It’s Not the Notes You Play, It’s the Notes You Don’t Play
Drumming is every bit an instrument of “feel” as it is “technique”, but it’s also an instrument of “complement”.
Everything in life complements something else. One thing plays off the other. Laughing and crying. Happiness and sadness. Night and day. Cold and hot. Black and white. Life and death. This is part of the ecosystem of what we have learned life to mean for all of us.
Life is an ensemble of many parts and together it creates an ensemble that has worked well together for billions of years. I didn’t mean to get too heady here but it leads me to what and who, we are as musicians, drummers especially.
As drummers, we work together with an ensemble of other musicians to create an ecosystem of many moving parts. Collectively, we must work together to create a cohesive framework that generates music in a complementary manner.
Drums complement the bass, the guitars, the keyboards, the vocals, and everything else in the ensemble.
But too much drumming (which I also call drumming acrobatics), adding in unnecessary fills, playing too many notes, misplaced or improperly executed accents, playing too loud or too soft – works against how the drums should complement the music; better stated… the drums need to work in complement with the rest of the musical ensemble.
That’s why I say, “it’s not the notes you play, it’s the notes you don’t play”. Some of us have idolized and tried to mimic drummers who can play single stroke rolls at a million BPM – well, you know what I mean. There is a time and place for such drumming acrobatics.
I’m a firm believer, however, that musicality isn’t defined by how technical you are, how well you can execute the aforementioned single stroke roll, but rather it’s the mindset and the awareness of the music around you that helps you decide what notes you play and the notes you don’t play.
Excellent examples of this type of playing can found in such drummers as Kiko Freitas, Dave Weckl, Paul Wertico, Steve Gadd, Ricky Lawson, Keith Carlock, Marco Minnemann, Virgil Danato, and many more drumming virtuoso’s. These drummers are excellent technicians. Some may be more flamboyant than others, but they all lay back when the music dictates. They understand that it’s not a competition but rather a complement. Playing in “complement” is what makes the entire musical ensemble cohesive. It’s what causes everything to blend together, effortlessly flowing from start to finish in a well balanced form.
Why am I writing this post? Where is this taking me? Well, I feel very strongly that to be/become a good drummer, and to sustain a great career as a drummer, that you must always listen carefully to the music before you add your parts to it. It’s critical to understand what the other musicians are playing. Learn their parts as well as you learn yours. Hear it and sing it in your head. FEEL where each musician is going and feel where they are taking you. Listen to the notes they are playing and listen for the notes they are not playing. THEN… complement it by augmenting and supplementing the music with your drums, where it makes musical sense. Play with INTENT. Play with feeling and everything will fall in to place.
I have also found that knowing how to play other instruments has helped me tremendously. I dabble in guitar and piano, and now I’m taking a deep dive into the bass guitar. As drummers, we usually follow and complement the bass guitar, right? But learning the bass guitar, for me, has really expanded my ability to complement the music. It has also improved my musical listening skills, which has affected my drumming in more measurable and positive ways than I can list. I am playing with more intent. Even though it’s our job as drummers to be in sync with the bass player, I find that I sync up so much better with the bassist now that I know how to play the bass guitar.
I urge every drummer to learn at least one other instrument. Get deep into the music notation of each instrument and see where the notes are placed. Better yet, see where the notes are not placed because it’s not the notes you play, it’s the notes you don’t play.
Here are my top 5 tips that you can immediately apply to your daily practice and playing routine:
- Listen and learn the music you intend to play. Being a drummer does not only mean learning your parts. It also means learning everyone else’s parts.
- Don’t try to mirror the original drummer or track as you learn the music. Add your own phrasing to the beat by complementing it so you gain more of a feel for it. Then, after you’re comfortable with the overall feel, fall in to original drum track and play with intent.
- Learn the other musical parts. Pick up the bass guitar, sit at the piano, or play a guitar to your favorite music. Even if you’re not good on these instruments, it will pay off in spades.
- Record yourself over and over and over and over again. Listen to each recording and look for areas of improvement and record yourself again and again and again and again. REPEAT 20 times.
- When you practice, chose music outside your comfort level and outside your chosen genre. I find this method to have a major impact on every aspect of my playing. Whether you consider yourself a pop, rock, jazz, swing, latin, fusion, or rhythm and blues drummer, select some music that you would never play in a million years. At an early age, I always considered myself a rock drummer. Using this technique over the years, it has enabled me to evolve into a better drummer.