Focus Track: Drums
So much of the modern worship music sound comes from the drums. While some churches still think that “drums are of the devil”, and while it is true that you do not need drums in order to worship the Lord, drums are arguably the most important instrument in worship music today. By that I mean that the drums, probably more than any other instrument on the stage, can make or break the entire worship set. Other musicians on the stage can hide their mistakes fairly easily. Not so much for the drummer!
Don’t fear. If you are a drummer, or a Worship Leader who is trying to speak their language and give them direction, here are some helpful tips to keep in mind (appearing in no particular order).
The fundamental frequencies for the drum set are all over the place! The drummer is essentially playing 5-10 instruments all at once! The fundamental frequencies of the kick drum may be anywhere from 20Hz to 100Hz, while the fundamental frequencies of the cymbals may be anywhere from 8K to 20K.
The fundamental frequencies are not the only aspect of the drums that are all over the place. The dynamic range of an acoustic drum set can be anywhere from 70dB to 112dB. 112dB is REALLY LOUD!! Drummers really need to keep this in mind as they play, as a loud drum set can drown out the entire worship team and move the whole experience from music to noise. Noise is not what we are going for! Hitting the drums lighter, playing with lighter sticks, using rute sticks, or even using an electronic drum set can be an ideal solution for drummers in a typical church setting.
The drummer’s “musical buddy” is the metronome. If you can’t use a metronome while playing live, always use it to practice with! Especially use it when practicing your fills. The metronome doesn’t lie. You really are that far off of the beat when coming back from a fill! The most common phrase that I hear from drummers who are just starting to play with a metronome is, “This thing is not working right!” Yes, it is.
Good dynamics are achieved by adding intensity, but also by changing up which components of the drums you are hitting, or how you are hitting them. For instance, you could be playing a closed hi hat through the verse, and by simply opening the hi hat in the chorus you can make the song sound bigger. You could play on the rim of the snare during the verse, and then strike the center of the snare for the chorus. Or you could add subdivided tom hits in the chorus, along with a crash cymbal on the first beat of every measure to increase the dynamics of the song. Of course, because of the dynamic range of the drums, simply playing harder will increase the dynamics of the song.
Remember the KISS method (Keep It Simple, Stupid). Too many drummers try to do way too much. Most of that extra playing is unnecessary at best and distracting at worst. As a drummer, do not play more than the song requires -and don’t attempt to play too far above your skill level! There is no faking it on the drums. You are exposed. Everyone (even non-musical people) will know when you are attempting to play a beat that you actually, in fact, cannot play. So do yourself a favor and keep it simple, stupid.
Avoid unnecessary, non-musical fills at ALL times. I once played with a drummer who added a fill at the end of every single measure. He did this because he was bored (and not actually very good). The irony is that his playing was actually boring because you began to anticipate the fact that every line would end in a fill.
Technique matters. If you want to prolong the life of your cymbals and drum heads, learn how to hit them correctly. The old joke is that playing drums is “just a matter of hitting things.” No. Playing drums well consists of much more than that! One technique worth mastering is the 75/25 technique. Try playing the kick and shells at 75% volume while playing the hi hat and cymbals at 25% volume. This basic dynamic starting point will typically give you the best balance of volume.
Consistency is key! The entire band is depending on you to play the same thing every time. Every other instrument builds off of the drums, and when the drums fail to produce a solid, dependable, consistent foundation, it will throw everything else off. So map out the song, take notes, and actually use the notes that you take.
Be smart with your arrangement. Simply playing each part of the song differently from the previous part is not enough. Think through the journey you want to take people on when they listen to the song. Where should you be big, busy, and loud? Where should you be small, sparse, and quiet? Think through the song and play intentionally.
There is a time to be silent. Not every song needs drums, and not every part of every song needs drums. One of the most powerful techniques you can learn as a drummer is the art of playing absolutely nothing -until just the right time.
Artwork provided by my good friend, Brooke Gehman, an authentic and wonderful man of God, devoted follower of Christ, and an amazing husband and father. Brooke is a gifted Worship Leader, an incredible artist, and a Potter by trade (check out his website).