Writing drums for songs..

fmass92

Senior Member
Sometimes when I listen to music and my favorite bands and I'll try to learn the song, I'll sit back and think "How the hell did they come up with this?" Usually when I just improvise a song I never even come close to anything as fancy (can't think of a good word) or technical as what I'm used to hearing.

So I was just wondering how do you guys write drums for songs? Do you sit down and physically write what you wanna do then go play it, or do you just kinda wing it and add stuff as you go along?
 

boomstick

Silver Member
Good question, and it's not easy to create drum parts for songs. But I basically listen to the song as performed by guitar, keys, etc., then try to get a sense of the feel, mood, the underlying rhythm, and then imagine what kind of beats would work well with it. Then it's a matter of trying different stuff. I play back the song, and play a beat. "Sounds ok, but that's not quite it." I play something else. "Oh, I like that." And work my way through. "This fill would work well here." I don't just think in terms of what to play, but also what not to play. "A rest here sounds really cool." And on it goes until I have something I'm satisfied with. I never write out notation. I just find what I like and go by memory. But by the time I've nailed something down, I've gone over it so many times, it's not hard to remember.
 

zakhopper316

Silver Member
for me its more madness them method, i sit down at the drums knowing im going to write from scratch, then i go to this place of focus( recording everything by the way) start very softly hitting drums and cymbals in no time or form, clearing my head of any beat or rhythm i have in my head, then i hear something and then turn it into something finding a tempo and just build it out of thin air, then i listen to it back on the recording refine it, record it again, and send it to my bassist and guitarist.

i know it sounds crazy, but its hard to explain, give it a try i promise you will come up
with something you have never played before,

you still have to build the beats tho, it will just give you a tempo and a few bass drum and/or
snare drum accents to a beat that i would not think of by building off of bass 1 and 3 snare 2 and 4
 

larryace

"Uncle Larry"
If there's a bass line already written, that will provide a starting point. I tailor my bass drum part to the bass (or the piano), whether it be "with" it or counterpointing against it, or a combination of the two. But without a bassline to latch onto, then I look to the rhythm guitar. Without that, I look to the verses to try and get the mood of the song. You don't necessarily want a tender ballad played with machine gun kicks, or an angry song played with brushes. How many songs are written with the drum part first? Besides Wipeout?
So I look to the other instruments and the lyrics first to craft a drum part.
 

bermuda

Drummerworld Pro Drummer - Administrator
Staff member
I don't just think in terms of what to play, but also what not to play.
So I look to the other instruments and the lyrics first to craft a drum part.
Exactly, and also exactly. Unless the genre requires a lot of rhythmic support from the drums - big band, fusion, jazz, latin, etc. - I let the music (and vocals) influence and ultimately dictate what I play. Basically I envision parts that support the music rather than trying to add to it.

I don't want to sound like the drums aren't important or shouldn't be creative. What I do is let the music move me, rather than the other way around. Unless I'm told it's a drum-heavy song, I stay out of the way of the melodic instruments and let them do their thing.

My modest approach may not work every time, but it's pleased artists and producers about 99% of the time. That's why Vinnie gets hired to do all sorts of commercial tracks. He's a technically amazing drummer who knows when it's time to let the other instruments play, as opposed to some hotshot who doesn't know when to do that.

Bermuda
 

zakhopper316

Silver Member
If there's a bass line already written, that will provide a starting point. I tailor my bass drum part to the bass (or the piano), whether it be "with" it or counterpointing against it, or a combination of the two. But without a bassline to latch onto, then I look to the rhythm guitar. Without that, I look to the verses to try and get the mood of the song. You don't necessarily want a tender ballad played with machine gun kicks, or an angry song played with brushes. How many songs are written with the drum part first? Besides Wipeout?
So I look to the other instruments and the lyrics first to craft a drum part.
a large number of songs are written drum part first, all my songs are, all incubus songs, and a large amount of others, i can usually tell when drums are written first in a song, with the exception of some other styles of music its not a bad thing

especially if you have a large amount of skill with triplets, fivelets and sevenlets ect, and know how to incorporate them into beats and transitions and stuff. a song could be more unique then any string start.

unless bucket head is your guitarist, your song rhythms will be much more interesting this way.

you have to be able to do this as a drummer tho, which takes alot of visualization and practice.

give it a try
 

larryace

"Uncle Larry"
Exactly Bermuda. Drums are a support instrument. Understanding the role of the drumset is key to creating parts that elevate the song rather than weigh it down.

My personal list of the pecking order of instruments in order of prominence (generally speaking)

1. During any vocal parts, the vocals are at the top. I never try and "interrupt" their message by playing something that vies for attention with the vocalist
1a. Anybody taking a lead on whatever instrument (including the drums) gets prominence. I treat soloists almost exactly like I'm playing behind a vocalist. I usually drop the volume at the beginning of a lead, then build (or not) according to the vibe of the lead.

After that:

2. Rhythm instruments such as guitar or piano
3. Bass line/drums (should function as one)
4. Instruments like horns that can float around and play rhythm figures, stabs, and leads can be anywhere in the mix, depending on what is being played.

But the drums generally speaking aren't a lead instrument and should not be treated as such. Of course there's your exceptions, but for most stuff this is how I approach it.
 

DrumEatDrum

Platinum Member
I think we all have those moments where we listen to something and think "how did so-and-so even think of that part?"

I think larryace and Bermuda nailed it pretty well.

I will say, if you are in an original band, and you're there from the begging of when the song was written, it's a bit easier, because you can come up with parts as the song is being formed, and you have time over the course of days, weeks or even months, to try out different ideas. The song may very well evolve over the course of numerous jams/rehearsals which will help the drum part evolve as well.

