A common question among novice drummers, is “how good does my drumming need to be before I can play live?” Well, as always it’s not necessarily a clear-cut answer. There are many factors to consider. The short answer is “good enough“! But of course, that answer in itself raises yet another question… “good enough for what?”. So let’s take a look at what I believe a drummer needs to know before they are ready for a live performance.

So the first place we need to start, is what kind of gig do you want to do? Now obviously I don’t mean what is your dream gig. It’s fair to say that as far as live performances go, we all aspire to be on stage in front of thousands of screaming fans in a huge stadium. However, this is not where we start. So the first thing we need to do, is to take a look around our local area, and establish what kind of gigs are available to us? Do we already have a band? Are we looking to form or join one? Or are we looking for more like substitution gigs? Another important question, is do we want or expect to get paid? All these questions can make a difference in what will be expected from us, and what kind of skills we will need.
So let’s take a closer look at a few different scenarios…

You already have a band

So this option is definitely the easiest. Your skills, ideally, should be matched to those of the rest of the band. If you are lagging behind and not being able to keep up with the other musicians, then you definitely need to take some time to work on the things you are having difficulty with. Most of the time, the audience can’t really distinguish between the different band members and simply hear the sound as a whole. But if one member’s ability is too far below the rest of the bands, it will be painfully obvious even for the crowd. And of course, the band needs to be well rehearsed. The songs need to be polished, with everybody knowing the structure. The tempo needs to be decided, and the set list chosen all during the rehearsals.

If you have the time and patience to prepare and polish your performance in advance, then you honestly don’t need to be that good. Simply good enough for the job at hand. So long as you know where you are at all times, keep a steady tempo, and play the songs as rehearsed, there is no reason why you can’t have a good performance. Of course, all the band members need to be on the same page here, I have often heard the expression “your band is only as good as the weakest link”.

You are not part of a band yet

So this one is a little trickier. How good you need to be as a “drummer for hire” is going to solely depend on what types of gigs are available to you. In short, you need to find a gig, assess the skills needed to perform that gig, practice and work on said skills, and give it a try. Different gigs will all warrant different skill-sets. You will have to adapt. Like Bruce Lee said… “be like water my friend”. Ideally, you need some experience playing with other musicians first. And this is the tricky part about playing many different gigs with different musicians since all musicians have their own particular style and way of playing.

I have played with many bands and musicians over the years, and there are many songs I have had to play over and over with different musicians, and even though they are “cover” songs, with every new musician comes a little change in the song. It might be a tiny change in tempo, or a different beat, a different fill or ending. Whereas playing with your own band, you can hone in on the details of each others style, practice and polish your performance, and simply get to know one and other so well, that you know how to instantly adapt to each others playing.


If you want to learn more about the importance of replicating your stage environment for practice, I have a detailed video lesson with footage from my actual gig showing the difference in sound and how to practice for it.

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Expectations

What is expected of you will vary greatly according to different factors. Are you getting paid? How big is the venue? Did the crowd pay to see you? Are they an “unknown” crowd, or just friends and family? All these things can change the expectations of a crowd, thus changing what is required of your performance.

If the owner of the venue is paying you, and counting on your band to deliver a professional performance in order to get a crowd, then you better make sure your playing is up to the task. Again, you don’t have to be the best drummer in the world, or even in the room. You simply need to do what is asked of you, in a professional manner.

Similarly, if your skills are way superior to the rest of the band, you better be prepared to “dial down” a little. Now I don’t mean you should play “bad”, or drop beats, tempo, or anything like that. Just go easy on the showing off part. Remember, the audience and the venue owner are interested in the performance as a whole, not just one band member. And that’s what people will remember. The experience.

Preparation

So how do we prepare for a live performance? Well again, we have to be prepared for the specific demands of the specific gig we are preparing for. We can’t be ready for a jazz gig by learning death metal songs. The best way is to already have a band since we can have the best chance of preparing together and rehearsing on a regular basis. Therefore being able to really polish and fine tune our performance.

Whether we are in an original band or a cover band, all the rules still apply. Everyone in the band needs to know the songs and structure (verse, chorus, bridge, etc) inside out. The worst thing is having one or more band members get frequently lost and have to depend on other band members to remind them where they are in the song. The tempos need to be decided and practiced until we can easily recall the tempo and play the song all the way through nice and steady. Take note on any particular parts of songs where we (or any other band member) may have a tendency to speed up or slow down. And then work together in order to iron these little (or not so little) wrinkles out.

If the set list is going to be decided, all musicians need to know it in advance. Especially if any songs require any equipment tweaks, like changing effects, guitars, or in our case maybe changing the snare tuning or tightness. We also need to work on our cues for the rest of the band. We need to make sure that when we count in the beginning of the song, that everyone can hear and see us click our sticks. There is nothing worse (and possibly funnier) than a band member not hearing one of the four clicks to start the song, and coming in a beat too late or too soon! And the end of the song cue (the very last crash) also needs to be very visible so all band members finish together.

Experience

Again, the amount of experience we need will depend on what is expected of us. Experience is only as good as your ability to learn from it. Having a lot of experience can mean that we have learned a lot about playing live with others, and we perform like a professional… or not! You see, the whole reason other musicians will prefer a drummer with experience is because that means they supposedly have picked up all the tips and learned all the lessons about live playing. But there are two main flaws with that approach.

