What Does It Take To Become a Great Drummer?
What does it take to become a great drummer? Well, that’s the $1,000,000 question, isn’t it? There’s now secret formula or shortcuts to get you there. And the concept of being “great” is completely subjective. What are you measuring greatness against? Gadd, Weckle, Bonham, Colaiuta, Rich, Krupa, Belson? Each are great in their own way. And there are hundreds of other drummers, performers, and instructors in the world that are equally as great.
The answer, however, to this question is simple and comes in three parts: 1) Practice, 2) Practice, and 3) Practice.
Here is a simple roadmap to greatness.
Practice – Practice is the single most important action-item to becoming great at anything, and drumming is no exception. Whether you know how to read music or you only play by ear, the only way to achieve greatness is through practice. Let me be more specific. The only way to achieve greatness is by practicing CORRECTLY.
Practicing incorrectly quickly introduces bad habits that ultimately lead to a poor understanding of the instrument as well as baking in bad form. This is a bad recipe that leads to below average playing.
Finally, whether you’re just starting out or you’re a seasoned professional, you must be determined and driven almost to point of obsession. Make practicing and playing the drums a part of your daily life and routine. Practice everyday.
Private Drum Lessons – Sign up for private lessons with a local drum instructor. Online and distance learning is okay for supplemental learning, but nothing compares to one-on-one, personalized drum instructions.
Counting – This is in 2 parts. First, you should always count aloud while practicing. It will help you to internalize the count, and ultimately “feel” the music.
Second, make every practice session count. Make sure you have completed all lessons and that you moved the needle forward to gaining a firm grip on the concepts you have been learning. Understand, too, that practicing is where you work out the rough spots, while striving for precision. Good practice sessions are those sessions where you sound rough, initially, until you have built that skill through constant repetition. This means you have challenged you mind and body as you work through concepts. Remember, practicing is not about sounding good. We practice to work out the kinks.
Setting Goals – Set achievable goals. Work with your instructor to create a clear lesson plan.Set aside time to practice EVERY DAY for at least one hour.
Live and Breathe Drumming – Surround yourself with the instrument. Join Facebook groups, engage with others online, attend open mics and jam sessions, play with other musicians, buy instructional books, attend concerts, form a band, and, most importantly, continue learning everyday.
Approach the drums as if it were part of your being. Become laser-focused in everything you do on the drums. It should be an obsession!
Stay On Schedule – Decide what part of your day you will spend practicing and make it a habit. Carve out 1 hour everyday and make it part of life no matter how young or old, or what your experience level is. Practicing drums is like speaking a second language. If you don’t use it, you lose it.
Create a Practice Area – Create a practice area in your home and make it official. Keep it sacred. Tell everyone not to disturb it. Early on, I converted my home office into my drum sanctuary and teaching studio. Everywhere you look there is something drum or music related.
Although this blog is not intended to provide drum instructions (you can sign up for private instructions through my website at http://musiccollectiveonline.com), it is intended to help set you on the correct path to the proper mindset.
Drum books and instructional material– Build your library of instructional drum books and material. There are literally hundreds (maybe thousands) of books and DVDs to chose from. But every library should include:
- Stick Control for the Snare Drummer by George Lawrence Stone
- Progressive Steps to Syncopation for the Modern Drummer by Ted Reed
- Modern Interpretation of Snare Drum Rudiments by Buddy Rich
- Extreme Interdependence by Marco Minnemann – For intermediate and advanced players
- Accents and Rudiments by George Lawrence Stone
- America’s N.A.R.D Drum Solos from Ludwig Masters
- The New Breed II by Gary Chester and Chris Adams – For intermediate and advanced players
- Rockin’ Bass Drum by Charles Perry (Charles was one of my private instructors in the 1970s)
- Drum Solos in Triplets by Charles Perry
- Tom Morgan’s Jazz Drummer Workbook
- Modern Rudimental Swing Solos by Charley Wilcoxon
- Master Studies I and II by Joe Morello
- The Drummer’s Cookbook by John Pickering
- Time Functioning Patterns by Gary Chaffee
I also recommend copying some of the exercises provided in the monthly drum magazines. I particularly like Strictly Technique articles in the monthly Modern Drummer magazine. Keep these in a folder or binder and handy at all times.
Always start each practice session with the basics by warming up your muscles. My go to book is Stick Control, page 5, first 2 columns, EVERYDAY. I do each line for one minute and move on to the next. Beginners should start these exercises as slow as they need to, perhaps as slow as 30 beats per minute (1 beat to the quarter note.) For me, I start at 130 and work my way up.
After I do the first column on page 5, I put a soft pillow on the pad and I repeat lines 1 – 8 at 130 BPM. I recommend that everyone use a soft pillow everyday, which will improve your rebound as you build new muscles in your wrists and forearms.
