Do Drummers Worry Too Much About Chops? Or Do They Not Worry Enough?

Posted on January 9, 2022


Who wouldn’t want to kick off the new year with a rant and a rave?

A few days after Christmas, a pretty innocuous thread was started on r/drums asking an age-old question: “You sit down on a drum set — what do you start playing?”. I left my go–to answer: “Squib Cakes” by Tower of Power, although some of Steve Gadd’s fills from the Chick Corea tune “Nite Sprite” would be another possibility, as would Dave Weckl’s playing on “Mercy Mercy Mercy”.

There were a lot of comments on that thread, and most people answered by saying they would play some sort of groove; I think the half–time shuffle was the most popular response. Many people justified their answer by saying the average non–musician would probably want to hear a groove more so than somebody showing off on a drum set.

Well, a somewhat bizarre thread was later started on r/drumming with the title “harsh brutal truth: non–drummers/non–musicians love flashy chops over in–the–pocket grooving”. Taking inspiration from that earlier post, the OP tried to make the case that flashy, virtuoso drumming is actually what resonates best with the general public.

The proof? A silly video made by Zack Graybeal (AKA ZackGrooves) where Zack tries to impress random people on the video chatting website Omegle. Zack ended up having more success with flashy playing rather than grooving. Case closed… right?

(Several people commented on the thread, myself included, and we all said pretty much the same thing.)

It’s no surprise that Zack had the most success with flashy playing; he’s trying to impress strangers over the Internet as quickly as possible. It doesn’t mean that style of drumming is a one–way ticket to success. In fact, there’s an easy way to refute this point: it’s called Top 40 Radio.

Seriously, go to the charting songs on whatever streaming service you prefer, and point out the drum solos. Every once and a while you’ll find a single with drums that are front and center... but not the vast majority.

Hell, the best–selling band in history had Ringo on the kit, a guy who has sold more records than me, you, and anyone who is reading this (and maybe anyone who could read this). Most importantly, Ringo didn’t get there by ripping around the kit every other measure or twirling his sticks up in the air like a madman.

I’m not sure what OP intended to be as the ultimate takeaway from his spiel. The post seems to put an unjustified emphasis on a drummer’s ability to entertain a crowd alone.

That takes us to another important point: as I’ve brought up in the past, it’s very unlikely that your typical drummer needs to know how to handle a drum solo in any capacity, let alone the opportunity to play an extended, unaccompanied “Moby Dick”–style drum solo.

During practice sessions, you need to prioritize the kind of playing that’s actually going to be useful in your day–to–day career, whatever that may be. There’s a common thought experiment in the drumming world that goes something like this: would you rather hear the words “you’re amazing”, or “you’re hired”?

It’s possible that OP feels irked by people who hide behind the abstract idea of “groove” to cover up the fact that they have little to no technical ability on the instrument. For sure, there are some successful drummers out there who have made careers playing rather stifled and lifeless beats, with an overly cautious approach to their music.

But the most highly regarded drummers in history are the ones who know how to walk the line: showing off when they want to, pushing the envelope, and taking risks — but also understanding how restraint is often what actually wins over an audience. Even someone like Buddy Rich (who tended to be a garish, self–indulgent drummer) knew how to dial it in when he would do session work with other musicians.

There was this curious tidbit from the original post: “From my family and friends, when I do something like nail ‘Take Five’ or the ‘Rosanna shuffle,’ I often get crickets”.

At the end of the day, this comes down to what kind of drummer you want to be. “Take Five” is the best–selling jazz single in history. “Rosanna” peaked at number 2 on the charts and won a Grammy. Who wouldn’t want to achieve something like that? Let’s say that playing one of those tunes alone might bore a room full of people, so you play something a little bit spicier to get them riled up for a few minutes before they inevitably get bored of your chops. Is that any greater of an accomplishment?

You may be the kind of drummer that just wants to entertain people by yourself. This is the kind of person that might get a few million views on YouTube doing flashy marching snare solos. Or the kind of person that might make it far on one of those Got Talent shows.