First, just because a drummer has been playing live for a long time, doesn’t necessarily mean that they are all that good at it. I’m sure you are familiar with the expression “practice makes perfect”, however, this quote is misleading. A more accurate phrase is “perfect practice makes perfect”. In other words, if you practice something over and over but in a wrong way, you will simply get a lot better at doing it wrong! You need to deliberately pay attention and work on improvement in order for your practice to be productive.

The second flaw is that just because a drummer has little experience, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they don’t play well live. So the bottom line is, the more experience you have, the less you need to worry about preparation, and can leave plenty of room to improvise, but not forgetting to re-evaluate our ability to play live. Just because we have been playing forever, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t work on improving. And the less experience, the more we need to focus on preparing for the specific needs of our gig, perfecting the basics, and constantly paying attention to our surroundings. If you really prepare and learn as much as you can in the shortest time, you can easily be ready with only very little (or no) experience.

At the end of the day, it’s not the number of hours on stage you have racked up that count… it’s the lessons you have learned. But if you manage to learn them without those hours… then you don’t need that experience.

Common traits

Let’s now take a look at what common traits we tend to see among both novice and experienced drummers.

Novice

  • Nerves

    I know I’ve already said that you can learn most lessons without the experience, but this one is the exception. Generally speaking, the only way to deal with the nerves is by going out there and playing in front of an audience as much as you can. For some, this may take longer than for others, but sooner or later it just doesn’t bother you anymore. I have been performing on stage since I was 13, so I honestly can’t remember the last time I got nervous. But I do remember that I used to get nervous the first few nights in a new venue.

  • Excitement

    Excitement can be fun, but it can also cause a whole lot of problems. Novice drummers tend to get excited (understandably), and this can lead to playing way too fast, too loud, and worst of all not paying attention to the rest of the band.

  • Tempo

    Aside from getting excited and playing too fast, another common novice mistake is to not keep a steady tempo. Speeding up as we reach a chorus, slowing down or speeding up while playing fills… are all common mistakes seen by novice drummers. And worst of all, many times the rest of the band will be trying to tell them, but they are not paying attention!

  • Drumbeat

    This one is far too common. And not just among novices, unfortunately. It’s playing the “wrong” beat. Now let’s first clear up that there is really no “right” or “wrong” when it comes to music, but what I mean by “wrong” is, a beat that doesn’t match what the rest of the band are playing. Seldom, you will see a drummer playing a beat that is completely off the mark, like playing a shuffle when it should be a straight rock 4 (all though it has been known to happen!). But more frequently, you will find subtle differences, like a bass player with a particular bass pulse and rhythm… and the drummer with a completely different one on the bass drum. The crowd will most likely miss this subtle detail, but it will contribute to an overall “not so good” performance never the less.

  • Trying stuff

    I really dislike this one! Novice drummers (and not so novice) can have a tendency to just try stuff. In other words… they will take a fill or beat that they might have been working on, but is still definitely far from being “stage ready”, and in the midst of the excitement think to themselves, “I think I might just give that awesome fill I have been working on a try! Maybe it will work this time!”. Well, guess what… it never does!! You just look like an inexperienced idiot! I know… it happened to me many times! If you play an excellent performance the whole night, you might be forgiven for messing up a little, especially if you can recover easily from it. But if your performance is just good enough, and you decide to “try” something that doesn’t quite work out and you crash and burn… that’s what people are going to remember! So don’t try stuff. Practice until you are certain you can deliver.

  • Showing off

    Another one I don’t like. Giving priority to the way you look, over the way you sound, is just silly. I’ve seen it many times. They get on stage and start waving their hair around, throwing their arms in the air and moving in large arks because they think it looks cool, spinning sticks, excessive cymbal crashes, and fills, etc. There is absolutely nothing wrong with looking cool… just make sure you sound cool first!

  • Getting lost

    Not knowing what song is next, forgetting the tempo, not being sure about where we are in the song, (is it the first chorus or the second?), missing the endings, taking too long to start… all these things just make a drummer look like they are lost, and don’t know where they are. It’s unprofessional, and it’s easily avoidable. You don’t need to be an experienced performer… all you need is to prepare.

Experienced

An experienced drummer will probably still get nervous, however, they won’t let it affect their playing. They will keep a steady and even tempo, play at an adequate volume, and play the right beats for the songs. They will enjoy the excitement rather than “suffer” it. They give the sound importance over the way they look, and they don’t try stuff they haven’t practiced or can’t do yet. And most of all, they will always be aware of their fellow band members, as well as where they are in the song structurally.
It’s important to remember that even though a drummer is experienced, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they have learned all these lessons. And just because a drummer is not experienced yet, that doesn’t mean they can’t learn these lessons.
So just like I said at the beginning, you need to be “good enough” to play live. Hopefully, this post has cleared up what that means. So if you have experience playing live, chances are you should have learned some of these lessons already (at least I hope so!). But if you haven’t, you can take these lessons, apply them, and easily be “good enough” for your next live gig. One more thing… stay away from the groupies… they are always trouble!

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What was your first live gig like? Share your experience with us 🙂

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