My job puts me in some interesting situations. On one hand, I’m a drummer, and I’m fortunate enough to make music with some seriously fantastic musicians. On the other hand, I’m a teacher, trying hard to turn young drummers into fantastic musicians. Drumming isn’t all about coordination, chops and patterns. The musicality of a drummer is so important. When do you start seeing a budding drummer turn into a musician? For me, it’s when you think about playing beyond the notes.
This is a debatable subject, and I'm sure there's going to be people who disagree with me here. However, over the years drummers have come and gone. Some remain as influential and respected as they were when they were active. They’re considered masters of the craft and they are a source of inspiration for aspiring drummers. These are the guys that your teachers have told you to study. The kind of guys who remain relevant long past their time. But what do they actually offer that's different from the next guy? Musicality, and bags of it
Now, I know this is a little cliché but let's look at Steve Gadd for a second. He’s highly respected, immensely influential as a drummer and someone who's played with countless musicians on hundreds of recordings. The man is a legend. But why?
If you analyse one of his solos, you can see licks and phrases that have been used for years, and it's easy to say statements like "oh yeah, that's that same old 6-stroke roll again." However, whilst there are drummers that seem to be reinventing the wheel with chops and coordination that would put Gadd to shame, there's still something about Gadd that leaves us wanting more. That’s what I'm talking about. Gadd has the ability to play exactly what's required, when it's needed and with such conviction and purpose that, when you allow yourself to understand it, it's actually quite frightening just how good it really is. Whether it's a groove or a fill, there's always a feeling of musicality and finesse. Where it sits in the bar, on the beat, in front or behind it, the intensity, the tuning, the sound - it all contributes to the end goal of making music. Dare I say it, there's just a formidable passion for the instrument that's damn hard to replicate, let alone improvise with. The chops aren't necessary present all the time. They're there when they’re needed, but it's not the sole purpose and it's not important enough to take over for the goal of conveying an emotion.
Another drummer who comes to mind here is Jeff Porcaro who went down in history for saying that he had never played, nor would he ever play a drum solo. He thought that they were pointless because the drummers job was to keep time and groove. From a musicality perspective for recording or playing a "song", he has a point. At this stage you might think that Jeff didn't have any chops, but those in the know who had the opportunity to see him out of context of being a session drummer would tell you otherwise. He had blinding chops, but didn't show them off because it wasn't necessary. All we have are snippets but perhaps this makes it exciting too. Don't forget that to immerse yourself in a Porcaro groove can be life changing. He has frightening feel and an immense authority for where he places things.
So here I am, as a drummer starting to feel things differently and as a teacher, trying to bark at the students, trying to stress upon them the importance of checking out drummers like Gadd and Porcaro. Alas, they’re still just in it for the chops at the moment. Perhaps that’s ok; perhaps it’s an age thing. Maybe, just like me, they’ll learn to understand it when they’re older.