Why the drums are the greatest instrument, even in silence
Tonight I’m just going to stare at my drums. I’ve done it before. Many times. I go down to my basement where they’re set up, and just sit at my desk chair, looking at them. I could be there a while.
Tonight I’m just going to stare at my drums because it’s been so long since we’ve spent time together, and they’re just so darned pretty, and have been so good to me for so long. I want them to know I haven’t forgotten about them. I want them to know that I care.
I’m not a weirdo. Well maybe I am, but not for that. I know I’m not the only drummer who gets satisfaction just from being around their drums. Most will admit the same thing.
I hate it when I feel my drums have been neglected. Drummers themselves know how it feels to be overlooked. It’s not our fault. It’s Beethoven’s fault or Cole Porter or Burt Bacharach or somebody.
Above all else in music, people love a good melody. Even when it makes them feel just terrible about themselves, when they’re blubbering at the jukebox at two in the morning, moaning, This was our song…!
Cheerful melodies, even the simplest ones, can turn people into a big bowl of mush too. Take “Happy Birthday.” We could be recoiling in horror watching Uncle Harry spit all over the cake as he’s blowing out the candles, but singing that song makes it impossible not to smile just the same.
“Pomp and Circumstance,” telephone hold music, doorbells, dishwasher end-of-cycle prompts, the Jeopardy! theme, ice cream truck jingles…for every event, great or small, it seems there’s a melody that someone somewhere decided must accompany it. Ours is a world where the tune rules.
A melody can be copywritten. A drumbeat cannot. I probably could have saved you the time it took to read those last few paragraphs and led with that observation to make my point. Sorry. I’m a drummer, I’m usually much more thoughtful.
Ultimately we rhythmatists will be okay even if we are considered second-class musical citizens. We have each other. We have our drums. Our big, beautiful, shiny drums.
There’s a quintessential drummer story: Eight-year-old kid walks down the street with their mom and dad, spies a drumkit in the window of the local music store, and in a rush of emotion learns all there is to know about love. Bam! One day that drumkit is going to be mine, all mine. Do guitarists have this origin story? Piano players? No, they do not.
Why is this? What makes the drums special? Why does a drummer staring at his instrument look deep but a guitarist doing the same thing looks like a creep?
Shape and stature have something to do with it, I think. A drumset stands proudly on stage, bass drum pointing forward like a cannon, snare slanted slightly upward as if ready for takeoff, cymbals hovering above like halos.
A guitar propped up on a stand is…sweet, delicate, passive.
We approach our drums as we prepare to play them, take our place at the throne, which we precisely position behind them, and address them in silence, methodically tapping each surface, seeing how they feel about the room we’ve set them up in. Does the front bass drum head need a little tweaking? We can do that by ear. Should we swap out the 22" ride for our 20"? Is the snare sound a bit too aggressive or the hi-hat sliding around on the stage’s carpet? “Hey, buddy, toss me that gaffer’s tape.” We know what to do.
The guitarist picks up their instrument like it’s a baby, gently hangs it around their neck, and tunes it the exact same way they’ve done every other time, with the aid of an electronic device.
A guitar is a delicate object. A drumset is rugged possibility. Sure, you can affect a guitar’s sound by running it through a multitude of different effects pedals, but you can do that with any instrument, including the drums. Essentially, a guitar is what it is. You want a different sound or feel, you buy a different one.
With a drumset there’s no end to the sound world you can create, even without the benefit of electricity. You can get extremely different sounds just by replacing the heads with thinner or thicker ones. Each drum (if it’s a good one) has a fairly wide tuning range, which you can adjust for affect or response.
You can put up vastly different types and sizes of cymbals. You can hang light chain or attach rivets to them for a buzzing effect. You can stack them on top of each other for a trashy sound.
You can add toms, or take some away, or rearrange their order. You can mount myriad percussion accessories around you, from woodblocks to bongos to castanets. You can put an auxiliary snare to the left of your hi-hat or where your high tom would be. You can get a second bass drum — or if you’re as bad-ass as Alex Van Halen or Billy Cobham, a third, or a fourth!
You can adjust how high or low the cymbals are set up, or tilt them at extreme angles. You can control a drum’s resonance with any number of devices, or let it “ring.”
You can take your kit entirely apart and put it back together again in a completely different configuration. Like an eight-year-old with Legos.
And tonight, after staring at my drums for a good long while, I might just do that. It’ll be late by then, maybe too late to play, and after a long week I’ll be exhausted. But somehow when I get started moving this cymbal over here or mounting that tambourine over there or, Gee, I should finally figure out how to tuck those Rototoms under my ride cymbal, I forget how tired I am and work straight through the night.
No, make that play straight through the night.
Because even if I’m not making music on my drums, I’m still playing them. And I’m eight years old again. And in love.