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Knowing When To Lead...
...And When To Follow
It seems that as soon as we start taking drum lessons, we are taught that as drummers, we must lead the band. No doubt your drum instructor told you that many times, and I can think of numerous drum instruction books that also stress that fact. Granted, being the rhythmic foundation of the music is our principle responsibility. However, there are situations in which we sometimes have to follow, as well as lead. Let's look at some different situations and see how we can adjust our playing to best serve the music.
There are times in almost everyone's career when we end up on a gig with some "lame" players. You know, the piano player rushes, the horn player drags, and the bass player can't play even quarter-notes to save his life. It might be for just one night, but since you're already there, you'll have to make the most of it. In a case such as this, it really pays to have a good secure inner clock. I believe that if you are a really strong player, you can make this normally "sad" group of players sound reasonably acceptable. This is definitely a case where you have to take control and groove by yourself. In most cases, the other players will feel your sense of control, and they may relax and "ride" on your rhythm. You might not ever want to hear a tape of it, but it will sound 100 percent better than if you get "bugged" and just "get through the gig".
Another situation is where the other players feel and play the time in a different place from where you feel it. This is a case where being flexible comes in handy. Let's say you can only feel time in one spot-say, in front of the beat-and you work with players that like to play behind the beat. Unless you can adjust to their placement, it might sound like they're dragging all night. That could end up happening, too, if they feel you're rushing, and they try too hard to hold you back. If the players already blend together well, then maybe you'll have to be the one who adjusts.
This same type of situation can happen when playing along to a click track. Most of the time we try to make the click disappear, so that we're sure that the groove is locked and all the subdivisions are accurate. However, sometimes a click is just used as a frame of reference, so that a certain number of measures at a certain tempo can fit into a certain time frame, say 14 measures at 112 beats per minute in 30 seconds. The music played around that click might be interpreted very loosely, and if you try playing it so that every downbeat happens right on the click, you're going to sound at odds with the music. Listening is the key.
Playing with drum machines can create a whole different set of adjustments. Drum machines usually are audible in the final product, as opposed to a click, which is heard only during recording. Also, many times the patterns played on drum machines consist of beats made up of smaller subdivisions, such as sixteenth-notes, thus decreasing the margin for rhythmic elasticity. In this case, a situation such as the one above using the click does not apply in the same way. Although it is still possible for certain other instruments to play loosely around the pattern, if the drummer plays just a little too loose, more times than not, it will sound sloppy and inaccurate. This is due to the fact that both the drummer and the drum machine will be audible to the listener. Here, the drummer must stick close to the drum machine. At the same time, the drummer must help bridge the gap between the band's rhythmic interpretation and the drum machine's unrelenting accuracy to make the music sound alive and natural.
One more example of listening, rather than just leading, can occur in jazz settings. Take, for instance, playing in a piano trio. Let's say you're playing a ballad, and the time is breathing in a natural, musical way. This would hardly be the time to impose a strict pulse. Instead, follow the phrasing of the music, playing with a more orchestral approach. The result will be that the music, and the musicians, will sound harmonious.
In your career in music, there will be countless situations in which you will have to decide how you can best serve the music. Having experience is incredibly helpful, but having the right attitude is essential. Remember: Leading the band does not necessarily mean being a dictator. Being a leader also means playing and doing things for the benefit of all.
Images and Information from Drums & Drumming February 1991, page 67