Technique is Expressing What’s on Your Mind

SKF NOTE: A DrumForum.org member recently posted a video by a champion rudimental drummer demonstrating five, I think, famous rudimental drum solos, including “The Downfall of Paris.”

The drummer was marvelous. Watching and hearing his relaxed hands-wrists-arms-shoulders produce super clean, flawlessly executed classic snare drum rudimental solos had me smiling and shaking my head. Marvelous. The video reminded me of a question I’ve asked myself forever: How much drum technique is enough?

In the early 1970s I was, for the very first time, working full-time as a drummer. Either five or six days a week in a new Davenport, IA nightclub called The Steamboat Lounge. I played on a drumset pieced together over the years: a 20″ x 14″ black pearl round badge Gretsch bass drum, a black panther 9”x 13″ Ludwig tom, a natural maple 16″ x 16″ Ludwig floor tom, and a 5 1/2″ x 14″ metal Gretsch snare.

My drumming strengths? I had good time, good ears, and I could sing lead while playing drums. My good ears were from a lifetime listening to all kinds of music.

Now that I’m working as a full-time drummer, I thought, I better keep improving as drummer, as an all-around musician. So I registered at local colleges for classes in music theory, band, and percussion ensemble.

I also signed up with a local teacher for private drum rudiment lessons. I learned from the “13 Essential Drum Rudiments and 9 Drum Solos” — that scratchy old 10″ album by the W.F.L. Drum Company — and an accompanying rudimental drum book.

My rudiment lessons came to mind while watching the DrumForum.org rudimental champion’s video. So did my ongoing questions about just how “essential” drum rudiments are to becoming a creative drumset player with a unique voice.

At one time I could play all the solos the rudimental champion was playing. Not as fast. Perhaps not as precise. But I had learned the individual rudiments — five stroke rolls, seven stroke rolls, flams, flam taps, and so on — used in these drum solos.

I had — and have — favorite rudiments I use when I play drumset, and even when I’m playing with brushes on a snare with fiddlers and acoustic guitar players. I’ve had fun creating with rudiments on the drumset. “Let’s see how it sounds if I do this.”

But I never had the burn to master the 13 essential drum rudiments to championship level.

My 1978 interview with Joe Morello also came to mind watching the rudimental drum solo champion. Joe had technique to spare and he developed a beautiful, musical style of drumming. In my experience, technique tends to get in the way of playing musically, lyrically, melodically. Joe Morello’s balancing the two – technique and heart – was remarkable.

Joe said about technique in 1978, “The more facility you have, the more broadness of mind. That’s all that technique is. It’s to play what’s on your mind.”

Listen to the audio excerpt, Joe Morello on Technique. You hear Joe cite Mel Lewis as a drummer who plays great, reads anything, place the shit out of the Jones/Lewis Big Band — all with limited technique. Using sticks and a rubber pad, Joe imitates Mel’s drumming technique very well.

Completing his lesson on technique, Joe said, “If Mel wanted to build up [his] chops, he’d still be playing as good as he plays, only he’d have more to work with.”

Technique is to play what’s on your mind. That makes sense.

Something Roy Haynes said about technique makes sense too. I had looked at a number of Roy solo/fill transcriptions drum educators used to show how Roy, on the drumset, broke up, say, triplets among his hands/feet. I could be forgiven, perhaps, for assuming everything drummers’ played was a variation of one rudiment or another.

Roy Haynes said no. I asked him if he had favorite rudiments he liked to use on the drumset. He said, “Not everything I play has a name.”

Of course! Many times, unless a drummer is playing a specific written part (i.e. a rudimental drum solo like “The Downfall of Paris”), drum solo/fill transcriptions are approximations of sound. Educated guesses.

In that same spirit, many times I’ve heard big band drummers and big band leaders advise, or tell, drummers to get their noses out of the drum charts. Learn the tunes, forget the charts.

When I listen to drummers, especially in band situations, I listen first for sound. Are they interacting rhythmically and melodically with other musicians? A musical give-and-take, call-and-response? Are they, as Thelonious Monk recommends, looking to add to the music in places no one else is occupying?

I don’t listen to band drummers primarily to hear how they use drum rudiments. I don’t listen to guitarists, or keyboard players, or horn players for their mastery of scales, arpeggios, or chord inversions.

Yes, I sometimes use written notes for analyzing drum parts. But I am more likely to work out drumming parts by ear. Sounds I hear determine technique I practice. The same principle applies when expanding my speaking/writing vocabulary. Reading books/listening to music gives me more knowledge. New books bring new words, names, concepts. New music brings new sounds, ideas for producing and using new sounds.

Technique is to play what’s on your mind. And not everything we play has a name.

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