Hey folks, I was just alerted that the Modern Drummer Readers Poll is happening and that a considerable amount of folks are writing me into the “Alternative Drummer” category. If you have time and are so inclined, please write me in there. Please vote for my buddy Eric Hernandez (Bruno Mars) in the Pop category too? Thanks! JW
Hey everybody. Here’s some links to some of the articles I’ve been writing for DRUM! Magazine in my ongoing column, “Tips Of The Trade.” Hope you enjoy.
5 Tips For Building A Drumming Career…
The Brand Called You…
Be Chart Smart…
How To Combat Sweat & Fatigue…
Tune Vs Tone…
How To Fix A Bad Gig…
What To Practice…
One question I get a lot from drummers is “How do I get noticed? How can I stand out and be heard by the “powerful” people that can get me gigs?
Musicians = Employers.
Honestly, the people that will get you gigs, sessions, T.V. stuff, etc., are other musicians. Very rarely do I get a call from a manager or a talent “head hunter” or an A & R record label person for a gig. If I do, it’s because another musician on the gig is someone who I have played with in the past or has heard me play and liked what he or she heard and gave them my number. Word spreads fast. If you can play, you are a fast learner, reliable, easy to get along with, and have a sense of humor, you will get work.
Don’t Try and Do The Hang.
Matt Chamberlain, one of the top session players nowadays, and saxophonist Skerik, gave me some great advice upon hearing that I was moving to LA from Seattle. They both said “Don’t try and do the hang.” “Just get a regular gig somewhere where people can come hear you.” Which is exactly what I was doing in Seattle but for some reason I thought the business worked differently in Los Angeles. It’s on a grander scale here but it’s still all based on trust.
So do what I did. Start up a regular gig (weekly if possible) at a club, coffee house, theater, art gallery, anywhere, but do something different. Be in your element, comfortable, and confident when people get their first impressions of you. Let yourself be weird, take the filters out. There are many good looking, camera friendly, generic drummers out there playing with the candy, pop acts. Don’t get me wrong, I like a candy bar as much as the next guy but if you want to be doing soul feeding, creatively satisfying fun gigs, be known as an innovator, a risk taker, a freak! No one needs to hear you try and sound like whatever drummer is at the top of the economic food chain right now. Stay away from genre specific themes on your gig. Express yourself. Most of all, have fun! If people see that playing with you looks like a blast, your phone will ring.
There is so much BS in Los Angeles already that people can spot it from a mile away. Unless someone they trust is recommending you or they’ve heard you play, you will come off like an ass kisser and a poser if you try to talk yourself up. There are so many people just trying to look cool, and get “discovered.”
If you end up at a party or a show where it is one of those creepy hangs here everyone is trying to act like they are super busy doing big things, don’t fall in to that trap and feel like you don’t have enough going on. Be honest, be real and be yourself. Don’t fake like you don’t need a gig. Just be a good listener, and don’t try to talk up a storm. The less you try to prove yourself, the more everyone else will wonder what you have going on and why they don’t know you. Introduce people to one another. Ask for someone’s contact info, and chances are they’ll ask for yours in return.
Say yes to any and all gigs at first. Play for free for a while and do it with your full enthusiasm and effort. You never know who may be listening. The only two people in the bar may be the folks that will put you in the studio or out on the road with a great artist. Economically, this may feel like a real punch to the gut, which brings me to the next section.
Don’t Quit Your Day Job (at first).
“I need a gig” might as well be written on your forehead. I walk by a Coffee Bean in Santa Monica almost daily and look at the actors, models and musicians out front trying to look so cool and wanting to be noticed. In reality, the real writers, actors and musicians are probably the ones making the coffee behind the counter to pay their rent, membership dues for a theater group or take an improv class or whatever. Focus on honing your craft. You will eventually have the confidence and the contacts to be able to get real work for yourself and be known as the real deal and someone employers can trust. Get a day job pulling espresso and making good tips while promoting your steady weekly gig or band to everyone that you make coffee for. In Seattle, I worked for years at one of the busiest coffeehouses in the city. I loved that job. It saved my broke ass more times than I can count and helped get me a great reputation with the local music venues. People always wondered how in the heck I got so many people out to my weekly gigs and shows. I always had a great musical concept, a killer band that had fun, good energy, and didn’t expect much money, and I had infinite promotional potential at the cafe. Everyone I made espresso for got a cupful of caffeine, a show flyer, and an earful of, “You’ll dig this show.” The nine to five crowd is always looking for some outlet to blow off steam, have some drinks with friends, or to to get some “culture” in their lives. I always made my gigs weekly residencies on an off-night like a Sunday through Tuesday where expectations were low from the venue and the club owner or booker was more likely to let the night build over time. The attendees were always thanked by me and they always left with the impression that they were privy to a scene that had not “blown up” yet. Don’t expect to get paid for a while. Gradually it will happen without you even asking for it.
