In Defense of the Rock Drummer

Bobby Gillespie said it best: You can't have a good band if you don't have a good drummer.

Quick: What do Ginger Baker and black coffee have in common? They both suck without Cream.

How do you get a drummer off your porch? Pay him for the pizza.

What do you say to a drummer in a three-piece suit? "Will the defendant please rise?"

What is the difference between a drummer and a savings bond? Only one will mature and make money. And finally ...

What do you call a drummer who just broke up with a girlfriend? Homeless.


Hey, I can say these things because I've been in and out of many a band. In those bands, I've played a smorgasbord of roles: The ass. The quiet one. The drunk. The enthusiast. The pessimist. The optimist. The angry dude. And, of course, the stain of "ugly" on a group of otherwise immaculate looking men. Through them all, though, one thing has remained constant -- in each and every one of those projects I was, above all else, the drummer. For better or for worse. And it's because of that precise reality that I can relate to and laugh at the butt of each joke deriding the very person at which these insults are aimed.   

That also might be why I refuse to believe anything other than the following statement when pondering music criticism: If you don't have a good drummer, you don't have a good band. 

And as history will point out, I'm not anywhere near the first person to abide by such a notion. Take Bobby Gillespie, for example, who has played with everybody from Primal Scream to Jesus and Mary Chain, and once proclaimed, "A band is only as good as its drummer." Jon Wilde, of The Guardian, played off that quote when he took a look at the impact drummers have had on some of popular music's most important acts over the years.

"Indisputably, REM have shown fleeting moments of brilliance (E-Bow the Letter, At my Most Beautiful, She Just Wants to Be) since Berry skipped off to milk cows in Georgia," he wrote while making the case for how the departure of the group's drummer, Bill Berry, began the decline of the college radio stalwarts. "But, given the patchiness of their recent albums, you can't help thinking they'd have been better off following the example of Led Zeppelin, who sensibly realised there was no point carrying on after Bonzo snuffed it in 1980. Keith Moon's death didn't stop the Who soldiering on but you rather wish they hadn't. Keith Richards has often said the only event likely to force the Stones into retirement would be the departure of Charlie Watts. Topper Headon received his marching orders from the Clash in 1982. Joe Strummer would later admit the decision was his greatest mistake and that 'we stupidly tried to fix a clock that wasn't broken'". ("A band's only as good as its drummer", 23 October 2007)

It's true: The art of drumming goes far beyond merely pounding things with sticks and being the one person onstage who gets to sit down. In fact, taking up the drums even goes beyond merely keeping time and displaying rhythm (though these are two fundamental things that are essential in any respectable player's arsenal).

Those who use the instrument devoid of imagination deprive themselves of experiencing the various possibilities that getting behind a kit offers. The combinations are endless, really. Percussive sounds made through striking hardware; infinite interpretations of time signatures; different aspects of instrumentation -- they all combine to make the practice of drumming possible the most expansive element in all of composition. 

The true genesis of its relevance, however, resides in how subtly manipulative its presence can be in popular music. Without a consistent timekeeper, songs sound incomplete and amateur, more a display of random noise than constructive art. That's not to say there isn't a place for what most may perceive as nonsensical sounds -- the wide world of jazz and fusion is often incorrectly interpreted as nothing more than a jumble of clicks and clacks because of how uneasy it can be to follow -- but when considering successful and well-known music from any genre, the presentation of such is almost always straightforward and solid, two attributes that can define the difference between a good and a bad drummer. Without that groovy foundation, songs, albums and live performances can all fall apart just as easily as they came together. Drumming is supposed to bleed consistency into the sound and without it, the material at hand can unravel.

Actually, such value might just be on display more often than one may imagine. Case in point: The pop band Maroon 5. In June 2002, the group released their debut LP, Songs About Jane, with drummer Ryan Dusick manning the sticks. The songs that painted the album had a uniquely smooth feel, accentuating the soul/funk portion of the pop/soul/funk/rock equation those guys displayed effortlessly. Dusick's presence made that first release sound fresh at the time, his intricate playing and simplistic blend of complicated technicality adding an element to the group that couldn't be found elsewhere on the radio. 

Then, in 2004, he was forced to stop playing after facing health issues involving his arm. Adam Levine and company turned to Matt Flynn, a decidedly more straightforward player whose simplicity helped propel Maroon 5 into more of a rock act than the pop/soul/funk group that they embodied at the beginning of their career. Granted, that understated and almost-subliminal change gave the band the boost it needed to craft a few more chart-topping hits, and yes, it's very possible that the decision to sometimes err on the side of rock rather than rhythm has been a leading factor in the longevity of the group, but to those of us who noticed the change, our admiration for their work became compromised, and Maroon 5 was almost immediately labeled another watered-down rock radio act.

That specific groove was lost, and our attention wavered.  

This very argument can work adversely, as well. Take the Dave Matthews Band. Without Carter Beauford, it's impossible to believe they would be nearly as massively successful as they have become. Sure, Matthews has a very unique approach to writing acoustic guitar-driven world rock, and of course violinist Boyd Tinsley and the late horn player LeRoi Moore were, without question, difference-makers in the rise of the group's sound.

But without Beauford's technical prowess and almost-impossible-to-emulate style, Matthews would more than likely just be an older version of Jason Mraz. In this instance, the drummer adds a level of complexity and sophistication to music that otherwise could easily fall into the endless trap of predictability. Make no mistake, the "Band" portion of "The Dave Matthews Band" is far more imperative to the success of the act than its leader could ever dream of being.

These examples can be endless, depending on whom you ask. Me? There isn't a chance in hell I would adore the band Train (yikes!) as much as I do if drummer Scott Underwood left them. I will forever be attracted to seeing big-name pop acts such as Justin Timberlake and Britney Spears perform live because of how inspiring and innovative the drumming behind them can be.

I once tweeted Lianna La Havas' drummer Jay Sikora to ask, in a heap of concern, if he was going to accompany the R&B Brit on her tour of North America this spring after I saw her with a different stick-man on late-night television. And as far as Phil Collins and Genesis goes (maybe the most important drummer-to-singer move in the history of progressive rock), I would have never even given the hall-of-famers a second thought had Collins not found the great Chester Thompson to step in and unprecedentedly regurgitate, note-for-note, each part the singer had performed and/or written in the studio whenever the band played live. I mean, my God -- if Thompson wore a Phil Collins mask during their Live The Way We Walk DVD, you would be convinced the singer was somehow simultaneously sitting behind a drum kit and doing a funny walk around the stage during "I Can't Dance".

"It's interesting -- I've known quite a few good athletes that can't begin to play a beat on the drum set," Rush drummer Neil Peart once said. "Most team sport is about the smooth fluidity of hand-eye coordination and physical grace, where drumming is much more about splitting all those things up."

Indeed. What makes the art of drumming so unique among instruments is how compartmentalized the practice actually is. For guitars and pianos, we use hands and fingers. For horns, we use mouths and lips. Yet for drums, we need almost all of a normal body's ligaments to come together at once in order for us to create the sound and expression we desire. Drumming is a call to arms, and while most people commonly compare it with a backbone, the practice is also akin to another element of our bodies that is often overlooked until we lose it forever: A heartbeat.

Both are steady ticks fueled by emotions that most of us never even fully realize we have. Both are essential when exploring the depths of abstract mediums. And both are imperative to utilize as we compile an end-product much bigger than ourselves. 

And if you don't believe any of that, there's always one more quote Peart once offered up while explaining the value of percussion ...

"If you've got a problem," he once said, "take it out on a drum."





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