When I sit down to play, I have five goals in mind -- not for what I want out of the music but for what the music wants out of me. Although it's usually a subconscious process, I tend to work on the following elements pretty much in this order. With any luck, I'll deliver on all five counts before the end of even the most arcane tune.
Time is #1
I'm not alone when I say that the time is the most
important thing. Playing in time is our number one job. It's also the skill that
separates the drum set ‘generals’ from the rank and file. Nail down the time and
keep it steady and you'll always be welcome on the bandstand.
Steely Dan are notorious for going through a lot of
drummers. Their monumental album “Gaucho” features 4 different drummers, and
there's certainly not a slouch in the bunch. So what gives? Why request Jeff
Porcaro on one tune and then switch to Bernard Purdy on the next and Steve Gadd
on another? One word: Feel. Every drummer -- every musician -- feels the groove
in their own personal way. Some drummers play 'high on the time', some are laid
back, and some play right in the middle. BTW, these are all qualities that can
Once you have the time and feel established, you
want to match your energy to the group’s energy. Keep in mind that volume and
energy, though related, are not the same thing. It's possible to play very
quietly and still convey a lot of energy, just as it's possible to play really
loud yet without any energy.
Here's an interesting thing: You can satisfy the
first three items while playing just quarter notes. As long as it's in time and
with the right feel and energy, it will work just fine, though it might sound a
wee bit spare. So you also want to match the style of the music. If it's your
'native' genre, you'll already be well versed in the time feel and rhythmic
patterns that are appropriate. A good general is willing to study other music
styles -- as many of them as possible -- to be ready for any challenge that
Finally we get to the part most of us are really
interested in: When do I get have some fun and show off my skills? Well, I hope
the fun will be there all of the time. As for showcasing those chops, as long as
it's in service to the music, go for it. Just remember that your chops include
musical chops and also a sense of taste.
And that's about it. Play good solid time, match your
energy and feel to the music, learn a few suitable rhythms, and when all of that
is taken care of, start bringing your personal flair to the game.