Never Stop Practicing.
Always be practicing and working on something you can’t quite pull off. Always be checking out a player you’re really into or a recording that is new to you, or just a new page in a method book you’re working out of. Not only is this just a necessity for becoming the player you dream to be, but other magical things occur as a result. I have noticed whenever I’m excited about something I’m working on in the practice room, people can sense it. My creative energy is on hyper-drive and just makes other people want to be hanging out with me and playing music. Creative energy and enthusiasm is contagious and magnetic. Don’t let yourself get lulled into a slump.
Hope this stuff helps you and inspires you. All the best to you and yours.
Hey folks, here’s a link to a recent interview I did. Hope you dig it.
Hey folks, sorry for my lack of updates. I have another lesson in the works for ya’ll but I’m a perfectionist with a lack of time so it takes me a while. In the meanwhile, here is an interesting perspective I’m copying and pasting from amazing musician Danny Barnes’ website. I like what he has to say and the no-nonsense way he says it. Good advice.
How To Make A Living Playing Music:
By Danny Barnes
i hear so much complaining about this subject, i just wanted to lay my practical experience on you. free.
first, three pre-conditions:
1. if you are a very materialistic person, skip this article, i don’t think you are going to like what it says.
2. if you don’t have the music where you want it art-wise, you might want to go work on that, this article isn’t going to help you much either. you will be better off by practicing and studying and working on your music instead. you will need to get the art pretty close to where you want it, before you should worry about making much of a living out of it.
3. determine if you are actually called to be a musician. if you aren’t called, all the gyrations in the world, won’t make it work. if you are called, no matter what you do, it’s going to work. this determination will solve most of the problems you are going to encounter.
assuming these three conditions are met, you are financially workable and you have the music where you want it and you are surely called into the art, here goes, in no particular order as i am want:
a. keep your expenses very low. read that one again. move someplace cheap. drive a good used car. do all the things it takes to be a secure un-monied person. you have to have health insurance. you have to have a reliable car [unless you live in nyc or something]. you have to have some money in savings. you have to pay your taxes. don’t have a big expense of alcohol or drugs or any drag on your system like that. i wouldn’t even smoke. use your head. spend very little, save as much as you can and don’t get into any big expenditure until you can afford it, maybe never. buy your gear used. research as much as you can. think about it really hard before you part with a dollar. learn how to honestly add and subtract without emotion. if you spend more than you take in, you lost money. i can’t tell you how many folks that i run into that have trouble with this. if you bring in more that went out guess what? you just made money. stick to this low-overhead model, if you end up making a bunch of dough, you already know how to deal with it. if not, you still get to keep working because you don’t have a bunch of stuff that you have to dust and pay for. the more overhead you tack on, the harder it’s going to be. and the easier it is to get knocked off course.
b. however, don’t be a cheapskate. tithe or donate faithfully whatever your heart tells you to do. pay your band as much as you can. never withhold a laborers wages. tip well. give street musicians money. become involved in charity work.
c. be totally square on your taxes. render unto caesar that which is caesar’s. if you try to fudge on this, it will come back to bite you every time. get receipts for everything, 1099 everyone no matter what, unless they are a corporation. be totally on top of this or you are burning money in a pile on the lawn. claim every dollar you make and take every deduction. otherwise you are a drag on the system. keep perfect records.
