How Do I Play The Drums? . . . part 1

So, you wanna play the drums? I ain't gonna bullshit you, it takes practice. But let me tell ya, if you are enthusiastic about it, and have a halfway decent sense of rhythm, you can get pretty good in no time.

What's the first step? Well, you need to get your hands on a drumset. And maybe you can't afford one right now. So what do you do? Well, I can only speak from my experience, and there were a couple of key things I did early on, before I was able to convince my dad to buy me my first kit.

  • Make friends with drummers that already play. First of all, it's always a good idea to learn what you can from people that are more accomplished than you. I suppose that goes for all fields of endeavor. Let's put it this way... Most musicians are only too happy to take a beginner under their wing, or at least show them a thing or two. Second of all, you'll have a chance, if you're nice, to sit down behind their kit and hit a couple of things, see if drumming is really for you. When I first got started, I had a friend who had a drumset set up in his parents basement. I used to go over there religiously after school, and play beats and compare notes with him. It got my hands on a real drumset long before I could actually buy one of my own.

  • If your school has a music program, and it includes drumming, give it a try. Afraid you'll be labelled a "band geek"? Join the football team, and don't bother trying to drum. Or, you can do what I did. I never really wanted to join the school band, but I sure did want to practice. In my school there was a rehearsal room with a drumset set up in it; the room was usually empty. I ducked in there a lot, much to the music teacher's chagrin, but after chasing me out of there about a dozen times, he finally gave up, threw his hands up in the air, and let me practice. I was careful not to infringe on anybodys time who was legitimately in the music program; I'm not talking about being selfish and rude here. I'm just saying, when that room wasn't being used, I was all up in there. (Of course, the music teacher tried in vain to get me to learn the RUDIMENTS and join the school band, which, in retrospect would have been a great idea, it would have made me a much better drummer... but I just wanted to learn how to play Led Zeppelin and Aerosmith songs and join a rock band. To each his own.)

Okay, that's the first step... Getting your hands on an actual drum set, so you can get the feel of what it's like to hit the various drums and cymbals. What's next? I would have to say that the next step is:

  • Learn a very basic beat to play. You can go about this a couple of different ways. I guess the most direct and immediate way would be to have someone show you a basic beat. Make sure to have them play slowly enough that you can understand the pattern, and how the hands and feet interact. When I was a kid, they used to have these cheesy home-organs that had a beat box built in, and there was a pattern called ROCK 1. This is the backbone of most rock music. It goes like this:

The Basic Rock Beat

HH = Hi Hat     SD = Snare Drum     BD = Bass Drum

(Notice the way the snare drum hits are on the 2 and the 4.)

Once you can play a really basic beat, you can then go a couple of different ways.

  • Learn some basic reading skills, so you can learn more beats at your leisure. One good thing about learning to read basic drum notation is that you won't have to wait around for someone to teach you things ... you can discover the world of drumming for yourself, at your own pace. Study the chart above carefully while listening to the track. Count out loud as the track plays. Get used to the correlation of those notes to the sounds you are hearing. If you can do that, you're on your way to reading drum music. It's really not that hard.

  • You can get drum lessons. I would advise making it very clear to your potential teacher just what you want to accomplish. If you just want to learn how to play rock, then you oughta make that clear. If you want to learn jazz, make that clear too. That way, the teacher can gear the lessons to your needs. Plenty of teachers want to start you off on the basics, that is, pounding out hour after hour of hand exercises (rudiments) on a drum pad, reading out of a book. (A rudiment is one of a set of basic patterns used in drumming.) This has it's place, (drums fills are usually rudimental patterns) and it's a very good idea to have a solid grounding in the basics, but if that's going to bore you away from the whole thing, don't do it. And if you would like to take just one lesson to see how you like it, tell the teacher that too. I've taken a lesson here, a lesson there over the course of my career, and I've made it a point to bring a small tape recorder with me. Those tapes have given me weeks of ideas, exercises and inspiration.