And of course your band mates will have ideas that can inspire creative drum parts. Sure, often the idea is "play less" but sometimes I've been surprised with comments such as "play something more drummisitc in that spot" or "can you like, hit more stuff on this song?"

Something I have done at times here and there is to mentally stand back, and think, "if couldn't play drums, but I had an unlimited budget to hire any drummer (dead or alive) to play this song, who would I hire?" And then I think, OK, so let's say I hired Kenny Arnoff, or Gadd or Bonham, or even a weird hybrid of two different guys, what would they play? And then use that frame of reference to get a vibe. And once you have a vibe, parts tend to come together a little easier.
 

zakhopper316

Silver Member
of corse, of you are recording over guitar and bass, you must find a nice pocket in the music and complement the song, and also important to move the song forward, i see alot of local drummers in bands that neglect this, drums create the bounce the pop the movement, and doing this while complementing and not over playing, what i call "sitting around a song"
is a very difficult part of writing,

and if you record the drums first, you must have extreme discipline and visualization, to create this concept on your own before you help direct the other instrumentation.

i cant stress enough how important the sitting around the song concept is, it doesn't mean you cant play technical stuff, you just have to create the space in the middle
 

bermuda

Drummerworld Pro Drummer - Administrator
Staff member
But the drums generally speaking aren't a lead instrument and should not be treated as such.
True, although I owe a debt of thanks to the drummers who don't adhere to that. They keep me working!

Bermuda
 

larryace

"Uncle Larry"
a large number of songs are written drum part first, all my songs are, all incubus songs, and a large amount of others, i can usually tell when drums are written first in a song, with the exception of some other styles of music its not a bad thing
While there definitely are songs where the drums are written first, I would think (and this just my opinion) that the majority of songs aren't.

I can see where a compelling rhythm can inspire material, but I would think that the majority of songs start with a lyric or a melody, or even a bass line. Of course I have no factual basis to point to, only what I THINK is happening, which doesn't carry any weight.

What percentage of the songs out there are written drums first?
I'm betting < 5%, but, I'm just guessing.
 

dairyairman

Platinum Member
it does happen though. in my various bands, a few songs have started with me and the bass player just goofing around with some groove and the lead singer and guitarist hear it, join in the jam and eventually give it some structure and build a song around it.
 

larryace

"Uncle Larry"
Not talking grooves, that's a whole different discussion. Definitely a lot of songs start that way. We're talking bare drum parts here.
 

bermuda

Drummerworld Pro Drummer - Administrator
Staff member
What percentage of the songs out there are written drums first?
I'm betting < 5%, but, I'm just guessing.
I've been in dozens of original projects over 30+ years, and not one of them ever said "Play a beat so we can build a song on it" or "I've got a beat in mind that I want to build a song on."

Bermuda
 

zakhopper316

Silver Member
I've been in dozens of original projects over 30+ years, and not one of them ever said "Play a beat so we can build a song on it" or "I've got a beat in mind that I want to build a song on."

Bermuda
i have to completely agree with you, none of my band mates from any band have said that either,

i just take initiative and say we are going to make a song out of this, i have also done it the other way as well, drums first is def. the minority but hey, i like it that way, it also helps that i have a piano background as well for me.
 

Solaris

Silver Member
I've been in dozens of original projects over 30+ years, and not one of them ever said "Play a beat so we can build a song on it" or "I've got a beat in mind that I want to build a song on."

Bermuda
Even in my own bands this has been said to me. Most of the time that original beat gets thrown out the door sooner or later because the song goes somewhere else when guitars bass and vocals come into the picture. Guess it shows you though how a song can start at any point

Sure, the drums are traditionally not a lead instrument, but IMO their is more space than ever in modern music for them to influence other instruments and direct the song as a whole. As a producer-friend of mine always says to me, if the drums suck, the song sucks.
 

larryace

"Uncle Larry"
Now if the drummer is the main songwriter...different story.
How many drummers pen the bands songs? (not talking contributing, talking birthing the song) There are many I'm sure, but again, I'm betting the majority of songs start with the others.

I have a few songs I've wrote. I write on the guitar. The songs I wrote don't have drum parts yet, I just play them on guitar. "So what?" you ask?

Good question ha ha.

I guess my point is that even though I'm a drummer, I don't write the drum part first.

A drummer can write a rhythm, but is it a song without a melody?
 

boomstick

Silver Member
I think in those instances where the drums inspire the song, it's often the result of noodling around in a rehearsal. I think it was Clyde Stubblefield (or maybe Jabo Starks) who was talking about just playing some random beat in a rehearsal, and the other guys were like, "Woah, what's that you're doing?" Then they started coming up with riffs to build on top of the beat, and a song was born. But yeah, I don't think that happens very often.
 

MikeM

Platinum Member
I've been in more than one band where the songwriting was mostly done with everyone present as the result of a jam. Usually it starts when someone throws out a riff or a beat or just about anything that gets everyone's creative juices flowing. I've had drums parts of mine spawn new songs in this way probably dozens of times. I pity anyone that's not enjoyed that experience.

I never try to interfere with what a song wants but that said, I usually gravitate towards bands that want a more integrated approach to the role of drumming rather that muso's that just want the drums to support and stay out of their way. It was never my intent as a 13 year old noob drummer to be everything to everyone, but to play what I thought would be cool. I'm fortunate to have played with various people for 30 years who've shared my taste in drumming.
 

larryace

"Uncle Larry"
If you include coming up with a drumbeat that inspires a bassline (that the bass player thinks up) that begs for a rhythm part (that the guitar player hatches) as writing drum parts for the entire song then I retract what I said. But that would be a collaboration. I hate to pick nits here but aren't we talking about an unaccompanied drum part for the verse, chorus, bridge, etc.? Or am I the only one thinking that?
 
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