d. your basic infrastructure will have to consist of these things: a good lawyer, bookkeeper, cpa, doctor, a mechanic, an instrument repair person, web person, and someone in your circle that will always tell you the truth. maybe a backup of each one. and do what they say. these are all musts, even for solo acts. then later you can add a good agent. then maybe a manager if you have lots of stuff to deal with like a label. you can grow from there. if you don’t assemble a good team of the first eight people on that list, you are likely to have problems every time you turn around and you might not have a way to fix them.
e. if you are going into a deal with any entity, seek two things: 1. the arrangement must be win/win. win/lose is ultimately lose/lose. avoid that. 2. make an agreement that either one of you can walk away at any time and everything is cool.
f. keep working on your art. keep taking lessons and studying and working. this is the main art strategy. research, learn, study, experiment, develop, edit.
g. don’t be afraid to do other things to make money in the short term. this can be a very rewarding experience. historically musicians have been barbers and bartenders and all kinds of stuff to make ends meet. this is totally fine. don’t worry about it. it’s cool. do what you need to do. waiting tables will give you lots of stuff to write songs about. i used to call myself the king of the part time job, because i could get up out of my chair at any time and go get a job of some sort. not that it would be the greatest job of course, but i could go and get something going. i’ve cleaned pools, painted apartments, done maintenance work, taught music, worked in a factory, threw newspapers, drove a delivery truck, cooked, all kinds of stuff, and none of it killed me. through it all i was able to keep practicing and writing music and studying what i was doing. bills? hey no problem, go flip a few burgers and i can pay that and get back to playing the banjo. get a job in a dance band whatever i have to do. just live within your means and you can avoid so many hassles. hassles interrupt your practice routine.
h. keep your art the main focus. it isn’t about you it’s about your art. do what’s good for your art and don’t draw attention to yourself as much as the art. if your main focus is on the art, waiting tables is no big deal because you are doing it to support your art. if your main focus is you, you are not going to like waiting tables. you will feel like you are way too good for that.
i. avoid the performance mentality. i know this sounds ridiculous in a performance based industry. but think about this. here is a recipe for disaster. my value = my performance + other people’s opinions the reason why, is that someday, you are going to have an off day and/or someone is going to criticize you. if you put your value in the world like that, you are going to have a bad time of it. i speak from experience. i only learned this at the age of 46. finding my true value fixed this for me. [write me if you want to know what it is.] but establish your value outside of how well you did on the gig and what the papers said about you. otherwise you are going to be miserable and you are going to make everyone else miserable. somedays you play better than others. this doesn’t make you a great person. somedays you make lots of errors, this doesn’t make you a bad person.
h. don’t gossip. gossip means you aren’t in the problem or the solution, you are just talking about someone and probably gaining pleasure from something bad not happening to you or envying something good that happened to someone else. spend your energy on getting better at your art.
i. record labels. they can help or they can drag you down. here’s the scoop. if they expect you to be the primary distributor of the product, don’t sign the deal. the typical deal is a 90/10 split, you get the ten minus every expense related to the project. thus you are paying for everything and giving the label 90 percent of the gross. read that sentence again. if they aren’t really really offering you something good in terms of promotion, or something….some tangible quantitized tie-in to something bigger, skip it. you can hire that stuff yourself easier. talk to other artists on the roster and ask them what they think. any more, if you are an emerging artist, it’s going to be hard to find a label home. they are losing so much dough they only want for sure money makers or somewhat less money losers on the roster, and they are dropping folks right and left. this is all good for you. take heart. it’s a 90/10 deal and you get the 10 and they want you to be the primary distributor of the product plus pay for the whole deal, those are not very good terms. in addition they will charge you eight bucks plus shipping for your own cds that you can make for either zero or one dollar. and they might complain about every little detail. again if they really have an idea for a bang up thing they are thinking of, by all means have a go. if they are motivated and have a track record and have ideas and are workable, they can really help. however, you might want to have an out. have an out clause in there. shooting from the hip, i’d tell you to avoid the whole thing and do it yourself. it’s very likely that the person that brings your act into the label fold will get fired. then you can get stuck with four years left on the deal and no one will return your calls. then they just hope you will get another deal and someone will buy out the rest of the contract. lot of bands close up shop at this point. there are some labels that operate with different models. i have had very good success with them. they tend to be more punk rock style outfits. you might want to investigate that. the standard deal referred to in the preceeding paragraph is pretty hard to profit from unless the contract is on your letterhead. the punk rock deal goes something like this, all the black ink goes in a list, all the red ink goes in a list, find the difference, split what’s left if it’s a positive number. fifty fifty. these are really the only deals i ever made money on. the point is, there are some other ways to look at stuff contractually. if the deal is win/win, great. if it’s win/lose, skip it. if the label in question is locked into doing contractual things a certain way, this won’t be for your benefit. you are creative, your business arrangements can be creative.
