Blues Jam Drumming
by Jeff Williams
(By the way, if you're curious about the drummer who did the solo that loads with this page - which I recorded a number of years ago at one of our Swigwam Blues Jams - read on...).
From my broad perspective as a drummer, a keyboardist backed by drummers, and audio engineer who records these drummers, I've learned a few things that are worth relaying on to other drummers who want to venture into blues jamming:
1) Being able to play a steady, reliable beat is, not surprisingly, the most important contribution a drummer can
make to the song. If you can't keep the beat everything else is lost. Be
considerate - learn to play your instrument BEFORE you start going to jam sessions. No one
enjoys train wrecks, and it's simply not fair to the other musicians or audience.
Fancy fills and additional
frills are not a necessity in blues and are often just plain distracting (especially during others' solos), so why not try something simpler (like a well
placed accent) if it helps you maintain the beat? Believe me, the fills and frills won't
be missed. The most respected drummers are the solid drummers who stay reliably 'in
Watch and listen, react and adapt. Be a living, breathing, part of the music - not a human drum machine. The musical interaction between players is one of the things that really makes jamming cool.
3) Now that you're paying attention, think about that rhythm you're playing. Does it really match the song and how the other musicians are playing it? Unlike some of your bandmates, who don't have to play anything if they don't know the song, you're expected to provide at least SOME kind of beat no matter what. Many times you'll have no idea what the song is about until you're well into it, so it's ok to adjust and change the rhythm for a better fit.
Soloists will often use your rhythm to structure their solos, so it's helpful to lock in to something predictable for them to play off of. Their solos are not the time to strut your fancy stuff.
Listen to the other musicians (particularly your bass player), play to their accents, and adjust your rhythm to match the song's structure. Don't allow the bass player or guitarists to lead you into the beat, though - otherwise you may find yourself playing faster and faster as the song progresses.
4) Now that you're adapting and adjusting and otherwise being flexible, accept the fact that there are dynamics in volume, too - this is especially important for rock drummers to understand. During quieter passages the drum set can be used to create more subtle, textured sounds (varying tones of the heads when struck in different locations, cross sticking, rim strikes, cymbal rolls, subtle bell strikes, etc) as well as constructed rhythms.
And please, PLEASE! go EASY
on the cymbal crashes.
Nix the urge to play your funky riffs and solos between songs; it's distracting and really annoys other jammers (whether they say anything or not). Oh, and show some respect for the host drummer and his drums. Bring your own sticks. Make as few adjustments as possible (e.g., leave your own snare drum at home) when you get on, and be careful with his equipment if you want to be allowed to play again.
Or check out 10 year old Jacob Armen. Ever wonder what happens to child prodigies like these, when they grow up? Here's Jacob and Tony as adults, on drums. Also, check out this video of Jacob Armen playing the santoor.
A great online resource for Drum Tips
For more technical observations of blues drumming read the following article by Mike Sandier.
Blues Drumming Beyond The Beats
by Mike Sandier
This elusive quality that makes blues music the real deal is much romanticized. The colorful, rootless lives of the early bluesmen and the legends of deals with the devil did not exactly help listeners to hear the blues objectively. The misconception arose that the blues is accessible only to mystics, alcoholics, and sharecroppers.
But blues "mojo" is not the occult knowledge that popular legend would make it out to be. Like other genres, the blues has its own conventions, which can be described and studied in concrete musical terms. The fact that blues is not as structurally complex as some other genres does not mean that there is nothing to learn beyond new ways to play a shuffle. Understanding this broader picture - the elements of blues drumming beyond the patterns - is what makes the difference between "a drummer who knows blues beats" and "a blues drummer."
By way of illustration, in this article we'll zoom in on a great recorded performance. Guitarist Duke Robillard's Stretchin' Out Live album (Stony Plain Records) features a smoking band anchored by drummer Marty Richards. Stretchin' Out Live demonstrates how much a good drummer can add to the blues. Song titles mentioned below refer to cuts from this recording.
Simple And Subtle
The most misunderstood thing about the blues is its simplicity. To those who have not listened closely, the blues is nothing more than a few chords, one-note solos, and scrunched-up faces. But if it's so easy to play the blues, why does no one else sound like B.B. King?
Close examination of the
blues yields the revelation that blues is not simplistic... it's subtle. Blues musicians
like B.B. King have a highly refined sense of melody, phrasing, and pitch. Rather than
being concerned with how many notes he can play in a measure, a blues musician focuses on
how much he can get out of the notes he plays.
One simple way to make your blues drumming more interesting is to highlight accents. An example of this is Marty Richards' playing on "Too Hot To Handle." During the last chorus, Marty pops out of his groove to lay on cymbal accents that add punctuation to the already lilting riff. It's just a few cymbal crashes, but it's drumming like this that keeps blues exciting.
That 12-Bar Thing
Not all blues music follows the traditional 12-bar blues pattern. But since so many blues songs follow this powerful structure, learning it is time well spent.
For the drummer playing a 12-bar blues, the places where the chords change are your guideposts. You don't need to know what chords the piano is playing as much as where they change and how they flow together. For example, a standby of slow blues is to build a crescendo over measures 1 through 4, then drop to a hush at measure 5. The drummer can add to this buildup with accented 8th notes over measures 3 and 4, maybe capping it off with a muted cymbal crash on the downbeat of measure 5.
