Monday, May 13, 2019

I've Got You Covered

It was a headline intended to shock: “Thirteen Huge Hits That Are Actually Covers.” Imagine ... more than a dozen major records that made it on the backs of -- shudder -- tunes that the band didn't write themselves, and worse, that someone else had already recorded!

First, let's clear the air. In the early days of recorded music, a cover was defined as a recording of a song that someone else had already recorded. Nothing more. Over the past few decades, the term has expanded to encompass any performance of any tune that isn't an original, and in the process, it has acquired a bit of attitude. Let's see what the options are.

Tunes you wrote and recorded
This is what we're all hoping for. You've got something to say and you want to take it to the world. Go for it! This pretty much depends on having some song-writing talent, BTW.

Tunes you recorded but didn't write
At one time, writing your own material was almost unheard of (although it seems to have worked well enough from the Jurassic era right up until big recording companies appeared). Writers wrote and players played. Fact is, not all of us are song writers, and not all song-writers are performers.

Cover version, original concept
When someone takes another crack at a previously recorded tune, the results will sometimes over-shadow the original: "Blinded By The Light" (Manfred Mann vs. Bruce Springsteen), "All Along The Watchtower" (Jimmi Hendrix vs. Bob Dylan). A different artist can often add a lot of value to an existing tune, often adapting it to a different genre. And when well done it's a thing of beauty.

Cover tunes
The music business relies on recorded tunes that someone else wrote. It's a vast and ever-growing catalogue (check out the Billboard 100 from time to time). Most musicians get their music from recordings. If they didn't, the music business might just grind to a halt. It's value added for artist(s), keeping their music alive, and it's what a lot of audiences are in the mood to hear.

And in conclusion
All musicians play cover tunes … it's where the majority of music comes from.  And all bands are cover bands, at least in the beginning. Artists depend on the tunes and the tunes depend on other artists. But sadly, the term cover seems to have morphed into almost an insult. Nobody is offended when they remake a movie, such as Godzilla (not once but twice!) And no way would anyone protest, “It’s just a cover of the Ishiro Honda movie” or suggest that the film-maker had cheated or copped out.

In the end, a great tune is a great tune, and a great rendition is a great rendition, no matter where the tune came from. If you're in a so-called cover band, you are part of the foundation of the music industry, and you should be proud to be a member of this thriving musical community.

Thursday, April 11, 2019

Let's Get Married

No, not really … this is just the term I use for how I like to approach playing: I try to 'marry the bass player'. By this I mean that I try to play the time and feel (and volume) as closely in sync with the bass line as I can. The customary term for this is 'pocket', the reference being that you try to put the beat in the bass player's back pocket.

The way to gauge the pocket is with your lead hand and foot. I'm right handed, so my goal is to place my right hand strokes and my bass drum figures right on top of the bass player's line. Of course you can vary this by playing ever so slightly ahead of or behind the beat for either an energetic or a laid back feel. But smack on top of the bass line is where you usually belong.

Is this always the right way to play? Not necessarily. There will be times when you'll have to handle things a bit differently. Perhaps you're teamed with a bass player who doesn't lay down a solid line. Or maybe someone in the band just doesn't connect. In either case my recommendation is to work with the strongest or the weakest player.

Here's what I mean.

Let's say you have a strong singer, much stronger than the others in the band. If you 'marry' the singer, the two of you will then form a solid team that can create a good foundation, and that can help pull things together.

The other situation is a bit trickier. Say you're backing up someone who is sort of all over the place, and providing solid time just isn't working. The solution is to marry this player. Sorry to say, the person most likely lacks the ability to effectively work with the team. So your best option would be to play as tightly as possible with him or her. Then you become a sympathetic anchor for that player. You also become the guide for the rest of the band, and the liaison between the band and the ‘loose cannon’ in times of distress. If something odd happens -- a bar of three perhaps -- you can catch it and communicate it to the rest of your team with the offender being none-the-wiser.

Now, I happen to have done a fair amount of this sort of compensating for assorted musicians and their varied approaches, and I don't mind admitting that I'm pretty good at it. But I would far rather marry a good bass player. Just sayin'.

Saturday, March 23, 2019

Is Moeller Wrong for Today's Drumming?

