A Rant About Drum Covers

Posted on September 10, 2023

 drum covers

It’s now time for a rant and a rave about drum covers. Took me long enough — I’ve tersely complained about them on my site, and yet they are extraordinarily popular. 

Why do it now all of a sudden? Well, something crazy happened a couple of weeks ago: an interesting drumming discussion actually took place on the internet. They do occur… every once in a while at least.

There’s a little bit of mama drama here, so I’ll need to speak somewhat vaguely, but what specifically happened was that a well–known metal drummer in the prog/djent scene took umbrage to the way one of his tracks was covered. Personally, I started to wonder about how someone should react to a cover of their music.

Now, if you really wanted to know, I don’t care for drum covers. I’ve been disparaging in the past, so today I’ll just leave it at this: drum covers are not for me. Lots of people enjoy them, which is fine, and if they get someone motivated to practice or even pick up the instrument, that’s a good thing. But I just don’t care about them.

Part of the problem is that you never know what you’re going to get out of a drum cover. Will it be a note–for–note cover of the original, will it go in a totally different direction, or something in between?

It always comes back to how unique drums are. If someone were to cover a guitar part (or a piano part, or sax part, etc.) there’s certainly an expectation that it will be as close to the original as possible. But drums just aren’t as intrinsic to a song the way pitched instruments are. 

There are exceptions of course. If you covered “Rossana” without playing Jeff Porcaro’s drum groove, you would probably be skewered. The same would likely apply to songs like “Tom Sawyer”. But for a tune like “Back in Black”? People might fall asleep watching you play it verbatim. Or people might love it, becasue it grooves man. You never know. 

I used to consider drum covers as a way to help me figure out what a drummer is playing, but I don’t bother anymore. I realized that most note–for–note covers are just wrong, sometimes egregiously so. That’s part of my inspiration for transcribing — I’ll just do it myself. 

When I play along to songs I like, I usually try to channel the vibe of the original drum part, but I’m not trying to play things exactly the same. I firmly say that’s a waste of time. 

That might be surprising since I transcribe so much music. But I transcribe to understand the music, not to learn the mechanics of how to play it. The ultimate goal is to thoroughly cognize the drums to get new ideas. If I just go for a surface–level dissection, I’m likely to get it wrong: “Oh, I know what I’m hearing, because that’s how I would play it!”

So in that regard, I don’t really blame someone for not playing a note–for–note drum cover. You don’t want to get good at playing another drummer’s parts; you need to get good at coming up with your own. There’s utility in learning how to play someone else’s groove, fill, or perhaps even their 8–bar drum solo. But a full five–minute tune? Forget it. And yet, we encounter some drum parts that are almost sacred, an “extrapolate at your own risk” situation.

I could understand why a recording artist would feel a particular attachment and reverence to their parts. It’s their music after all. Those parts were written for a reason. Perhaps it’s a bad reason, but again, it’s their music.

Sometimes I feel disrespect on another drummer’s behalf when a cover gets the part wrong, particularly when the cover is close, but is ultimately an interpretation that’s more conventional and less unique than what’s on the record. To me, it’s an indictment of someone’s listening ability, as well as their perspective and exposure.

But as far as going off on your own, that leaves me uneasy too. I guess the rub is in the idea that you’re using someone else’s music as a vessel to show off — as nothing more than a click track that nevertheless has a famous name to boost your numbers. I see how that can be disrespectful. 

Now, in some disciplines of music, that’s the name of the game. Take classical music for example. Or perhaps jazz standards, which have a main melody (AKA a head) but still rely on improvisation, which makes up the other 75% of the tune. 

The problem is that we’re not talking about those kinds of traditions. Many people who play popular music are both songwriters and performers. Classical composers aren’t best remembered for their playing; many people probably don’t even know what instrument these guys played, and obviously they weren’t recording artists. A composer explicitly offer their pieces to other musicians, who then make an offer to an audience. What is offered with a drum cover?

It seems like we have a contradiction now. Playing a drum cover note–for–note is a waste of time, but blasting off with your own interpretation isn’t much better. So you probably know what my takeaway is: just don’t bother with drum covers.

Now look, covers have been used for years to try and launch a career, and can obviously be transformative — just look at one of many articles titled something to the effect of “Songs You Didn’t Know Were Covers”. But the sad truth is that Jimi Hendrix can do more with his guitar than any drummer will with a kit. 

After writing over 900 words about this, after all that philosophizing, I guess I should consider that, in the real world, drum covers are ultimately harmless. Maybe they are, as long as no one takes them too seriously. Honestly, the biggest fear I have is a young drummer getting inspired to start a career in playing other people’s music, trying to go viral.

It would be kind of surreal if I ever noticed people covering my music. I mean, I’m a long way away from that happening (if it ever does happen), but you can’t deny it’s kind of flattering, in some regards. And I would never watch any drum covers of my music. Nothing good would come of it. 

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