Ask Damian Erskine: Working with Tricky Drummers

Q: I was wondering how you play with jazz drummers who seem intent on messing everyone up with syncopation. I’ve seen and played with drummers who will start a polyrhythm and repeat it for two measures to set up a downbeat, and they expect me to come in on time? I want to be able to have fun and interact with the drummer without having to count to myself all the time.

A: This phenomenon doesn’t only apply to jazz drummers, to be sure. Many drummers love to push the envelope rhythmically. Sometimes it’s appropriate stylistically and sometimes it isn’t (usually, as most drummers apply these ideas, it isn’t, I’d say). In Afro-Cuban music and a lot of Latin bands, it’s pretty common for the drummer and/or percussionist to rhythmically modulate an idea and bring it back. It produces a nice effect but the band really has to be on their toes!

In the jazz setting, it can be a magical moment when it all comes together but, in my opinion, if the drummer is consistently losing the band, he’s not doing his job. He isn’t there to serve his ego and leaving the audience thinking about him. He’s there to serve the music and leave the audience thinking about the music and the band as a whole (unless it’s his gig).

I do play with a lot of drummers who take things a little too far outside of the comfort zone and, while I like the challenge, I often feel the the music suffers in the end.

If it’s driving you crazy, I would simply say to talk to the drummer. Tell him that his set-ups are confusing you and you need something a little easier to hear. Feel free to put it on yourself (anything to get the result you want, right?). Say that you apologize for not being as rhythmically intuitive as he, but the music suffers when half the guys are losing the one.

I notice this trend in a lot of church drummers, jazz drummers and guys who start studying African and Latin music. Once they get the adequate amount of “chops”, they try and pull off every trick they’ve been working on. The band can begin to feel like an accompanist for the drummer. That’s a drag, you’ve got to get the drummer to play the music, not the licks.

This is by no means just a drummer disease. Most every musician I know (including myself) hits a point where they’ve got some chops and are chomping at the bit to use them and explore the possibilities. This leads to an epidemic of overplaying and a sea of annoyed band members left in the wake.

Musicians: You are playing music. Save it for the solo!

(Okay, that’s my rant for the week.)

Another thing to consider, especially if your drummer won’t change his approach, is to take it as an opportunity to develop a stronger sense of time. Work with a metronome set at very slow tempos and further develop your inner clock. There are sure to be times where you have to block out the drummer during a fill or solo in order to keep the time happening, and that will help prepare you for keeping proper time during those moments.

Ideally, the drummer would have the chops to confuse everyone, but rarely use them and you’d have the inner clock to keep the time going, but not need to strain yourself on a gig and be forced to do it constantly.

As a general rule… It’s music, if it hurts to play, it hurts to listen to. If it’s confusing to play, it’s confusing to listen to. There’s a time and place for stuff like that but only you and the band-mates know whether this band is the place for that kind of stuff. If you guys are collectively trying to push the envelope than that’s really on you to be able to keep up but if it’s a swing band and someone is going nuts inappropriately, you owe it to the music to say something.

Photo by qbsster

Have a question for Damian Erskine? Send it to [email protected]. Check out Damian’s instructional books, Right Hand Drive and The Improviser’s Path.

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Share your thoughts

  1. Deric Jiles

    I am not by any means a “great” bass player, but have jammed with many drummers who have done this to us. I agree that saying something to him would be the best thing. If he wont comply, I tap my foot double time and it seems to help. I don’t know the correct terminology, but counting threes to his fours seems to help me as well. That way we always meet on the 12th beat. It makes it simpler for me to stay in time with him and alows me to take my runs farther with out confusing anymore musicians than just myself.

  2. Joel Ciulla

    Excellent Points Damian!! Well done.

  3. It’s a pain in the *** when you have to deal with this kind of “musical argue”, and it’s true when you say that it’s not a drummer only issue… happens with a lot musicians.

    Music is comunication, is a dialogue… when everyone goes solo in a gig it’s kinda like everyone talking at the same time in a conversation.

  4. Pete Bremy

    Don’t automatically think it’s your fault if you and the drummer end up on different a different “one”, so watching for the kick and crash on his/her one is helpful. I can’t believe I’m the only one that’s noticed timing mistakes even on recordings.

    I have had the chance on numerous occasions to work with a legendary Rock drummer, who in my desire to keep working with him shall remain nameless, who is more or less expected to show off. The first time I worked with him, before we went on stage, he said to me quietly, “Watch me during the fills. I get a little crazy sometimes, but they come out on one…. most of the time,” he said with a grin. I do watch him, and he almost always leads me out of crazy fills. Since then, I’ve found that a lot of drummers offer visual cues without even trying. Watch for the crash and kick on their “one”. :-)

  5. Prince

    So wat is r wy 4wrd?

  6. Nonemore Black

    If he’s losing me, and the band, and we really can’t follow him because he’s such a rhythmic genius, I’ll ask him to explain what it was that tripped me up. I am happy to defer to him if I can learn from it. If you are playing in 4 and he thinks playing in 7 against it is hip, ask him if he can hear that scratching sound. It’s every band leader in town scratching his name out of their book.