April 11, 2004

A Mix Tape for Drummers (and Other Musicians)

I wrote the following stuff as liner notes for a mix CD that I gave to my brother. I’m a drummer, and he has taken up the drums in recent years. I consider the following tracks exemplary of excellent drumming.

Man In A Suitcase • The Police • Stewart Copeland
I chose this one mostly because of the fill leading into the first verse. If that fill doesn’t kick your butt, then you must be already dead. Also, there’s his unbelievably tasteful and restrained groove all the way through.

Josie • Steely Dan • Jim Keltner
Continuing the theme of tasteful groove punctuated by insanely quirky fills, but adding a constantly shifting dynamic and an unpredictability that nobody can imitate convincingly. I once met a bassist who had done a session with Keltner, and he said that, no matter what the producer said, Keltner would never, ever play the same thing twice.

As for the weird fill coming into the coda, Keltner himself claims not to understand it. He says he was just playing the ink, i.e., playing what Donald Fagen and Walter Becker had written on the sheet music.

Cactus Farm • Mommyheads • Jan Kotik
Okay, now we’re deep into the land of quirk. Jan told me that he would come up with stuff like this by basically dealing with the drum set geometrically. So he would find patterns in space and move his hands through those patterns. He has some of my favorite drum set sounds.

The Joker • Steve Miller Band • John King
The first of our lessons in mid-tempo rockers, but still in the “quirky fills bin.” I mean, what the heck is it with that crash cymbal, dude? This is a drum track that says “I have balls of steel. Do not stand near me as I play.” But check out the beautiful hi-hat work at the very top, as he kind of decides on the fly how to play the song. Also check out the mix clam at the very beginning; the crash cymbal starts completely in the left ear, then suddenly appears in the right.

Limelight • Rush • Neil Peart
Laugh if you want, but this mofo could play some drums. I learned so much from Neil Peart about outlining the structure of a song. Every time a given section of a song repeats he adds a bit more, until he’s practically standing on his drums in ballet shoes with Busby Berkeley synchronized swimmers in Tama t-shirts all round. I love his playing on this song.

Love Ain’t For Keeping • The Who • Keith Moon
Mid-tempo rock lesson #2, from one of the gods. He’s known more for his distasteful demise in a pool of his own vomit, but he was a piercing, original, passionate, smart, and groovy drummer. Check out the completely unexpected but totally right-on fill going into the second verse. Check out the constant variation in hi-hat patterns. Check out the way he pretty much treats the whole song with spontaneity and soul.

Rock Steady • Aretha Franklin • Bernard “Pretty” Purdie
The hitmaker, the self-absorbed, self-aggrandising, but ass-kicking purveyor of grooves that make you go “mmmm.” I honestly haven’t got the slightest clue how to play this beat. No clue. I don’t even understand it.

Jive Talkin’ • Bee Gees • Dennis Bryon
A simpler approach to a very similar tempo (similar to “Rock Steady,” that is). Notice the bass drum on every beat. It’s something that Ringo does a lot, as does Stevie Wonder. It feels good. I steal that idea a lot.

I Shot The Sheriff • Eric Clapton • Jamie Oldaker
One of the most under-known musicians on the planet, Jamie Oldaker is so funky that I can still smell him from here. How can anybody’s feel be that good? It doesn’t make any sense. This is the first of three tracks that use the trick of overdubbing a second hi-hat track over the main drum track. Or maybe it’s a splash cymbal being choked with one hand.

I Wish • Stevie Wonder • Stevie Wonder
I never even experienced those days, but still, I wish they’d come back once more. Stevie played the drums on this spritely little number, and then went back and laid some more of that fonky fonky hi-hat down just because.

Lowdown • Boz Scaggs • Jeff Porcaro
The late Jeff Porcaro, laid low by drugs in his 30s. He had already played on a million classic tracks, but was still very much in development as a player. When I saw him give a master class not long before his death, he was happy because he was finally starting to learn how to keep time with his hi-hat foot.

Jeff’s concept here was “Earth Wind and Fire” all the way: quarter notes on the hi-hat, and imply 16th note feel with ghosting on the snare and the occasional 16th-note lead-in on the kick drum. But then Boz insisted that Jeff lay down an additional track of 16th-note hi-hat disco feel. Jeff’s aesthetic loss is our gain, and we pass the savings directly on to you. Check out the clean, clean sound. Also, Jeff’s sense of tempo is so acute that it can make you psychotic.