j. the main business strategy is to build your own audience. if you have a draw, agents, labels or investors [which i do not recommend] and stuff will come to you. if you skip this step and start trying to talk to industry people and you don’t have a draw yet, you are going to be sorry [unless you are really hot looking or have a famous parent and/or willing to sign away the rights to the whole thing of course]. build your own audience. if you can sell your own records that you make yourself and do your own shows, you can attract the attention of industry folks and get your calls returned. then you probably won’t need them unless you want them. that’s a better bargaining position for you. work on your draw.
if you don’t have a draw, these are some likely things to look at:
where you are playing isn’t the right place
the music isn’t there yet
the time isn’t right
in any case, the answer is to forge ahead. keep doing it. always keep writing and practicing.
keep working on finding more and better places to play. and new contexts within which to place your work. if something feels right, it probably is right. if you are having to bang your head against the wall in regard to something, it may be better to drop it sooner. the longer you work on something that isn’t going to work out job-wise, i think the more time we waste.
i wouldn’t get too hung up about opening slots. they are okay and you can increase your draw, but as far as that being the principle strategy you are using, it may not work. the old model of thinking that if you open for someone and do a good job you can get some of their audience interested in your work is not really that reliable. find a new model. if you meet someone who wants to work on your team, and you are thinking of hiring them and they offer this as the main strategy, this is not a creative workable person. they are working on business models that are decades old. this ploy will work sometimes, but it should be part of an overall deal, not the main thing. just like if you went to interview a financial advisor and he said, “what we are going to try to do is to buy low and sell high,” and behaves as though he has just isolated the plutonium isotope. you might need a little more horsepower upstairs than that if you get my drift.
i work for free when it’s kind of my idea to do so. if someone else suggests it, i tend to pass. i also pass on a job where they say they aren’t going to pay you but you’ll sell lots of cds. and when i did not adhere to this, i was sorry.
i’m not really a self promotion person, and find that sort of distasteful. in my experience the strong self promotion vibe alienates people or attracts folks that you don’t want to work with. maybe i just didn’t do it right but this did not work for me. i’ve had much better results endeavoring to let the art speak for itself.
k. don’t expect to get paid more than you can bring in. if you draw ten people, and the cover is ten bucks a head, you gross one hundred dollars. not five hundred. don’t get mad at the agent, club owner or whatever because of simple math. you drew ten folks. guess what? that’s better than nine. if you want a raise, figure out how to draw more folks. this is not as mysterious as some would suggest. but you can’t ask for more than you bring in the door. if you don’t believe this, try producing some concerts of your own.
l. you may not want to hire sidemen that get too worked up about money, it can be hard to make these folks happy. also when it comes to hiring musicians, you may have to live with them at arm’s length for a long time and be involved with them about emotional issues like money and life problems and stuff. you may want a person that’s easy to get along with even if they are a little less sharp musically. of course getting both is best, but if you have to take one or the other, take the one you get along with a little better. if you are in a place where you don’t have a lot of choice, you may be forced into hiring someone that’s tough to be around. replace them when you can. really the best players i know are also the nicest folks. except for one or two. many times, in that world of musicians that are struggling to make a living, but haven’t really gotten there yet with the music or with the people skills or what have you, they will be the most difficult to deal with. they over-compensate by talking too much, or acting like they know everything, or showing up drunk or being really critical or whatever. when folks have it together, they are at ease and play great, and know when to lay out and stuff. they are also more expensive. it’s totally fine and many times necessary to use different players on the recordings than in the shows. if you are a leader, do this with no guilt. if you are a sideman, get ready for it and don’t complain. it has to be this way. if you don’t believe it, trying putting out your own record. you’ll soon see why when you go to record. sidemen, you can always practice and take lessons and get your tuning and timing together. leaders again, get their tax id and report every dollar that transacts. if someone is upset about this, you can’t use them. period. never fudge on taxes.
