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Don’t Blame the Drummer – The Fickle Singer, Songwriter

What Do You Think?

There is great irony in a songwriter relying heavily on a drummer, thus minimizing their role in the creation of their own tunes. But that’s what I witnessed when working with many singer/songwriters in the 1990’s. I wonder, to what degree did Gershwin, Beethoven, Hamlish and other notable composers, rely on their drummers/percussionists for the principal ideas of their music? My guess is not much at all. Yet, time and time again, I’d work with singer/songwriters who had no clear vision of arrangement, counter melodies, harmonies or orchestration for their own work. In some instances, the easiest element on which to offer input or suggestions, Gift for drummer was the rhythm part. For a drummer, this could be a nightmare.

Why The Fuss?

Sometime in the 1990’s, I was talking with engineer/producer John Sickett at a recording session in Hoboken, NJ. As usual, our conversation centered around the state of the music business, note-worthy new bands and the projects in which we were currently involved. This particular day, we also discussed the current glut of singer/songwriters in the New York area. There was a tidal wave of emerging artists going solo, pedaling their songs in an attempt to get signed to a major record label. I knew this first-hand because I’d been hired by dozens of them for gigs and recordings. “You know, they gotta move away from the beat and get back to the song”, John complained, referring to the current state of songwriting craft. His statement hit me hard. As a matter of fact, in my opinion, most singer/songwriters overly obsessed about the beat and groove, while ignoring the real meat and potatoes of their work; the lyrics, arrangement, orchestration, melody, harmony, etc. However, it wasn’t just the overall groove they dwelled upon, but the physical appearance of the drummer as well. Why the fuss?

Credit Where It’s Due

In those days, the standard approach to fleshing out a song would begin with the writer and musicians assembled in a rehearsal room. The singer/songwriter would usually play their song on a guitar. I’m not sure if you can relate to this, but there was almost a standard singer/songwriter guitar rhythm those days. I describe it as strummed 16th notes with Charleston-like accents on beats one, “an” of two, and four. If you need an aural example, check out that song Breakfast at Tiffany’s. This pattern was a song-killer. Rhythmically speaking, it was too active and did not allow for spaces (which are crucial components of a comprehensive rhythm arrangement). After the initial listen, I would ask questions of the writer, including what mood they wished to convey, or if they could refer to a popular song as a model in this instance. The answers to these questions would give us a framework in which to proceed. Often, however, the answers were vague and incomplete, leaving us painstaking guesswork, or the process of musical trial and error. Other tasks ahead of us were to determine rhythm section parts, arrangements, orchestrations, dynamics, kick drum patterns, etc. The subtext of this situation was usually, “I’m not really sure what should be played in this spot, but what would you guys play here?”, allowing the artist to choose from a smorgasbord of possibilities, before rendering any musical decision. Afterwards, when an initial draft was completed, the singer/song “writer” would usually capture the musicians performance by recording it during the rehearsal, thereby claiming ownership of the tune as its sole creator. It didn’t take long for me to realize that all the musicians involved in this process were contributing to the creation of the composition in some way. Hence, it is my belief that contributing musicians should get commensurate writing credit, and financial remuneration, in this situation.

Eenie Meenie

Needless to say, I wasn’t the only drummer helping singer/songwriters in this manner. As a matter of fact, in the mid-90’s, it seemed that singer/songwriters were becoming increasingly picky about their drummers, as they had an abundance of eager, hungry and affordable tub-thumpers from which to choose; a virtual menu of electronic and traditional drummers, if you will. It was apparent that the drummer’s physical look and style was a factor too. There were drummers who wore hats (mostly to cover a bald spot), dressed in costume for a “look”, or spoke in an affected accent, way out of the bounds of their natural dialect. (There was one hat-wearing drummer from the Mid-West suburbs who put on an accent and dialect as if he was raised in the Southern Baptist Church). There were theatrical drummers who twirled sticks or played standing up. There were the worldly drummers who employed more exotic percussion. These guys would have ethnic drums, frame drums, djembes or vintage percussion in their set up. Sometimes they wore an African dashiki to express their inner ethnicity.

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