Last summer I had what could unequivocally be described as a revelation. The kind of moment when, in the space of 5 minutes, you feel you've stumbled across a concept you'll be using for the rest of your life. It was during one of my weekly trips to Ronnie Scott's (a kind of Mecca for Londons jazz hermits) when at around midnight the venue opens up for a jam session. Something about this late-night, informal setup can result in some very special musical moments. At the end of the night, as I skulked out onto Frith street, I began reflecting on the nature of these moments. Jam sessions can often be one big clash of egos or just a collective exercise in narcissism. As a player you can be left with a sense of anticlimax or worse, the dreaded feeling of musical inadequacy. Occasionally though with the right people on stage, in the right mood and at the right time, a connection happens. Suddenly all of the anxieties of mutual music making are gone and it just, well, happens. In these moments the mechanics of music making become inconsequential.
If you imagine a band onstage is like a grandfather clock with all of the cogs and gears on display. When musicians really connect, the door to the clock shuts and you're left with a beautiful time piece, functioning perfectly with none of the mechanisms visible. Some would call these moments (whether personal or collective) transcendent. If I was an athlete I'd call it being 'in the zone'. Somehow everything just happens, exactly where and when it should. So walking back through soho, past the sex shops and rambunctious drunkards I got greedy for that moment again. How could I find this fluency more often? It seemed to me the greatest players could turn it on at will.
One thing that was tangible about that moment was the source of my choices. I realised I was drawing inspiration from something new. I wasn't thinking in terms of drum patterns, or parts, or rudiments; I was thinking, or feeling, melodically. It may be only mild hyperbole to say that incorporating melody into my playing has been a transformation. When a drummers playing has a noticeable tune to it, it moves from the realm of rhythm to what can legitimately be described as music. This seems as creditable an aim as any for the aspiring drummer. In the past, when soloing, I would work through my licks and fills until inevitably the options would run out. By drawing inspiration from melodies, whether in your head, from the song, or from another musician on stage, the options never dry up. Endless variations and modifications are possible. Check out this solo by Joey Baron. To me this is the embodiment of melodic, 'hooky' drumming. He clearly has a shape and tune in mind and the variations spring from there.
Baron has been known to play whole shows completely solo. Hard to believe (and probably hard to enjoy) but his commitment to the ideal of the drum kit as a bonafide melodic instrument is impressive.
Make an impression
So how do you begin to develop your melodic playing? There are two schools of thought in terms of application of melody on the drum kit. Firstly the purist approach is to tune your drums to exact notes in the key of the song and play the tune verbatim. Although this method can sound impressive (see Ari Hoenig) it's also impractical at a gig unless you have 5 minutes available between songs for tuning. The second option is to treat the intervals and pitches of the drums more loosely and create the shape or 'impression' of melody. Below is an exercise to develop the second, more impressionistic method.
- Choose any song in any style and from any genre. Learn the melody by heart. Now perform that melody from start to finish on the drumkit. Treat the drums as a lead instrument (much like an acapella vocal) and be as malleable and generous with the timing as you want.
- Next play the tune again but this time start embellishing the main melodies with rhythmic and melodic variations. To find inspiration for these variations sing while you play and see where your mind leads you! The aim of these exercises is to let the melody steer your musical decisions.
- Finally get together with another musician. Take 8 bars each and start trading solos. Be aware of your partners playing in terms of melody, key, mood, dynamics and density of notes. Use these factors as inspiration for your own musical and melodic decisions.
Although thinking melodically may seem an obvious plan of action for any musician, for a drummer its understandably not the first priority. We focus so much effort on time keeping, feel and all the other important jobs, that we never truly learn how to compose a melody. Learning to apply this method can open up the doors of your musicality and even get you closer to those elusive moments of transcendence. As far as revelations go, I haven't had many more useful than this.