The Craft: How Marketable Is Your Drumming?Zack Albetta
Most drumming is not an art; it’s a craft.
Indeed, there are ways drumming can be artistic and there have been many drummers who can truly be called artists. But gigs that allow drummers to really express themselves artistically and stretch their chops are far less common (and often, less lucrative) than gigs that require us to hit a specific target—to recognize what role the drums need to play in a given situation and execute that role effectively. For most drummers, these are the gigs that pay the bills.
There is more money in show-biz than there is in art.
[Some musicians] would rather play any gig, anywhere, any time, any style, with anyone than have to hold down some other job to make ends meet.
LA offers many opportunities to play a wide variety of gigs—recording, touring, and playing for bigger audiences—and most of them are under the umbrella of the entertainment industry. For a lot of musicians here, it isn’t about what type of music they play or the type of production the music is for, as much as it is about the playing itself. I had enjoyed brief periods in KC when all I did was play, but I usually had to supplement my income by teaching lessons or working some sort of “regular” job. If you were in KC between 2003 and 2010, you may have seen me waiting on your table or landscaping your yard. But what I wanted was for someone to ask me what I did for a living, and to be able to tell them, “I play drums.”
This brings up an important point: some musicians just want to play. They would rather play any gig, anywhere, any time, any style, with anyone than have to hold down some other job to make ends meet. This is the camp I fall into. There are other musicians who prefer to be more selective about the gigs they choose to play. Having another source of income allows them to turn down gigs that don’t interest them, and to put all their musical energy into projects that inspire and fulfill them. Far be it from me to say that one approach is better than the other, because at the root of both approaches is the desire for freedom. Some want freedom to choose their musical journey, others want freedom from jobs that aren’t music.
Your skills are more marketable than your expression.
I have been brought onto projects because of my unique voice and artistic point of view, but I have been brought onto many more because of my skill set.
Many drummers don’t realize the difference between being on a gig to add something unique and creative, and being on a gig to perform a specific skill. I used to be one of them. I have been brought onto projects because of my unique voice and artistic point of view, but I have been brought onto many more because of my skill set.
I confused the two on one of my first gigs in LA, in a New Orleans-style jazz band in Disneyland. Wanting to impress the band and the bandleader, I was playing improvisationally and interactively, trying to pick up on everything everyone played. After a few gigs, the leader sat me down and said I had good time and was a good listener, but my playing was too busy. I was playing as if I was in a 50s era east coast Be Bop group, not a 20s era New Orleans jazz band. He gave me some recordings to study, something I realized I should have taken upon myself earlier, and the style of drumming revealed itself to be so much simpler than I was trying to make it. It had less in common with what I understood as jazz drumming and more in common with rock drumming—mostly repetitive, mostly backbeats, occasional figures to catch, occasional fills. I realized my job was not to reinvent a song or style, but to recreate a song or style.
After this, two things happened. First, the music felt good. Like most styles, each instrument in a New Orleans jazz band has a specific role. The role of the drums is simple timekeeping (not interaction and improvisation, that is the horns’ domain). When everyone plays true to their role, the music sounds and feels the way it should. Second, I had more fun. I found making sure backbeats felt good to be less stressful than constantly devising ways to manifest my individual expression, my ego growing or shrinking with each passing bar. Even though I was still a participant in the music, the supporting role gave me more enjoyment as a listener, letting the horn melodies and solos float by over my time-keeping.
In his memoir “No Beethoven”, Peter Erskine describes the drummer’s role as “accompanist and enabler”. Don’t try to make the music happen. Simple, supportive playing will let it happen. I applied this experience to every subsequent gig, regardless of style. “Never mind how you want this to sound,” I told myself, “how is it supposed to sound?”
Your expression can get you fired.
Because he was focused on his own drumming agenda rather than the band’s sound, his tenure was short-lived.
I was lucky that the bandleader gave me a chance to learn the style and adjust my playing. Others aren’t so lucky. In an interview on the podcast “I’d Hit That”, the great LA studio and touring drummer Matt Laug described being fired from a cover band early in his career. At the time, he was inspired by drummers like Dave Weckl and David Garibaldi, and was trying to incorporate their styles and licks into every song he played. “The band was playing ‘Brick House’ and I was playing ‘What is Hip’”, he recalled. Because he was focused on his own drumming agenda rather than the band’s sound, his tenure was short-lived.
Identifying and executing the drums’ appropriate role extends beyond simply playing cover songs. Even in situations when the drummer is asked to create parts rather than just recreate them, the best drummers put their expression, chops, and creativity in service of the song, not the other way around. Vinnie Colaiuta for example, is known in the drumming world for his super-human chops, independence, odd meter prowess, and solo virtuosity. However, among the countless singers, producers and engineers and other musicians that Vinnie has recorded and toured with over the years, he is known for his impeccable time, deep pocket and consistent sound. He knows there are times he can stretch out and times he has to fit in, and it’s easy to hear the difference. Just listen to him with Jeff Beck, then listen to him with Sting.
Practicing without listening is a waste of time.
If a style hasn’t entered your ears, it won’t come out of your hands and feet.
For the working drummer, the name of the game is versatility; this isn’t news. We’re all told that being able to convincingly execute a wide array of styles and genres will keep your phone ringing. But too many drummers learn beats without learning styles, and this is where listening comes in. It’s not enough to sit down with a book or transcription and master the coordination. If you don’t hear it, how can you possibly know how it’s supposed to sound? When you listen to the drums in a song, don’t just listen to the beat. The beat is defined by physical coordination but the style is defined by inflections, nuances, attitudes, tones and colors, and interpretations. Knowing these musical aspects is what will allow you to play a style convincingly. If a style hasn’t entered your ears, it won’t come out of your hands and feet.
You must also know what your own tendencies are and when they might work against you in a given style. My first gig in LA was on a hip-hop musical called Venice. Since I have a lot of jazz in my background, my tendencies are to play on top of the beat, play with a light touch, and always wanting to use improvisation and interaction. Hip hop drumming, much like funk and R&B drumming, is in the middle or on the backside of the beat, requires a more aggressive stroke, and is very repetitive. So needless to say, my jazz tendencies could easily have gotten me in some trouble. I spent some time practicing the beats that were written out for me in the book, but I spent just as much if not more listening to drummers like ?uestlove (especially on The Roots’ live album) as well as a recording of the previous production of Venice, played by a drummer named Brandon Draper who is quite comfortable and skilled in the hip-hop genre. Sometimes I played too busy, or too light, or too on top of the beat, but having those drummers in my mind’s ear enabled me to quickly realize when that was happening and how to fix it.
Drummers don’t get hired to play solos.
… many other drummers with impressive resumes (and incomes to match) aren’t known at all for their physical prowess behind the kit, but for their musical prowess in a band.
In most musical situations, the most essential and important role a drummer plays is that of timekeeper. We are, at our most base level, accompanists. The oldest instrument known to man is the voice. The second oldest is percussion and it was conceived to accompany the voice. It is only in the last century or so that some drummers have transcended beyond that primary role of accompanist to soloist. To be sure, those drummers are a big reason many of us wanted to play drums in the first place. The unique voices of the greats, their incendiary solos, and their spectacle drumsets that take up half the stage are to be admired and celebrated. But the danger in focusing too much on how we can elevate or enhance the music in that way is that we often lose sight of how we can support the music. And in many cases, all that is required is simply support.
While some drummers like Vinnie have a foot in both the “soloist” and “role player” camps, many other drummers with impressive resumes (and incomes to match) aren’t known at all for their physical prowess behind the kit, but for their musical prowess in a band. Drummers like Hal Blaine, Shawn Pelton, Aaron Sterling, Russ Kunkel, Victor Indrizzo, Steve Jordan, Jim Keltner and many others have made their names not as mind-blowing soloists but as musical role players. Artistic expression is not absent from the equation, but expressing themselves artistically is secondary to crafting their playing to help express someone else’s artistic vision. In conversation, they often refer to that person, not themselves, as the artist. All of these drummers have made some version of the statement “I might hear a song and have certain ideas about how to play it, but if the artist or the producer wants something different, that’s what I give them.” The artists write the songs and the producers write the checks, so it’s in a drummer’s best interests to find out what they want and deliver.
This means a different definition of fulfillment—the kind that comes from a job well done and being a team player, not the kind that comes from the spotlight. We all want to get noticed for our playing, the question is whether we get noticed by average listeners and fellow drummers for expression and spectacle, or by artists and producers for restraint and musicianship. Artists are allowed to be selfish, but craftsmen must be selfless.
Your integrity is not what you think it is.
Play the music, not the drums.
I used to think that my integrity as a musician was defined by the types of projects I associated myself with, and the unique concepts I could bring to the drumset. Shifting my focus to craft has redefined my integrity not by the nature of the gig, but the nature of my performance. I used to care more about what the music was, who it was with, where it was, who it was for, and how I could put my unique spin on it—all questions with a thousand possible answers. Now, I’m more concerned with whether or not I am effective in my role, which is pretty much a “yes or no” proposition.
I’m not suggesting you shouldn’t also seize creative opportunities and explore artistic expression through your instrument, or that musicians whose aims are purely artistic are misguided. I’m saying you can have it both ways. As a friend of mine who spent decades in LA as an in-demand guitarist once said, “I played commercial gigs to fund my jazz habit.” Your versatility and marketability as a craftsman can give you the flexibility to pursue whatever you want to do as an artist. There are a lot (A LOT) of drummers who you’ve never heard of, crafting their drumming to fill roles outside the limelight, and quietly earning six-figure incomes. Selling out is a myth. If you want your trade to be drumming and your business to be music, there is only selling. Either you got paid today, or you didn’t. The more in-demand skills you have to sell, the more well-paying buyers will find you. Play the music, not the drums. Making this my mission has made me a happier person and a busier drummer.
About Zack Albetta
Zack Albetta has lived, worked and played in Los Angeles since 2010. He holds master’s degrees in Classical Percussion Performance and Jazz and Studio Performance from the University of Missouri-Kansas City. He is an artist endorser for Aquarian Drumheads and UFIP cymbals. When he’s not behind the drums, Zack can be found at home cooking dinner for his fiancée, on the basketball court filling the role of “tall guy”, or just sitting in traffic.