Why is it always the drummer?

Discussion in 'Band Management [BG]' started by Mystic Michael, Dec 25, 2014.

  1. Mystic Michael

    Mystic Michael Hip No Ties

    Apr 1, 2004
    New York, NY
    The viewpoint I'm about to express will not come as brand new material to anyone here. This isn't a rant & vent thread about a particular drummer in a particular performing ensemble. It's more of a general observation about the perpetual joy & anguish of working with drummers - and the specific ways in which they can be such a challenge.

    I've heard so many bands, at all levels - weekend warriors to high-profile working pros - that seem to have the very same weak spot: the drummer. And I've certainly experienced it firsthand as well, more often than I care to remember. Some of these bands can be astonishingly talented and have tremendous potential. But time and time, there's just this one element that holds them back, preventing them from taking it to the next level of musicianship: the drummer.

    A great drummer can make a band, more than any other single player. A bad drummer can ruin a band, more than any other single player. Having the right drummer for the occasion isn't just important. It's absolutely crucial.

    Many of them play with a sense of ambition that's beyond their actual skills. They try to integrate really flashy chops - typically in the form of fills - but seldom quite get around on them before the next downbeat arrives. What's more, they don't seem to realize the effect that this "almost there but not quite" sense of time has upon the band. It introduces a subtle sense of tension and discomfort that makes it impossible for the listener to ever completely relax into the groove, knowing that by the next fill, that groove might once again vanish entirely.

    Also, there are tempo issues. Most songs are intended to be played at a specific tempo - even covers that have been heavily rearranged need to be played at the correct tempo for that particular arrangement. If you start off the song at the wrong tempo, it destroys any possibility of ever making it sound "right". The audience can tell the difference, believe me. They may not know the source of the problem, but they can feel it.

    And of course, there is often the problem of dynamics - or rather, lack of dynamics. Can the drummer "lead" the band into the softer passages, by easing back on the kit? Can he anticipate the raucous chorus by ramping up to it - smoothly, tastefully, with the correct time, and with the right feel? Or not?

    And on and on it goes...

    Most often these guys (they're usually guys) don't have vocal responsibilities. They don't play an alternative instrument - and certainly not while they're behind the drum kit, other than maybe a little percussion. They have one job: Play the drums competently. So why are they the ones most likely to be the problem child in the band?

    My view on it is that if the drummer is holding back the band, it's time to take matters into one's own hands - especially if you're the band leader. And that sometimes means being a bit ruthless. One way or another, the drummer problem MUST be resolved, ASAP - whether it's giving the current drummer an ultimatum, hiring a replacement, or whatever.

    This is one area that should be non-negotiable. The drummer either works out, or he doesn't. So long as a bad drummer remains in place, the band as a whole will suffer, and almost certainly will never progress to where it otherwise could be. It's that simple.

    Last edited: Dec 25, 2014
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  2. PauFerro


    Jun 8, 2008
    United States
    I agree a drummer can really make the band. One jazz musician said the "drummer is the leader of the band". He has the greatest power to effect tension and release compared to other musicians. One keyboard virtuoso I played with recently told me that he doesn't think the bass drives the tension and release -- it's the drummer.

    It was a problem I had with the drummer in my current group -- the guy who we trained to be a jazz musician since he was a competent rock drummer, and most of all, was a sales person.

    He picked up the style, but tended to keep the time. He didn't listen, and he didn't follow the band when it was time to generate tension. We mentioned this a few times, to no avail. There were flashes of improvement, but usually after we walked over to him, stared at him, and then played the same, percussive riff over and over and over again until he got it.

    I don't believe in the black and white (either you have it or don't). I have personally used positive reinforcement wherever possible. Whenever he DOES show the kind of leadership, or support for tension we want, he hears about it. Major praise and appreciation.

    There have been frank conversations about tension and release with him, as well, but I don't think he got it for a long time. It was only after we started working with percussive keyboard players that he started to understand what we were talking about.

    And then, the other day, after he really got it, he complemented the keyboard player (a pickup player) about his tension and release.

    FINALLY!!!!!!!! He'd arrived. It took 2 years but he made it.

