Have you ever watched another drummer and just thought to yourself “Man… that drummer is so much better than me. He just lays it down like he owns the world, and he’s way more fun to watch than I am. Everyone talks about how great he is and how he’s ‘the man.’ I wish I could play that way.”
I grew up at a large church that launched a modern worship service while I was in high school. They’d bring in professional musicians each Sunday, and it was always a thrill seeing who was playing drums. Some of these guys were local legends, and they were all great drummers.
There was one particular guy, though, who was the absolute loudest drummer I’d ever heard. Even with a drum shield up, the sound guy had to boost the house mix a bit to compensate for how loud the drums were. He was slamming rimshot backbeats, stomping the kick, and smashing cymbals in every song. He played like he owned the place, and he laid down grooves and fills in such a confident, compelling, unquestionable way.
At the time, I was playing with our high school worship band with other high school students. I’d just started playing in the band, and I was just finding my footing. I was a little nervous, timid, and not sure of myself at all. The comments I’d hear from folks didn’t really help much either.
Folks would say something like, “Stephen, did you hear the drummer this morning? He was awesome. You gotta play like that and really rock out. The way he plays those fills with that anger and intensity… You need to play with that kind of confidence.”
Now these people meant well, and they kind of had a point. I was playing timidly, not really knowing what I was doing. Meanwhile this pro drummer was so far opposite of that.
But it got me thinking. Does playing loudly make you a better drummer? What makes you sound pro? Is it a volume thing? What is it that “those guys” have that I don’t?
It took me a few years to discover this, but my ultimate conclusion was very encouraging and reassuring. I hope this will help you out, too. I’ll share with you what I believe is the best answer to our question in the subject line, and I’ll give you some action steps to take right now to become a more pro-sounding drummer. Let’s do this!
No, playing loudly does not automatically make you a better drummer. But having the ABILITY to play loudly will probably make you a better player. Ultimately, having the ability to play both very loud and very soft is what can set your playing apart.
But what we want to land on today is something called “dynamic consistency.” What is this? Well, it’s very simple, and it’s what generates what your audience will perceive as “confidence.”
When you’re playing a rock groove (or any kind of groove, really), your kick and snare need to be very steady. They need to be steady time-wise, but more importantly they need to be steady VOLUME-wise. This means hitting the same-sounding backbeat on the snare every 2 and 4. This means playing each kick note at a consistent volume. This is the backbone of your groove, and any volume inconsistencies here will be perceived by the listener as sloppiness, even if you’re playing in time.
The crazy loud drummer in my story was playing very consistently because he was constantly at his max volume. This is actually a studio recording technique many famous drummers have aimed for, including the late, great Larrie Londin. He was a Nashville session drummer decades ago whose method was to play as loud as possible so that the energy and drive of the track stayed high and consistent. His belief was that if you faltered on that at all, the song would lose power. Many session guys have subscribed to this school of thought over the years.
This is true and actually essential if you’re recording a song like “When You Were Young” by The Killers or “Everlong” by the Foo Fighters. These kinds of rock songs are driving and relentless, and you have to play them at max volume pretty much all the way in order to create the sound and feel needed. My guess is that Ronnie Vannucci and Dave Grohl (respectively) were playing crazy loud in the studio when those tracks were recorded.
But here’s another take on this. If the goal is to play at an even volume, where everything is steady and consistent, why not just bring the overall volume down? We can still play evenly, just not as loud, and this will still be perceived by the listener as “solid” and “confident.”
We always need to be dynamically steady so that our playing doesn’t feel shaky. But not every song requires loud, pounding drumming. Many songs require a lighter touch. Not to mention you and I might be playing rock songs in a small venue with a cover band, and we can’t afford to play crazy loud in a small room. We have to “turn the volume down” on our drums, which we can very simply do by keeping our dynamic even - just at a lower volume.
So how do we practice this? How do we get really good at playing steadily when we can’t / shouldn’t / don’t want to play loudly?
It all starts with your singles. This wouldn’t be a Non Glamorous lesson without us landing on the core topic of singles. :)
Here’s what I want you to do! (Your ACTION STEPS):
#1: Practice quarter and 8th note singles with each individual hand at various tempos. Start very slowly at 60bpm, and work your way up to 120bpm or so also. Focus on your dynamics. Practice maintaining a very soft level, then practice staying just a little louder. Whichever dynamic you pick, practice staying right there on it and being consistent.
#2: Now apply this very same exercise to the kit in groove form. Play a basic, “Billie Jean” beat with 8th note timekeeping. Listen carefully to the volume at which you’re playing the hats, snare, and kick. Keep the kick and snare steady, and keep the right hand timekeeping ultra steady as well. This is actually more an exercise of listening than of technique, which is a fun challenge. This teaches you to listen carefully to what each limb is doing, which actually builds coordination. Do this regularly, because it literally will make you a better drummer every time you do it!
Now if grip is a weakness for you right now, and you know you need to fine tune how you’re gripping your sticks, check out these further resources. You absolutely must be getting smooth rebound, which requires relaxed hands. This is the prerequisite that makes everything we’ve discussed today easy.
Check out these lessons!
3 things every APARTMENT DRUMMER should practice (all about grip & pad practice)
The REAL REASON your slow playing is choppy & clumsy (all about motion and fluidity around the kit)
Create amazing FEEL on the drums in 2 steps (all about time, dynamics, and drum sound)
Looking back today, I see that the pro drummer who played at my church was a good drummer. He was your “caveman,” “meat-and-potatoes” kind of drummer whose parts were very simple and precise. Most of the time, that’s all you need.
But what I eventually discovered was that this drummer was also somewhat of a “one-trick-pony” who excelled at loud playing, but couldn’t sound as great on a quiet song to save his life. Subtlety and intricacy were not his strong suit, so he was not versatile at all. His loudness was perceived as confidence, but his “confidence” might not have carried over in other genres or on a quieter song.
Solid time and steady dynamics are what contribute to perceived confidence. This is what creates “pocket.” This is what creates great feeling grooves that people relax to or want to dance to. Strive to do this, no matter your playing volume.
Work the action steps, and know that YOU CAN DO THIS. Let me know how it goes. :)
Stay Non Glamorous,
P.S. - Happy New Year! I hope you've enjoyed some much needed time off and that you've been able to spend the holidays with people you love. Happy 2022 coming up very soon!