Every now and then I hear the super intellectual artsy types talk about drummers and how the good ones play “melodies.” Ok, so… I don’t want to be that guy who points out people’s grammar mistakes in Facebook posts or whatever, but seriously.
Drummers don’t play melodies. We just don’t. That’s not the drumset’s job. It never has been and it never will be. “I love how melodic that guy is on the drums.” I feel like people who talk that way are trying to lend cred to the drumset, and I appreciate the effort, but it’s just too much of a stretch. Drummers simply don’t play melodies.
There are, however, a handful of ways drummers can participate in the melodic and harmonic aspects of music. I’ve been slowly learning these things over the past decade and they’ve really impacted my playing and how I view my role in the band.
1) Be aware of what key the song is in.
The biggest impact this has for me is how I tune the snare drum. An open and ringy snare tone can add a lot of life and energy to a rock song, but not if the ring sustains at a bad interval with the key of the song. I typically try to tune the snare to either a tonic or a 5th, but major/minor 3rds can also be cool. Tuning toms to the key of the song can work well too, especially if you’re using them in the actual groove and not only in fills. For instance, check out the way Jay Bellerose uses the tuned rack tone instead of a hihat on this piece of awesomeness. And check out this wiki page on scale numbers if you don’t know what 5ths and 3rds are.
2) Go for “hooks” in your fills.
The thing about a melody that everybody likes is its catchiness, or “hooky-ness” (in pop music terms). It’s something that everyone can sing along with… something that makes the song easily recognizable. Though a 12-tone scale can’t be played on a drumset, there’s nothing stopping us as drummers from playing HOOKS, especially in fills. Dave Grohl on “In Bloom” comes to mind here, or the iconic Phil Collins on “In The Air Tonight.” And you know what? Forget about just fills. What about timeless groove “hooks” like the intros to U2’s “Sunday Bloody Sunday” or Green Day’s “Longview?” While these references are certainly NOT melodies, they are genuine hooks nonetheless and the music is better because of them.
3) Know how to talk about melody and harmony.
The rest of your band knows what scales and chords are. They know the difference between major and minor. You should too. It will make rehearsals and discussions easier for everyone, and it will help to offset the stigma that drummers aren’t “real” musicians.
4) Play in a way that tells a story.
This is more of a soloing or improvising thing, but it can apply to any setting if you want it to. The idea is that you as the drummer spend time thinking and strategically planning what you’re going to play, instead of just mindlessly repeating the same groove over and over. I think this is what a lot of people mean when they reference “melodic” or “lyrical” drumming. And I’m not talking about being overly busy or changing things up just for variation’s sake. I’m talking about putting the kind of effort into the overall direction and crafting of your groove that songwriters put into their melodies and lyrics.
Summary: Suggesting that drummers should play “melodies” doesn’t make you sound smart, but knowing how to use a drumset to access the non-rhythmic elements of the music world sure does. Your job in the band is GROOVE, but that’s not the only realm where you can contribute.