A frequent opportunity to play more musically happens at the turnaround. A turnaround is a short melody that starts the pattern over. It is usually played over measures 11 and 12, often with a shift to the V chord ("the five chord,") in the last two beats. You might get by just shuffling your way through the turnaround, but it will sound more like you are listening if you add some rhythmic energy to it. This is not the time for Neil Peart tom rolls, but a nice little triplet pattern might get the other players pumped up to do it again.
If the song goes to the V chord in the turnaround, know exactly where the change is (On beat 3? On the "&" of 2?) and accent it with a cymbal, snare pop, or sparse fill. A good turnaround calls attention to a new beginning, helping to refresh the excitement. For subtle and powerful turnarounds, listen to Marty Richards on "Tell Me Why."
You can also make things interesting at the end of a song. After a few turnarounds (and a nonverbal indication from the guitarist that his fingers are bleeding), it's time to wrap it up. Many blues songs end by playing a melody with a strong sense of resolution (although the ending chord is often quite unresolved).
The drummer can build the fun here as well by announcing the ending run with a little fill, or by changing the beat slightly during the run. The meter might also be changed, such as by going from a shuffle to straight time over the last measure. Nothing makes a band sound more together than a good blues ending. In addition to great turnarounds, "Tell Me Why" features an ending you could spend a day studying.
Blues is dancing music, so the beat has to be steady. Blues drumming has more breath in it than the computerized pulsations of techno dance music, but the rhythmic underpinnings are solid nonetheless. No matter what else varies, the time rarely picks up or slows down.
Perhaps the hardest thing to get right in blues drumming is this balance between being rock steady on the one hand and sounding like a breathing organism on the other. Blues is not sloppy music, but it is supposed to be joyous (even when it's about infidelity and drunkenness). You won't hear a more solid drummer than Marty Richards. Yet listen to Stretchin' Out Live and try to imagine it with a drum machine. You always know there is a real person back there, and that he is loving every minute of what he's doing.
While blues songs tend to have solid tempos, the dynamics can range from whisper to apocalypse. For a lesson in dynamics, check out Marty's playing on "Dyin' Flu." At some points, the tune gets so quiet you can hear the amps humming. At others, it's a full-on attack that any rock band would be proud of. Often the shifts are sudden. Without the band's attention to dynamics, this very slow song would be eleven minutes of tedium.
Dynamic changes in blues are often improvised and sudden. A soloist might build to a screeching note and then drop to a murmur. If you're staring off into space, you'll find yourself playing a drum solo that you didn't intend. A good blues drummer must always be ready to respond to the emotions of the lead player - which leads us to improvisation.
Blues is emotional music, and emotions are unpredictable. Despite the fact that many blues songs use the same chords and phrasing, good blues musicians always find a way to surprise you. For example, a Buddy Guy concert is not only a lesson in blues guitar but also a chance to see a band on its toes. Guy starts and stops tunes, breaks into solos, extends solos, and changes tunes - all on impulse.
Improvising in the blues can mean anything from "one more time" to launching into a new song without warning. Despite its basic chords and straight-ahead beats, the blues can call on you to dig deeply into your improv skills.
Sometimes you can learn from a band without even hearing them. One of the best live performances ever captured on video is Stevie Ray Vaughan And Double Trouble: Live At The El Mocambo [Watch Voodoo Chile from this concert]. Drummer Chris Layton and bassist Tommy Shannon never take their eyes off of Stevie. Remember in band class when the director would scream at you to watch him? That is advice that will take you far in a volatile music like the blues.
In most blues recordings, the drum sound that stands out the most is the snare. Lead players key in on the snare, and the audience dances to it. A good blues snare sound is lively and almost bell-like at higher volumes, yet must be able to convey the subtleties of softer passages. Marty Richards' snare sound on Stretchin' Out Live is a masterpiece in itself. It is full yet not overwhelming, warm yet powerful, and open yet controlled. It whispers and it roars, and it sounds beautiful doing both. Such a snare sound is a foundation upon which a great band can lay its chops.
Of course, there is no one right way to tune a snare drum. But as a general rule, blues snares are usually not too muffled. The top head tends to be tight to facilitate precision at low volumes, but not so tight as to rob the sound of its punch. Whatever you do, you want to avoid making a dull thud or an anemic ping. And beware the temptation to go for the dreaded arena rock cannon explosion.
Bringing it Together
So blues drumming might not be so easy after all. I mean, let's just review all those dictums we've discussed: Play simply without being boring steady. Keep your time steady, but still sound human. Be ready to navigate any dynamic shift a guitar player might be in the mood to pull off. Then be with him when he decides to launch into a new song after his solo. Don't forget to make sure they can hear the snare. And it all means nothing if the turnarounds and endings aren't right! Sheesh!
There is one thing about blues that is easy: knowing when you've 'hit it'. A blues gig is not like a classical recital. You know how the audience and the band feel. When the dance floor fills up and the guitar player looks like he's ready to levitate, you know you're doing it right. And there is no rush like nailing a blues gig.
Now, about that drum solo:
The drummer was Dane Clark - John Mellencamp's drummer since 1996. Dane was visiting from Indiana and stopped by to play (as many tourists do) when he heard our jam at the Swigwam from the beach.