    So, I don't think it's always a black and white thing. Sometimes, it takes a while for the musicians to step into the same room of understanding. And it sometimes takes patience, particularly when the other fundamentals are in place that make the guys' overall value in the band on the positive side.
    KenHR, headband, DavC and 2 others like this.
  3. Robus


    Aug 25, 2013
    Chicago Area
    The two previous posters throw very well why "it's always the drummer."

    It's a hard instrument to play well. The ones who do aren't short of work.
    KenHR, joebar, blindrabbit and 4 others like this.
  4. sleeplessknight

    sleeplessknight Supporting Member

    Mar 8, 2002
    Montana Mountainside
    I agree, a good drummer who knows his way around the barline is a rarity and a blessing. What drives me nuts is working with bands that have been through several bassists because the BL doesn't want to accept it's the drummer making the groove sound 'weird'. Not to hijack the thread or anything, but I'd love to know anybody's tips on how to mitigate THAT particular snag!
  5. I have a perfect example of this: in one band I was a part of, the drummer started a particular song with an 8 bar intro. However, instead of keeping it simple he made it so complex that he did not have the skill to pull it off and confused the rest of the band on where to come in because we couldn't tell where the "1" was.

    Another band: a few of us were reminiscing years later about who the weak link was. I nominated the guitarist and produced some audio to back it up. I was corrected and told the weakest member was the drummer because "He had more rolls than Mama Cass!" :D
  6. FretNoMore

    FretNoMore * Cooking with GAS *

    Jan 25, 2002
    The frozen north
    My experience is really that most bands' weak spot is the singing, it's much more noticeable when the vocals are weak. Maybe being bass players we personally suffer more when we don't gel with the drummer, but I think the audience hear something else.
  7. lfmn16

    lfmn16 Inactive

    Sep 21, 2011
    charles town, wv

    After 40+ years of playing, there is no doubt that mediocre players and great singers will get you further than great players and mediocre singers. Of course great BOTH will get you even further.
  8. lfmn16

    lfmn16 Inactive

    Sep 21, 2011
    charles town, wv
    You can't. IMHO if the BL is too clueless to know who is ruining the groove, you probably can't educate them.
    Mystic Michael likes this.
  9. Agreed on singers being more noticeable, and therefore more important, to a band's success. The most obvious example is the biggest band in the world: everybody agrees that Lars is not what makes Metallica great, but he's obviously not the one killing their income, either.
  10. BazzTard

    BazzTard Inactive

    YOU be the BL ! that's all I got , sorry :)
  11. wmhill

    wmhill Inactive

    Aug 20, 2012
    upstate NY
    MTD basses endorsed artist Bartolini pickups emerging artist TECAMP bass players gear endorsed
    I'm with the drums carrying the goods. There are a LOT of bands with below average singers that are very popular (on the local level I'm speaking of). They mask that with a bit of showmanship, stage presence, or eye appeal and they have it made. The rest of the band can play around them easy enough. A bad drummer sucks everyone off the rails. A good drummer lets everyone shine.
  12. One of the smartest drummers in the world was Journey's Steve Smith. its said that his contract was written in such a way that he got a piece of everything Journey ever does, so he's still getting paid after leaving quite a long time ago and forming Vital Information.
    bass nitro and Mystic Michael like this.
  13. SamJ

    SamJ Founder - Fender MIA Club

    Apr 22, 2006
    SFO / HNL
    the problem with many drummers is they all think they're Neil Peart... and their not.
    Last edited: Jan 1, 2015
  14. Mystic Michael

    Mystic Michael Hip No Ties

    Apr 1, 2004
    New York, NY
    While it's certainly possible for a player of any instrument to be a source of great strength to a band, or a source of great weakness for that matter, if one is a vocalist, or a horn player, or a guitarist, or even a keyboards player, there are certain "tricks of the trade" that can be employed in order to minimize the effect of the occasional screw-up...if it's not too obvious and if it doesn't happen too frequently.

    Not so much for the drummer. It's the nature of the beast. What the drummer contributes is so foundational and so exposed that it affects every other instrument - and the band as a whole - in ways that no amount of tweaking and adjusting can ever alter or disguise.

