Need more space? Lose the cymbals!
Next time you're rehearsing or recording a song with your band and you feel like trying something different, try this: take away your drummer's cymbals. All of them, including the hi-hat. That means getting them completely out of his reach, otherwise it's certain that he won't be able to resist using them. Your drummer might react in any number of ways, all of them unpleasant and probably violent. Never mind; persist. Once you succeed in calming him down and have managed to play the song with him, but without his cymbals, you will immediately notice how much more transparent the music has become.
And this goes for whatever style you might play. Rock, pop, indie — you name it. It goes for the jazz drummer who uses his beautifully crafted ride cymbal softly and sparingly, as well as for the metal drummer going berserk, lashing out on both crash cymbals simultaneously. Lose the cymbals there and it will bring out the guitars like nothing you've ever heard before. Cymbals eat up the frequency spectrum, and without them all other instruments gain a world of breathing space.
In pop music, there's one great example of what I'm referring to: In 1980, Peter Gabriel made an entire album (his third one, Melt) without cymbals. Back then, I didn't notice until after the fourth or fifth time of listening to it that there was not a cymbal to be heard on the whole album. Not one, anywhere. Some high percussion, shakers and the like, but no cymbals, no hi-hat. And yet the drums sounded really big nonetheless, or maybe even more so.
Just as it is good practice for any band to rehearse without the drummer every so often — because most musicians lean on him far too much — it seems good practice for a drummer to play without his cymbals, because they are leant on to keep time far too much. For a good musician, keeping time internally is quite possible without having to make it manifest on the outside. In a band environment, there's always one instrument or another keeping time for reference without the drummer continuously having to spell it out. You don't have to play every eighth or 16th note to experience eighth or 16th time, it will run unobtrusively in the background and the arrangement will be much the better for it. Add to that the clarity you gain in the overall sound when rides and crashes aren't eating up the sound spectrum and you'll see the point I'm trying to make.
If in a lot of situations it really helps the music to lose all cymbals, in many situations — and drummers are going to love this — you could even take it one step further and lose the drums altogether. I realise I'm not making myself very popular with our two-sticked friends by writing this, but almost all ballads sound much better and more convincing without drums — more intimate and more like a ballad. Because at the end of the day it's hard to play molto espressivo on a drum set. That's where a violin might come in.
So don't use drums just to keep the drummer busy, or to disguise the shortcomings of the rest of the band. This doesn't just go for recording situations, but on stage as well. Music before personalities, always. If something doesn't sound better with drums, it certainly can't sound worse without them. This is, of course, true for all instruments, but musicians seem especially reluctant to play or record without drums, and that's often precisely where there is most to be gained.
When I studied arranging, one of the most valuable lessons I learned was this one: "Do not be afraid to write rests and tacets!” This applies to all of us musicians in a broader sense, but especially to drummers: "Do not be afraid not to play!” It might really help the music. And try to leave your cymbals in the bag every now and then — you'll be amazed...
Onno Krijn is a producer and orchestrator based in the Netherlands who prefers to crash in a cymbal-free environment. His collaborations in the world-music scene resulted in his well-received album Don't Be Stranger/One.