Everywhere you turn these days, someone is talking about, writing about or demonstrating something they cheerfully call "Moeller". But here's the thing: There appears to be a lot of different techniques being presented as Moeller.  So I decided to see if I could get to the bottom of the apparent confusion, and here's what I found out about our friend "Gus" and his teachings.

Sanford Gustav Moeller's goal in his 1934 publication was to document and explain the techniques used by old-time field drummers. In those days, drummers used the German grip in the right hand, with the butt of the stick held out to the side. Moeller further recommended the 'open' right hand grip (also known as the 4th finger fulcrum). To achieve power on the somewhat loose calf-skin heads of the day, the trick was to hold the stick with the 4th & 3rd fingers, letting the other digits remain loosely wrapped around the stick. Well, there simply is no possibility of using finger control with this technique!

Moeller never specified a whipping motion, although he did acknowledge its usefulness. The motions he described come mainly from the forearms and wrists. The whip only comes into play when extra power is needed. (BTW, Billy Gladstone was the champion of the whip stroke.)

Did early field drummers ever play fast one-handed triplets on their period drums? I doubt it. The combination of German grip and primitive tensioning systems made articulation difficult. Double strokes at 140 bpm? OK, but that's where it'll top out. Moeller merely documented how the drummers could get some speed under these conditions, and he showed how the technique could be applied to the more modern drum and the then-recently-invented drum set.

The bottom line here is that Moeller is not about arm movement or finger control or bounces. Moeller's real message lies in what happens between the strokes. Controlling what happens at the end of each stroke gives us command over the next stroke, and that's vital for developing control and speed.

I must admit that I use Moeller and Moeller derivatives. A lot. I didn't set out to. I just copied what my teacher showed me. I also closely watched the hand work of my favourite drummers. It was actually years later that I learned what this key motion was. Somehow, I doubt Mr. Moeller would be surprised.

The Moeller Book - The art of snare drumming, Sanford G. Moeller.  (Long out of print and very hard to find)
Ludwig Masters: (1956)
ISBN-10: 157134689
ISBN-13: 978-1571346896

Friday, March 1, 2019

It's Just an Outline

I’m a big fan of structured writing, also known as outlining. All of my notes are in the form of an outline, as are my shopping lists and todo lists. But there’s another type of outlining I like to do, and it’s very handy around the drum set.
Outlining is the technique of playing a rhythmic pattern with one hand while filling in the 'missing' notes with the other hand. (Actually, any two limbs/voices/instruments will work.) The concept is simple, is easy to learn and has great pay-back.

Pulling it Apart
Let's start with a familiar sticking pattern -- paradiddles. If you play all the strokes on the snare at the same volume, then it's just da-da-da-da-da-da-da-da-da. But lean into the right hand strokes and you get a rhythm: DA doo DA DA / doo DA doo doo. The DA's give us the outer line and the doo's play the inner line. We can re-voice this by putting the R strokes on a cymbal and the L strokes on the snare. The cymbal is now playing the outer line and the L strokes on the snare then become the inner line.

Swing Thing
We can apply outlining to swing just as easily. All we need to do is fill in the 'missing' triplets with the other hand. Here the lead hand plays 1 2-uh 3 4-uh or R R-r R R-r. With outlining, it becomes Rll RlR Rll RlR. The swing ride plays the musical line and the inner line makes it sound a bit like Elvin Jones.
Steve to the Rescue
Now let's look at Steve Gadd's Mozambique, which sounds pretty complicated. The cymbal pattern -- the Mozambique proper -- is based on eighth notes. All we need to do to complete the outline is play the other eighth notes on the snare.

Outlining can be very exciting, and the result sounds much more difficult than it is. It can be applied to just about any sticking to reveal new flavours. Move it around the set and it gets really interesting. You can also try emphasizing the inner line for some unique effects.

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

A Thousand Points of Light

I've been reading some musician biographies lately. By the time a biography is warranted, the musicians are usually in their later years, which means that their formative years were quite some time ago. In the case of the first crop of great jazz players, they came up in a time before the internet, before television and in some cases before radio and recording. Early rockers were not as limited, but recordings were sometimes scarce, and live TV appearances not that common.

One theme that runs through all these biographies is early influences. Interestingly, for some of the old guard there usually weren't many. Often as young enthusiasts they would make do with sitting outside a club where their hero was playing.

