What makes a drummer good?
January 20, 2010 1:52 PM   Subscribe

What makes a drummer good?

Not a musician, but grew up on classic rock and currently enjoy jazz. I get the point of most instruments, at least to understand and feel why this guitarist or keyboardist or string player is better than that one, and might even make a (no doubt half baked) judgment call. But the whole drum thing - not so much.

Why is Buddy Rich the king of the hill? (And if he isn't to your mind, who is, and why?) Is Charlie Watts better than Ringo, and if so, how much better and why? (I heard heard Watts couldn't "get" the rhythms on Sympathy for the Devil, but have no idea if this is true.) What's the deal with Keith Moon and John Bonham? Who are some notoriously bad drummers, and why are they bad? Who is merely mediocre, and what exactly are they lacking?

Seeking insights, samples and examples, thoughts from the informed, passionate and eloquent. All thoughts welcome and appreciated.
posted by IndigoJones to Media & Arts (20 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
IANAD, but I've known a couple of good ones and one thing I came away with was an appreciation of restraint - when not to fill every possible second. Also, building on great work to make greater work.
posted by jquinby at 1:56 PM on January 20, 2010

I play Christian worship music. In that environment, a good drummer is one who can play with energy when needed, but--and this is important--knows when to take a musical step back and not be in a constant state of showing off his or her playing ability. I suspect this is true in most music, as well. Even if you can play your solos faster and better than anyone else, no one is going to like you if you're loud and in-your-face all the time.

Drums also have a bigger effect on the "feel" and emotion of a song than most people realize. When I first started playing, I read somewhere that you shouldn't play the verses of a song as loud or energetic as the chorus, because when you hit the chorus you need somewhere to go, musically; just by changing the beat that you play and the tempo or volume at which you play it, you can radically alter the feel of a song. After some practice, you begin to see how you can make a song sound upbeat and happy, quiet and introspective, or dark and mysterious just by what you play. It's really cool, but something that you have to be aware of 100% of the time when you play drums.

So in short: The ability to play awesome solos is what most people would say is good drumming, but far more important (and by extension, a better measure of "good" IMO) is knowing when to take the backseat. And I would also consider drummers who alter their style within a single song to evoke an emotional response to be extremely talented.
posted by DMan at 2:02 PM on January 20, 2010

Best answer: I'm not a drummer, but I've lived with one for two years and listen to some very drumming-centered music, so...

Drummers are good or bad on a few different scales, and the ones you mentioned, Buddy Rich especially, could be considered the best because of virtuosity - they can play incredibly complicated things at high speed, just like guitarists shredding. Complicated things mean, for instance, difficult polyrhythms or patterns which would be awkward for lesser humans. But, to be honest, I don't care much for virtuousos, so I'll give a few half-baked examples from the other worlds.

Check out how bands change when they change drummers - Andrew Bird from Kevin O'Donnell's jazz greatness and proficiency with brushes and fundamentals to Martin Dosh's tight minimalism. Or from Pavement's original drummer, Gary Young, to Steve West, who could actually play drums well without getting drunk, but, according to a million critics, spelled the end of the sweet, sweet backbeat in that strain of indie.

Notoriously bad drummer, off the top of any person's head: Meg White, of the White Stripes. Horrible. Not faking badness. Actually bad.

Modern drummers get famous the way that any modern instrumentalists do: by being passably good and unusually creative. Like Damon Che, who played with his sticks reversed and played loud and crazily, but in amazing time. The drums are the backbone of a band's feel, in a similar way to the way that the bass is, so when people recognize drummers, it's often not because they played paradiddles at 140bpm but because they made the albums sound the way they did.
posted by tmcw at 2:14 PM on January 20, 2010

On a more basic level, a Drummer holds the rest of the band together, and lays the foundation for almost everyone else. While you can have a song without a drummer, it's usually an exception, and is meant to highlight a specific artist or style (i.e. - just the guitar, just vocals, etc.).

While not quite the same as a modern band, I had a sterling example of how fundamental drumming was in High School. During a marching band show, the echo in the stadium got half of the band out of sync, causing a horrible issue as neither side would "give in" to the other and get back in sync. The drum squad leader, hearing this, basically commanded everyone to play to HIS beat off his own playing alone, and reigned in 40 ruly highschoolers by simply playing his insturment and not saying a word.
posted by GJSchaller at 2:31 PM on January 20, 2010

The drums are the backbone of a band's feel, in a similar way to the way that the bass is, so when people recognize drummers, it's often not because they played paradiddles at 140bpm but because they made the albums sound the way they did.

Strongly agree with this. I am with Keith Moon, who during one of the few drum solos he ever played, shouted out "Drum solos are boring!!"

If a rock band sounds good, it's because the drummer and the bass player are doing a good job. You aren't necessarily always listening to them, but without them the band would not work.

Good rock drummers kind of drive the song along, creating a foundation for the other instruments, as well as tension and excitement of their own. A drummer who just sits back there tapping along like a metronome will ruin a song, especially in harder rock. Listen to Rikki Rockett of Poison for a great example of this. On the other end of the spectrum, listen to John Bonham, Keith Moon or especially Mitch Mitchell with the Jimi Hendrix experience.

