The Lightbulb Moment: Drums and Bass – Complementary Flavors

Bassist and Drummer

Every so often, I’m asked about some of my favorite drummers to play with and why that is. Whether it’s for a gig referral or for the sake of conversation with my fellow musicians, it’s a question that doesn’t always have the same answer. The context of a gig, the type of music being played, and the other musicians involved all influence the question, “who should we get to play drums?” Add in the fact that some people naturally play better with others and you realize that the drummer-bass player relationship is unique, complex, and surprisingly personal. That said, the best way for me to answer this question is by framing it in the context of another important question: what ice cream flavor do I want?

While this may sound slightly insane, thinking of drummers as if they were ice cream flavors can be a great way to put things in perspective. I mean, who doesn’t love ice cream? Most people have an all-time favorite, a few solid runners-up, a couple of new-flavor wild cards, and an “I would rather not eat ice cream than having to suffer through eating pink and blue cotton candy swirl.” Just like on a gig, the answer to this question will change depending on availability and context. When you’re standing in an ice cream parlor and can pretty much order whatever you want, then start at the top of your list and go with your gut. Mint chocolate chip. If they’re sold out, you go to the next best thing… chocolate, strawberry, coffee, etc.

If you’re feeling adventurous and somewhat lucky, you may get to do a taste test of the specialty flavors (brown butter almond brittle or the acclaimed drummer that you’ve been hoping to play alongside). Who knows, you may be pleasantly surprised by this new flavor and push it to the top of the list. Having total freedom of choice is a rare and wonderful thing.

Most of the time, your choices will be somewhat limited or dependent upon specific scenarios. I love mint chocolate chip, but I’m more likely to prefer vanilla if it’s being placed on a slice of apple pie. The drummer that you call should be the best person for the gig (aka, to a-la-mode the apple pie), even if they aren’t at the very top of your list. Let’s say you get asked to hire someone for a freebie or low-paying gig… you wouldn’t necessarily ask your professional drummer friend to play, knowing that he/she may require (and deserve) to be paid more. This is the high dollar ice cream—supremely delicious and worth the money, but not what you’d want to scoop into a milkshake. Similarly, if your favorite drummer usually plays on sessions or with original artists, you may not call him to do a top-40 wedding gig. Instead, you may decide to call another drummer that is more familiar with party band material and who has a lot of experience with corporate gigs. In other words, always consider the context.

Another particularly important variable is how two flavors (or a bass player and a drummer) work together. There are plenty of great bass players who just don’t mesh well with certain great drummers. That doesn’t diminish their value as individual players, but it does mean that they don’t gel the right way when paired together. Perhaps one player favors the top of the beat while the other leans back, or maybe they both go for fills at the same time but take completely opposite rhythmic approaches. If the players don’t communicate well or create a solid groove, the bandleader probably won’t call that particular rhythm section to play the next gig. Continuing with the ice cream metaphor, it’s like pairing a light and delightful lemon sorbet with an incredibly rich rum raisin. Both flavors are excellent on their own but they may be kind of gross if they’re on the same cone.

And finally, remember that certain ice cream flavors are popular for a reason and some drummers are always working because they’re just that good. Musicians build their reputation on a variety of factors, from professionalism to groove to versatility, so it’s common for players to universally agree on someone’s ability and popularity. In other words, most people really like chocolate ice cream and Hal Blaine… if you, as the bass player, can be the strawberry/Carol Kaye, then that’s a pretty good way to be. The rhythm section is a team, with each player serving a specific function while working in sync with one another. It’s a beautiful marriage of musical elements and the more you’ve worked with certain players, the more you will realize how tasty and successful these pairings can be.

Ryan Madora is a professional bass player, author, and educator living in Nashville, TN. In addition to touring and session work, she teaches private lessons and masterclasses to students of all levels. Visit her website to learn more!

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