m. you really won’t be able to work that much in the town where you live. and there will probably be a morass of musicians in your hometown that aren’t really committed to the lifestyle that haven’t really developed their art that will be complaining loudly about how hard it is to make a living and whatnot and you can easily get sucked into their trip. you’ll be better off traveling to various places and developing that. use local shows to try out new stuff, play with different folks, have fun, play for the home town crowd, etc. but typically you won’t be able to work that often at home. maybe twice a year or something. don’t worry about that. your market is the whole world, not your hometown. negativity is a sign to alter the course.
n. don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t make money playing music. six of my pretty good musician friends are millionaires. three of them multi. three of them play music that most folks would surely comment, “you can’t make any money playing that.” don’t tell those guys. five of them are the nicest people you would ever want to meet. one of them is as mean as a snake. there you go.
o. i would suggest being able to do different things. if you write songs, maybe you can sing on other folk’s demos. maybe play guitar in someone else’s band. for years i taught music lessons in a music store. many folks i work with have a little studio and also play in someone’s band. or they are a chef or tax person on the side. this is all very healthy. i know several folks that are sidemen but have their own writing deal or what have you. this is a good course to take. that way you can take a hit and keep moving. the world doesn’t grind to a halt because your label went under.
p. be wary of someone that talks about gear a lot. also be wary of folks that tell you how great they are. stay away from complainers and folks that don’t have their lives somewhat together. sometimes folks need some ministering, which is certainly what we are called to do, but if you take someone out on the road with a big jones, you are going to be sorry… or otherwise get involved financially, look out. don’t make your own problems or agree to be in a messed up deal. drama is always bad. never make a financial agreement with someone that has no problem getting paid for not working.
q. all the trouble in the world is going to come for you in two ways. the things you say, and the things you agree to do. be very careful about these items.
p. build alliances. let’s say you play some weird kind of music, make contact with someone in another city that does something similar and offer to set up a concert for them in your town. maybe they will later help you to play their city or something. work it out with them. if you can’t get into a particular festival, why not have your own festival? get some like minded bands together, the venues would love to turn over the night to you to produce your own gig, and do it yourself. sometimes you can do stuff like that yourself easier than you can talk someone else into doing it for you and then paying you, think about that. going to that big music conference is out of the question for some reason? why not have your own conference? it might be cheaper to fly the guy in you are wanting to have see your band. that way you only have to put one guy up, rather than having the expense of flying a six piece band to los angeles and have one guy come out out to the show that lives there. he may blow you off anyway. it would probably be cheaper to fly in six a and r guys to where you are and put them up and have them come to the show, than it would be to take the band out to them because of the gear and salary. you also could have their undivided attention, within reason. don’t keep saying “well if i had a label or agent or manager, then i could be happy.” forget that. forge ahead with your music. keep working. develop the music. come up with different ways to do an end run around conventional wisdom. if you are really called to be in music, the right people will present themselves at the right time. build those alliances of simpatico musicians, writers, studio guys, label guys, radio guys. be nice and help others. i have been fortunate enough to be close friends with lots of folks that are way better at music than i am. i take constant inspiration and encouragement from these folks. i think this has been really good for my work.
r. if for one second you think you aren’t getting the recognition your talent deserves, banish this thought immediately. if others tell you this, ignore it. just keep working on the music. you are probably right where you are supposed to be, learning and doing what you are supposed to be learning and doing.
s. if there’s no social context for the music you are making, don’t be mad if no one comes to the shows or buys the music. or if only very few people do. in that case the reward has to be the music. hey that’s a great deal. also you have lots of freedom to do different stuff. there’s no one to alienate. let’s face it, sometimes having no one at the show is a great indicator that you are onto something. i’m serious.
t. robert keen told me he never regretted firing anybody that he fired, and i agree. if someone is a problem, and they won’t fix it, get rid of them. it’s okay. you both will be happier.
