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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.
There are things in life that, when you experience them, you know they’re cool. You see a cool movie, or you visit a cool place, and you tell everyone about it because it was cool. There are also experiences that aren’t just cool, but very cool. Not kinda cool – REALLY cool. And then there those rare experiences that are so cool, that you feel like you yourself gained in coolness simply for having had the experience. Listening t0 this album is like that. Listening to this album makes me feel cooler.
Raising Sand is the first and only (to date) collaboration between Alison Krauss, the first lady of bluegrass, and Robert Plant, front man for classic rock giants Led Zeppelin. Produced by prominent American musician/producer T-Bone Burnett, and utilizing the playing of some of the world’s top session musicians, the music can best be described as a “roots music” super group. The vibe is dark, brooding, colorful, and incredibly interesting. The songs are mainly covers from the 50’s and 60’s, with an eclectic variety of feels and sounds, but all in the classic “American folk” style.
As I mentioned earlier, this album is cool beyond the belief. It’s cool because of the songs – witty and thoughtful lyrics with catchy but powerful melodies. It’s cool because of the sounds – recorded beautifully with amazingly complex tones and interaction. It’s cool because of the arrangements – fluid and easy, despite a surprisingly heavy use of odd meters and unsymmetrical phrases. And of course it’s also cool because of the vocals – Krauss and Plant are an unlikely duet but work so well together (“one of the most effortless-sounding pairings in modern popular music” according to Allmusic).
But the real reason this album is on the AEDSK list is the cool drumming. Holy cow. Jay Bellerose, a guy with very deep and impressive credits in the studio, is delivering on this record in a way that I’ve never heard anyone play. His grooves, his feel, his sounds, his ideas… they are all amazing and so inspiring. You know that “loose and jangly” feel that americana/folk fans talk about? Bellerose DEFINES that sound on this record. You know that mysterious “between-swing-and-straight” pocket that everybody wants to get into? That’s where Bellerose LIVES for this entire album. You know that vintage “deep-but-dead” tone that’s so popular in the studio right now? Bellerose is a passionate expert on vintage gear, and he nails the sound on every track… but in a way that keeps it simultaneously classic and fresh, not just trendy.
The groove on “Let Your Loss Be Your Lesson” is the funkiest sounding train/backbeat I’ve ever heard, and then just try and wrap your brain around his pocket during the guitar solo on that tune, not to mention the fill into that section (2:56). Then check out the kick/ride tone on the opening track, “Rich Woman,” and don’t miss the triplet fill after the final choruses (3:10). Listen to the nuances of the one-handed brush feel on “Killing the Blues,” and the tasteful addition of the ride at the slide solo. “Polly Come Home” has so much space… the room he leaves for everyone else is so effective but so difficult to pull off. “Gone Gone Gone” is the coolest treatment of a tumbau pattern. The deep cowbell sound on “Sister Rosetta” is so left field but so perfect. I mean, what is going on with the cymbal/floor tom groove on “Fortune Teller”? How about the awesome but completely unorthodox pattern on the out choruses of “Please Read the Letter”? I could go on and on.
Raising Sand is well worth your money and time to buy it and listen to it. Make it happen.