    Next most influential/foundational player, I would argue, is typically the bassist. Not quite as crucial a role as the drummer, but probably with even less margin for error. The dissonance of just a single wrong note in the wrong place has the potential to crash the entire plane.

  15. SamJ

    SamJ Founder - Fender MIA Club

    Apr 22, 2006
    SFO / HNL
    Agreed..... that's why the Bass and Drums are called "The rhythm section" ...
    Mystic Michael likes this.
  16. ReneB


    Dec 6, 2014
    Ithaca, NY
    I think that sometimes the problems with some drummers is that they aren't good listeners. Drummers both lead and accompany, and, IMO, to do that well, you have to be actively listening to the other musicians. I agree that poor drumming is due, sometimes, for the reasons given above (e.g. ambition beyond, skills, poor sense of time), but I also believe a lot of these faults could be somewhat mitigated by a drummer who is listening and playing accordingly.

    And, even for drummers with skills, more active listening can't hurt. Indeed, in my opinion, some of the best drummers, realize that 'less is more' and that the spaces between the notes count as much as the notes themselves.
    jallenbass, Mystic Michael and SamJ like this.
  17. This is very true. I have been on both ends of this situation in the same band. The drummer is the "heartbeat" of the band and makes the difference between a band sounding tight and professional or sloppy and unrehearsed. A bad drummer can make good musicians sound bad because they are always struggling to deal with bad timing and wrong tempos. A bad drummer forces the bassist to play simple conservative lines because you are never sure when he will come back in on the "1". I can't count how many times I tried to do a fill and was left hanging because the drummer came back to the "1" early or late. Not to mention other aspects like sobriety or dependability.;)
    Mystic Michael likes this.
  18. 7dollarbologna


    Apr 22, 2014
    Downtown Albuquerque
    Desert Eccentric
    I've had the problem of a drummer being very good at drums, but an ass child in every other way.
  19. I'm so incredibly blessed with the drummer I play with now. He's not exactly the style I'd like, but what he plays still rocks, fits the music and is easy to follow. But, he's also the one listening closest to what I'm doing, so I can drive what he's doing as well. The dynamic is really cool, and I know if nobody else is listening, he is. On top of that, he's got a very dry sense of humor which is easy for me to play off of. All of that adds up to one of the best drummers I've ever played with. I wish that was always the case!
    Mystic Michael likes this.
  20. MM, I couldn't agree with your posts more, and was smiling through them as I read them. GEEZE, we're not alone! *whew Ok, a couple of points and bit of story telling. A pro music consultant (we brought one in for a 2 day workshop with our band) taught us that the single most important element is the musical foundation (in most bands the bass player, given variability in instrumentation for that low part of the register) because the bass player brings the fundamental in the pocket. Period. Tonality in time, is what he said. The whole song and whole band build on that foundation. (Recall Abe Laboriel's famous quote "Bass is the house everyone else plays in"). But he went on to say that the prime prerequisite is the drummer's job. He said it's timekeeper, not "music" per se/proper (but not starting a fight - we got his point). Our current drummer and previous drummer, by comparison, are newer players and struggle with holding tempo, feeling builds and letting off, and fills vs keeping the pocket. Literally everything you said, MM, is dead-on. I've eaten that sandwich for years. It seems basics like, "Know your part, and play it" are lost on our ambitions as people. We want to do so much more than know our part and play it. Basics like, "Keep us in time, and play in the pocket with me" are just too insulting for some. If you youtube it, Bill Evans is in a documentary hosted by Steve Allen, where Bill talks about "playing honestly" vs "confusion." Bill says it's better to play a simpler part, correctly, and slowly grow your playing adding an intentional bit to what you do, where you know what/why you are adding it (he calls that "playing honestly") rather than approximating something more complex, fuzzing it up and not being precise, and then your development is stuck - because you are adding confusion and you can't build on confusion. WOW.

    When our current drummer keeps time and plays in the pocket, it's a rare thing. Me and the guitar have decided recently WE are keeping time period. We have to. It's that bad.

    Experience/story time. Anyone play with a drummer who plays behind the beat naturally, and plays SO SO SO far behind the beat he literally is trying to move the groove and almost shuffle EVERYTHING you play? This is us.

    MM, I feel our pain.