Festival of Drums — Ringo Starr

 
Ringo Starr.  Image via  tumblr.com .

Ringo Starr.  Image via tumblr.com.

 

If it sounds as if John Lennon is singing with heavy eyelids, it may be because Ringo sounds as if he’s playing the drums in his robe and slippers. 

 

Note how many fills Ringo plays and yet how unobtrusively he renders them.  A more aggressive drummer might play these same notes as if smashing down a wall, thus removing any chance for the song to take on its psychedelic aura.  In Ringo’s hands, these constant fills suggest turning over in one’s sleep, or perhaps the gentle tumble of kaleidoscope beads. 

The Beatles’ secret ingredient is laziness.  Though their songs and costumed presentation are bright, the Beatles are not bright-eyed.  The droopy sweetness of their harmonies, for example, does not try to rev us up.  They send us elsewhere.

“What seems to me the highest and most difficult achievement of Art is not to make us laugh or cry, nor to arouse our lust or rage, but to do what nature does—that is, to set us dreaming.”

— Gustave Flaubert

The Beatles set us dreaming, not through displays of mechanical facility but by relaxing into the power of their intuitions.  And that relaxation is only possible because their drummer is a master hypnotist.

Thank you, Ringo.


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Festival of Drums — The Facility Trap

 
Fred Armisen as Jens Hannemann.  Image via  nytimes.com .

Fred Armisen as Jens Hannemann.  Image via nytimes.com.

 

I once took a few lessons from a drum teacher who had great advice on how to loosen one’s hands, which meant his students and protégés had blazing speed.  After one lesson, a couple of them stopped by, and soon the conversation turned, as it so often does with a certain breed of drummers, to a list of complaints about how other musicians were insufficiently interested in their chops.

They mocked Ringo.

The youngest complained about “all these bands and songwriters who pay you for all the notes you don’t play.” 

The next youngest chimed in, “We got a lot of thoroughbreds out there pulling garbage trucks,” a reference to the supply of drummers whose blazing chops were wasted, in his opinion, on playing backbeats.

Having by far the slowest hands in the room, I said nothing.  I simply listened and thought to myself, “All three of you could learn a lot from the likes of Ringo.”

The drum-jock mindset, which misses the forest (music) for the trees (mechanics), is nicely skewered here.


The first time I saw this video, it took me a few minutes to realize that I was watching a parody by comedian Fred Armisen, not an actual instructional video.  That bit of confusion says a lot about Armisen’s comedic insights as well as the bloated size of his target.

One needn’t dismiss such things as hand-speed to understand that improved mechanics might not be the ultimate purpose of practice.  What if the ultimate purpose of practice was expression, for which mechanics are only a vehicle?  

The trap many drummers fall into (the problem extends beyond drummers and beyond music) is this:  Improving one’s mechanics is a simpler proposition than learning to express.

Compare two tasks:

A) Practicing a backbeat with a metronome

B) Making one’s backbeat more beautiful.

In order to accomplish B, you’d do well to spend some time on A.  But A and B are not equivalent.  B is a more demanding and more complicated task.

Though A can be hard work, judging one’s success in A is fairly straightforward.  One records oneself, listens, and identifies where one is ahead of or behind the metronome. 

B, however, demands that one raise aesthetic questions for which there are no easy answers.  I may know how to play in time with a metronome, but does my time sound alluring?  Is it saying something?  Are the sounds coming out of kit in conversation with each other?  How will all of this sound when the other instruments are added?  What surprises am I encountering?

These are harder questions to answer, which is why metronome work can become a refuge.

We can telescope back and compare . . .

Mechanics—playing in time with a metronome, playing a faster single-stroke roll, developing limb independence.

with

Expression — bringing the music to life.  Understanding that a song has a spirit, a narrative shape, and so forth.

Mechanical facility may aid expression, but it falls short of fulfilling all of expression’s demands.  Mechanics are sometimes called technique, but this ignores the fact that expression requires the development of other techniques such as . . . 

  • Listening to what the other musicians are doing
  • Thinking in terms of a song's drama and narrative structure
  • Understanding what the melody and lyrics want from the drums
  • Understanding what silence can do for us
  • Thinking about the tradeoffs we make with each note we play
  • Learning to channel our intuition

Mechanical technique is important but these non-mechanical techniques are more crucial still.  And they are the most overlooked, especially by those who dis Ringo, one of the most deeply musical drummers ever to pick up a pair of sticks.


