Over the past couple of months I’ve been doing a wide variety of sessions for clients including Vox Lumiere, Tyrone Wells, Nickelodeon, The Voice, Robin Grubert, Ronan Chris Murphy, Lee Ferris, David Bowick, and Michael ‘Smidi’ Smith.
I’m humbly grateful for all of these experiences. They enrich me in a variety of ways. There’s the obvious financial one (so I can keep the lights on), but there are plenty of others. One of them is re-imagining what a drumkit is and can be. These sessions got me thinking about some of my favorite players.
People like Jim Keltner, Matt Chamberlain, Butch Norton, Blair Sinta, and Glenn Kotche.
These 5 (and many others) are often called to bring weird, unusual, off kilter, or otherwise strange sounds and approaches when they get called for a session. This is not something new to me. I have become one of ‘those guys’ to the people that hire me. Over time, I have developed a kind of ‘tool kit’ to tweak the sound of my kits easily, quickly, and effectively when I’m in the studio; and have procured a variety of gear I can bring and call upon when necessary to get ‘that sound’ or ‘that vibe’ when tracking. The nice thing about all of this: it is easy to mess with things and ‘audition’ sound options before committing to anything. You might be bringing a few extra things to a session, but imagine how cool it will/would be to have ‘that’ sound for ‘that’ song? There’s nothing like it!!!
This may seem like a simple concept, but I’m amazed at the number of folks that DON’T do it – even toying with the idea of experimenting when not in the studio.
It’s as if the world can be split into two camps – those that feel that the traditional drumset is perfectly fine as it is without any kind of augmentation, ornamentation, or preparations, and those that feel that these augmentations, ornamentations, and preparations are part of the natural progression of the instrument.
Why not inhabit both worlds? You’re not always going to be called upon to fly your freak flag from behind the drumkit. But why not use that knowledge to expand what you can do with your regular set up?
I’m going to look at some of the things you can do to create your own ‘prepared drumset’. I hope you would allow yourself to try them out, explore what these things sound like, and see what kinds of grooves you can make with them and how the mere sound and feel of this prepared kit alters your perception of it, and your approach.
In dismissing the prepared drumset (or any prepared instrument) you are dismissing curious and unique sound options. These options might only work 2% of the time, but they are sounds unique to you and your approach. They may also spark your curiosity in a way that allows you to create really interesting, challenging, and fun patterns to groove to. There are many simple things you can do to ‘prepare’ your drumkit.
Get fat by getting skinny
No, I’m not talking about a strange drummer diet, I’m talking about getting fat sounds out of your snare and toms for the price of one skinny (and only slightly used) drum head. Simply cut the head portion of the drum head from the collar. You can cut it to whatever diameter you like (of course), but I find that about an inch less than the size of the drum I’m putting it on gives you the best results.
When you lay this head remnant on your snare or toms, you get instant girth. The sound is reminiscent of that ‘wet’ 70’s sound you heard on all of those classic Eagles and Steely Dan records. Mics love it and it’s a non permanent situation. Just take the head remnant off when you’re done. I keep sizes cut for all of my drums in their respective cases so I always have them when I need them.
Get Jingly with it
Tambourine jingles are a great way to mess with the kit and get interesting grooves and sounds happening easily. There are a few things you can try (yes, I own ALL of these).
Keplinger Jingle Ring
Gregg Keplinger has these wonderful rings that have either 4 or 5 sets of jingles. They are about 6″ or so around and you can easily put them on cymbals or drums to curious effect. On ride and crash cymbals you get that characteristic sizzle kind of effect but with a more wobbly sustain. On drums, you get a slight muffling effect but then you get the jingles going when you hit the drum as well as the sympathetic rattle/buzz when you hit other drums on the kit.
Vater Jingle Rings
Vater came out with these jingle rings a few years ago. They were developed by Jose Mendeles who plays with the Breeders and now has his own drum shop in Portland Oregon called Revival Drum Shop. They are black mylar rings about 1.5″ wide with sets of jingles riveted onto them. I use them on snares and floor toms primarily. These give a similar effect as the Keplinger rings, but mute the drums a bit more given the larger surface area being covered.
Vater Stickmate Tambourine (and Stickmate Shaker)
Vater also just recently released two different Stickmates. These things attach to your stick and are held in place by small rubber rings (like you’d find on a pair of rods or blastick type implements). These allow you to have the sounds of a tambourine (or shaker) as you are using your favorite stick. It doesn’t affect your playing because the Stickmates are light, and you get the benefit of having these additional sounds when you’re playing a groove.
Mike Balter has a cool jingle stick – basically a squat, thick stick that has 3 sets of tambourine jingles on it – use it for playing a groove on the hi-hat or ride, or play the side of a floor tom for more of a cascara type pattern (mind that you are playing the wood part of the stick and not bashing the jingles into your drumshell). For very little money spent or space used, this is a great implement.
Pearl Jingle Clamp
I honestly don’t know what the hell this is called, but I saw it at Pro Drum about a month ago and had to have it. It is kind of like an external muffler looking device that clamps onto the rim of a drum. Instead of a piece of felt to muffle though, it has 3 sets of jingles and a nut you can use to lower or raise the jingles with. All the way up and you have literally no jingle sound… but the closer your move it to the head, the more the jingle react. I’ve used this thing a lot and it’s a very small, unobtrusive bit of gear that has been a welcomed addition.
The Fabric of Thud
Old tea towels, hand/face towels, bandanas, pillow cases, etc. are great for preparing a drumset. You can drape any of these things over drums and cymbals and get very thuddy, warm, and choked sounds that also sound very lovely under the mics. Your kit will sound very ‘old school’ funk or R&B and it really does make you think about the drumset differently because you are hearing it differently! It’s a simple trick that pays high dividends.
