On the road to growing as a drummer, I think it’s important to develop a style — or voice — of our own as part of our method of musical self-expression. I have noticed that the development of style tends to be traced to the drummers one is influenced by. As Ralph Peterson puts it, one must imitate and assimilate what we absorb in order to innovate and arrive at our own style.
With this in mind, I also believe it’s not just other drummers that influence our playing — it’s also our wider environment and other factors. I would like to bring the development of style and expressive voice into focus by breaking down the elements that constitute it in order to facilitate the process. My aim here is to offer an alternative perspective on the subject.
So! What is this style you speak of?
Let’s start by defining what we’re talking about. The Oxford Dictionary (OUP, 2013) defines style as a “particular procedure by which something is done”. The Merriam Webster Dictionary (2013), on the other hand, expresses style as “a distinctive manner of expression.”
We could go as far as saying these definitions suggest a series of steps we must take in order to achieve something. Consequently, these steps are influenced by our anatomy, minds and emotions, which will affect our groove perception, fills, feel, and technical approach.
So style, in the context of playing drums, can be personal as it is mixture of particular and specific elements of our playing that separate it from somebody else's (yet not necessarily everybody else's).
... And how do I find and develop it?
In my opinion, possibly the easiest way to find your core style (or voice), is by playing along to a song and instinctively play what comes naturally to you as opposed to replicating someone else’s parts.
This is the first step to understanding how your playing differs from someone else’s, and it all begins with awareness. Pay attention to how you play the piece. Questions you might ask yourself include:
- Where am I placing fill-ins?
- Where am I accentuating?
- Am I creating a different groove with my bass and snare (or toms)?
- How am I using my hi-hats?
- How hard are my strokes?
- Am I filling the groove with ghost notes on the snare?
The sample questions above act as a good platform to explore differences. The devil is in the detail, and that’s exactly where we start unraveling the essence of individuality — in the inconsistencies:
Volumes & Dynamics
We need to observe how hard we’re hitting the drums, where we are accentuating, and likewise the consistency of these. For instance, notice how smooth and even your crescendos are. Are you playing a particular groove harder as you feel it needs more "oomph"?
This is a great tool to help us express our voice, not just how fast or slow we play, but also tempo increases and decreases between sections to mark different feels (e.g. tension, etc).
Whilst there is ultimately no right or wrong (as long as you get the desired results, right?), there are ‘ways of doing things’ that will benefit your playing and help you express (and develop) your voice more freely. These range, for instance, from how you hold the drumsticks, your grip, your foot technique, etc.
* When considering this, it’s important that you adjust the technique and drum kit set-up to your body, and not the other way around.
Tunings & Equipment
The way your drums sound, as well as how they are set-up, play a big part in being in the zone ... which affects how you play and/or approach the instrument.
OK, that’s cool. But, what influences style?
I believe style is largely influenced by our personality and how this is affected by life, and the environment in which we exist. In other words, our style is attributed to certain personality traits, which are amplified and manifested through our playing.
For instance, for myself, my playing is defined by the following traits of personality.
Obsessiveness and slightly controlling nature
This is linked to my need to be very precise in my timing, and developing the use of my left foot as the time-keeper — forcing the band to always follow this.
Being slightly awkward and not liking to conform, means to me that I will create my parts to be the less obvious traveled path to express my individualism.
Subconsciously, I channel my feelings into my technique. As a result I’ve developed playing rimshots on the snare as it sounds aggressive, which gives me satisfaction.
I look to tackle every part / song asking myself, within my interpretation of the piece, "what does this need?"
Simply put, the environment and circumstances affect aspects of our personality. These are, in turn, stimulated which is what then triggers responses translated into our playing (both creatively and technically).
I would be inclined to say that when you hear other artists say they’re “influenced by life,” they're most likely referring to this.
Wrapping it up!
Yes, our influences do determine to a large extent what and how we play, yet I do believe it goes a bit deeper. Awareness plays a big part in this. Being aware of what and how we play allows us to deconstruct, and thereby, reconstruct — to reinforce, improve, or change (ie. develop) our playing. In order to effectively do this, we need to think small first in order to make these changes, and it helps to ask ourselves the right questions. Keep an open mind when analysing yourself, as this will give your approach more freedom, and your approach most certainly determines what you can do