There is a wide range of tightness/looseness you can achieve on the hihat with your left foot. Pressing down with just the right amount of tension can make all the difference. What kind of tone should you play on the snare? Where should you hit the ride cymbal? These are the kinds of things that will help determine the overall sound of the drums and the character the drum part as a whole imparts to the song.
In addition to paying attention to the quality of sound of each part of the kit, you also need to control the relative volume of each limb (and of course your overall volume!). How loud is the hihat compared to the snare drum? Is the bass drum punchy or just there for rhythmic support? How essential is it to the groove? Does the snare crack on the backbeat or is it played more in the middle of the mix? Does it make you want to shake your butt, clap your hands, or just snap your fingers? Properly balancing the volumes of the individual parts of the kit is a critical element to playing with a good feel.
One of the difficulties in defining “feel” is that it’s really a feeling that you’re trying to translate into the drum part and into the song to give it a certain character. How can you play the drums to make a song sound darker, or brighter? Or make it chug along more? Or have a more Caribbean flavor, for example? You’ve got to learn to translate feelings into sounds, the same way an actor can portray an emotion with the delivery of a line. So a darker sound could mean more toms and low cymbal sounds; bright can mean a tight hihat and popping snare; chugging along could mean playing more on top of the beat, or adding snare notes to give more of a moving train kind of vibe; a more Caribbean feel could involve a rim click, cymbal bell and movement around the toms. There are no rules about how to make a groove feel a certain way. You have to experiment to find out what works for you, and explore the sonic possibilities of your kit.
Similar to the way an actor needs to find motivation to portray a character, a drummer needs to know what motivates a drum part. Overall, what role do the drums play in the song? Are you driving the boat? Lighting the spark? Is it all about drums and vocal? Or guitar and vocal? Are the drums just there for rhythmic support? Should you play on top of the beat or behind it or right on? Pushing or laid back? Heavy or light? Dark and moody or hard-driving rock and roll? It can get daunting trying to overanalyze the character of the song and how the drums fit into it. Most good drummers can get into character without even thinking about it. Their instincts just lead them to the right groove with the right feel form the first downbeat. But for those of us without the incredible gifts of someone like Jim Keltner or Steve Gadd, taking a minute or two to think about your motivation for playing the tune can help you come up with a good musical concept and feel.
Ask yourself what is the song about. You need to determine the mood, character, energy, and vibe of the song. Is it a rocker about driving down the highway? A moody ballad about loss? Is it about burning down the house or rockin’ in the free world? Or sitting on the dock of a bay? How can the drum part contribute to that musical intention?
Two of the most critical aspects to playing any song well are playing with a steady tempo and a consistent feel. If you have trouble keeping time, how well you play the feel is really of secondary importance – you have to maintain a steady tempo before you worry about anything else. But once you can play fairly steady, the next most important thing is maintaining a consistent feel. Part of this has to do with staying where you are on the front edge or back edge of the beat, and part of is has to do with maintaining a consistent sound. Every time you hit the snare on 2 & 4, it should sound the same. Your hihat should not get tighter and looser over the course of a groove unless you mean it to. The bass drum should be played with the same attack on each note in each bar. Playing the drums with consistent timbres on each part of the kit will go along way toward making you sound steady, and can even improve your time. [In jazz you can take a different approach, with each note having its own color and character, almost like speaking. But with rock and dance music or anything with a repetitive groove, consistency of sound is paramount].
Attitude, Presence, & Integrity
Another aspect of playing with a good feel has to do with the energy you play with. I’ve heard so many drummers play parts that would sound great if they just hit the drums. Confidence takes time to develop, but you’ll never find it playing timidly hiding behind the kit. Play every note like you mean it. Believe in your playing. There is nothing you are supposed to play – the only thing you’re supposed to do is sound good, and you don’t sound good when you don’t play with integrity. That’s not to say louder is always better; you can still play with amazing intensity and presence without making people reach for the ear plugs. I’ve seen drummers play with a fierce attitude but still keep their volume controlled. Use Rutes, grip the sticks higher up, make shorter strokes, but still play your parts like they’re the best parts you’ve ever heard, with presence and integrity.
