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Sounding Off: Using Real Drummers

Sean Holden By Sean Holden
Published July 2003

We can argue about copyright ownership until the cows come home, but the real issue is not who owns it, but who played it...

In his Sounding Off in SOS October 2002, Chris Eccles raised the question of who can be said to own a drum loop or rhythm once it has been sampled, processed and re-used in a different context. Though I agree with much of what he said, his assertion that nobody really owns a rhythm is at the very least an over-simplification. Sure, some rhythms are so ubiquitous that nobody could be said to own them, but not everyone plays those rhythms in the same way. Some people can play a simple rhythm with an artistry that's very difficult, if not impossible to mimic. The more I hear samples of drummers and other musicians used in recordings, the more important it seems that we remember the crucial role performance plays in recording.

Sounding Off: Sean Holden on drums.Recently, I was brought down to earth with a bump. After 20 years of playing rock drums I decided it would be fun to learn to play jazz. Obviously nobody could be said to own the classic 'spang-spang-a-lang' swing rhythm, but have you ever tried to play it? Or to reproduce it with a sequencer? It takes very little skill to play or program it in the basic sense of the right sequence of hits, but to make it really swing requires something that can't be written down, so much so that nobody ever even tries to. Look at a drum chart for a jazz tune and you'll see a very rough approximation of the actual part. The writer and the drummer both know it needs to swing, but that's something far too subtle to notate. And some drummers are a great deal better at playing it than others.

The same argument can be made for whatever style you care to mention. Lots of rock drummers can find their way around a kit, but very few can play it and make a sound like John Bonham. And how many of those that can will end up finding such an individual and creative voice in their own work? We can't all be geniuses, but if I have a problem with sampling it is this. Very often (as always there are notable exceptions) I have the impression that the work of some of the most talented musicians of the last century is being exploited by people unwilling to expend the same kind of time and energy required to find their own voice. You can often hear genius at work in a good sample, but that genius isn't simply going to rub off.

A really good funk drummer can make you get up and dance. Why is it, after all, that when you see a funk act appearing live they'll have a seriously hot drummer? It's certainly not because paying a pro and lugging around a drum kit (which then has to be miked up) is easier than using a drum machine or the backing track from the album. Why is it that a relatively small number of session drummers seem to have cornered a disproportionately large slice of the market? These guys can sit in the background, just keeping time, and make it feel good in an indefinable way. That takes artistry. A jazz drummer of the calibre of, say, Tony Williams could make a ride cymbal whisper in your ear, and though you can't describe what it's saying, you know that it's something very important.

If you like to work using sequenced rhythms, here is an exercise for you. Get yourself a copy of Miles Davis' Nefertiti, a sequencer and a decent bunch of ride-cymbal samples. See if you can reproduce a few bars of Tony's ride-cymbal playing so that it sounds identical. You may be surprised at the complexity of what he does. You might also be surprised at what a real drummer can bring to your work.

There's no doubt that in some contexts a sequenced rhythm is going to do the job fine. But there's so much more to rhythm than that. You'll have noticed that people generally choose to sample the top players because their playing has the best feel. This implicit acceptance of the complexity and skill required to produce rhythm speaks volumes. You might argue that your music is sufficiently fast, complex or revolutionary that a person won't be able to play it. But try listening to a bunch of people playing some of the more rhythmically complex pieces by Steve Reich and then ask yourself how hard it would be to sequence what they can play.

What I am essentially arguing in favour of here is musicianship. This has almost become an unfashionable concept in certain circles, but the world is full of musicians with taste who play their instrument with passion and who genuinely want to expand what it's capable of. Working with other musicians might bring its own problems; I am more aware than most of how much hard work it is to move a drum kit around. But find yourself the next Tony Williams, Billy Cobham, or John Bonham and I think you'll find you never want to use a sample again.

About The Author

Sean Holden is a drummer, mandocellist, songwriter and lecturer. He plays rock with progressive goths Bunty, jazz with anyone who's up for a bit of noisy be-bop, and writes and performs modern English folk music under the name of Dodman.