Then, for bonus points, listen to some of the later stuff Hendrix did without Mitchell. He's still a world-shaking guitarist, but the music leaves you kind of "ehhhh."
posted by drjimmy11 at 2:32 PM on January 20, 2010

You can also listen to The Who in the early 80s with Kenney Jones for the "how not to" column. Jones may have been an ok drummer but he was awful for The Who, who needed Moon to keep up with the rest of the craziness from the other three.

That's another thing: the drummer needs to fit with the band.
posted by drjimmy11 at 2:35 PM on January 20, 2010

What makes a drummer good?

Four things:

Time. The drummer is in charge of the tempo, which shouldn't vary unintentionally.

Feel. This might be called swing, or groove or flow, depending on the culture. It refers to subtle shifting of individual beats in time.

Taste. The drummer must serve the music, not the other way around.

Technique. The drummer has to be able to play whatever is required cleanly, without mistakes.

What's the deal with Keith Moon and John Bonham?

Moon was the perfect drummer for the Who (or maybe they became the perfect band for Moon). There were lots of things he couldn't or wouldn't do, but what he did fit them like a glove. They should have disbanded when he died.

Personally, I always found Bonham leaden, but I can't imagine Zep without him. Apparently, neither can Page and Plant.
posted by timeistight at 2:48 PM on January 20, 2010

Restraint. Serving the needs of the song. Being able to stay "in the pocket." Tone and color. DYNAMICS. Innovation. Passion.

Moe Tucker was not a trained drummer but just listen to what she does on "Heroin." So simple, yet so unusual and brilliant.

(Kind of annoying and not a sign of genius: insisting on playing totally awesome drum solos at every opportunity.)
posted by naju at 2:53 PM on January 20, 2010

I heard heard Watts couldn't "get" the rhythms on Sympathy for the Devil, but have no idea if this is true.

You can actually watch Charlie and the boys work through Sympathy for the Devil in Godard's film Sympathy for the Devil and decide if it is true. It is actually pretty interesting to see the changes the song went through dring the recording process.

I feel compelled to warn you, though, that interspersed with the footage of the Stones is much footage of Godard's late '60's Marxist noodlings. Some people find that part of the film difficult to sit through.
posted by pasici at 2:54 PM on January 20, 2010

Best answer: Jazz drummers are in quite a different world than rock and pop ones; song structures and basic rhythms and solos are much more varied and are pretty much never repeated exactly from one take to another. The drum-bass foundation is indeed very important, just like in rock music, but in jazz the drummer does not only establish and maintain the rhythm, it partakes as a full instrument, varying in loudness, textures, solos and also call and answer duos with other instruments.
But jazz is quite a diversified genre, which means that drummers can be good in one style, but not really in another.
Buddy Rich, for example was indeed extremely good with his big band, and had awesome speed and skills (he practiced his rudiments a lot!).
Dave Weckl is a very technical drummer with awesome members coordination and independence--I find him particularly good at latin music.
Neil Pert is often said to be great jazz drummer, but he's definitely more of a rock drummer, his swing is always a bit too square...
My favorite drummer is (by far) Jack DeJohnette, who is excels in a great variety of style and who has a very musical play--it's never just beats, and always subtle and well dosed.
posted by ddaavviidd at 2:57 PM on January 20, 2010 [1 favorite]

Ok. This is rehashing some of what others said above, but I'm going to try to be tidy about it and not pick actual drummers for examples.

1. a good drummer should have a sense of timekeeping.

Are they really, really aware of how fast or slow they are playing? All the time? By speed, I mean, tempo. Beats per minute, per a metronome, or clock device. If they aren't, then I consider them sucky. I don't think they have to know the exact BPM, but an awareness of whether their speed for a given piece is pretty darn close to how fast they have been instructed to play something by the bandleader(s).

2. a good drummer should have a sense of how strictly they keep the time.

Is this drummer allllways ahead of the beat? Always behind? If someone wants them to play "looser" (lets say for the sake of argument, more sloppy), "swingier" (for jazzy numbers), or possibly as close to a drum machine as possibly (maybe for electro-rock hybrid bands or for people who just really dig a mechanized sound. maybe prog.)

3. a good drummer should be aware of their how hard they are hitting (volume).

Pretty self-explanatory, although sometimes in rock bands where your monitoring is crap, it can be pretty tough to gauge whether they should turn it up or down compared to what they normally do. In places without amplification though, this is probably not the case.

4. a good drummer should know, if they have been given the freedom to play improvised fills, whether they are playing too much, too little, or just enough. Of course, this amount can vary depending on whether other band members give them some input as to what's legit in their group.