Misty Mountain Hop • Led Zeppelin • John “Bonzo” Bonham
Yet another in an apparently inexhaustable supply of all-time-great drummers who killed themselves with drugs or alcohol. Somehow you get the feeling that Neil Peart has never been in danger of alcohol poisoining, eh?

Nobody has ever tuned their drums as well as John Bonham. (Except for maybe Jamie Oldaker.) They sound like cannons. They have plenty of attack, plenty of sustain, and plently of chest-thumping warmth, what Alex Van Halen calls “the brown sound.” And then there’s that groove, where it almost sounds like the hi-hat starts before he hits it. How does he do that? I think he’s using a kind of blues/New Orleans approach where the left hand is hitting the snare drum on almost every eigth note, but with a very subtle dynamic. The effect is like a marching band on PCP. Hide your sisters and your daughters.

Great fills, all of which I have stolen whenever I could.

La Grange • ZZ Top • Frank Beard
One of the all-time great drum tracks in popular music, featuring all the hits you remember, like “Ti-clackty-clack ti-clackty-clack,” “KA-ts-ka KA-ts-ka KA-ts-ka ba-du-be-duh,” and the immortal “buckety buckety buckety buckety buckety buckety.” There’s a picture of this song next to the entry for “Texas Blues” in the dictionary.

Still Crazy After All These Years • Paul Simon • Steve Gadd
If I said to you “Classic Paul Simon track featuring Steve Gadd,” you’d probably say “50 Ways,” and you’d be right. But it would be a shame to overlook this Gaddian masterpiece of subtlety, touch, feel, and brushes. Just the way he plays hi-hat in the opening verse makes me cry. Like Jim Keltner, he seems to be discovering the song as he plays it. Not a single note is taken for granted. There are no cliches.

When I Get To The Border • Richard and Linda Thompson • Timi Donald
The third and final installment in our series on mid-tempo rockers, this little beauty is the embodiment of the KISS principle. No, I don’t mean “Wear makeup and success necessarily follows”; I mean “Keep It Simple, Stupid.” Timi Donald is one of those drummers who, if you held a gun to his head and screamed “Play a fill, mate, or I’ll blow your bleedin’ head clean off,” would continue playing time with one hand while giving you the bird with the other.

South Park Theme • Primus • Tim Alexander
Light this song and then stand clear! Rhythmic shrapnel from the Dr. Suess of rock. I like Primus because they take the technical mastery of a band like, say, Rush, and apply it to the sensibility of a child who’s been promoted way out of his peers’s grade level much too young.

Tailor Made Woman • Tennessee Ernie Ford • Roy Harte
“Tennessee” Ernest J. Ford cultivated a hayseed persona for the sake of marketing, but he was a sophisticated songwriter and bandleader. The drumming style here is what the “South Park” theme is referring to, but Roy Harte is the Dennis Chambers of backwoods swing. More cowbells! Smiles, everyone.

50 Ways To Leave Your Lover • Paul Simon • Steve Gadd
When Little Steve Gadd was 8 years old, he made his mark on history in a guest spot on “The Mickey Mouse Club,” where he treated Annette and the gang to his precociously adept tap-dancing and traps-playing. Some years later, “Triple-Scale” Gadd brought not only the noize, but also the funk, when he laid down this canonical groove for Little Paulie Simon.

This funky march is pretty much the reference work for a style of drumming that was big in the late 70s and early 80s, “linear drumming,” wherein you never strike two drums at once; the rhythmic line moves from one part of the set to the next. Dave Garibaldi rocked it linear in Tower of Power; Dave Weckl made linear drumming boring and sad.

Posted by MrFeinberg at April 11, 2004 07:38 PM

Wow - who would have thought, another Java blogging drummer. That said, I think our taste in drummers is slightly different though :)

Posted by: Damian Murphy at April 24, 2004 05:50 AM

This list, combined with 'hear it' and 'buy it from Amazon' links, wouldn't that be a great shopping list for drummers?

For some Purdie shuffle magic, check

My hero's still Steve Gadd though: http://www.drummerworld.com/Videos/Stevegadd2.html

Posted by: Peter at May 9, 2004 04:50 PM

Thanks for the inspiring set list. I'm off to the iTunes Music Store...


Posted by: Bill Van Loo at May 10, 2004 10:00 AM

Mr. F,
A very detailed list. As a drummer, I think have stolen a lick or 2 from every person on it.
Even if the style of music isn't your favorite there is always something a good drummer can teach another drummer just by playing.
True Heavy weighs behind the drums.
Thank you for your research.

Posted by: Steve at June 18, 2004 09:48 AM