Brass In Pocket
It’s not only a great Pretenders song, it also is how I reference the small splashes and gongs I sometimes put on my snare drum and toms to get strange metallic/wobbly sounds. I’m talking about 4-6″ cymbals or gongs typically… though I have gone as big as 10-12″ for certain things. Played with mallets in particular, you get very long and curious sounds – having the brass or bronze resting on the head inhibits the vibrations – so what you have are very high sounds (harmonics) as well as the low end sound of the drums. On snare drums, you get a white noise type sound that works lovely for more modern sounding rock music as well as d&b, hip-hop, and experimental.
O-kay, so we have discussed some of the ways you can ‘prepare’ your drumkit for various sonic explorations. I would like to now consider the person who doesn’t want to do that, and instead is comfortable with their regular drum kit ‘as is’.
The traditional drumset (unprepared) is a truly beautiful thing and often times is enough to get the job done for any gig you may come up against. If you don’t feel the need to have the various items I listed above as part of your regular arsenal, that’s fine. However, I would suggest that, even for the person who doesn’t want to ‘prepare’ their drumset (beyond setting it up, of course), there are still things you can do to keep the drumset, and your relationship to it exciting! The last thing I want is:
a) someone feeling stuck in a rut and that the drumkit has nothing new or interesting to offer, or
b) someone being bored with the drums and, as a consequence, sound bored when they are behind the kit playing (gasp!!!!)
For this reason, I humbly offer these suggestions as a starting off point:
Set up backwards
What? Are you crazy?!?!?!?! Maybe, but hear me out for a moment!
I set up the traditional, right handed way because that’s the way my dad sets up and that’s how I learned. But I’m left handed playing a right handed kit (like Ringo Starr). There have been many times in my playing life where I’ve set things up contrary to what I knew just because it seemed like fun. No, I can’t execute everything I do when the kit is set up “regular”, but there is a lot of fun and learning to be had.
There are three things I’ve done in the past that I’d like to share:
- asymmetrical (aka flip flopped) tom arrangements
- put the ride and hi-hat on the same side
- set up completely ‘south paw’
In each instance, it has altered my playing in surprising ways. Not all experiments were that fruitful in the short term. But what I took away in the long term was pretty profound. Why? Because each of the changes identified above added a layer of additional thinking to my playing concept. I needed to figure out how to get through the strangeness of each set up so I could allow the music to happen. In that regard, it opened me up to some of the possibilities that the drumset can have to a player.
Let’s look at the asymmetrical tom set up (a la Billy Cobham or (much later on) Jimmy Chamberlain). When playing with a flip flopped tom arrangement, your fills are naturally going to sound different because you are used to going around the kit in a more symmetrical tom set up (highest to lowest). Flip things around and you’ve got something different going on. I enjoy using this kind of set up but the simple act of doing a ‘regular’ fill with it isn’t enough for me. What I want to figure out is ‘how can I make this arrangement as musical as I can?’ I don’t just want to ‘go around’ the toms. I want to see how I can make this altered set up something that allows as great a level of expression I can find. Asymmetrical toms set ups keep you on your toes (finger tips?) by taking your ear out of its natural comfort zone. It also allows for different rhythmic combinations in your fills. When you switch back to your regular set up, you can keep those rhythmic figures tucked away for future use. If you’re saying you only play a two tom set up, fear not… put the floor tom where the rack would be (the legs will almost always be long enough to accommodate a comfortable playing angle), and then put the rack, you guessed it, where the floor tom would be. OR, keep the rack tom in the normal position and put the floor tom next to your hi-hat instead. That empty space where you’re used to having your floor tom WILL freak you out initially. It’s cool though.
With the ride and hat on the same side (a la Simon Phillips, Rayford Griffin, and Billy Cobham (again)); how does this alter the way I play certain grooves? Obviously you’re going to have to lower your hi-hat a little bit to get the ride where you need it without growing an extra 10″ onto your arm. This is also called playing ‘open handed’. By dropping your hi-hat down to accommodate the ride cymbal you just moved, you have a lot of interesting options available to you. You will be, essentially, working on your ‘weak time keeping hand’. If you play open handed, then your left hand will be marking time – up to this point it probably was only used to playing the snare drum and taking part in various fills and cymbal crashes. Now, you are making use of it as a time keeper. Here are some questions to consider when you make this kind of a switch.
- How does it affect your groove?
- Is it hard to play open handed with the hi-hat being played with the left hand (for righty drummers)? How about if you had an auxiliary hat on the right side? Is it harder or easier to play that way? Why would that be? Think about it and see if you can come up with answers that will help you crack the puzzle of how you play and why you play the way you do.
How about completely setting up backwards (a la the late Ian Wallace, or the present Rod Morgenstein)? Often in this scenario, you are going to have a challenging time playing what you would normally on your regular drumset. You may have to play very simple grooves just to get your brain to wrap around the idea of what you are doing! Maybe all of your fills are backwards or herky-jerky (one of the things that makes Ringo, well… RINGO). Your balance is different as well. How do you alleviate stress from your body when you’re set up like this so you can play? How can you take that knowledge and apply it to when you’re playing on your regular kit?
Would I suggest you do these types of things at a session or gig? Probably not, but then again, who knows? Ultimately it’s up to you to decide how you want to experiment and what the best venue for those journeys will be.
What I will say is, in adjusting the way you frame the drumset and your approach to it, you can explore interesting new sonic worlds and groove ideas so that, when you do set back up to your ‘home base’ kit arrangement, you have a new world of options available to draw from. All from the simple experiments you did with altering your kit set up.
So, take some time, experiment and enjoy! Let me know what you did, what you think, and how you went about doing it!