Alternatively, maybe you’re the kind of drummer that wants to get good at playing with other people, selling millions of records, filling up stadiums, and having your music played all over the world.

I don’t want to sound sanctimonious here and I’m not going to try and discredit the performance or artistry of either type of player. You might get the vibe that I would turn up my nose at some kid on America’s Got Talent who plays their drum set and gets Simon Cowell to clap after a heinously gaudy performance. Maybe Simon would clap, and maybe the kid would make it a few rounds. But they won’t win, and there’s no way Simon is gonna ask that drummer to go on tour with his next One Direction project.

OP brought up the idea of a “semi–elitist attitude” as well as the trend of “fetishizing groovy no–frills drumming that appeals primarily to other drummers and musicians”. I personally feel like that second sentence is just incorrect. The most popular music throughout the drum set’s history tends to have drumming that’s more on the understated side. Drumming that’s overdone quickly becomes fatiguing, probably more so with non–musicians at that.

Most of this has to do with the role the drum set has in the ensemble and what kind of musical statements it can make. I’ll say this again: Keith Jarret can fill up a concert hall with just him and his piano, and he can do it time after time again. No drummer will ever do that, no matter how good they are. That’s a harsh, brutal truth. And yet, add a bassist and a guitarist and suddenly you can tour all around the world.

To be clear, I still think it’s very important to have a good technical facility on the instrument. Maybe it’s so you can take advantage of the one moment on each tune when you get to push the envelope with some more adventurous drumming.

A lot of times it’s a bit more abstract. Consider how Tommy Igoe puts it on Great Hands for a Lifetime:

Technique is always a tool. All of the things we just discusses today are not music… Why do we practice technique? …We practice technique so we never have to think about technique. That’s why the piano player will stay there and play five–octave scales and tenths up and down for days on end, years on end, decades on end, so when he has to play that Rachmaninoff… he doesn’t have to worry about whether or not it’s going to happen. All instruments do this: to get your technical facility to a place that is effortless — that just breathes on its own.

Other commenters talked about the difficulty of getting into the mind of a non–musician. Most non–musicians can’t really articulate why a piece of music sounds good. It just does. It’s easy for us drummers to evaluate a colleague’s playing but how do we know what the general public thinks? Aside from popularity, there’s not much to go on. So instead of worrying about what kind of fill was going to get the audience to cheer, why not worry about how to get an audience in the first place?

Ultimately, I feel like OP’s concerns are just misplaced. I suppose I won’t refute the point regarding how to make an entertaining drum solo, but being a good soloist won’t get you the gig. As Metalocalypse put it: “If you have to take a shit, now’s the time — it’s the drum solo!”.

The same OP started another thread this past week, basically saying that overplaying isn’t really a problem that anyone needs to worry about. This time around, he provided some more examples of drummers playing on records and in concert.

I don’t really have much to add to that discussion — another user put it well:

I reject this premise. “Overplaying” is a diplomatic way of saying the part doesn’t work. Using chops or playing a busy part is not the same as overplaying. Interesting and musical drumming is my personal goal, and interesting musical playing is probably the goal of every musician I’ve ever met.

The different disciplines of drumming are pretty self–selecting. A drummer who can’t stop showboating with tacky chops probably isn’t going to have a career playing with bands that are trying to write danceable music. Alternatively, that same drummer might have a good shot of going viral playing alone in their practice room.

Again, whatever direction you want to take your drumming is ultimately your prerogative, and people can define success however they want. I think it’s more worthwhile to shoot for playing gigs and cutting records rather than getting hits on social media with (what I typically regard as) gimmicks. I don’t know what the longevity is of building a music career on viral success. It’s a brave new world, but I remain skeptical. To quote a recent Todd Bishop piece, “Maybe being a social media performer is a valid career. It's not the same as being a musician.”

It looks like certain people believe there’s some sort of dichotomy: “chops or groove”. Where did that come from? We can’t have players with both? Because we certainly do. Yes, chops can be exhausting and grooves can be dull, but there is a happy middle ground. It seems like people are creating unnecessary dilemmas and boogymen. Someone else wrote on the second thread: “Still fighting those windmills I see”.

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