Five Ways to be a Bad Drummer

by Don Skoog

     Musicians are unusual people. We stick out. My neighbors refer to my place as “the magic house” because of the strange sounds that emit from it at odd hours. They think my life is different from theirs, so it seems I get special dispensation on issues like lawn care and other things that adults are supposed to do. Because of my, uhm . . . eccentricities, they cut me more slack than they do normal people.
     Artists have a long tradition of tolerance among ourselves too, because we are a diverse group and because we are, well, odd––call it the people-in-glass-houses effect. We also know that closed mindedness limits creativity. This tolerance creates an atmosphere of freedom that allows us all to share our talents and create better music together than we ever could alone.
     But tolerance ends when our behaviors intrude on the freedoms of the other musicians we play with. Learning to cooperate is the single most important thing any musician can do if he wants to work with others. Every band has its own dynamic. It works if it’s fair to everyone, but when one or more members try to impose their personality problems on the rest it becomes a dysfunctional family, doomed to divorce.
     Here are a few of my favorite poor-socialization issues. If you recognize yourself in any of these profiles you should ask yourself why you want to be a drummer because these guys are real drag on the band, and on the music. You can outgrow these attitudes, and you should work hard to do just that, because the alternative is professional suicide.

1) The Me!Me!Me! drummer listens to himself first and thinks of the band as supporting caste for his rhythmic genius. If you are on stage to prove how great you are, the music suffers because you’re too busy showing off to lay down the foundation that makes the song flow. I’ve seen drummers play so inappropriately that the hornplayers will turn around and glare at them on stage. They usually don’t notice––they’re too wrapped up in how amazing they are––until they get fired. The music is not all about you, but you should be all about the music. That way, you’re respecting it and the people who play it with you.

2) The DeConstructionist thinks too much. In his search for originality, he snubs his nose at the traditional musical vocabulary and clean pocket-drumming that lesser players use to make the tune sound good. No quarter-note fills for him! He has transcended simple fills and repetition to a achieve a level of complexity that obscures the rhythm and blurs the time. By insisting on playing as complicatedly as possible, he disconnects himself from both the musicians in the group and the tradition of the music. No artist stands alone. We all work within an historical context of style and vocabulary. To use that vocabulary creatively tells other musicians that you really know the music. To insist on reinventing the musical wheel––all the time––shows a real lack of understanding of what it means to be part of our shared musical heritage.

3) The Slammer plays as loud and fast as possible, going to war with the kit every time he sits down to play. While playing drums does make you feel good, it’s not a replacement for psychotherapy. If you’ve got anger issues, take them out on your shrink, not your drum kit. If you always play loudly everyone else has to––all the time. It’s hard on the ears and the equipment, but more importantly it’s hard on the music because you are limiting what you and your band can do. Dynamics make music musical. Without them it’s just noise.

4) The I’m-only-in-it-for-the-money drummer has played one wedding gig too many. Yes, you have to make enough money to live on, but when the pay becomes more important than the music you’ve lost your soul. Wasn’t your love of music the reason you started in the first place? If you lose that love, you’ve lost the inner intensity that drove you to practice for hours, play jam sessions, and try new projects––even if they weren’t big moneymakers. When your inspiration dies so do your professional prospects. You’ll never be successful at something you don’t really love. There are too many people around who really do love it, and they’re going to kick your butt.
     Playing commercial gigs fosters a commercial attitude. Don’t get me wrong, you need to understand the music business and take care of your financial affairs, but the business aspect is secondary to the art. I bought my house playing commercial gigs, but I’ve worked hard to foster my love for music itself, regardless of how much it pays, because new opportunities are lost on people with closed minds. If your first question is “How much does it pay?” when you are called for a gig, you’ve got a problem. I’ve seen many musicians develop a mercenary attitude and eventually drop from the scene because music no longer gives them what they’re really looking for. If making money is your main interest then get a job as a stockbroker and do it right.

5) The Doesn’t-play-well-with-others drummer knows everything about music, as he continually reminds everyone, and insists on having his own way every time. If you really think the band would play better if they just did things your way then you don’t understand what it means to be in a group. A control-freak musician almost always ruins the band for everyone else and eventually they’ll vote with their feet. Learn to share––if your mommy never taught you that then the guys in your group will.
     This applies to bandleaders too. Some leaders use the fact that they hold the paychecks as an excuse to bully their sidemen. This makes for an unhappy, uninspired band. If you are the leader, let your musicians make a contribution to the music. Let them play the best way they know how. Don’t micromanage your sidemen. If you don’t like the way a musician plays, don’t hire him for the gig, but don’t nag him into insanity by demanding he play every note the way you would.
     Creating a tolerant playing environment enables everyone to bring their ideas to the music. For instance, the musicians in my group often make suggestions that improve my tunes, and I contribute to theirs. The music becomes richer when we combine our ideas rather than limiting ourselves to our own concepts.

    These five personality traits limit a drummer’s professional prospects by damaging the music he makes, and the musicians he plays with. I doubt that any of these drummers would agree with these profiles––arrogant people always think they are right––so I list them here as warnings for the rest of us. When I detect one of these traits in any musician I work with, I remove myself (or him) from the project.
     Negativity kills creativity, and negative people are a drag to be around, so do yourself a favor and work hard to keep these traits out of your playing. And run like hell from musicians who exhibit them in theirs. You are not responsible for other people’s problems and you can’t fix them. By being the very first rat off the sinking ship you can protect your love of the art and keep yourself open to the new possibilities that will come your way every day. Isn’t that what it’s all about?