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Never really noticed the drummer? Think they’re superfluous? It’s high time you brushed up on your drummers and stopped beating them up.
Since the advent of the modern drum set, spearheaded by William F. Ludwig with his patent in 1909, it has been the drummer’s sad lot to be left alone on stage after the gig packing up the drums, while the horn player has already hooked up with someone they’d been eyeing off from the stage all night, the bass player has packed up and rushed off to another gig, and the piano player’s at the bar telling jokes. It begs the question, do drummers get the recognition they deserve? Let’s take a look at a few famous drummers, both old and modern, and see how they got themselves noticed.
One of the swingingest drummers around was Gene Krupa. His driving beat and wonderful showmanship were a major contributor to the success of the Benny Goodman Orchestra in the 1920s and 1930s. Who could forget Sing, Sing, Sing? it was a hugely iconic piece which featured an extended drum solo and was an instant hit. Still is actually. Move over Beatlemania, there were queues around the block at Carnegie Hall when this was performed in 1938. Let’s look at Gene pound those skins!
Krupa has been credited, by drummers and music historians alike, for bringing drums to the fore and making them a solo instrument, which really hadn’t been done before. He was also one of, if not the first drummer to make it in the movies. He appeared in many films through the 1930s and 1940s and in the 1960s his life story was made into a feature film. Talk about how to get yourself noticed! He died a rich man and a household name.
Krupa was also responsible for the basic set-up of the modern drum kit, and many drummers copied his set-up more or less exactly, although a lot of players still clung to the older style. One such contemporary of Gene’s was a fantastic drummer named Chick Webb. Chick died in his thirties, but he featured soon-to-be-legendary Ella Fitzgerald as a vocalist; she led the band after Chick’s death. Chick was famous in the 1930s for “cutting contests”, a battle of the bands, and his band would, nine times out of ten, cut the other band to ribbons with sheer swing and drive, much to the delight of the dancefloor. Even the famous Count Basie once had to admit defeat!
But let us leave the Land of Jazz and move forward in time to the Swingin’ Sixties. Popular music had taken on a new route by then and was much less jazz-oriented, although a lot of drummers still had that way of playing in the back of their minds. Legends like Ginger Baker and Mitch Mitchell had a sound base of drumming rudiments and jazz techniques, and certainly contributed to bands like Cream and The Jimi Hendrix Experience blowing audiences away with powerful drum solos and long improvised sections that rocked and swung, much like a jazz band. This style found its way into the 1970s and the “Prog Rock” movement. Drummer Carl Palmer, from Emerson, Lake & Palmer, was also of that ilk, and he was one of the few rock drummers that impressed the great Buddy Rich with his technique and stylish approach to the drums.
Here’s a great drum solo by Carl (about 2:45 in):
Technique and musical ability aside, there are other ways to get yourself noticed as a drummer. Let’s take that other iconic sixties drummer, Keith Moon. It’s been argued that technically he wasn’t that hot, and he’s been slagged off as the worst drummer in history, and conversely lauded as the best. It’s all a bit subjective, but like him or not, he is probably one of the most famous drummers in the world, and boy did he know how to get people to look at him! Smashing up the drum kit on stage was a good start. He was also known for other crazy stunts, like filling his drums with water and putting goldfish in them. God knows how those poor fish coped – Keith wasn’t known for playing softly, and his epic solos were not short. Like Mr Krupa, Moonie was a showman. Let’s watch him and The Who destroy a lovely set of Premier drums, and the rest of their gear!
Actually, you watch it, I can’t…
Ever onward, through the 1970s to this day, Steve Gadd is best known for innovative techniques and ridiculously good chops. Paul Simon’s Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover, back in 1975, featured Gadd on the drums with a totally new and unique drum feel through the verses, and drummers still go on about it today. I’ve tried it myself and it ain’t easy! Gadd became a busy session player and worked with many famous musicians, Chick Corea and Ricky Lee Jones among them. His ability to “lift” a band musically got him noticed by musicians, consequently, he was, and is, rarely out of work.
The pop music of today is a little out of my field of expertise, but there are a few names worth mentioning. Dave Grohl springs instantly to mind. Finding fame drumming with the group Nirvana, Grohl cleverly saw to his name on collective lips as The Foo Fighters hit the scene. But not so much on the drums – he grabbed a guitar and sang lead. However, as a drummer, his feel and solid time made the band’s sound and without him would not have been the same. This can be argued with guys like Ringo Starr and Charlie Watts. Perhaps not the greatest technicians in the world, but they were and are irreplaceable, integral to the sound and feel of the Beatles’ and The Rolling Stones’ music.
It just wouldn’t work with someone else on the tubs.
A massive technique, personality, showmanship and wanton destruction are all contributing factors to how noticeable a drummer can be. Personally, I’d not worry about that last one (drums are expensive!) and just concentrate on making the band you’re playing in work. All the players I’ve mentioned do just that. The drummer is not generally seen as the star of the show, but keeping all the players together and making the band a tight unit is key, and this will keep the gigs coming in.
But unless you have a roadie, then you’re still stuck packing up after the gig is over and everyone else has gone home.