5 tips for playing drums in a band + 10 quick tips for playing live
It's exciting to write blog posts that relate directly to my students, this being no exception. One of my absolute favorite things to witness as a teacher is to watch my students level up, an inexact term perhaps by intent, but indisputable when happening. In this specific case, the leveling up is making the plunge to play with other people, and I couldn't be more thrilled!
So for everyone taking this leap, here are my top 5 tips for playing drums in a band, plus (as promised) a bonus 10 quick tips for performing live.
1. Start simple (play consistently)
When you start playing with other musicians (even just doing covers), it can take a minute to feel each other out and get a sense of each other's playing styles. Do yourself a favor and start off simple. A straight ahead backbeat (snare on 2 & 4) can do wonders to get the ball rolling, as long as it's consistent. Play what you're comfortable with as long as you can do it a long time over and over again, that's the trick.
So before you unleash that sweet Neil Peart fill you've been practicing for 5 years, make sure you first get through the song...a few times. Remember, you are the train conductor, your number one job is to keep the song on track and prevent it from derailing.
2. Don't be intimidated (play what you know)
I'd say the main mental block stopping people from reaching out to other musicians is pure intimidation or even maybe an impostor syndrome complex. First off, you're a drummer, so you're very sought after...pretty much anywhere. Second, use the start simple mentality to your advantage, find a groove that works and play it intentionally. There's no reason to reinvent the wheel here, so take something you're familiar with and played a hundred times, and use it, at least to start with.
Let me offer some insight from both the perspective as a drummer and as a front man, because I know both very well. It's never about complexity, it's 100 percent about the groove. Collectively finding and falling into the groove as a band is what it's all about, and if you can accomplish even moments of this, you've won and will be called back. No one really cares how many notes you can string together, it can be a pleasant surprise but never necessary.
3. Hit with confidence (play with feeling)
I originally wanted to include this section into tip 2, but realized how important playing with confidence really is and why it deserves a separate section. Let me start by sharing a quick story.
One of my earliest and most memorable ensemble learning moments was when I was a teenager, playing drums in High School jazz band. We were rehearsing a song that needed a big single snare hit, to help set up a final horn melody, and I was just way too timid of a player at the time to make the hit stand out. One day, the conductor walked over, took my stick, and hit the snare so hard it almost broke the stick in two. He had some colorful language to say the least, but his basic point was play with confidence, even if you play something wrong, make it the loudest wrong.
Your bandmates aren't going to storm out of the room if you play extra snare hits or even switch up the beat, but if you're too apprehensive in what you want to play, it's hard to solidify song parts. So, come on! Life is short, play it like you mean it! Get in there!!!
4. Think big picture (play for the song)
Drummers always get pushed into the far back corner, I've played stages where I basically had to climb over the kit just to get behind it cause the space was so small. This certainly is an inconvenience at first glance, but what it really is, is putting you in the best position to see the big picture. Use this backseat vantage point as a tool to think and play what song needs.
Start by differentiating parts. If it's a verse, play something that allows the vocals to come through. If it's a chorus, maybe increase the intensity and add a few more fills. Create drum patterns that help define sections and then stress and amplify these changes with your playing. The only rule is, once you create a part, make it steady and dependable.
Once specific parts start to be defined, zoom out and think arrangement, or rather how the song unfolds. Is it a simple verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, chorus? Or does there need to be a long intro and one less verse? Or does the chorus need to sound bigger? Since you don't have to focus on chord changes and singing, you can think broader and really help shape the contour of the song with your playing. If all parts sound the same, the song tends to feel flat, it doesn't draw you in. You want people to buckle up and jump into your musical rollercoaster ride, twists and turns, ebb and flow, zigs and zags!
5. Lock in with the bass player (play in the pocket)
Here's the big secret, if the main rhythm instruments are in order, the rest of the song will eventually fall into place. The most efficient way of achieving this is locking in tight with the bassist.
If you've heard the term "playing in the pocket" or "pocket drumming", it's referring to how in sync the rhythm instruments are, most notably the drums and bass because these two really drive the groove. Listen intently to the bassist (as they should be doing the same to you), and match up as much as possible. Consider the feel of the groove as your guide. Does it require a rigid straight 8th note beat, or perhaps a looser swung feel? Does the rhythm need to drive the song forward, or does the backbeat quietly exist in the background?
10 quick tips for the gig
- Never stop! - I can't stress this enough, no matter what, never EVER stop in the middle of a song. Even if everything falls apart, keep something going like snare hits, bass drum beats, or just stomp quarter notes on the hi-hat to keep the pulse going. The only time the audience ever knows something is wrong, is when you let them know.
- Make sure the kit is set up AND sturdy - Spend a few minutes as you set up to make sure the kit is totally in working order. Tighten anything that can be hand tightened (stands, bass drum pedal, bass drum legs, wingnuts, clutch, floor tom legs). You do not want any unexpected surprises if you can avoid it.
- Show up early - Most gigging musicians never figure this one out. Give yourself time to settle in, if you don't need to rush...don't. All the things from the previous tip will be much less stressful if you're not time crunched. Even an extra 15 minutes to collect your thoughts is invaluable. The last thing you need on your mind is, wait, did I feed the dog before I rushed out the door?!
- Have fun - This really should be tip #1 on any list associated with playing drum. Positive attitude is contagious, negative attitude is toxic. Bring positive attitude with you and have fun, your bandmates will reciprocate it. It comes through in the music as well (believe it or not), and the audience will greatly appreciate it.
- Warm up - Grab your sticks a few songs before your set and just warm up a little on a pad, your leg, bar stool, whatever...get that blood flowing. It's the same as athletes warming up before going on the field, you wanna be ready to go on minute one.
- Look up - This one is sooooo simple. Look up every once in a while when you're playing, mostly for tempo adjustments. Maybe the song got counted off too slow and needs to get ramped up, or perhaps the band is speeding through the set and needs to stretch some time by extending the guitar solo. Remember, you're in a band not a soloist
- Keep a spare stick nearby - There's many fancy stick holders on the market, but I simply recommend keeping one or two sticks within reaching distance for an emergency. I always place a couple (usually on the bass drum) for two circumstances, dropping a stick or breaking a stick. Both have happened and both WILL happen, so prepare yourself.
- Breath - Don't forget to breath. Drums are a physical instrument, you're arms are flailing all over the place, so make a conscience effort to keep breathing.
- Dress comfortably - You're not gonna dress business casual to run a marathon right? Be comfortable when you play.
- Bring a towel - Bring a towel, you're eyes will thank you after that really exhausting song.
- Closing thought -
Let me end with a famous quote by baseball legend Yogi Berra, "Baseball is 90% mental, the other half is physical". I would apply the same principal to playing drums, so much of the execution relies on a clear and focused head space. It certainly can be a lot of pressure playing with other musicians and writing on the spot, but trust what you know and have learned.