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Festival of Drums — Dennis Davis

 
Dennis Davis.  Image via  flickr.com .

Dennis Davis.  Image via flickr.com.

 

The best drum performances take on the spirit of the song. 

 

“Fame” does not describe mastering the celebrity life so much as take stock of the spotlight’s toll.  As we listen, we don’t picture David Bowie basking before the crowd so much as walking out the stage door into a headache-inducing glare of flashbulbs and seeking shelter in the dark, quiet of his limousine and the illicit offerings kept there.  We may see him parade down red carpets, but we can feel the heaviness in each step.

Dennis Davis’s drum groove conjures the song’s inebriated intersection of moxie and anxiety.  The hugeness of the kick and snare groove brings across the swagger, especially the sixteenth-note snare fills (for instance, at 2:53), which create rock-star sized downbeats where the vocal can make grand re-entrances.  But then notice the small size of the crashes that follow, which sound more like dings.  It's as if the rock star trips on the stage curtains.  The bite of the snare drum (along with the distorted guitar riff) suggests the anger brewing beneath the surface.  And the occasional tickling of the hi-hat suggests nervous fingers searching for the last cigarette in the pack.

Every move Dennis Davis makes on the drums is perfectly aligned with the story told by the song.  No wonder he was sought out by artists such as David Bowie and Stevie Wonder.  He knows how to tell a story on the drums.


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Festival of Drums — Mystery Drummer

 
Cornelius Brothers and Sister Rose.  Image via   www.fridayinathens.com .

Cornelius Brothers and Sister Rose.  Image via www.fridayinathens.com.

 

I wish I knew who played drums on this irresistible track.

 

"It's Too Late to Turn Back Now" by Cornelius Brothers and Sister Rose is a perfect example of how one little touch on the drums can spark an arrangement.  Here I’m thinking of the hi-hat barks that appear in the pre-chorus sections.  (The first instance occurs at 0:34.)  Note the unexpected placement of this bark, which anticipates the vocal line.  Note also the extent of the sonic contrast of the open and closed hi-hat.   

Peeeeeeshup!

It leaps out of the track, much like infatuation has leapt up and stung the singer.

Note also the importance of how this move is missing from the verse sections that precede it.  This clearing out of the drum arrangement allows the verse to take on a more reflective mood before the pre-chorus sections perk up, leading to the blossoming of the chorus.

None of it would mean anything were it not for the utterly infectious nature of the simple groove.

I looked without success for the identity of this drummer.  (If anyone has info, please email me.)  Whoever you are, most awesome drummer, a world of listeners thanks you for delivering this song so beautifully.


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Festival of Drums — Todd Rundgren

 
Todd Rundgren.  Image via  goldminemag.com .

Todd Rundgren.  Image via goldminemag.com.

 

Todd Rundgren played the drums on this track, which is a triumph of roughness.

 

Notice the radical tempo changes here, the brittleness of the feel.  (Hear how the drum entrance lurches forward.)  All of it is gloriously necessary for the rough and tumble feel of this track.   “If only Rundgren had hired [insert name of some studio pro] to play on this tune” misses the point!  The song’s most faithful expression requires a certain lack of facility. 

Consider the lyrics:

Keep your head and everything will be cool
You didn't have to make me feel like a fool
When I tried to say I feel the way that I do
I want to talk with you
And make it loud and clear
Though you don't care to hear

But couldn't I just tell you the way I feel?
I can't keep it bottled up inside
And could we pretend that it's no big deal
And there's really nothing left to hide?

The song is performed from the perspective of someone out of control, someone who can’t suppress emotions in favor of polished presentation.  So it is with the drumming.

An important question for any instrumentalist trying to bring a piece of music to life: might it be that you are too focused on demonstrating mastery?  What about letting go of "how good am I?" and listening instead to what the music is saying to your heart?


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Festival of Drums — Winston Grennan

 
Winston Grennan.  Image via   www.reggae-vibes.com .

Winston Grennan.  Image via www.reggae-vibes.com.

 

Reggae maestro Winston Grennan made an art out of sublime surprise.