All that being said: there's (unfortunately? : ) no accounting for taste.
posted by bitterkitten at 3:00 PM on January 20, 2010

ah, timeistight beat me to it.
posted by bitterkitten at 3:00 PM on January 20, 2010

I am pretty much lapsed drummer, but always thought dynamics were the key. You might find this clip inspiring. In the same respect it might make you want to burn your kit. Same here.
posted by timsteil at 3:15 PM on January 20, 2010

Best answer: Like a lot of people have said, the basic requirement for any performance-worthy drummer is having a firm control and awareness of the tempo and the pocket. I'm not sure that the idea of the pocket has been sufficiently clarified yet, so it's basically this: if you think of the beat as a single point in time, the pocket is a small area extending from a few milliseconds before that point to a few milliseconds after. Most of the time, a drummer will play most of her drums in the space preceding the beat ("ahead of the beat," i.e., the drummer's hit is early) or following it ("behind the beat," i.e., the drummer's hit is late), but rarely right on it ("on top of the beat"). There's almost always one part of the kit devoted to playing on top of the beat, usually a cymbal or hat, but the rest will be ahead or behind the beat, depending. You'll often hear rock drummers like Bonham hit the snare a little behind the beat, which adds a sense of space to the music; this makes sense if you think about how the brain uses its perceptions of minute differences in timing to spatialize our sense of hearing. Listen to a lot of dance music, on the other hand, and you'll hear a lot of things hitting ahead of the beat, because it creates a sense of urgency (the effect is almost one of always speeding up, even though the tempo remains constant -- that is, if you're a good drummer).

Tempo is just as important. A lot of novice drummers will slow down very minutely throughout a track, and slowing down is death. It's not something most people hear consciously, but they do notice, and what happens is that the track sounds to them like the musical equivalent of a damp towel on a cold day. A good drummer won't slow down unless it's merited, and they won't speed up unless it's merited, although that's usually less of a problem. They'll only speed up or slow enough so that you feel, "hey, this section sounds more active," or "hey, this section sounds sad/sexy/etc."

Musicality is next. Do they know when to play and when to shut up? Can they play quietly if necessary (drummers that can do this are harder to find than seems fair)? Do they do their job without attracting undue attention to themselves? Are they aware of what's stylistically appropriate? Do they listen to other players, adjust accordingly, and do their best to make everyone else sound good?

Any drummer that's got those three major skills down will do if you need someone in a pinch and you're still interested in sounding good. Beyond that, like tmcw says, you get into the rarified airs of virtuosity: speed, rhythmic independence of the limbs, wide breadth of stylistic knowledge. Really, though, the ones that have a good, subtle control of feel and tempo are rare enough. Not to rag on drummers, because this is true of everyone -- they're just band makers or breakers in a way that few other instruments are.
posted by invitapriore at 5:27 PM on January 20, 2010 [2 favorites]

posted by chelegonian at 5:32 PM on January 20, 2010

"And Meg White, yes, is so awful that it makes it hard to listen to The White Stripes for more than a few minutes."

Au contraire. She's perfect for the White Stripes, and her "primitive" approach defines that band's sound.

My larger point is that a good rock drummer is relative to their band. Someone mentioned Ringo above -- the guy would never win in a drum-off at your local Guitar World. But for early and mid-career Beatles he was perfect. It's gets stickier later on when Paul McCartney started erasing his tracks and drumming himself, but you can still here some pretty funky work on "Sgt. Pepper's."

I'd also agree that in rock, the drummer is king. You can fake a solo or bonk a note from your vocalist but a drummer who isn't locked in is going to make for dull music.

Having played guitar in various bands I'd also throw out the cliche of the "heavy hitter" drummer who thinks hitting hard and fast without listening to the rest of the band is the bane of many bands starting out.

IMO, YMMV, etc.
posted by bardic at 6:29 PM on January 20, 2010 [1 favorite]

And Ringo Starr would have sucked if he'd been a part of Mahavishnu Orchestra. However for most of the Beatles catalog he was perfect.

I'm not a huge White Stripes fan myself, but for what they do she's perfect. A more technically proficient drummer would ruin their sound. And while you might not like them millions of other people do. De gustibus, etc.
posted by bardic at 8:09 PM on January 20, 2010

"what makes a drummer good is Pro Tools"

Jack White only records analog.
posted by bardic at 8:11 PM on January 20, 2010

I'm not in the mood to do teh googlez, but I remember reading an interview with Jack White as to how he only records and produces analog. This would make ProTools or any sort of digital editing impossible. Maybe that's a lie but I doubt it. He also made the point that Meg's drumming is the heart of the band. Considering how long they've been together, is it so hard to fathom that she's gotten really good at basically the one beat she knows how to play?

All of this goes back to my larger point -- a good drummer understands their place in the band. In a general rock context that position is the most prominent one, but there are exceptions.

So Meg probably wouldn't be a good replacement for one of Tortoise's two drummers. But the converse is also true.
posted by bardic at 8:30 PM on January 20, 2010

Response by poster: Excellent! Pretty much exactly what I was looking for. Much to explore now (especially the badness part). Many thanks to all, and also to any who have anything more to add.
posted by IndigoJones at 6:45 AM on January 21, 2010

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