I have mentioned before about how a good performance by a band relies on teamwork. If this is so, then each member has a specific job to do. In other words, we each have a role to play. And when each band member understands their role as well as the other member’s roles, we can all play to our strengths and put on the best performance possible through a team effort.

But what exactly is the role of a drummer? Well, what follows is my answer to that exact question. It’s taken me many years of experience to understand how to integrate my drumming with the rest of the band in order to stay consistent with the idea of teamwork. And I intend to shed as much light on the subject as I can and hopefully help you understand this important concept, or at least get you thinking about it, without having to go through all those years of gigging. So here we go…

So first, let’s kick things off by taking a look at what a drummers role is not, or at the very least, shouldn’t be.

A drummers role is not to smack the drums as hard as they can, getting excited and constantly speeding up, ignoring the rest of the band, and basically showing off all the time. You know what I mean… crashing cymbals constantly, spinning sticks to the detriment of the sound, playing as many fancy fills and beats as they can remember, flailing their hair about all over the place with a “look at me” expression on their face, etc, etc!

Unfortunately, I have just described 99% of drummers I get to see play live!!!

Now it’s not that this drumming is the worst in the world… but the problem is that this kind of playing is all “garnish” and no “meat and potatoes”. And that kind of playing, even though it may be fun, will only take you so far. Probably only as far as your local pub, and a few birthday parties.

And it’s not that you can’t have fun or show off… it’s just that you need to get your act together first with a strong foundation. And then you can toss your sticks and wave your long hair as much as you like.
And what exactly does it mean to get your act together? Well,I thought you’d never ask 🙂

The single most important concept you can ever understand about your role in a band is this… you need to be a reference.

The rest of the musicians need to be able to depend on you for everything. You are a reference for every aspect of the song. The tempo, the speed, the volume, the feel of the song, even things like structure and where we are in the song, the intro’s, outro’s, verse’s, chorus, etc,etc,etc! A team drummer knows all of this and more. And is able to quickly and effortlessly communicate these things to the rest of the band when needed. It can be in obvious ways like clicking the sticks for the intro, and it can be in more subtle ways like slowly and gradually opening up the hi-hat just before we hit a chorus. Either way, a good drummer is a reference for the rest of the band to fall back on.

Let’s now break down some of these ideas further…

Tempo

Needless to say, keeping the tempo steady is essential. There is nothing worse than a wobbly drummer. Not so much for the crowd, but definitely for the other musicians. Once they “lock in” to a tempo, if it starts to wobble, they have to constantly adjust to stay together. And this means they can’t relax since they have to stay on their guard all the time waiting for the next wobble.

And not only because of this, but also even if the other musicians don’t notice the wobbling, the drummer can get excited and start to speed up. Something which is very common, especially when playing fun songs or as we reach a “crescendo” like the chorus. And if the drummer is not aware of this tempo discrepancy, between the whole band speeding up, the song can finish at a considerably faster tempo than it started out. A real “rookie” mistake in my opinion.

The speed for each song also needs to stay consistent every time we play that same song. In other words, if we play “Sweet Home Alabama” at a certain tempo, then the next time we play that same song, we need to make sure we play at a similar tempo, if not the same. It’s a mistake to simply assume that we are playing the same tempo we always play on that song. It needs to be a deliberate effort.

An easy way to achieve this is to make sure we sing a couple of bars to ourselves (not necessarily out loud) just before we click the sticks for the intro. Remember, the intro clicks are not just an indication of where to start the song, but also the tempo we will be playing at.

Another area we need to maintain the tempo is the “stops” in the drum beat. Whenever there is a breakdown in the song where the drums stop, or there is a full one or two bar stop of all instruments, we need to make sure that when the music starts again, we all come in together.

During full stops, its very easy to keep a quite hi-hat going, or stick clicks in order to indicate to the rest of the band exactly when we will be coming back in. Even if it’s just one bar, it can be very helpful to the others.

