Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Snare drummers vs. drum set players

This came up in the Neil Peart piece: the idea of snare drummers as opposed to drum set players. People who play the drums as a single four limb instrument vs. people who are essentially hands players, rudimental players.

In this video (embedding is disabled) Jeff Hamilton distinguishes between snare drummers and cymbal players— cymbalists, if you will. I would say whole drum set players, because there's a lot more to that approach than just playing a cymbal. But the cymbalist label is accurate to the extent that a lot of what you play follows from what you do with your right hand.

This extended quote from Elvin Jones, from his 1982 Modern Drummer interview by Rick Mattingly, became the foundation for my concept of the drum set:

“[The drum set] is one instrument, and I would hasten to say that I take that as the basis for my whole approach to the drums. It is a single musical instrument of several components. Naturally, you've got tom-toms scattered around, and the snare drum is in front of you, and the bass drum is down there, and you have cymbals at different levels. But all in all, just as a piano is one instrument, a drumset is one instrument. That is not to say that the cymbal isn't an instrument. But in order for it to be an instrument you have to use it as an instrument. They are individual instruments if you have them set up that way and you have a tom-tom player and a bass drum player and so on. Okay, then they are individual instruments. It just depends on how one chooses to apply it. So I think that's probably where people get confused. 
In a dance band, or a jazz band—small group, big band, combo— then this is a single instrument. You can't isolate the different parts of the set any more than you can isolate your left leg from the rest of your body. Your body is one, even though you have two legs, two arms, ten fingers, and all of that. But still, it's one body. All of those parts add up to one human being. It's the same with the instrument. People are never going to approach the drumset correctly if they don't start thinking of it as a single musical instrument. 
We live in a world where everything is categorized and locked up into little bitty compartments. But I have to insist that the drumset is one. This is the way it should be approached and studied and listened to, and all of the basic philosophies should be from that premise. If you learn it piecemeal, that's the way you're going to play it. You have to learn it in total.”

It was settled once and for all after I spent about ten years in the 00s-10s working out a lot of snare drum stuff, only to discover it made zero difference* in my actual playing. No matter how much snare stuff I got together, I couldn't sit down at the drum set and just play hands stuff. Or rather I did not, because it's not how I play. I didn't start hacking out snare drum stuff in my solos.

You can recognize the difference if you listen to someone and a lot of rudiments jump out at you, and if you see a lot of hand to hand motions. Banging out accents on the toms, with more worked out crossover licks and whatnot. And more sparse, traditional, and simplistic— or more worked out— use of the feet.

Drumset guys will be guided more by the right hand, and will have more interactive use of the feet, and be more sound oriented. They will sound more melodic (or melodic in a more sophisticated way), and textural, and less choppy, maybe with more worked out patterns between three or four limbs.

You might give a listen to these players, while thinking about these categories of approaches:

Snare drummers:
Buddy Rich
Louis Bellson
Ed Shaughnessy
Philly Joe Jones

Drum set players:
Mel Lewis
Roy Haynes
Paul Motian
Jon Christensen
John von Ohlen
Tony Williams (60s!)
Bob Moses

Obviously it's a complex thing, and often players won't fit neatly into one category. To me the whole instrument approach is more modern and more conducive to musicality, but there are obviously a lot of great drummers who did the other thing. And assessing players is really not the point— we're just looking for something to inform how we think about our approach to the instrument. We'll do some guided listening about it later.

* - Not zero difference; it did give me dynamic control. But for the actual content of what I played, it made no difference.


Ted Warren said...

Great post! Although this is slightly off topic, I would say that most live sound people also don't listen to the drum set as one instrument, hence the " let's hear your kick (shudder), now the snare" etc approach to sound checking. The instrument is played as one. Why listen to it as components?

Jerome said...

Thanks for this. Really interesting stuff to contemplate.

Anonymous said...

Philly Joe Jones was not a melodical all around drummer in your opinion?
And Tony Williams was melodical "drum set as one Instrument" player only in the sixties?!
I think Tony got even more melodic when he got the big yellow set!

Todd Bishop said...

Anon: Philly Joe is real snare drummy. He's not necessarily unmelodic, but I don't hear him as a whole-instrument guy. About Tony, that's just my impression.

None of this is supposed to be the final word on anything, it's a jumping off place for thinking about it.

Todd Bishop said...

Like it says, it's not neatly one thing or the other, and not about pigeonholing players.