So why have I posted a picture of Barry Manilow on this fine Monday morning? No, it’s not to dump a spoonful of saccharin in your morning cup.
It’s because if you’re a drummer, you really need to watch the video below and see what happens at 0:54.
What you’ll hear is Manilow’s 1974 hit, “Mandy,” and what happens at 0:54 is that the drummer comes in. And what is the drummer doing, pray tell? Playing quarter notes on the hi hat is what. Why is this a big deal? Because it’s hard … REALLY hard on a song at a fairly moderate tempo such as this one.
Now keep listening, and you’ll notice that every time the drummer starts to play fills, they are comprised of 8th notes …. every time, the whole way through the song. Again, playing fills of this kind is actually really hard to do at tempos like this one.
What’s the upshot of all this? If you want to improve your straight eighth groove – get “deeper into the pocket” as it were – it would behoove you to play along with “Mandy” and other Manilow power pop ballads. They all follow the same drumming formula, and will really test your abilities not only to keep steady time, but to go in and out of fills without losing said time.
I learned this lesson firsthand when I worked with Graham Russell from Air Supply (yes, Air Supply) a few years back. I was tasked to cut a demo of a brand new Russell original for a Broadway project, and realized that my “power ballad” time wasn’t so hot. SO, in preparation for the recording, I spent three days in my practice space working on deathly slow rock grooves playing nothing but quarter notes on the hi hat and eighth note fills. It was a great lesson and those three days made me a much better drummer.
Try it – you’ll find a whole new appreciation of SPACE, something that most drummers are absolutely terrified of and have much trouble negotiating.
Steve Smith’s thesis, which he and I have discussed a lot, is that starting in the 1960s and ’70s, as rock and roll took over and studio technology improved, drummers no longer had to take responsibility for the sound of their instrument or how they played it.
For starters, the industry created double ply heads and larger drums that ate up all of the overtones. We were encouraged to remove our bottom tom heads and front bass drum head and heavily muffle everything to remove all tone.
With the advent of close miking, an engineer could really control everything. They could make you sound huge by dialing in reverb and echo after the fact. Now, drummers didn’t have to know how to tune or strike a drum properly anymore, because however you hit the drum, the engineer could “create” your sound after the fact.
And that is essentially the world we live in today.
Over those decades, the engineer has become more important than the drummer. Essentially, the message is “You just worry about playing the drums and we’ll get a good sound out of it.” And to a large degree the technology allowed them to do that.
While there is no lack of great drummers in the world today, as a species in some ways we have lost a primal connection to our instrument.
A big part of what I learned from Freddie Gruber, and what I teach my students today is reconnecting to what I call “the dark arts,” older (ancient, even?) methods of approaching drumming and the drum set where we are more deeply connected to our instrument.
When drummer Bobby Morris first started playing with Louis Prima, they performed at the Sahara Hotel in Las Vegas. Their shift was from midnight to six in the morning: Six forty-five minute sets, with a fifteen minute break.
Had the opportunity to play “Carouselambra” (one of my all time Zep fantasy tunes) at this year’s East Coast Bonzo Bash. Serious fun … and a serious freakin’ workout. Thanks to Brian Tichy and all the cats for having me on board! Recorded at the Stone Pony, Asbury Park, NJ – May 31st, 2015.