In my job as drummer of the band CRACKER, I had occasion to perform a song on Late Night With Conan O'Brien. As you may know if you've ever watched the show, the drummer of the studio band is none other than Max Weinberg, (Also the drummer for Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band.) As a matter of fact, the band is called the Max Weinberg 7. Pretty nice, a drummer getting a band named after him, no? Anyway, after the show, I respectfully approached him and had a quick drumming conversation with him. I explained that I was getting a lot of email from people asking me how they could learn to play the drums. So, I asked him: "What advice would you give to a drummer starting out?" His answer surprised me. He said that he would recommend a FULL YEAR of work on a practice pad before even THINKING about sitting down behind a drumset. Then, he quickly said that that probably wasn't a good answer to give to my website visitors, because they would think it was a boring way to go about it. But I said to him, "No, no... that's perfect! Every drummer is going to have a different answer to that question."

Do I recommend the Max Method? Perhaps. It sure would make you pretty solid by the time you finally sat down at a drumset. Is that what I did? Nope. I may not have a band named after me, but I do okay. My point is, there are many ways to go about learning to play the drums, and they all involve getting a pair of sticks into your hands, and listening to music.

I have to say, I wish I had paid more attention to all that book learning in the beginning, but hey, within a year of starting to play, I had formed a band with two friends, and we were playing our favorite songs together regularly. We weren't all that good as a band, I admit, but I feel that it was the right way to learn for me. As in: Just get behind some drums and DO IT.

Let me take a minute to make one point here. If you've read up til now, you might get the idea that there's a shortcut to be had, that drumming is easy to figure out with a minimum of fuss and hassle, and away you go. That's not really what I'm getting at. What I mean by all this, is that there's more than one way to go about starting out in drumming. The way I started made it possible for me to not get bored by the studiousness of strict technique and lessons. I just dove right in. But, I'll tell you this. If there's one thing you'll definitely have to do, it's put in the hours. HOURS, HOURS, and MORE HOURS. If you're cut out for this drumming life, you'll put in those hours with joy and zest. Learn whatever it is you want to, and pick and choose whatever you like to play. Perhaps you won't get well-rounded that way. You can pick up on the things you missed later on, once you're firmly committed to getting better at your craft. I found that by not boring myself, by staying interested, well, that was the key to making drumming my lifelong passion. (And my living.)

Okay, so... I didn't take many lessons. If I had it to do all over again, I would probably have taken more. But no. I intuitively guessed that the best teachers had to be the drummers themselves, the guys who were out there on the stages and in the recording studios. Hey, that's just me. So, that brings me to my next suggestion.

  • Play along with CDs. (Back in the day, we called them records...) And, don't make the mistake of starting with the hardest, most complex stuff that you know and love. Pick simple songs to start with, so you can get used to the idea that it's all possible for you. If you try to play complex, difficult songs right out of the box, you may get frustrated quickly and think you're not cut out for it. Take it one step at a time. Play the shit outta that simple beat until you can do it in your sleep. And do NOT be afraid to play slow songs. I've seen so many beginning drummers try to play a million miles per hour right away, because that's the music they like to listen to, but that's a mistake. You'll never learn to play solidly, and with confidence if you don't take those baby steps first. Hey, it ain't so bad. I'm not asking you to practice paradiddles for two freakin' hours a day here, am I? Just slow down. You'll get fast as you need later on.

Stop and rewind as necessary. The beats may not be obvious at first, but if you followed my earlier advice and learned "ROCK 1", you will see how it fits into a lot of rock songs. Next time, we'll play around with ROCK 2, and explore some other ideas to get you going.

Oh, and one more thing. Experience can be the best teacher. I've got some friends who, like me, play drums for a living. (Imagine that: People will pay you to play the drums.) So, I've started an interview page right here at iplaythedrums.com, wherein I ask the oh-so-important question: "How did you get started playing the drums?" I don't know about you, but getting the advice of a person who's already doing the very thing you're looking to do? Priceless. This is some practical stuff here, folks, the real life nuts and bolts of real life drummers. Keep coming back and checking periodically, because I'll be adding more interviews as time goes on, and you'll see, there's a lot of different ways to go about this task at hand.

Any questions or comments, just email me: playthedrums@hotmail.com

Good luck!