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Drummer Cafe 20th Anniversary
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Bart Elliott - drummer, percussionist, educator, clinician

So how does one go about becoming a "session drummer" or "studio drummer" nowadays? Being a great player, able to work with other musicians and producers, solid feel with click tracks, able to develop songs with minimal input from others ... the list goes on and on. Since there are many facets to this area of expertise, I'm going to break this up into "bite size" pieces or parts. It goes without saying that if you want to be used in the recording studio (more than once), you need to be a great player. So, let me first talk about what it is that makes someone a "great" or "seasoned" musician, or what I like to think of as really "knowing your instrument".


KNOWING YOUR INSTRUMENT

It's more than being able to play a HUGE variety of grooves, beats and styles; it's having years of experience on the instrument that allows you to play whatever you hear in your head. If the producer or engineer just wanted someone to play a beat or groove over and over again, they would just use a drum machine or drum loop ... and save a lot of time and money doing it! You need to bring something to the table that no machine can do; your thoughts and influences. To do this effectively, you need to have a high level of command on your instrument. Being able to communicate your thoughts on the drums or percussion and expressing yourself well is a must.

When I think of "knowing my instrument", I also think of the following:

  • Feeling comfortable with the drums and percussion instruments I'm using; wanting my set-up to feel great ergonomically. Having the drums, cymbals, percussion, etc. in the "right" position allows me to express myself freely without the hindrance of having to contort my body or tensing up to play. All of this effects my sound.
  • Knowing how to get a great sound out of the instrument. Striking the drum/cymbal in such a way as to produce the best sound possible so that it tracks (records) well and sounds great on playback. Being consistent in how the drum or cymbal is struck (An example being that my Snare drum back-beats need to all sound the same from measure to measure throughout the song). Being relaxed no matter how soft or loud I may have to play. Ah ... one more thing ... having professional quality equipment and instruments that will be "studio friendly". Properly maintaining the gear so there are NO extraneous rattles or buzzes!
  • TUNING! Being able to tune my own drums or hand drums and get a great sound. Knowing what they should sound like in order to record well. Couping with different room sizes and natural reverberations. (You may be the best player in the world, but if your drums sound terrible what good is that). Know what drumheads work best for the style of music being played AND that will track (record) well in the studio.
  • The role I play as the drummer and/or percussionist on the session. Being confident in how I play or lay down a groove. Playing with authority so others can follow or build on what I am doing. Ultimately ... MAKING THE MUSIC FEEL GOOD!!!

WORKING WITH A CLICK TRACK

A click track is basically a metronome or pre-recorded track that has a 'click' sound that signifies the pulse of the music. Much like how a song may be counted off with a verbal "1-2-3-4", the click track let's everyone know the tempo or speed of the song. With today's technology, it is now possible to substitute different sounds (ie. wood block, cross-stick, etc.) for the 'click' or 'beep'.

The trick about playing with a click track or metronome is staying with it! It's not enough to just get the starting tempo; you've got to be able to work your grooves, beats and fills around this steady pulse.

A lot of young drummers are fearful of playing with a metronome; exposing their time keeping weaknesses and revealing all sorts of rhythmic inconsistencies. But the only way to become better at playing with a metronome is to PLAY WITH A METRONOME! You cannot become proficient at something if you don't practice it. Despite the belief of some drummers, you're not going to just wake up one morning with the metronomic prowess of Steve Gadd; it doesn't work that way. The only way you are going to get there is to PRACTICE and WORK with a metronome, click track or sequence ... on a regular basis.


PRACTICAL STEPS

Okay, so how do you "practice" or "work" with a metronome? Well, here are some steps that I have taken to help myself become more relaxed and confident while tracking drums / percussion with a click.


  • Always use a metronome when you practice. It doesn't matter if you are working on hand exercises, grooves, fills, or soloing; the metronome needs to be your new best-friend. You also need to spend a good deal of time working without the metronome; more on that later.
  • Practice slowly, gradually working up your speed. When I learn a new groove or fill, I always check to make sure that I can perform it in a wide variety of tempos. One way to assure this is to set the metronome at 40 bpm (beats per minute) and make what you play feel good (and stay with the click). I then move the metronome up a notch, to let's say 44 bpm, and do it all again. Gradually increase the tempo until you've reached the maximum speed you can cleanly execute what you are practicing. Covering all the tempo markings will give you a strong sense of 'command' when you play, as well as confidence in your ability to perform this particular groove / rhythm at any given tempo. Granted, each groove has it's own 'zone' in which it sounds best ... but being able to play at very slow tempos takes a lot of control and technique.
  • Think of the click track as another musician. Work with it as you would, let's say, the bass player. Don't react to the click, but play with it and around it. This point is philosophical one and a bit difficult to put into words. With some practice you'll develop the concept.
  • Setting the tempo twice as slow as what I am wanting to play, and think of the clicks as being the back-beats or 2 and 4 (in Common time). EXAMPLE: The song is to be played at 120 bpm. Set your metronome at 60 bpm and think of the clicks as being beat 2 and beat 4 of the bar; much like someone grooving to the music by clapping their hands or snapping their fingers on the back-beat (weak beat). You've really got to be 'in the pocket' to stay with the click when it's only on 2 and 4.
  • Practice with the click set at a low volume. This will help you develop confidence and a good sense of time. You'll really have to listen and relax; work with the metronome (refer back to the third point). Having the click cranked in your headphones, beating you into submission, will not help you long term.
  • Use percussion sequences (a.k.a. Perc Loops) for practice and performance. The 'click, click, click' doesn't do much in the way of inspiration. Try using your computer or drum machine to generate some interesting patterns to play to. A cowbell on the down beats and a shaker on the up beats is a simple, yet great place to start. The possibilities are endless, so use your imagination. The Drums N' Bass style is built on this concept; use drum loops as an accompaniment to your grooves, fills or solo ideas.
  • If you don't have a metronome, click track or drum machine, play along with records/CDs (which you should be doing anyway). You should play-along with songs off the radio even if you DO have a metronome. This is a great way to develop your ability to make the music feel good ... the drummers most important job!

In Part 2 of this series, I'll talk about another great attribute/skill needed for becoming a session drummer; "Developing the Rhythm Track".


Bart Elliott Bart Elliott is a degreed professional musician and founder of the Drummer Cafe. His 35+ years in the music industry, over 100 albums to his credit, as well as his understanding of contemporary and classical music, makes him a complete and skilled master musician. A highly sought after drummer and percussionist, both live and in the studio, Bart is widely known as a top music educator and gifted teacher, appearing as a guest artist and clinician throughout the USA.