 

Note the little moments throughout this performance that crash over us like the wave we hadn’t seen coming.  For instance, the little hi-hat bark at 0:07 and the crash at 0:09.  

What’s wonderful about these surprises is that rather than imposing themselves on the groove, they emerge from it.  Grennan is channeling expression through his drums.  His playing is deeply attuned to the performances around him.  For all of his dexterity, what one hears is more about his humility to the groove.  Without that humility, the sign of true mastery, the song, with all of its funky counterpoint, would not attain the reverent feel necessary for the song to connect with listeners.


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Festival of Drums — Roger Palm

 
Roger Palm.  Image via  themusicofabba.com .

Roger Palm.  Image via themusicofabba.com.

 

How many drummers have practiced the delicious laziness of grooves such as this?

 

Other drummers, perhaps eager to impress those who fawn over displays of mechanical mastery, might have rendered this beat with greater insistence—sharper cracks on the snare drum and kick, more clearly defined openings and closings of the hi-hat. 

Roger Palm’s feel here is wonderfully drowsy and thereby evokes the disco-ball dreamscape of the song.  Notice how his snare drum pickups and the hi-hat barks that follow suggest nothing beyond a little gust of air from the disco floor, enough to put a little extra motion into the dancers’ slacks and dresses, enough to make it easier to move. 

How many drummers are content to see the dancers happily in motion?


Updated: 12 PM, May 18, 2015

An interesting twist, brought to my attention by the awesome Lee Rosevere, who reports that this performance is actually a four-bar loop (made with tape because it predates the digital age).  Lee, who was tipped off by a fellow musician and ABBA fan, Jamie Shields, has tested this by laying stretches of the groove over other stretches.  "[the] drums never go out of phase except for minor edits."

And it's easy enough to believe, given the strict repetition of the part.  So let us praise ABBA members Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus for their tape-loop mastery and the drum arrangement created by their edits.

We'll probably never hear the rest of the larger performance from which these precious bars of Roger Palm's groove were lifted.  The few seconds with which we are acquainted ,however, remain beautifully drowsy, punctuated by subtle gusts of emphasis.

Thank you Lee and Jamie.

Thank you Benny and Björn.

And most of all, thank you Roger.


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Festival of Drums — James Gadson

 
James Gadson.  Image via  windandbradford.com .

James Gadson.  Image via windandbradford.com.

 

Behold, the easy roll of James Gadson’s time. 

 

In no way does he attempt to impose himself on the song.  Rather, he offers an irresistible foundation upon which the performance is built.  Note the casualness with which he barks his hi-hat barks.  These touches are never over-emphasized.  (Had he over-emphasized them — “Check out my hi-hat barks!”— it would pull listeners out of the spell cast by the groove and the singing.)   

The ease with which Gadson’s groove rolls is crucial, because the arrangement is filled with rhythmic counterpoint and surprise, and yet it remains unassuming.  This is the essence of funk.

And stepping back to take in the entire track, one has the sense of a roomful of musicians channeling their performance up from the ground beneath the studio floor.  All of that comes down to the easiness of Gadson’s generous groove.


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Festival of Drums — Andre Fischer

 
 

Andre Fischer.  Image via twitter.com.

A great example of a drummer playing the song:

 

Andre Fischer, one of the great R&B drummers, coaxes the song along by way of his whispering ride cymbal and hi-hat.  These subdivisions are barely present, just audible enough to give the song motion without our attention being drawn away from the vocal performance.  How many drummers practice playing this quietly?  Too few, because a gentle song wants a gentle, even delicate drum groove.  Note how the soft dynamics in no way impede the groove, which is deep from start to finish. 

And then notice how the shift to quarter-note side sticks during the choruses . . .

Oh, sweet thing
Don’t you know you’re my everything 

enhances the sense of elevation, in concert with the rising chord voicings.

No one who pays attention to his drumming can be surprised that Andre Fischer went on to become a Grammy-winning producer.   Indeed, if you listen deeply, you can almost hear him asking himself “What does this song actually need?” before his first stick makes contact.


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Festival of Drums — Roger Hawkins

 
Roger Hawkins.  Image via   photos.dailycamera.com .

Roger Hawkins.  Image via photos.dailycamera.com.

Roger Hawkins never needs to be the main attraction, which is one reason millions of listeners have luxuriated in his sumptuous grooves. 

