Where Have the Drummer's Gone?

Yes, it's a rhetorical question. There are plenty of great drummers; too many to name. Just right here in Boston there are dozens of seriously great drummers. I'm proud to say I've played with many of them and studied with some of them. So, what's the point you may ask?

The specific point is that in rock music today, the role of the drummer has been diminished. Forget pop music. Many (most?) of those tunes don't even have live drummers any more. Lots of rock music is heard in the country category these days. That's a topic for another blog entirely. No, I'm talking about what is generally called alternative rock and straight ahead rock these days.

I grew up in the sixties and early 70's. I started listening to rock n' roll AM radio in the New York/New Jersey metropolitan area at a tender age. In the late sixties when I entered my teen years, I listened to what may have been the first FM rock radio station in the country, WNEW-FM in New York. The range of music was breathtaking. "Rock" in those days consisted of all sorts of music influenced by classical, jazz, country, folk, latin, blues, jump and combinations of all those and more. It was a time of great experimentation. You actually went to a rock show to sit and listen.

Among my friends and many others, "commercial" in the context of music was a dirty word.  In my early high school bands we were doing covers by Frank Zappa, King Crimson, Pink Floyd, and other "progressive rock" bands of the time. These were difficult tunes to learn. They had lots of twists and turns, odd time signatures and complicated arrangements. The technical proficiency of the musicians in those bands for the most part was prodigious.

As a drummer, I had to learn parts played by the likes of Aynsley Dunbar, Michael Giles, Carl Palmer, Clive Bunker, Ginger Banker, Keith Moon, Ian Paice,Jim Gordon and on and on. These were great players:  all unique in their own way. Yes, sometimes they overplayed. That was kind of the thing back then. I think every drummer born in the 50's or 60's was on some level heavily influenced by Buddy Rich. The fusion drummers took it to another level: Billy Cobham, Lenny White, Alphonse Mouzon, Harvey Mason, and my favorite Steve Gadd just to name a few of the great ones.

I'm not quite sure when it happened; when drummers started taking the back seat in rock music. I would place it sometime in the 90's when "alternative" became big and style started replacing substance as far as the actual musical performance and skill-level of many rock musicians was concerned. I would read rave reviews of a certain band and then I would see them on Saturday Night Live and, well, they'd suck!  You know the bands I'm referring to; the bass slung way down low and played with a pick. The singer who seems more interested jumping up and down and flipping his hair back than actually singing. The guitarist who strums with a pumping arm motion. Yeah, those bands. The drummer would always have a self-conciously small set - usually retro drums with cymbals set flat and low. He would use his arms alot when he played - meaning not alot of wrist action - meaning not great technique. Those bands.

Now I hate to single out a certain style of band and use it cast aspersions on an entire genre. As I mentioned, there are still alot of excellent drummers out there. Not all rock bands are in the skinny jeans and twee vocal category although there are way too many of those for my own taste. Also, some of the trend toward minimalism in rock drumming is a reaction (revulsion?) to the over-the-top bombastic, 18 piece drum kit, fireworks and 30 minute drum solo excess of the 70's in particular. Spinal Tap did a good job deflating that balloon and justifiably so.  Needless to say there's alot to be said for just laying back and grooving the tune.

But all that said, I still wish there was a bit more personality coming from the drum chair in today's rock music. You can have great technique and use it judiciously. You can maintain the groove and do it musically and tastefully within the context of what the other players are laying down. That's the real art of drumming in my opinion. I'd like to hear more of it!

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