I’ve heard before that it sounds “unprofessional” to count the band back in. However, if done correctly, it can easily go unnoticed by the crowd. And let’s not forget, it sounds much more unprofessional to have the musicians come back in all over the place!

It’s not a must that you need to click or hit the hi-hat for the whole bar or two. When we play songs with a one or two bar stop, I will frequently just play one hi-hat stroke just before coming back in, to make sure everyone is back in at precisely the same time. And when there is a breakdown, it’s very simple to maintain a quite hi-hat going so the other musicians can relax and not worry about staying together.

Remember, even the most seasoned professionals can get distracted or lost from time to time (especially if there are pretty girls in the crowd!).

Dynamics

The dynamics of a song can easily change the feel and mood of not only the crowd but the band members as well. Mostly… but not exclusivelythe dynamics offered by the drums will lead and drive the dynamics of the whole band.

When we play quite, the band will tend to follow. And when we hit hard, they generally have no choice but to do the same in order to be heard over the drums.

Dynamics are one of those details that appear subtle on paper, but can make a huge difference when applied to our performance. Learning to master the use of dynamics is an essential skill if we want to take our drumming seriously.

It can mean the difference between an ok drummer, and a great drummer.

And again, our dynamics need to stay consistent from performance to performance. When we play a song in a certain dynamic range, we need to ensure that we maintain that range the next time we play that song.
And what I mean by “range”, is that there will be a certain limit we need to stay above, and another we need to stay below. And these limits can and will change from song to song. If you play “Wonderful Tonight”, there is a certain volume you don’t want to exceed, but when you play “Enter Sandman”, that limit will be considerably different.

Structure

The structure of the song refers to “where we are” in the song. A real pro drummer will not only keep track of where we are but be able to communicate this to the rest of the band in subtle ways, almost without the other musicians knowing that it’s being done.

A subtle example, and one I like to use frequently, is gradually opening the hi-hat as we approach a chorus. Let’s say we are in the verse. I will be playing the beat on the hi-hat, and keeping it tightly closed. Then about two or three bars before the chorus, I will start opening the hi-hat little by little, and then do a short fill, crash, and we arrive at the chorus.

What the rest of the band hear, is a gradual increase in the hi-hat volume, and a slow but consistent change in the sound. And this will inevitably suggest that we are “getting ready” for something. In this case, the chorus.

Now, obviously, the band usually already know when the chorus is coming! It’s not my job to tell everyone exactly what’s happening at all times. But by developing these “leading” habits, we give the band something to fall back on, so they know if ever they are distracted for whatever reason, the beat or the fills we are playing at the time will indicate where we are in the song.

At least, that’s the idea. And we can achieve this safety net by always structuring our playing, so that certain beats and certain fills, are always played at certain times.

For example, in general, I like to use the closed hi-hat for the verse, a more open hi-hat for the chorus, the ride for the bridge, and the ride bell for the solo. Obviously, this varies depending on the song, but creating this overall feeling of structure gives the band an easy way to “understand” our drumming, and stay connected as musicians.

Cues

As far as the cues go, the first one is obviously the intro to the song. Cueing in the song doesn’t need to be complicated or fancy, it simply needs to indicate to the rest of the band when we are coming in together… and at what tempo.

The last part of that is especially important. Too many musicians mistake the intro clicks for just an indication of where to start, but forget or fail to realize that they are also giving us the tempo of the song so we can already start playing with the correct tempo as opposed to starting at a random one, and trying to adjust later.

And this action of starting randomly is far too common amongst drummers too.

If we wish to be a reference for the band, then we can’t simply click our sticks and hope for the best. Once we know what song we are playing, we need to take a silent moment for ourselves where we internalize the tempo we are about to play.

One of the easiest ways is to sing a part of the song to ourselves, and we should quickly be able to tell if it feels rushed or if it feels like it’s dragging. And this will allow us to make the necessary adjustments in our mind, and go ahead with the intro in the tempo we have decided upon.