 

In addition to the swampy splendor of this groove, note the patience.

Hawkins's groove, modestly rendered through sidesticks on the snare percolates through this song with hardly any variation except for the occasional rim shots that splash up to wonderful effect here and there.  (Had he made this move too frequently, the joy in the surprise would have been lost.) 

His playing reflects enormous trust in the singing and playing that surrounds him.  He introduces no “how did he do that?” moments, but rather, pours out four and a half minutes of generous, groovy bliss, trusting everyone around him to spin it into magic.

What a great recipe for making music.


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Festival of Drums — Ed Greene

 
Ed Greene.  Image via  slama101.fr .

Ed Greene.  Image via slama101.fr.

 

How many drummers aspire to lay down a groove as well as Ed Greene?  Not nearly enough.

 

On this track, Ed Greene essentially drives the limousine in which Barry White sits, addressing the listener.  As the driver, Greene is content to remain largely out of sight. He is devoted to giving the smoothest ride possible, aiming only to help White woo his listeners.

Notice:

— The way Greene’s drums melt into the groove right away.

—That the groove breathes both funkiness and subtlety.  (Indeed, what is funk without subtlety?)

—The many, finely calibrated levels of accents here.

—The ghosted snare notes just before THREE in each bar of four.  Note how crucial it is that they are barely noticeable.  To accent them more would splash a little too much cologne on the groove.  

—How big the drum fills into the choruses feel as a result of the restraint shown elsewhere.


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Festival of Drums — Jim Bonfanti

 
Jim Bonfanti.  Image via  www.ericcarmen.com .

Jim Bonfanti.  Image via www.ericcarmen.com.

 

I often despair when drummers speak of their favorite fills as demonstrations of mechanical mastery.  “He plays sixes around the toms and then single-handed sixteenths . . .” blah blah blah.

What about rhetorical mastery?  What about putting the drums in conversation with the rest of the band? With the singer? With the song?

 

That’s exactly what Raspberries drummer Jim Bonfanti does here.  His drumming has something to say, something more than “Look at me!” 

How easily drumming like this can be reduced to a list of moves.  To do so would miss the beauty of Bonfanti’s performance.  He is not inserting pre-fabricated flash into the track, nor is he using his hands and feet to talk about the state of his drumming. 

He is playing with his ears and heart wide open and making bold declarations on behalf of the song, reproducing on the drums the desperate moxie of the song’s chorus. 

Tonight
I’ll be with you tonight


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Festival of Drums — Earl Young

 
Earl Young.  Image via  www.hdwalls.xyz .

Earl Young.  Image via www.hdwalls.xyz.

 

How many drummers know how to evoke heartbreak on their kit?  

 

How many of them know how to make their drums and cymbals express wistful longing?  How many know how to make their tom-toms evoke a heavy heart (instead of a heavy hand)?  How many of them know how to build a groove that will say what the song is supposed to say, always connecting the listeners with the singer’s words and melody? 

How many of them even know Earl Young’s name? 

Far too few.

But millions of listeners around the world have been transported by his sublime drumming.


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Festival of Drums — Danny Seraphine

 
Danny Seraphine.  Image via  imgarcade.com .

Danny Seraphine.  Image via imgarcade.com.

 

Danny Seraphine, the original drummer for Chicago, is widely and justly praised for his fast hands and steady groove.  He is also under-recognized for his compositional insights.  What makes him so special is not the fact that he can whip off fancy fills; it’s that he plays the right fills, fills that do something for the song.

 

Here, his fills, which never lose the sense of the drum groove, create the gentle twists and rises in the road over which the song travels.  The sense of motion is created by Terry Kath’s acoutic-guitar strums, and the groove is supported by the entire band.  

Note how Seraphine drops his fills at unexpected places . . .

for example the relaxed anticipated cymbal crashes at 0:13 and 0:16

 and drags some of them out to create drama . . .

for example at 0:19, and then, more dramatically, at the start of the second verse (1:49) and then the sublime tom-tom fireworks that start with the outro (3:03). 

In between all of this, he injects subtle pushes and pulls (for instance, after the first chorus at 1:30).  At all points, one can hear his feel in the filling. Each move he makes gives shape to the song's emotion and carries that feeling forward.  

It's a joy ride with the windows down. 


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