Here’s a very common question: If you could give just one tip for playing musically, what would it be?
It's unlikely that anyone would ask this sort of question of a piano player or saxophonist, and yet it seems OK -- almost required -- to ask it of drummers. My first inclination would be to ask, "What song are you playing?" Certainly it would be easier to provide some guidance if I knew something about the musical context. But I have a simpler, more direct answer.
If I were to offer up one 'secret' tip about playing musically, it would be this: Listen. By the time you get on the bandstand, it's too late to start thinking about how to play musically. It really is something you should be thinking about all the time. And you need to listen all the time too. Listen to the greats -- the masters. Don't just listen to the drum part. The best drummers tend to play with the best musicians, and those drummers are thinking about the music, not about how cool that last lick was or the next one will be.
Seek out your favourite drummers, and then listen -- deeply -- to the rest of the band. Study how the tunes work and how the drummer fits into the whole thing. And listen to the drummer just as intently. What is the drummer doing to make the music better? How do the drums and bass work together? How does the drummer relate to the ‘comping’ instruments?
When I'm faced with an unfamiliar tune, I'm never at a loss for what to play. It's not because I have a huge war chest of beats and patterns -- I don't. Nor do I feel the need of one. Everything I really need is contained right in the tune, and it's just a matter of hearing it and then following along. Of course I want to bring my own interpretation to it, but the fundamental rhythm is already there, as are the phrasing and dynamics.
So the next time you approach a tune, listen to the bass line. Listen to the rhythm that the ensemble is playing. Then all you have to do is come up with something that fits. Later you can dress it up, but begin by fitting in and letting your playing contribute to and reflect what's going on in the music.