A drum is a drum is a drum — so why shouldn't a drum kit player turn to other percussion...
Can kit drummers make it without a stool? Geoff Nicholls ponders swapping sticks for the skin and fist of a percussionist (poetry).
A MAJOR ACT'S regular drummer discovers that for personal reasons he isn't able to continue touring duties for a few months. Can the percussionist take over on kit?
No problems for Martin Ditcham, the familiar conga-stroking figure with Sade. As a kit-drummer turned percussionist, Martin was able to save the day and cover for the excellent but absent Dave Early. Martin is thus the ideal bloke to introduce kit-drummers to the art of the percussionist.
Seeing the percussionist struggling through the studio door with several barrowloads of scrap wood and metal, other musicians may tremble. The thought enters their heads that the track will end up sounding like someone singing a song while a shed is being built in the background. You must allay this fear.
For most rock and pop, Martin suggests discretion, not solos, is what's required. The percussion is there to enhance the drum kit and add colour. In fact, Martin is aware that he's often called in to sessions at the very end, almost as an afterthought, to add a little 'sweetening'.
Try a tambourine on every other snare beat, on beat four. If the hi-hat's sparse add a shaker, though this may be unnecessary if it's playing sixteenths. Cowbells give a hard edge to the rhythm on beats one and three, or one, two, three and four. For more dance-type feels the cowbell(s) can do a dink dink-a dink dink-a dink rhythm.
Always have a guide vocal to be sure you're not playing something horrid under a tasteful lyric. Gaps between vocal lines may be the best places for your little rhythmic trademarks. And slower tunes have more space and scope: out with the bells, chimes and woodblocks.
Congas are fairly in at the moment (see Andy Duncan on page 18) but they're not easy to master. There are so many different sounds and strokes available. For most sessions though, Martin uses the three basic strokes: open (letting the note ring), muffled, and slap. Occasionally the Cuban heel-tip hand technique is useful (something like tap-dancing for the hands), but most tracks require a solid, clean approach, very like commercial drum kit tracks. So a good hand-to-hand technique playing a simple beat is usually the clincher. Incidentally, it's sometimes said that kit drummers shouldn't play congas because they can damage their hands. Martin reckons this is crazy: damaging your hands is due to bad technique, trying to get more sound out of the drum than is possible.
As with kit playing, solid time is essential. It's a good habit to use what Martin terms 'handrails' — hitting the main accents confidently and 'guiding' yourself by tapping the between-beats with your fingers, or 'singing' them in your head. Playing simple rhythms, thinking and leading with the right, the left takes care of itself on the beats between. A bit like driving a car through those no-lorries roadblocks — if you aim for the right-hand post, you can whip through at 40mph and the left side of the car will take care of itself.
While on the subject of time, Martin reckons a click guide is great to have on gigs as well as in the studio. Dave and Martin always used a little Boss Dr Rhythm for tempos on Sade gigs. The flashing light gave a visual guide to keep the tempo steady without them having to wear headphones. Dial it up before each song: 'Smooth Operator' 112 beats-per-minute, 'Hang On To Your Love' 98bpm, and so on. No problem. This avoids what Baz Watts, who demonstrates Simmons stuff, calls the Saturday night/Monday morning syndrome: a tempo which sounds great on Saturday night can sound appalling on Monday morning. If you've agreed the bpm there's no argument — just, "Wow, but it feels so different, maaaan."
Still on timing, here's a new one on me. Martin is often asked to add percussion to disguise the fact that a backing track is 'wandering' a bit. When you hear a tambourine or shaker in time with the kit, it gives the impression the time's really solid. As a kit player, Martin's attuned to drummer's foibles. If he hears the hi-hat (for example) straying a fraction he knows the bass drum/snare is going to be out, and he can play the percussion accordingly. Careful listening and dropping-in can result in a tight track. And indeed these slight deviations in a track, the natural tension and release, are very common and not necessarily a bad thing (see last month's Drum Hum). They may well give the track its unique feel. The converse of course is using percussion to make a drum machine track sound human.
Finally, is there a limit to the scope of percussion? Surprise, surprise: "No," is Martin's answer. There's always the search for new sounds. Rummage through household items — pots, pans, tea trays, and the rest. You can get a rhythm out of anything. And who said you can't have a percussionist in heavy metal? Martin found plenty of things to play on Waysted's album, including knocking out Latin-based rhythms on a metal tray placed on a marble floor, heavily reverbed and gated. "Could have been a Fairlight," he says.
Feature by Geoff Nicholls
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