If you're in a band or spend time with musicians regularly, then you should know all music-related jokes involve a dumb drummer.
Have you ever wondered why that is?
As a drummer myself, I've devoted most of my somewhat limited brain CPU to this crucial matter, and while this article’s purpose is not to prove drummers aren't dumb (we’re not, by the way), this is an interesting starting point to explain how drums differ from any other musical instrument.
Drums don’t have notes as such. If you study drums, you’ll see notes on the music sheet, but those don’t correspond to a particular pitch but rather to a specific part of the drum set you’re supposed to play.
While tuning a guitar or a piano requires following defined rules to get the right pitch, tuning drum sets requires just a vague sense of pitch and an idea of the sound you want to achieve.
Do you see where I’m going?
Contrary to the other most popular instruments, you could buy a drum kit tomorrow morning and be able to play a simple song by lunchtime and the entire AC/DC discography by the evening.
Learning even the most basic song on a guitar or bass guitar would take you longer.
And this is where it all comes down to. Drums are accessible, intuitive, and atavic even. In principle, you don’t need to study music to play the drums: all you have to do is hit them with a drumstick, and after a few tries, you might call yourself a drummer.
However, there’s also something else that differentiates drums from all other instruments. In one form or another, the expression of rhythm through percussion instruments has been part of humanity’s culture since the dawn of time.
Furthermore, despite being so ancient, drums have evolved dramatically over the last hundred years and even managed to transcend their physical form.
One hundred years after the rise of the first modern drum kit, I find it appropriate to dive into the history of this fascinating musical instrument and analyse how drumming evolved to become the vital element in the music composition we know today.
EVOLUTION OF THE DRUMMER’S ROLE IN CONTEMPORARY MUSIC
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In the 1920s, just as they started using the drum kit in the form we're all familiar with, drummers were considered mere timekeepers.
They weren't involved in the creative process of making new music, nor were they showcasing their skills through drum fills and solos: back then, a drummer’s role was to keep the tempo so that “real” musicians could perform their music and show their talent.
Despite that, some drummers did start exploring the endless possibilities of their instrument, and early jazz drummers like Baby Dodds and Chick Webb became a source of inspiration for the revolution of the drums that’d take place a few years later.
In the 1930s, the rise of two legendary drummers started the change of balance within jazz bands: Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich.
The former, with the drum solo in Benny Goodman’s “Sing, Sing, Sing”, would elevate the role of drums in jazz, while the latter is considered by many as the most influential drummer of all time because of his revolutionary speed, technique, and approach to music composition.
Funnily enough, neither Krupa nor Rich ever learned to read music, so I guess the drummers’ jokes are somewhat justified.
The 30s through the 50s was a time of great drumming experimentation, both in terms of setup and sound.
Artistes like Viola Smith (who played until she was well over 100 years old!) and Max Roach would push the boundaries of what could be accomplished with drums and how they could be involved in the composition process.
Then, rock music came, and drummers finally took the stage.
Going over all the artistes who defined the various drumming styles we have today would be a daunting task. However, it’s undeniable that Charlie Watts (The Rolling Stones), Jim McCarty (The Yardbirds) and Ringo Starr (The Beatles) completely changed the way drummers were perceived.
For a start, the use of match grip, as opposed to the so-called traditional grip common in jazz, differentiated rock drummers from the performers that came before then, making their drums sound clearer and more prominent than ever before.
In a matter of a few years, things would start getting really, really loud.
Throughout the 60s and 70s, the drum legends came to prominence: John Bonham, Ian Paice, Keith Moon, Mitch Mitchell, Phil Collins... The list could go on forever.
Sometimes even more popular than the so-called band leaders, these drummers introduced new nuances and fills that expanded the sonic vocabulary of drums, making it a crucial element in the creative process of a rock band.
For the last 50 years, drummers have been exploring new ways to diversify their sounds, either by combining electronic elements to their drum sets (more on that later) or by pushing the boundaries of what’s possible with drums.
Whether it’s in progressive rock (Jeff Porcaro, Danny Carey), grunge (Matt Cameron, Dave Grohl), punk (Tre Cool, Travis Barker), metal (Dave Lombardo, Lars Ulrich) or reggae rock (Stewart Copeland), drumming has finally become a defining element of contemporary music.
THE DRUM SET
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The modern drum set is the result of an evolution that took place at the beginning of the 20th century when William Ludwig created a foot pedal.
This invention opened up new opportunities for percussionists, who could now make use of their feet to make more “noise”. Shortly after, the introduction of hi-hat cymbals (again controlled by a foot) further expanded the sonic possibilities of drummers.
In the 1920s, the modern drumming setup took shape thanks to drummers like Gene Krupa, who developed a polyrhythmic sequence of percussions they could play simultaneously with hands and feet.
Just like 100 years ago, a standard drum set today looks like this: a bass drum, a hi-hat, a snare drum, two toms, a floor tom, and an indefinite number of cymbals.
If you think there’s a limit to the number of cymbals you can use, just check out Mike Portnoy’s drum set.
The beauty of drum sets is that they can be customised endlessly: from minimal setups to Terry Bozzio's endless drum kit, you can create your own unique arrangement simply based on your taste and needs.
FROM ACOUSTIC TO ELECTRIC
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Even though the technology has been around since the 1960s, it was only in the early 2000s that the sound quality of electronic drum kits allowed them to become a viable alternative to acoustic instruments.
Today, an electronic drum kit can perfectly emulate a real drum set, allowing the musician to adjust sounds in no time.
This characteristic, combined with the simplicity of recording and the nearly-silent pads, has made electronic drums a popular option for both new students and regular performers alike.
A hybrid kit is a fantastic option to expand one's sound and explore the possibilities of drums as a more dynamic instrument.
Hybrid kits combine elements of acoustic drums and electronic drums, giving the drummer a chance to use a broader sonic palette while performing or in the studio.
I believe the best example of a hybrid drum kit is the one used by Danny Carey, the drummer of the progressive metal band Tool.
FROM REAL TO DIGITAL
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The evolution of drums didn’t stop with the advent of electronic drum kits.
The intuitiveness of this musical instrument has been transported to the digital realm, thanks to the increasingly more powerful DAWs like Ableton and Logic Pro that offer a virtual drum set that you can use to create the perfect beat without physical drums.
Perhaps the most vital example of this new technology is Garageband, a DAW that’s completely free yet offers everything a producer needs to create the perfect drum beat.
The entry barriers to the world of drumming have been lowered once again by the digital realm, which offers the possibility for anyone to fully explore this empowering instrument.
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Writer | Marco Sebastiano Alessi
Marco is an Italian music producer, composer and writer. He’s the founder of Naviar Records, a music community and record label exploring the connection between experimental electronic music and traditional Japanese poetry.