u. don’t waste materials and time giving a cd to someone unless you are fairly sure they will actually listen.
v. avoid folks that make your job harder. sometimes people gum up the works, even when they have a smile on their face. you’ll get more done the less of this type you deal with. when you ask someone a direct question and they go into a convoluted story about something else, get ready for the hassle.
w. we are all blessed with different talents. this is as it should be. don’t be upset with someone that doesn’t have your talent for something, and don’t feel bad because someone else got some talent that you think you want. move towards grace.
x. i have a system, where if i sense that the gig is going to get weird before i even get there, I cancel the show and walk away. in my experience, if something goes awry before you even get there, it won’t magically get better if you commit a bunch of dollars and time towards it. because of this, i can’t remember the last bad gig i’ve had. example, let’s say i’ve booked a show next year with a person that i don’t really know that well. and as time goes by, he keeps wanting to chisel away at our arrangement, or add stuff for me to do, or whine or complain about the situation, i would cancel the show. time and time again i learned that it only gets weirder and more difficult when you get there. this is better for the buyer too because then he or she doesn’t have to worry about my show anymore. if the buyer isn’t really into it, or at least somewhat into it, seriously consider passing on the show.
y. have interests outside of your art. especially if you can do this on a non-performance basis, where you can just enjoy the activity and not analyze it to death and be real critical of your own work and stuff. it’s so easy to burn out if you do one overwhelming thing for about twenty or thirty years. sometimes, i just don’t play at all and don’t think about work and mess around with my sailboat, or work in the yard, or something. ride the motorcycle. giving myself a break from the pass/fail mentality. i like just being a regular person.
z. think of your art as a work in progress. that takes the heat off of it having to be perfect all the time.
keep working on your art, your vision, your catalog. dedicate your work life to that, and things will work out.
okay i’m out of letters.
[these are all just ideas, and you may have your own way. good. also these are different components and you have to make a sort of stew of them. maybe you have a little more of one, use a little less of the other or whatever it takes to make it come out right. i’ve made all these mistakes myself in the trial and error process, which is a fine way of doing things except for the error part.
One question I always had before I eventually had the opportunities and humbling failures that gave me some answers was, “What stuff do I practice that will help me get gigs, either live or the studio?”
A mistake I see a lot of drummers make is focusing on their hand speed to the point of ridiculousness. I always ask my students, “Can you express the ideas you have in your head out on to the drums?” If the answer is “yes,” then you have enough technique or “chops.” First and foremost you must get your time consistent, and develop a great time feel, and be able to make good musical decisions. To achieve these things, I personally think your time in the practice room is better spent listening to and playing along with your favorite recordings, and working on playing everything confidently and comfortably to a metronome or click track.
Today, for better or worse, 99 percent of all recordings are done on a grid. It may be Pro Tools, Logic, Digital Performer, or some other software program but it’s a visible grid with a click track you will play to. Producers and engineers want perfect, metronomic time and yet want it to feel like a human being is playing it (most of the time). Many producers believe that our audience’s ears have become so accustomed to this level of perfection that no matter how perfect your time is, chances are some nudging and fudging will be done by the engineer and producer using “Beat Detective” or some sort of quantizing to line it up even more accurately on the grid. They like to call it “massaging” the track.
It can seem as though drummers need to be nearly superhuman in order to work in the studio and many times in a live situation you are asked to play to backing tracks, so the same applies. When I first witnessed an engineer “massaging” and “comping” (compiling the best of several takes) some of my work, I felt sick to my stomach. I thought all of the time spent alone with my metronome was not paying off. In a last ditch effort to save my fragile ego, I asked the well known producer and engineer if my heroes had to be “time corrected.” Their answer was a resounding “yes.” Many drummers who I consider to be the greatest of the studio greats; Keltner, Chamberlain, Waronker, Freese, Indrizzo, all of them have been corrected on the grid at some point in recent years. The difference is how much.
An engineer and producer’s time is very expensive. They need to get the drum tracks done first and fast, and they want to keep the creative momentum flowing in the session. The last thing they want to do is waste a lot of time correcting things like you speeding up on a fill or getting ahead of the click on the chorus. If it’s nit-picky stuff they have to edit, it can be acceptable but they’d really rather not do that either. It’s really all about perfecting your time so save their time.