An Illuminating Story
I once taught a band of teenage kids that had two drummers who were sharing duties on the kit. One was 12 years old, and a technically accomplished player. He could sight read charts note for note, and had a huge vocabulary of grooves and fills. The other was 14 and had less training, with a much smaller vocabulary and less refined technique. He made lots of mistakes, and simplified parts so he could play them. I remember at the concert that an adult musician came up to me and remarked how great the drummer was. “The younger one?” I asked. “Yeah, he’s amazingly talented.” “No, the other one,” he said. “He really rocked!” And he was right. The 14-year-od, with numerous mistakes in his playing, sounded better, because he played with energy and vitality that the younger drummer lacked. He hit the drums hard, and drove the band. He lit a spark that all the band members responded to, and made everyone around him play with more energy. The younger drummer nailed all the grooves and fills, but lacked the presence to make the music really have an impact.
Learning by Example
Chances are if you’re listening to one of your favorite bands, the drummer is very good. Learn from him or her. Listen to songs with a focus on the sound of the drum parts that you hear; notice which part(s) of the kit are most prominent. If you’re trying to cop the groove, try to imitate the dynamic balance of the parts of the kit. Often, doing that alone will help you sound much better than playing the part note for note. Ultimately being a musical drummer is all about how you make the kit sound, and often how you play is more important that what you play.
Granted, sometimes the mix of a recording alters the balance of the kit as it was played, but if you’re playing live and trying to cop the feel of a recording, does it really make a difference? If you’re trying to make it sound like you hear it on the recording, and if you can’t hear the bass drum very well on the recording, chances are its role in the song is not as important as you might think.
Nuts and Bolts
Here’s a great exercise for developing more independent control of your limbs, greatly enhancing your ability to “dial in” your sound for a particular song, and achieve a good, musical feel.
Start by practicing hitting two drums simultaneously, one note at a time, exaggerating the dynamic difference. Push the envelope as far as you can by playing the loud notes as loud as you possibly can, and the soft notes as soft as possible. If you do it right, you should barely be able to hear the soft note at all. These kinds of exaggerated strokes, though perhaps not commonly used in musical situations, will enable you to easily play parts with a narrower range of dynamic contrast, more typical of real songs. Remember, it’s better to exaggerate the difference in volume so that when it comes time to play for real, it’ll be easy to attain more independent dynamic control (with usually less contrast) with each limb. Concentrate on hitting both limbs at exactly the same time.
I like to hit the right hand on the hihat, tightly closed (for soft) to very loose (for loud).
Snare strokes should be near the edge (soft) to center (loud)
Bass drum strokes should be heel down (soft) to heel up (loud).
Step 3: Play the above combinations in Step 2 with a simple rock beat instead of just one note at a time.
Once you can play a simple groove with any of the above dynamic combinations, try some more complicated beats, but focus on maintaining a smooth tempo and accurate dynamic control.
What you need to know
Most amateur drummers are primarily concerned with what beat to play. I often get students coming into lessons asking me to show them “the beat” to a particular song. I like to tell some of my students to imagine that they had to sub out a gig to me playing just the one song we’re working on. I tell them they have 30 seconds to tell me what I need to know about the tune so I can do the best job playing it. If they start talking to me about where to place the bass drum in the measure, I interrupt and ask, “Is that really what I need to know? Wouldn’t it be ok if I played the bass drum in a slightly different pattern? Furthermore, couldn’t I play the part just like you’re suggesting, in time, but still not sound good, and not have the right feel for the song?” I encourage them to start thinking about what’s really essential: the groove, the energy of the tune, the touch, the feel, the arrangement, and what role the drums play in the song.
Remember, the drums are not always the main event, even though we drummers like to think so. You need to ask yourself what the song is asking of the drummer. How can you make the song sound better with your part? It’s easier to add more later than to take away. Better to start with a simpler part, then listen to what happens with the groove and feel. Then you can hear what you think might be a good addition, and try adding some complexity or color to that part. But if you start with too complex a part, it’s difficult to know what to take away to make it work.
Ultimately, it’s up to you to define the groove and feel of every song you play. The drummer’s role is critical to making the song what it is, even if the part is minimal or understated. And when you start digging the idea that every song is different and can offer you some challenge – sometimes the best drummers are so good because of what they don’t play – you’ll be more likely to appreciate the infinite subtlety of playing the drums and be one step closer to getting into character.
Jeremy Steinkoler has been teaching drums for over 25 years and running BandWorks rock band workshops for kids and adults since 1993. He is the author of Drum Wisdom, a collection of essays on drumming, teaching, and life. He is proud to be endorsed by Vic Firth Drumsticks, Aquarian Drumheads, Protection Racket Cases, and Istanbul Agop Cymbals.
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