The role of the drums in music


(Note: This grew out of an Internet newsgroup discussion about popular drummers, which is where the reference to Jeff Porcaro originated.)


I don't agree with the generally accepted notion that a drummer's primary job has only to do with providing rhythm, energy and support for the musicians we're playing with. Why should our job be merely the support of the "real" musicians (the ones who sing and play instruments with definite pitch)?


I contend that a drummer's job need be no more involved with rhythm or support than that of anyone else in the ensemble. In the hands (and feet) of an artist, the modern drumkit is capable of unlimited tonal, melodic and harmonic (as well as rhythmic) shading. There is no reason why a drummer cannot be every bit the equal of any other musician in adding a complex and unique voice to music. Well, there is ONE reason: most drummers haven't the courage or vision to try to expand the role of the drummer beyond that of timekeeper and rhythmic supporter.


This is the crux of the biscuit. It's the reason why I don't hold Jeff Porcaro (and studio drummers like him) in particularly high regard, and it's the reason why I'm disheartened that so many drummers do.


Even though Porcaro was around for 20 years; even though he played on a vast number of recordings; even though his work has been heard by countless drummers all over the world, the art of drumming is no different now than it would have been if he had never picked-up a stick. Jeff kept great time and supported the other musicians. He performed those tasks very well and helped make lots of money for record companies and for himself, but he didn't change the way our instrument is played, or the way it's regarded by others (both musicians and non-musicians). He approached his job the same as all drummers before (and most drummers since) Gene Krupa: support the "real" musicians.


As long as drummers look up to this as the 'holy grail' of drumming, we'll never realize our full potential as musicians, and drumming will stagnate. Drummers can be so much more than supporting players. To do so, we need more than our talent. We need the vision to imagine doing something different. Then we need to use our talent to actually play according our vision. We need the courage to develop and speak with our own voice. We need the guts to sometimes do what others may not be prepared for us to do. That is how we change drumming. That is how we create art.


Listen to the work of drummers who have created art. Listen to any of the live recordings of CREAM. Ginger Baker is not merely supporting Bruce and Clapton, he's an equal voice in the music. He's providing color and texture, sometimes more densely than Clapton with his 6 strings and 2 Marshalls. He's providing melody. (Listen to the live version of "Sweet Wine"). Sometime he's even leading the way. He pushed drums beyond where they had been before him. No one could have taken his place.


Listen to Bill Bruford with King Crimson. Merely keep time? For a while he didn't even use hi-hats! He filled space. He poked fun. He stood-out, He surprised. He gave us sounds no drummer ever had before. No one could have taken his place.


Listen to John Bonham. If you look at the history of rock drumming, John Bonham changed everything. Up until Bonham, rock drums were played one way. After Bonham, rock drums were played differently. FOREVER. No one could have taken his place. (Jimmy Page was smart enough to not even try).


Now listen to Jeff Porcaro. Like thousands of others before and since, he kept good time. Like thousands of others before and since, he supported and made the music feel good for the other players. Now he's dead and fifty others have taken his place without missing a beat. THAT'S the difference between commerce and art.


I feel with all my heart that drummers should aspire not just to do merely what is expected, we should aspire to speak with our own, unique musical voices. We should aspire to be artists.


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