Lake Atitlan, Guatemala

How to play drums

I've played drums on and off my whole adult life, and it's a big part of what keeps me happy and balanced. It is an awesome feeling to be part of creating music and to bring joy to other people.

I am self taught in drumming, and wasted a lot of time on making mistakes. Writing this text I hope to help fellow drummers to reach their goals faster.

My history

I fell in love with music and specifically drums because it is a nonverbal way of communicating and expressing emotions, and I'm not a very good talker.

It all started in my parent's living room at the age of 13 on my brother's drum kit. I joined my first band the same year and we played Heavy Metal covers. I then played with several bands, both covers and original music, mostly Symphonic Rock, Blues Rock, and Pop.

When I moved to Stockholm at age 22, I tried to get into the music scene to become a professional drummer. Got into Funk, Soul and Jazz. I succeeded somewhat for a few years, but I eventually decided to give it up, and focus on software development instead. But my true passion is with music, and if I could make a living from it, I would give it all my attention.

Last 10 years I have been active in the music scene in Chiang Mai, Thailand, where I live part of the year. It is a very different experience there, because the place is bustling with live music venues. I can play in a club almost every night if I want to, compared to a few times a month in Sweden. However it pays very low, so I still see it as a hobby.

The steps involved to learn

To be able to express anything on an instrument you first need the technical skills, which is the mechanics of how to play the instrument. Your nerve system and muscles must adopt the functions needed to perform. Initially this involves a lot of work and really tries your patience, because it is frustrating when everything you play sounds like shit. But this is actually the easiest part of becoming a musician. Anyone can do this, given enough time. Comparing with how you learn a new language, this is the part where you learn the letters of the alphabet. There are several good books on this, but the best thing is to get together with an experienced drummer and have him show you the techniques for hitting the drums and cymbals, your posture, etc.

Then you need to learn the building blocks of music, which in the case of drums are the beats and fills, and understand how they fit into a song. Over time you build a repertoire of beats that are in your backbone, and you can use at any time. This is similar to learning words in your new language. You can pick all this up by listening to songs and copy what the drummer is doing.

The final part is the hardest part, and it is to learn how to listen and understand what to play to support a song. This is where most aspiring musicians fail. Continuing the analogy above, this is when you put words together to form meaningful sentences. There is no magic involved here; you need to listen to a lot of music, and really listen to what is going on with every instrument and how they add to the overall feeling of the song. You also need to play a lot and try many different ideas, to discover what works. They say that an expert is a person who have made all possible mistakes in a given field. This applies to music as well. A persistent and creative mind who is not afraid to fail will eventually know what works in music, and also why it works. The reason why most musicians fail in this department is that they focus too much on their own instrument, instead of seeing the performance as a group effort. This is partly because they have not practiced the skill of playing and listening at the same time, and partly because many musicians are drawn to the profession by egocentric reasons (Look at me, and what I can do!)

General principles

I believe the key to learning any skill is to be persistent and use your time and energy well. Never assume that your favorite musicians are skilled because of natural talent; they are the best because they were willing to put in the hours required to achieve proficiency. They also sucked at drums when they started out, but they managed to stick with it for years, and they were smart about how they approached the instrument. Talent matters much less than persistence.

Here is how I believe it should be done:

  • Make it fun. This is the most important thing, because if it isn't fun, then you won't stick with it for long. Play the music you enjoy. Play it with people you like. Go to concerts to be inspired. Try to find the fun angle for every boring exercise.
  • Play every day. You will learn faster when you spend one hour every day than when you play six hours every weekend.
  • Make good use of your time. If you are not focused then don't play. Stick to the exercises, and focus hard. Don't waste time on stuff you already know.
  • Don't be intimidated by better musicians. Initially you will have no clue on how to play certain things, and it will seem impossible to reach the next level. It isn't, it just takes a lot of time. Your mind will gradually open up, step by step.
  • Improvements come in leaps. When you put in the hours to learn something new, you don't see small improvements from day to day.  Instead, after a week, a month or a year, you suddenly take a big leap. Hang in there, the change will come.
  • Make sure you can hear what is going on. This is very often overlooked. There is no way to improve or even understand what is happening, if the sound quality is bad or the volume is too high/low. Make sure you can hear every detail of what you and the other musicians are playing. You might not focus on the details all the time, but your brain subconsciously picks up all the nuances and does subtle corrections to your timing and phrasing.
  • Be with the right people. Don't surround yourself with pessimists, underachievers or bullies. Optimally play with people who are better than you, who can push you forward. Also, it is better to be the worst drummer in town than to be the best drummer in town, because you will learn more.
  • Talk to other drummers. Share ideas, expose your weaknesses and let them take a critical look.
  • Record yourself, and listen to it. There is a difference between how a song sounds when you are all excited behind the kit, and how the audience perceives it. Some of your favorite beats or fills don't sound good in the songs. Learn about this, and adjust your playing. 
  • Practice to recorded music. Jam with the greats of all time. Listen to and copy what they are doing. It is a great way to develop a sense of tempo, and a sense of what to play.
  • Practice to a metronome. Refine your sense of timing by playing along with a metronome (also called a "click"). Don't take other people's word as true when they say you are pushing or dragging the tempo, because they are often wrong. Use a metronome to find out.
  • Copy and obfuscate. Don't fall for the bullshit of "I'm playing my own style". That is what unskilled musicians tell themselves to keep lazy. Learn every beat and fill of every song, and learn it exactly as it is originally played. This is your bag of tools as a musician. How you use that bag of tools is a totally different matter. That's when you express your personality.