Fast forward a half a century and we have the complete opposite. You can now view all of the great players (with a few exceptions) any time, 24/7. Add to that a veritable avalanche of online lessons and demos and you have an insane amount of influence and inspiration to choose from. 

You'd think that having few opportunities to hear/see good players would be rather limiting. And yet all the great jazz players seem to have fared just fine having absorbed inspiration from a relatively small number of players.

I recently tried to summarize my own influences, and it wasn't an easy task. I started with a very long list of drummers who I really dig. Yes, I absolutely love listening to these players. But when it came down to naming the people who'd influenced me the most, the list was extremely short, perhaps 3 or 4 names only. And that makes sense. It simply is not possible to emulate a long list of players. I also find that the influences are situational: if playing rock, I 'borrow' from my favourite rock drummers. Playing jazz, same thing.

The key here is to go ahead and be influenced. Don’t fall into the trap of avoiding influence --  that's a great way to stagnate. And don't feel you need to master a plethora of styles. Just be sure to pick up enough different material that, when combined, it expresses who you are and what you want to say musically.

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Diversify and Conquer Part I

It's never been easy to make a living with music. In fact, some of the players you most admire just might be semi-professionals -- i.e. they have to do other things to make a living.  Gigs are simply harder to find these days. One way around this scarcity of opportunity is to do other things. It's possible to diversify your activities without giving up your choice of music as a career.

Here are some areas you might check out to (a) find more work and (b) find rewarding jobs in and around of music.


Of course this is what we all want to do, and there really are a lot of options. In general, you will be either a member of a band (or several bands) or a freelancer/contractor. Here diversity means being able to play in a variety of styles and situations.

Touring: As a hired sideman or as a member of a band, the touring musician's career is on the road. Some musicians tour constantly, and time spent at home can be a rarity.

Local: It's tough but not impossible to make a living locally. The trick is to live in or close to a place where there is a lot of work. This is why musicians gravitate to places like New York, Nashville and other music cities. 

Studio: Music centres often have lots of recording studios. This type of work calls for an abundance of high-end skills, but the rewards can be excellent.
Shows: Dance troupes, theatres, broadcasters, and others all need drummers, and these can be great steady gigs. Hal Blaine honed his chops playing for strippers.


There are actually a number of options for dedicated teachers.

Music store: This setting gives you instant credibility and visibility. Plus the music store does all the marketing and paperwork. On the downside, the pay may not be great and you need to play by someone else's rules.

Private studio: This is a tougher way to do it, but you get to be your own boss and keep every dollar you collect. Be prepared to spend a lot of time marketing and developing your reputation.

Institutions: Colleges and universities have high skill requirements, but if you qualify, the work can be both rewarding and lucrative.

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Melvin And Me

"I've never had a bad night!"

Yup, that's what Mel Lewis said, as stated by John Riley in "Beyond Bop Drumming." At the time, John thought it seemed like a bit of hubris, but Mel had a very good explanation. You see, Mel strove to be such a proficient player that even on an off night he was still plenty good at his job.

Mel said that his role was to keep the band swinging regardless of his personal situation. And that's how it should be: You really need to have more than enough ability to do the job required. Mel also confided that he was the only one who was ever aware of when he was not on form. That’s a pretty good record.

I had an off night recently. Everything went OK at the gig, and we got very good feedback from the audience -- and the owner (no small accomplishment). But I was not happy with my playing. It happens. The interesting thing is that I recorded our sets that night. When I listened to the tracks a few days later, everything sounded fine, and I would never have guessed I was out of sorts. So, was it truly a bad night?

John Riley goes on to explain that Mel's attitude is nothing more than well-earned confidence, backed up by skill, knowledge and experience. And confidence plays a big role in everything we do. Buddy Rich could be very matter-of-fact about his playing. But his point was simple. If he was playing well, why not just feel good about it? To say "I'm playing well" is a far cry from saying "I'm the greatest."

It’s important that we take pride in our work and do the best job we can, with a steadfast goal of “better than last time”. I go into every situation prepared to do the best job I possibly can, off night be damned. And if I’m having a good night, so much the better.

In a way, I suppose I could also say I too have never had a bad night, because getting out and playing automatically makes for a good night, right?

So thanks for the positive spin, Mel.

Beyond Bop Drumming by John Riley & Dan Thress

Alfred Music
ISBN-10: 1576236099
ISBN-13: 9781576236093