Our new series for drummers is for bashers and non-bashers alike: first, how to keep time
Geoff Nicholls, percussion star of TV's 'Rockschool' and working drummer, writes every month in MAKING MUSIC about the playing, maintenance and science of drums, with unusual tips and useful explanations to help everyone from the first-time drummer to the flashest electronic percussionist.
Why do drummers find it so hard to play in time? I can see the knowing smiles of guitarists and keyboardists, and I can feel the miffed vibes from fellow drummers. Good! Because my column, Drum Hum, is designed to be interesting to all musicians and to get some discussion going between us drummers and the rest of you.
In the coming months I'll look at the ups and downs of being a drummer and musician. And I stress musician, because I reckon drummers have had a rough ride in the West - and, more specifically, in Britain.
I get the feeling that the general public, and sometimes other musicians, see drummers in two categories: the lunatic thrasher (eg Keith Moon - what an appropriate surname); or the brilliant circus-cum-conjuring act (eg Buddy Rich - damned clever, but not as clever as Paul Daniels). Oh, er, three categories, of course. There's also the quiet or dumb one who 'got lucky' (Ringo was the prototype - nowadays, how about Roger Taylor of Duran?).
Now put that pen down: I've just cited four of my faves. Moon was a complete original. Rich is of course a technical miracle. Ringo and Roger T are either overlooked or given woefully little credit for their roles.
In Britain we don't appreciate the real importance of drums. We are dimly aware that 'rhythm' has a lot to do with modem music, so we grasp the first two of my categories. But more often, in ignorance and laziness, we settle for the third.
So how vital is the drummers' role?
I could rattle off the old stuff about the foundations being the most important part of the building, or of icebergs being four-fifths below the water. True, but better evidence is to be found in the studio.
Many producers will tell you that you can get away with, or repair, just about anything so long as the drum track is good.
You need to be sure of the drums on stage, too. Have you noticed how often a group on the verge of success dumps their drummer for someone more experienced? Many current top acts have drafted in experienced and talented drummers: for example Go West (with Tony Beard), Sade (with Dave Early), Howard Jones (with Trevor Morais), and Marillion (with Ian Mosley).
Back to the provocative title - and why should it be drummers in particular who are criticised over their timing? Right or wrong, it's a fact that drummers regularly carry the can for timing 'discrepancies'.
The average person in the audience thinks that hitting the right notes is the tricky thing. Timing - both the tempo of the whole song, and the phrasing of individual licks and fills - is less obvious, and is taken largely for granted.
Tuning of guitars and so on is a minor hassle, while playing the appropriate notes obviously requires technique. Singing in tune is of debatable importance: you can alter the notes, or the key, double-track, add backing vocals, reverb and so on. In any case, you want character before accuracy or you run the dreaded risk of sounding 'cabaret'.
But timing, particularly in the studio, has to be accurate - or else everything falls apart. When it dawns that no-one can play in time, least of all the drummer, who in any case cops all the blame, then things get very sticky.
Don't get me wrong. It's as difficult to sing or to play any instrument brilliantly as it is to play the drums brilliantly. But what I'm suggesting is that drums present unique difficulties with regard to time.
You'll have to pick up next month's free issue to find out exactly what... well, OK, fair-dos. I'll make a start by suggesting an analogy with golf or snooker.
Both these games involve hitting a small ball with uncanny precision, using a long, unwieldy implement specifically designed, so it seems, to make the job more difficult. My limited experience (one game) of golf convinced me that half the battle is hitting the ball at all, let alone with accuracy.
Any drummer who's tried playing along with a metronome will know what I'm getting at: hitting that beat dead centre, with consistency, when all the beats have to be struck hard, no fudging, and all the beats are staccato. Plus, you're using all four limbs simultaneously, via the intermediaries of pedals and long bits of stick, and striking surfaces that bounce back at you... it ain't easy.
And any deviation that might pass for 'feel' or 'expression' on another instrument is heard as 'wobbly' on the drums.
Only by becoming aware of the timing problem can you tackle it, so try this test. Pick up a stick (non-drummers pick up a biro to tap it on the table). Set the metronome or drum machine so that it's playing slowish eighth beats, like a standard hi-hat rhythm. Count yourself in, "One, two, three, four," then immediately tap along to the eighths. Now then, can you put your hand on your heart and say your beats coincide exactly with the machine beats?
The answer for drummers is to treat the metronome, click or drum machine - whatever it is you have to play along to - as a friend, as a guide to help you rather than an enemy revealing your failings. After all, this is how other musicians see it: the steadier the beat, the happier they are to play.
That's the theory. It's trickier in practice, as we all know. Next month, we'll delve deeper, with some observations from one or two of the most respected time-keepers in the business...
Feature by Geoff Nicholls
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