Big, sweeping platitudes only carry so much weight… But in the moments when we can put complex ideas into a concise little nugget of wisdom, it’s at least worth hanging onto as an easy reminder.
My first introduction to what I want to unpack in this series comes from an excellent Charlie Parker quote:
“Master your instrument. Master the music, then forget all that shit and just play.”
I’ve been growing this idea in my head for a little while now, and it has continued to gain steam the more podcasts I listen to, the more interviews I read – the more I try to pay attention to the “greats” as it were, or at least the people I think are doing the right things on the kit.
I think Parker is absolutely right, but I’m looking at this as a drum nerd, not just a musician (and not just as an improviser). I also think there’s a ton of value to be had in the idea of striving for mastery, then paring down as much of it as possible for the sake of practicality and effect…
Wait. Back up a second. First, a little bit of premise:
It seems like all musicians, especially drummers, are faced with this dilemma, a duality about playing this instrument that spans styles and skill levels.
One side is the groove, that pocket that so many of us like to talk about. It’s that hard to describe, “slick” playing that we so admire in Steve Jordan, the solid-as-a-rock responsibility of Phil Rudd, the pure restraint of Nick Mason, the driving, funktastic power of Clyde Stubblefield… The prowess and clarity that has earned more people more studio, session, and gig work than nearly any other element of drumming.
It’s the thing that everyone else cares about, really… That you and I keep solid time, establish the groove, and keep the people dancing.
The legendary Ndugu Chancler says, “I can count the times on one hand that I’ve been called and paid to play drum solos.”
The other side is the chops, the licks, the drum solos – the flashy, complex stuff that we drummers lose our minds over. Plenty of other people like it too – don’t get me wrong – and in the right context, the gnarliest parts can have their place as more than flash, as perfectly musical and “responsible” choices.
This shred factor, though, is at least part of why we love Dave Weckl, Mike Portnoy, Chris Coleman…
It’s a big part of what made Neil Peart and John Bonham and Keith Moon and Elvin Jones and Derek Roddy famous…
All of those guys can RIP. And tons of other people can too. It’s fun, it’s awesome, it’s impressive, and it requires a level of practice and skill that is noteworthy in its own right.
And that isn’t to say that these two things – this yin and yang of drumming, I guess – are mutually exclusive. In fact, the opposite. They exist in harmony, they are parts of the same puzzle… and that’s what I want to dig into: where they meet and where they play into each other. How (and why) to practice each, and when to use them in a musical setting.
Plenty of the most technical drummers have incredibly deep pockets, and plenty of “pocket players” have choppy fireworks when they need to. In fact, most of the players we think of as legends and greats have been able to strike some kind of balance, incorporating these two seemingly different approaches to the instrument.
Even if it isn’t true duality, it seems like we can’t help but think of things in that way, so I’m calling my current approach to my own drumming – a long road, only semi-defined goal – The Twofold Path:
Learn to play the craziest, most technical things you can – and be musical enough not to use them.
In Part 2, I’ll dig into the harder part for me – developing those almighty “chops.”
(featured image above courtesy of Rui Luz)