Then I move onto a combination of triplet exercises. I use a group of exercises that I loop at various tempos. I start with two 12/8 bars of triplets, hand to hand. Then I immediately switch to double stroke triplets (or diddles), keeping the triplet feel for 2 more 12/8 bars. Then I immediately switch to paradiddles, keeping the triplet feel, then into paradiddlediddles, double paradiddles, and I complete the sequence with six stroke rolls for two bars, all with a triplet feel.
As I mentioned, this is a loop that I start at 140 BPM and slowly increase by 10 BPM until I get to 220 BPM, or just until they start falling apart. I loop each sequence 3 to 4 times before increasing speed. I pay particular attention to making sure each note is unaccented. This is very important.
Then I do the same sticking patterns described above but as two 4/4 bars as straight 1/16th notes, starting at 140 BPM and increasing by BPM until they start to fall apart.
Every practice session should include working with accented patterns. These can be straight 1/8th note or 1/16th note patterns, or triplets, flams, parardiddles, flam-a-diddles, or any combination. You should be concentrating on proper stroke technique, using the Full, Down, Tap, and Up methods taught in Stone’s Accents and Rebounds or Joe Morello’s Master Studies books.
On any given day, I play various exercises in Ted Reed’s book, Progressive Steps to Syncopation for the Modern Drummer, starting on page 37 or 38, depending on the edition you have. There a literally dozens of ways you can practice these exercises, which may include playing a swing pattern on the ride cymbal, playing the snare as the melody and with your bass drum doing 4 on the floor. Or, you can play the snare drum line using the snare and bass drum, where all 1/8th notes are played on the snare and all 1/4 notes are played on the bass drum.
You may prefer other books and exercises that are more suitable to your skills and needs, so do what feels right to you and consult with your instructor for additional guidance.
No matter which book you’re working with, select a page and work your way down to the bottom. Once you reach the end of the page, play every line in reverse order, from bottom to top. Then, go down the right hand column and play the last measure of each line until the end of the page.
You’ll see a note in some of these publications to repeat each exercise 20 times. Count each line incrementally from 1 to 20 and move on to the next line. If you find keeping track by the number of repetitions too distracting, use a clock to spend 1 to 2 minutes per line.
Use a metronome…
I always use a metronome especially during slower exercises. Set the metronome to play as few beats as possible so you can feel the required timing and fill in the blanks with the proper number of strokes. If you’re a beginner, start slow at 30 – 60 BPM and gradually work your way up to a point when everything starts to fall apart. Then back off 5-10 BPM and continue for 2 -5 minutes. On subsequent practice days, push that threshold higher and higher until you exceed all previous speeds with precision. If done correctly you will build incredible speed, strength, and stick control, thereby setting the stage for more advanced exercises and routines. Pick a book and spend 20 – 40 minutes on it. This may sound excessive or too time consuming so do what fits best with your ability and schedule.
It’s also good practice to tackle exercises that are more difficult than others. As you go through your practice routine, mark off challenging exercises with a pencil to identify these as needing extra time and care. Don’t avoid them…attack them…with a vengeance until you know it inside and out.
It’s also advisable to record yourself (audio or video) so you can evaluate your progress and skills, and to compare your older recordings to newer ones as you progress and improve. Pay particular attention to the grip on both hands. Play each exercise varying the stick height, which also varies the volume. Make sure you spend time practicing softly. There’s no need to strike the drum or practice pads with force unless you’re accenting a note.
Someone once said in order to be good at anything you must put in 10,000 hours. Whether you’re a musician, actor, comedian, teacher, or pilot, we all need to put in the time. There are no shortcuts. Now, whether you achieve the 10,000 hour mark or not, is up to you.
For giggles, let’s do the math using the 10,000 hour target. If you spend 24 hours a day, everyday, practicing the drums, it would take you 416 days to amass 10,000 hours. That’s just shy of one year and two months. But this time frame is just not realistic. Who can spend 24 hours a day practicing?
So let’s break it down into more manageable, bite-sized pieces. Let’s say you, hypothetically, spend 10 hours per week either practicing the drums, playing in the school jazz band, rehearsing with your friends in the garage, jamming or playing gigs. All of this counts towards that 10,000 hour mark. This hypothetical timeline spans 1000 weeks or about 19 years. Increase your practice and play time to 7 days a week and you’ve whittled 19 years down to 14 years. Double your practice time to 28 hours per week and you’ve cut this down to 353 weeks, or 6.8 years. Now that sounds doable.
You will achieve greatness long before the 10,000-hour mark, without question. And no one says that this is the target we must all attain. On the contrary, we all learn at different rates and we all excel in areas where others may not. And we all keep learning throughout our lifetimes.
No matter what you do, don’t get disappointed. Stay laser-focused. Don’t get frustrated. If you don’t have time one day to devote to drum practice, pick up the sticks anyway and play around for 5 minutes. Always stay loose. And most important, enjoy yourself!