Another thing to consider is to make sure everyone is ready before clicking the sticks to start. If any of the band members are distracted, when they hear the sticks it will catch them by surprise, and this almost always causes a small panic reaction that will make them start at a faster tempo than you have clicked.

And one of the most common distractions is, of course, effect pedals! So just make sure the guitarist isn’t bent over fumbling with his pedals when you click.
I worked with one particular guitarist who would frequently adjust his pedals, and then when he would stand back up again, he would hit his head on his microphone! It was quite hilarious! And no, I never used to wait till he was bent over to start the song so I could see him bang his head… did I?

And then we have the not so obvious cue’s, like approaching the chorus, coming back to the verse, going to the solo, etc.

There are many ways to achieve this, but the simplest ways are as follows. Gradually increasing the volume and gradually opening the hi-hat as we get closer to the chorus will be an easy to follow indication that a change is coming. I do this on many songs, especially the ones that have a lot of repeat beats in them.

If a song is mostly the same all the way through, then it’s easy for the musicians (drummers included) to go on auto-pilot and loose their bearings. But if they hear the increasing dynamics and the opening hi-hat, they can quickly realize that the chorus is coming.

Another trick I like to use is playing the same or similar fills in the same places. Again, this is especially useful in songs that primarily sound the same all the way through. On “Your Sex Is On Fire” by the Kings Of Leon for instance, I always play the same fill leading up to the chorus, and the same fill leading back to the verse. This means that even if the band go onto auto-pilot, they always know when the chorus or the verse is coming.

Another thing we can cue is the structure itself.

In other words, very similar to what I have just mentioned, using certain fills to lead into the chorus and certain fills to lead back into the verse, we can also adjust the fills to represent different places within the structure of the song.

For instance, the first time we go to a chorus we can play a specific fill, and when we go to the second chorus we can play very similar fill with a slight difference indicating that we are now at the second chorus, or third or fourth or whichever it may be.

Now this isn’t strictly necessary, and perhaps even a little overkill, but again it will allow us to be a constant indicator of exactly where we are in the structure of the song.

And of course the main problem here will be, how do we know ourselves where we are in the song?

Well, the easiest answer is to learn the words.

Not necessarily every single word, but a few keywords or indicators of which verse or chorus may be in the moment. And these keywords allow us to reference where we are and choose the correct fill.

Now you don’t have to actually tell the other band members what each fill actually means, they will subconsciously learn this themselves, giving them that extra advantage of not only knowing when the chorus or verse is approaching, but actually knowing exactly which chorus or verse.

Again, this isn’t strictly necessary but it’s definitely very handy.

An added advantage of knowing the words is that when your singer forgets them, they can turn around and glance at you and you will be able to mime the words to them. I’ve done this many times!

Visual cues

All cues don’t necessarily need to be audible, like stick clicking, hi-hat hitting or simply shouting 1,2,3, et cetera. Some cues can also be visual.

The most common one usually being indicating the end of the song. And this is almost universally done by lifting the head, opening the eyes extremely wide, sometimes opening the mouth and then just when the song is supposed to end bringing the head down sharply as if performing a single violent nod of the head. It doesn’t always work, but at least it looks funny!

So there we have it, my overview of what I believe the role of the drummer is and how to incorporate that role into a live performing band.

It’s important to note that I believe that this role should be incorporated not only into the live performance but also during practice and rehearsal. If you can cue the band, be a reference and be somebody the rest of the band can depend on, then you should be able to do that also during rehearsals.

Plus, the more you know the song, the structure and all the words, the quicker the rehearsal will be over with!

There always needs to be somebody who knows where we are. It might as well be the drummer.

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What do you think about the role a drummer plays? Is all of this overkill? Let us know!

2 thoughts on “The True Role of a Live Drummer

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