Monday, October 8, 2012

When in Doubt, Improvise

Lately I‘ve been trying to get caught up by checking out as many drummers as possible on YouTube and elsewhere. The range of drumming styles (and abilities) on view is astounding these days, but I consistently see one factor that stands out. The drummers that are getting the job done with the biggest name artists invariably aren’t overly exciting players -- that is, unless you find an excellent groove exciting … and I do.
I’ve always admired drummers who almost don’t seem to be there, drummers who just sit back there and make it happen. Charlie Watts is a good example, as are Larry Londin, Jim Keltner and the late, great Levon Helm. Far from invisible, these players meld so perfectly with the music that they’re often barely noticeable. And yet when you take the time to listen, their playing really stands out.
I played a bit of a party gig recently and was rather compromised – I didn’t have a drum set! The guy who was supposed to deliver it never showed. I had the basics with me and so I decided to go ‘old school’. I put my snare on a chair, set up my hi-hat and a couple of cymbals, and jury-rigged a bass setup with a pedal, trap case and bungee cords. Actually, it sounded pretty good!
With the snare 6 inches lower than normal, a ‘bass drum’ that kept wandering, and a pedal prone to falling over or getting caught in the legs of the ‘snare chair’, it was , let’s say, a challenge. And so I played it straight. Now, I like to think that I always play straight -- as in not muckin’ about too much -- but this time there was no fooling around. It was just too dangerous, uncomfortable and at times scary. Ever try to do doubles on a trap case? How about creating some variety in a fill using just a snare and hi-hat?
In the end I was almost glad the drums never showed, otherwise I’d never have had the challenge of pulling something playable together, nor would I have had the opportunity of using such a minimalist approach.
One lesson I learned is that if you ‘lay it down’ in its simplest form, things can really cook. My second lesson? Next time, take a few more drums.

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