Spotlight On The Background: Drummers
    • TUESDAY, JANUARY 27, 2015

    • Posted by: Jason Greenspan

    Drummers don't always get the recognition that they deserve, and that's putting it lightly. These purveyors of the percussive arts are usually heard, but not truly understood. The average concert-goer or music listener sees the flamboyant lead singer, and the solo-shredding lead guitarist, and then pretty much stops looking. We trust you strive to be above average. In light of this, we've put together a list of five ubiquitous, unique drumming situations that you should be aware of, providing you some insight into what you should be looking and listening for when you're watching a live performance.

    We begin with an example of contemporary live drumming from a group that most of you will recognize: Bleachers. Led by Jack Antonoff, guitarist for eccentric hit makers FUN., this crew uses not one, but two drummers for their live performances. It's a technique that has worked for classic acts like the Allman Brothers, Chicago, and the Grateful Dead, but has been mostly abandoned in the mainstream. Check it out during one of Bleachers' performances on 'Conan' below.

    What to watch for: The drums will sound bigger and denser because of the added player. This makes things tricky, however, because if the two don't stay perfectly in sync, the music will sound jumbled and messy. Watch how one player sometimes plays the main beat, while the other player cues up samples and effects on his electronic pads.




    Next up we're going to talk about late night drumming. Late night talk show bands generally employ some of the most talented musicians in the industry. Included in this prestigious class is Ed Shaughnessy, legendary drummer of The Tonight Show up until Jay Leno took over, and Paul Shaffer, famed bandleader and musical director for The Late Show with David Letterman. Amir Thompson (aka Questlove), drummer for the Legendary Roots Crew, which Jimmy Fallon has brilliantly employed as his house band on The Tonight Show, leads his band through short bursts of music throughout the program and occasionally accompanies guest performers. This is a very unique and coveted gig as a musician; Questlove has said that he made more money playing eight minutes of music per week on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon than he did in a full year of touring with The Roots. Sounds like a good deal to me. Watch Quest have a drum battle with Fred Armisen, star of Portlandia and current band leader of Late Night with Seth Meyers below:

    What to watch for: Quest will count the band in and out of transitional songs. He's a groove-centric drummer, meaning that he creates fat beats, and stays away from flashy drum fills. His signature sound includes a snare drum with an especially high crack. Because he's the bandleader, and because he has a well-known look (the afro-pick poking playfully out of his dew), he's usually the focal point when the camera faces the band: a rarity for drummers.




    We've now come to studio drumming, with a concentration on drummers that are hired by top popstars for recording and live performances. Brian Frasier Moore is one of the leading drummers in this category. His most recent gig was playing for Justin Timberlake's live band, The Tennessee Kids. Before that he toured with Madonna and Janet Jackson, just to name a few. Musicians like Moore are the workhorses of the industry. They've usually attended the finest music schools, practicing ungodly amounts, networked their asses off, and developed their reputations as talented and dependable within the industry. You've heard this guy on many of your favorite albums, you just didn't know it. Watch Moore shred "Cry Me A River," below:

    What to watch for: When performing with JT, Moore will make the drum beats sound exactly like they do on the album, with some added flare for that live "umph." He specializes in funky, R&B influenced playing, lending his tight rhythm and impeccable style neatly to JT's soulful sensibility. Notice his headphones or "in ears" that he would typically use to hear the rest of his band clearly, a staple for most musicians at this level of live performance.




    We'll call our fourth section "the freaks." Those whose inhuman ability can only be the result of some infernal pact with the dark lord. They're so good that they're famous for being drummers, an almost unheard of phenomenon. Tony Royster Jr. is the definition of a prodigy; he won the Guitar Center Drum-Off at age eleven, and performed at the Grammys at age 15. Now considered one of the best drummers in the world, he has graced every major drum conference, and created instructional videos that have become gospel in the discipline.

    What to watch for: Tony is a great example of the "gospel chops" movement in drumming. This style originated in churches that included live bands during praise, and emphasizes impeccable rhythm and tight fills. His speed is astounding, and while he is sometimes criticized for overplaying, he incorporates impressive dynamic range into his solos. Notice his showmanship and how he always lands back on the beat, even when it seems like things have become chaotic.




    For our final drum archetype, we'll explore a very unique group that we'll call, "percussive innovators." These are musicians that attempt to take drumming to planes that the art has not previously inhabited. Robert DeLong is doing something very special with the instrument, bending the notion of what it means to play and hear the drums. He incorporates an acoustic drum kit, synthesizers, effects processors, a timbale (a type of latin drum), a percussive sampling pad, and his own voice into an utterly unique and mind-bending live EDM performance that actually focuses on the drums. It listens like a DJ set and looks like something out of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Check out the unbelievable live performance of his songs "Religious Views" and "Global Concepts" below.

    What to watch for: DeLong's creativity is the focus here. He has assembled what looks like a landfill/space ship hybrid and made it a functioning instrument with drums at the heart of it all. Notice in his performance of "Global Concepts" how he has sampled his own voice and assigned different phrases to his electronic drum pad; just one of the ways in which he bends the standard.



    Being cognizant of the drummer's role in modern music is crucial to becoming an intelligent listener. It's important to consider their unique contribution and what it does for the sound as a whole. This can take many forms when it comes to the percussive arts, and each is important in its own right. So, next time you're at a show look at the drummer, and remember that they provide the backbeat, the foundation, and the primal fire that gets your head nodding and your body up onto the dance floor.
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