The mental aspects of playing

Playing an instrument is something that goes on in real time. There is a constant flow of sounds, and no way to stop for a moment to figure out the next part. It is very similar to other coordination skills like playing soccer or juggling a ball. To jump up in the air and do a soccer bicycle kick is a matter of extreme timing and motor skills, very similar to performing a complicated drum fill.

Because there is so much going on every second, almost all of what you do must be programmed into your backbone. That's what all those hours in the practice room do. When you play a beat or a fill, you don't really think about the individual strokes involved, you just "do it", the same way you don't think about how you change your balance around when you ride a bicycle. The point when you know how to play a song is when it is in your back bone, when it feels effortless. 

There is a common perception that drummers have extraordinary ambidextrous skills, because they can move their four limbs independently to play different rhythms. This is misleading. There is no real difference between riding a bicycle and playing a drum beat. Both are programmed behavior that involves a lot of different muscles. A drummer is not thinking about his four limbs and what they are doing, the same way the bicycle rider is not thinking about what his feet and muscles are doing to shift balance.

When you play drums your conscious thought can only be on one thing at a time. But at the same time your body can perform hundreds of automated actions that you previously programmed into your backbone. This means that focused attention is in limited supply, so you should try to automate as many things as you can. If you have to think about the speed of the song, how many bars there are left to the next part, what the next part sounds like, how to play the fill that leads into it, and how to physically move your limbs to play the part, you will fail. The purpose of practice is to automate all of this, so it becomes like driving home from work. Yes, it is possible to learn how to count bars without even thinking about it. As you are playing the song, it suddenly feels like the verse is about to end, so you put in a fill to lead into the chorus. It is all automated in your backbone from hours and hours of playing songs.

Don't fall into the trap of too much inward focus. Many musicians pay too much attention to their own instrument on stage. They don't look at anyone, and they are in their own world so to speak. This is all good when you are struggling to learn a new part; it's the only way to memorize something. But after that, it is detrimental to your development, because you will get used to this internal state of mind as if it is the natural state. If you instead try to focus outwards on the stage and audience, you will program yourself to be open and receptive to what is going on. 

A way to practice outward attention is to try and play a song and at the same time carry a conversation with someone. If you can manage both, then you have good command of your attention and good drum automation skills. When you are on stage, try to get into the natural habit of looking directly at the other musicians, and really paying attention to what they play. Switch focus from person to person to single them out, and adjust your playing to each individual. This skill is what eventually leads you to become a good band member that can contribute well suited drum parts to the songs.

When you create the drum part for an original song, it helps to start easy. Go through the song with the bare minimum of play, to find the right mood for the song. Then add decorative beats and fills to create a bit of excitement. It is easy to fall into the trap of overplaying to mask for the failure to come up with the right drum part. Remember that the goal is the overall song, not to feature your impressive drumming.

How to be professional

To succeed in music, you should be someone who other people want to play with. It is pretty simple really. There are many drummers out there, and just because you are good at drumming doesn't automatically mean that people want you in their band.

  • Know the songs. Always learn the songs, and all details of them, before band rehearsal. Even better if you learn them on other instruments too, for a more complete understanding. No one likes to waste time by waiting for a band member to catch up.
  • Show up on time. Patience runs out very quickly with people who waste everyone's time. 
  • Be quiet. Don't overplay, don't try to steal the show, and don't play your instrument between the songs.
  • Be fun and friendly. Joke around and try to get people in a good mood. No one likes a downer.

« ‡ »