I started playing drums in middle school during the 1980’s, right at the onset of the heavy metal movement, when spandex-clad musicians with hair that defied gravity dominated MTV and the radio. I can still recall the outlandish drummers of that time, neck-deep in gimmicks that ranged from gigantic wrap-around sets to the use of chains in place of cymbal stands. Pyrotechnics trumped technique and drum solos became death-defying circus performances that seemed to go on forever. Overkill was the norm. The introduction of the drum rack empowered these players, who competed against one another to see who could amass the largest collection of toys. Like most fads it started out cool – and ended up comical. One can only speculate on how much scrap metal came out of this era.
As much as I enjoyed watching those types of drummers and their apocalyptic drum solos, that kind of showmanship was never “my thing.” I always favored the standard 5-piece kit (trimmed down to a 4 piece after Steven Adler made it cool to dump a rack tom) with just enough cymbals to get the job done. OK, maybe the occasional splash or china was thrown in for effect and everybody had a set of roto-toms and a cowbell, but for the most part, I wasn’t immersed in an avalanche of wood shells and compressed metal.
This “mainstream” approach served me fairly well for many years until one day I felt as though I had hit a wall. Suddenly, I had no creativity, no desire to practice and no excitement about exploring my instrument. I’m not sure if it was middle-age or boredom, but whatever it was, the feeling of discontent almost drove me away from the instrument for good. My stark realization was that I had invested years of practicing and performing, yet I never quite felt like I knew who I was when I sat down on the drum stool. I was lost and even worse, I was fake. My style was a hodge-podge of tricks stolen from drummers who I liked at the time.
I always had a solid groove, but my fills were never really “my own.” If it wasn’t cool, I probably didn’t do it. Frankly, I was trying too hard to be someone else instead of trying to be me. It took quite some time for me to figure that out and in the course of that revelation I began to strip away the very conventions that had become my mainstay. First and foremost was the need to redefine my kit. First, I dumped both rack toms, then the double bass pedal. The floor tom followed along with the majority of cymbals. This is where I began to make the distinction between ‘wants’ and ‘needs.’ The more stuff I discarded, the more my voice began to emerge. It became a challenge of sorts to see if I could get by without something that I had depended on for decades.
Although something positive was obviously happening, I didn’t quite make the full commitment. I still had doubts about myself which were really fears…fear of trying something new, fear of failing at something I thought I was good at, and fear of what other drummers would think. This required me to push myself and go even further. I looked to the examples of minimalist players that were practicing a “use it or lose it” approach to their playing. These guys had guts and clearly did not cater to anyone else’s perception of what a drummer should be. I found myself becoming inspired by these unconventional drummers who stood in stark contrast to the drummers who I had looked up to in my youth. It was the polar opposite of the overkill approach that had defined my early years.
Eventually I decided to just go for it. The process required me to take an honest and sometime painful look at myself as a musician. What was I truthfully good at and what did I just think I could do. This led me to recognize my own strengths, weaknesses and passions for playing. That resulted in a renewed and even brazen attitude toward drumming. Soon after I found myself scoffing at all convention and tradition and committing fully to going my own way no matter how odd it may have seemed.
This “drummer’s block” I was experiencing had manifested in my adult years as I had lost my focus. I was distracted and in order to refocus I had to get rid of the extraneous things that had ultimately made me a poser. The result was an uber-minimalistic kit consisting of a bass drum, a snare, a sample pad and a hi-hat. That’s it. No toms, no cymbals, no distractions. Looking at my sparse setup I felt pride for the first time in a very long time.
What had initially felt weird, now felt invigorating. My playing immediately took on a new flavor and I was inspired. My pals who are pros had already figured this stuff out. Each one of them had already defined their own niche in the industry by being true to themselves. (That’s what sets them apart from the rest of us and makes them professionals.) Although I never tried to be like any of the drummer’s I had relationships with because it felt strange to me, I totally impersonated the drummers who had influenced my past. And since I was obviously not as good as those guys, I came off as a hack. At least that’s the way I felt.
After years of uncertainty, I finally found a configuration that truly worked for me and I could make it sing. Finding the right drum setup was key to finding the right drummer. For me, less is more and the philosophy behind that mindset is that more creativity is found within less opportunity. Today, my fills are actually mine. My compositions are original and my chops have never been better. This is because I constantly strive for improvement and practice is fun again, yes even rudiments. I’m no longer trying to learn how to play like ‘so-and-so,” I’m trying to learn how to play like me. Other musicians who I am playing with are responding positively and they actually want me behind the kit, not someone who sounds like [insert famous drummer here].
My work as a drum journalist has enabled me to build relationships with many professional and amateur drummers from all genres. Many of these musicians are renowned players that I looked up to as a kid. Some even call me a friend which still amazes me. The wisdom that I have gleaned from these players has been incredible. They have taught me is that drumming is as personal as your signature and your drum kit is as individual as your fingerprint. In order to truly grow as a musician you must acknowledge that fact and embrace it. The journey starts there.
Find yourself. Find your style. Find your kit, no matter how unconventional or strange it may appear to other people. I haven’t been this excited about drumming or playing this well in years as I feel like I’m rediscovering the instrument by finally discovering myself. My conclusion in all of this is simple…It’s OK to look up to other drummers, but don’t lose sight of yourself in the process.
Be yourself! That’s where the REAL music is made.