Legend has it that once after Rich Mullins had just finished a worship concert a fan came up to him to share about his experience as part of the audience. This particular fan raved about Rich’s music and then went on to describe how he could feel the exact moment the Holy Spirit made his presence known in the room. To which Mr. Mullins replied, “No, you just heard the drums come in.”
Without getting into some of the controversial issues surrounding the connection between emotions and the supernatural reality of worship (I’ll save that for a later post), I think we can all agree that it’s hard to imagine the CCM landscape today without drums in the mix (pun intended). They provide the musical foundation that all the other instruments build on, which means they can make or break the sound of a worship team.
So if you’re a drummer how do you ensure you’re doing the “making” instead of the “breaking”? Here are 5 tips to help drummers effectively fill their role in the band:
1.) Stick To The Groove
As I mentioned above, the drums provide the musical foundation for the rest of the band. But in order to set a solid foundation, the drummer has to play a consistent groove. Groove simply refers to the feel from the rhythm section (see tip #3) that is established by the dominant rhythmic pattern. There are many different types of grooves including straight rock, syncopated, swing, four-on-the-floor, etc. Most drummers learn early on how to play a groove, but the trick is maintaining that pattern throughout the major sections of the song.
The common complaint I hear from drummers is that sticking to a groove is often boring because they’re overly simple. Yes, they often are boring. But the job of the drummer is to establish that foundational feel of the song, and that requires a consistent groove. Of course there are variations and fills that can be added at the right moments, but if any of those things cause the groove to shift, they’re not worth playing. Listen to the drums on any professional band recording and you’ll notice that 80% of the time the drummer is sticking to simple, tight rhythmic patterns.
So take a breath, find your groove, and stick to it. The rest of the band and your congregation will thank you.
2.) Practice Your Transitions
Ok, so you’re playing a simple consistent groove and a fill is approaching which means you have some leeway to get creative. But the fill you try to play goes south. Not only did you flub a section that was pretty exposed, but the loss of time means you’ve lost the groove and have to fight to get it back. And all this in the span of a second and a half.
Transitions are often the kryptonite of many drummers. You can lock in on a consistent groove, but once a fill, or a build, or a cut, or a drum break shows up accuracy and consistency go out the window. That’s why one of the most important things you can do is to spend time practicing transitions. And not just to a point where you can play a decent fill or break that fits in the song, but practice them to where you have total control over each stroke and hit so that you can craft the exact sound you want.
And it’s especially important to practice enough so that you’re not speeding up or slowing down in these sections, which brings me to my next tip…
3.) Embrace The Click
One of the most important inventions for worship teams in the last decade has been in-ear monitor systems, which allow band members to hear themselves clearly while not adding extra sound to the stage the way wedge monitors do. This has been a boon for audio technicians, but the best part about in-ear monitors is that they’ve allowed bands to play to a click track. By a click track I’m referring to a metronome that would play the correct tempo throughout each song. This has dramatically improved the rhythmic tightness of countless worship teams.
What is interesting, though, is that many drummers have felt threatened by the click. They feel that a click limits their artistic ability and jeopardizes their role in the band. In the old days drummers used to be the timekeepers of the band, but now the click track is taking that responsibility away. Plus a click means the tempo can’t ebb and flow as much within the song.
Honestly these reactions have always baffled me. First, losing the timekeeper responsibility should be celebrated, not lamented. Letting the click to set the tempo means the drummer doesn’t have to worry about making sure the band is playing in time, which means he or she can focus on the artistry of their playing. Second, the reality is most songs these days don’t have shifting tempos, so shifting within a song will just make it sound messy especially when the other team members can’t anticipate your tempo changes. Playing to a click should take a huge weight off the drummer’s shoulders, giving them the freedom to focus on the fun parts of drumming. (I know that many teams don’t have in-ear monitors and can’t play to a click. But all drummers can still practice with a click which will help get the same results.)
Click tracks are freeing, not imprisoning, and it’s time for drummers to embrace them.
4.) Befriend Your Bassist
I’ve mentioned a few times already that the drums are foundational for the worship band, but the truth is they can’t set that foundation alone. Drums make up one half of the rhythm section of a band; the other half is the bass player. Together these two players do more to create the feel and energy of a song than all the other musicians combined. But they’re only effective if they’re playing in sync with one another.
This synchronization mainly happens between the bass guitar and the drummer’s kick drum. Every time the drummer hits the kick the bass player should play her note, and vice versa. This sounds simple, but it’s actually a pretty complicated dance to get bassists and drummers to play well together. I’ve heard many worship teams play where the bassist and drummer are so stuck in their own worlds that it’s like they’re playing different songs.
I’ll cover what bassists can do to help this relationship next week, but here are some simple tips for drummers that will make their bass players super happy:
1.) Hit the kick drum confidently
2.) Play a consistent groove (see Tip #1)
3.) Make eye contact with the bass player
4.) Know who sets the groove for each song (Hint: it’s not always the drummer)
5.) Bake them cookies (Hey it can’t hurt.)
Make the bass player your best friend and you’ll be amazed at how much better the whole team will sound.
5.) Less Is Often More
This is related to the first tip above, but I think it’s helpful to make it in a larger context. More often than not a simple groove, or fill, or accent is far more effective than their ultra-complicated counterparts. Not only do the simple versions fit better in the mix, they are far easier to play accurately which is absolutely vital for drummers.
In a band mix, the drums can very easily dominate every other instrument on the stage, simply because of their volume and timbre. This means that drummers have to consciously make space for the other instruments to be heard, especially in the complexity of their playing. This may seem like a raw deal for drummers, but the truth is people want to hear all of the musicians that are playing, and if the drums become too dominant, guess who they’re going to blame?
Plus playing overly complicated drum parts often results in sloppiness. There’s a general rule that many professional musicians live by called the 80% rule. The 80% rule says that a musician should only ever play to 80% percent of their capacity in public. In other words, if I can only hit the high note, or play the guitar lick perfectly on my best days, I shouldn’t try to do it in front of other people. It’s not a theological or ethical rule, but rather it’s designed to ensure that even on our worst days we can still produce top quality music. This is especially true for drummers who are often very exposed in the mix.
Keep your drum parts simple and precise and you’ll give the band something to build on that will allow people to worship freely and without distraction.
Bonus Tip #6.)
If you want your other team members to like you, don’t play like this guy: