During the COVID-19 pandemic, at age 50, I learned to play drums so I could record drum tracks while isolated from my musician friends. I marvel at the far-reaching benefits of this new skill for my musical artistry.
Inspiration from the Van Halen Family
Anyone who’s known me since high school remembers my absolute devotion to learning to play guitar and keyboard anything like Eddie Van Halen (I managed an average teenage approximation of Van Halen’s maestro). As musical life went on, I picked up other influences, especially in the singer/songwriter/storyteller direction. Still, that desire to shred sometimes pops up when I think it can help with the story I want to tell in a song.
Learning of Eddie’s passing in late 2020 was a clarion call to me to make what music I still can while I still can. But I found myself gobsmacked by hearing his son Wolfgang’s musical tribute to him. Wolfgang’s solo music project “Mammoth WVH” features Wolf in full multi-instrumental mode playing every instrument: drums, guitar, bass, keyboard and all vocals.
In past musical efforts, I had played all instruments except drums. When I wanted percussive sounds on a solo effort, I’d program drum parts or collaborate with a drummer, either in-person or online. Occasionally, I’d record a hand-percussion part. I’ve always had a clear understanding of how a drum part could enhance my song. Until my moment of inspiration form Wolfgang, I lacked the physicalized experience of drumming.
Opportunity and Technology Meet Inspiration
Prior to the pandemic, my lifelong friend Ross kept a spare drum kit at my house so we could rehearse as a rock band for kids and families. The virus cancelled our gigs and the drums collected dust. When inspiration came calling, a drum kit awaited in my basement. I found a YouTube channel, “Drumeo,” where I could get beginner drum lessons and begin making the experience physical. I had known how I wanted the drumming on my songs to sound. Now I could get into how it might feel.
Those first few lessons led me to keep a simple beat and enhance a song with simple fills upon transition from one section of a song to the next. When I’d master a simple part at a slow tempo, I’d use a metronome to gradually increase the tempo.
I wrote the song “Because I’m Grateful” with the intent to record all the parts, including drums. I arranged it so I could play a simple drum beat with my budding new skills. In the video below, I recorded my drum part on-camera as I was capturing it to the multitrack recording on my laptop. This is not a lip-sync.
Evolution of My Drumming and Musicianship
Over the past two years since that seminal track, I’ve experienced the evolution of my drumming and overall musicianship. Since I record all the parts, I generally rely on a click track to keep all the parts cohesive over time. This forces me to really focus on precise timing when I play drums. My early takes of any song often find me falling behind the beat. I would then re-record, attempting to better lock-in the timing. Fortunately, that insistent click keeps me from rushing too far ahead or falling too far behind for too long. I’ve developed greater patience and more of an expectation of multiple takes.
What I’ve learned about timekeeping on the drums has carried over to my playing of guitar, bass and keyboard too. I’m more conscious of being ahead of, behind, or exactly on, the metronome’s beat. I strive for “very close” rather than “exact” because I don’t want or need to sound robotic. I’m aware that in my past when I’d program drum parts, they sounded computerized even though they mimicked the tone colors of drum kits, since every hit fell precisely on the beat. But if a bass note misses that “very close” mark, I will re-record the passage until I’m there.
Break it Down
For the first few songs I recorded on drums, I either limited the arrangement to fit my new abilities or I broke the song into sections so I could work out a section, record it, and move on to the next one, as the music changed. That’s how I recorded my second full multi-instrumental track, the more challenging “Salt and Sand.” I’ve always heard certain cymbal accents in my head. I wanted these parts to emphasize accented guitar chords since having written that tune in 2004. I did not realistically expect myself to tackle a more sophisticated arrangement of a whole song from beginning to end. Rather, I took it section by section, about 30 to 45 seconds at a time. In the video below, you’ll see footage of my drum takes in separate sections of the song, in a split screen with me playing other instruments and singing.
Watching videos, I picked up other drum styles like a “one-drop” reggae beat for “Back to Our Bliss,” a song that needed that sun-drenched, seductive quality. I advanced another level with the more sophisticated drum part for “A Complicated Miracle.” Again, I broke the recording into manageable sections. This enabled me to shift the beats and accents in each distinct section of the song.
As I neared completion on my album “Salt and Sand: Rock Songs to Heal the Mind” my family and I learned a lesson as important as rhythm skills. Playing an acoustic drum kit in the house when everyone’s home requires sacrifice by everyone not playing. This level of sacrifice can hit a tipping point. My wife and daughter didn’t always feel like hearing out-of-context drum parts being played repeatedly. And I felt mounting pressure with each take to get it over with. I also developed a soft touch on the kit, perhaps too soft for the rock music I was hearing in my head.
Amy suggested I get an electronic kit. I agreed. My next album would be recorded using an electronic drum kit. In my headphones, I hear a thunderous, mic’d-up drum kit. In the family, my wife and daughter hear the soft taps of drum sticks on mesh practice pads. To them, it’s not silent, but it’s a lot better than the racket I was making in the house on the acoustic kit. Also, I’ve learned to whip the stick to sharply crack that snare drum the way my rock songs require.
The Electronic Experience
I found a large overlap in the skills required to play an acoustic or electronic kit – and some subtle differences. The electronic kit poses limitations on some of the nuance of acoustic drumming. I cannot, for instance, muffle a crash cymbal with my free hand to create a crash sound that ends abruptly – but I can go back to what I’ve recorded and edit that sort of crash accordingly. A hi-hat cymbal is either “open” or “closed” on an electronic kit. On an acoustic kit I’d be able to work the pedal to create “half-open” hi-hat sounds. I’d imagine I could tinker to produce that effect as well. I have yet to feel the need for it for the purposes of my songs.
I went electronic a little over one year into my drumming journey. I’m now almost two years in. My evolution on the instrument continued. My existing songs like “This Man’s Eyes” and “Quit While You’re Ahead” featured more complex beats, where my guitar strum featured 16th notes rather than the 8th notes found predominantly on my “Salt and Sand: Rock Songs to Heal the Mind” album tracks. Now we’re in more of a jamband or funk feel. Some of the drum lessons I played along with on Drumeo provided ways to imply the 16th notes. I could include off-beat embellishments on the kick drum while playing steady 8ths on the hi-hat.
For my most well-known song “You Can’t Get There from Here in Jersey” I needed a straight-ahead Johnny Cash style country beat. After some searching on YouTube I found the traditional “train” beat where I’d play the hi-hat’s usual part as softer snare drum hits, where the back beat is hit on the same snare with noticeably more “crack.” I was proud of adding that style of drumming to my repertoire.
“Give Up the Ghost” – A New Rhythmic Milestone
In the early 90s I wrote my first real singer/songwriter rock song, “Give Up the Ghost,” which featured some sophisticated accents and changes between half-tempo and double-tempo. As soon as I wrote the guitar part I could hear the drums in my head. Over the years I recorded demo tapes where I had programmed the drums. My 23-year-old self could not have imagined I’d record the drum part myself one day.
I consider my drum work on “Give Up the Ghost” a high water mark in my drumming so far. Unlike the previous, more sophisticated tunes I broke into pieces to record, I captured a base take where I played all the way through the song – through all the changes. I then replaced parts that inevitably needed a re-do. You’ll hear this new track on my upcoming album “Side Effects,” due out in February 2023.
Conclusion – Benefits of Learning Drums During the Pandemic
I experienced many benefits by deciding to learn to play drums while restricted by the COVID-19 pandemic. This journey has further developed my sense of timing on all my instruments and helped me create more danceable grooves.
Drum practice and recording sessions are physical workouts snuck into a creative activity. I tend to break a sweat when I get into drumming.
The experience has supercharged my respect for my drumming friends like Ross. My goal in any given sitting is typically to make a 3-minute recording with me on the drums. Drummers like Ross sustain this awesome power for 2 or 3 hours a night – live with no chance for a do-over!
If you sing or play an instrument other than drums, I highly recommend investing time and energy into learning this skill too.
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