For the last several years, my main priority in the practice room has been to try to get a great, relaxed feel and still retain extremely consistent time that needs very little if any “correction.” How do I do it? I practice everything ridiculously slow. I also sing everything I play and everything I don’t play! The space between the notes are just as important, if not more important than the notes themselves.
Before moving to L.A. I was fortunate enough to teach at Seattle Drum School and to also study with the owner Steve Smith (not the Journey drummer, same name, just as amazing.) Through Steve’s vast playing and teaching experience he has learned what is required of a drummer today and some of these tips I’m giving you are just regurgitated things he gave me. If you are ever in the Seattle area and have time to take some lessons with Steve, I highly recommend it.
I’ve heard many different schools of thought on how to improve your time. This way works for me. **Whatever works for you is the correct way. Some folks may even tell you that using a metronome is bad. I personally have found that it helps me a lot. If nothing else, I’ve grown accustomed to having that annoying click in my ear while trying to make beautiful music. Steve told me that he once had the opportunity to speak one on one with the great Steve Gadd and asked him what to practice, Gadd thought hard about it for a moment and then replied simply “Practice slow.” I tell all of my students “If I can recognize anything you are practicing, you are playing it too fast!” Practicing slowly is the key to the time and feel problems that face us all. Put your metronome on quarter note equals 30 to 45 beats per minute and play everything you know at that speed. Personally, I rarely concern myself with trying things faster. Fast is easy, slow will get you work.
Just doing this will increase your awareness of the sound you are pulling from the drums and also if you are pushing or pulling the time. While you are doing this, try subtracting one of the limbs you are using and “sing” that missing part. I use the words “chick” for the hi hat, “bop” for the snare drum, “boom” for the bass drum and “ding” if the ride cymbal is involved but whatever representational noise you want to use is fine. This can be a very difficult and humbling exercise. Even if you are an advanced drummer, it’s going to feel as though you are starting over from day one. Don’t be frustrated. If you let yourself sound bad and work on it slowly it will get easier in due time. This exercise has several immediate benefits. It will make you aware of which limbs are your “crutches,” or which limbs you are dependent on to make the groove feel good. It also allows you to hear the melody within the groove which makes it purely and intuitively a part of you, not just an exercise in a book.
(This next exercise is demonstrated at http://www.youtube.com/wicksjm)
Once you have sung all of the limbs involved, play the groove normally and sing all of the spaces between the notes. In general, when we are playing a regular old back beat rock groove with 8th notes on the hi hat, we ignore the spaces between the notes, the e’s and ah’s. Play the groove you are practicing and on all of the e’s and ah’s say the word “dut,” or maybe “uh.” Again, this will be a humbling exercise but trust me, you will no longer take any note or space for granted. As a result your time will be much steadier, and the listener will hear the spaces between the notes you play. Most importantly you will be a more patient player, because you will be content playing this groove knowing the amount of work that went into it to make it feel that good.
The sad reality is that recording music has become a visual medium. I’ve witnessed many a great feeling take get “massaged,” “corrected,” or even thrown out because the waveforms were not perfectly lined up to the grid. The previous exercises have helped me develop consistent time and still sound like a living, breathing, sweating human being on the playback. Try them out, hopefully they do the same for you.
Now, all of that being said, most music I enjoy listening to was made “pre-grid.” I prefer the human push and pull to a certain extent. Listen to Smokey Robinson & The Miracles’ “Tracks Of My Tears.” Check out how it pushes on the choruses, and pulls back on the verses. I love that! I think what we’ve lost sight of in recent years is that listeners love to hear that you are human. Have you ever noticed that when a band or artist makes a mistake on stage, they cheer the loudest? Or how about during a drum solo when the drummer drops or breaks a stick? Huge applause! When a recording has some weird mistake that was left in, the listener feels like they are in on the joke. In my opinion, music has lost a lot of it’s innocence and it’s endearing qualities. After all, what is more original than our mistakes?
For examples of these time exercises, please visit my You Tube page at http://www.youtube.com/wicksjm and watch the videos entitled “John Wicks’ Time Feel Exercise.”