Lyrical drumming

The Scorpio

Senior Member
We all know that as drummers, locking in with the rhythm of the bass player is important, and we also tend to lock in with the guitarist quite a bit. I've never heard it talked about too much, but isn't it also important to lock in with the singer? I find that my phrasing and fill placement depends heavily on the lyric, phrasing, and melody of the song.

The best examples I can think of are Moon, Bonham, and Ringo Starr. I would also throw in Dave Grohl, Phil Collins, and Stewart Copeland. These drummers parts and fills are uniquely melodious, and although they do serve the song, those parts and fills also serve as a counterpoint to the lyrical melody and phrasing of the song.

What is lyrical drumming to you? What drummers best exemplify this concept? Where is the rebel base?

I believe that lyrical drumming is a topic worth talking about and I look forward to your thoughts.



Drummerworld Pro Drummer - Administrator
Staff member
It may, or may not be helpful to a given song. What a drummer (or any other player) does is governed by many elements of a song, including vocals. It's usually best to know what the vocals are doing before attempting to create parts, primarily so those parts don't obfuscate the lyrics. And the result may be that the drums mirror the vocal rhythms at times, or maybe just stay the heck out of the vocal's way. Each song is different.

As for the drummer keying off the bass player primarily, that's certainly the most popular school of thought, but also varies by the band, and particular song. Just compare some Coldplay tracks - past & present - to hear some varied approaches.

Again, it's important to listen to everything before deciding what to play. If someone gave you the bass part for a song and asked you to create a drum part based only from hearing that, you'd be taking a real chance attempting to do so. Same for hearing only the vocals, or guitar, or keys, or horns... it's the wrong way to approach a song.


Anon La Ply

Good topic, Kyle. I'm not convinced Bonzo played off the vocals to the extent that Ringo and Moonie did but I take your point. First up, I think it's clear that lyrical drumming is out of fashion - groove is in in a big way.

I'll go with our old pro (Jon, I can call you old because you have a couple of years on me :) on this - the answer, as in most things in life, is "it depends".

In my band pretty well everything hangs off the vocalist - it's vocal oriented music and he's the most talented one in the band with daylight second - so I have to pay attention. My preferred position is usually to lock in with the bassist because that creates a clean, strong framework for the rest of the band.

However, I can't lock in too much in my lounge band because the bassist is usually more focused on notes than rhythm (big Paul fan). That would ideally mean I could approach things like Ringo with clean, simple beats and playing off the vocals, except that the keyboardist is a very busy player so I have to play the simplest possible beats or things get messy fast.

Since the rest of the band are more focused on melody and harmony than rhythm I end up listening mostly to the vocals and try my best to play parts that will make our singer happy. Occasionally that leads me to something like lyrical drumming, I guess.

On the other hand, in a few of my old rock bands the bassist and I were a team - locked in from go to whoa on most songs, and the guitarist spent plenty of time locked in with us too. Audiences loved it and we'd get comments from people after almost every gig ... the singer was pitchy so focus naturally slipped from him to the band.

So how much a drummer can express doesn't only depend on the song but the way others in the band play and the amount of rhythmic support they need. I like home recording because it's the only time I can be expressive on drums. I enjoy drumming to help someone else do the expressing (keep it simple) but it's nice to occasionally gv da druma sum :)

The Scorpio

Senior Member
You know perhaps it was more Plant phrasing off Bonham and not the other way around. So what would you call that? Percussive singing? That sounds like something I wouldn't want to listen too.

I wish it wasn't in fashion to be groove oriented but not lyrical. In my mind the two can exist at the same time, but I agree it depends on the song and your bandmates.

For instance, with my more Americana based band, we cover "Tangled Up In Blue." We play it a little funky and Drew (lead singer) is sort of spitting the lyrics out. Almost like rap in a way. So my kick pattern is locked in with Randy (bassist) and holding down the groove, but my hands follow the ebb and flow of the lyrics. The hands hold down the groove as well, but it's more like comping.

On the other hand, we cover "Ohio" and I don't follow the lyrics for the most part. I do a bit, but that song is all about a lugubrious four on the floor drum beat.

I find it pretty fun in a more groove oriented drum part to briefly follow a particular line with some Kick/Ghost note interplay. ( I do that on the line "Gotta get down to it. Soldiers are cutting us down" in "Ohio."

The Black Page Dude

Senior Member
I think being a lyrical or songwriter's drummer has such a deep meaning. You have the ability to interpret/play with the lyrics, be able to leave space for melody and still have your musical drumming voice be heard as part of the tune. I try not to think of myself as playing off anything but approach it like vocal harmony ... I am a small but integral part of the whole.

I would add to the list - Liberty DeVitto, Mick Fleetwood, Steve Smith (during his Journey years specifically), Ronnie Tutt and Don Henley. I have also been soaking up alot of Cab Calloway stuff lately .... some great songwriter's drummers went through his bands!

I had a great chat with Liberty DeVitto about being a songwriter's drummer (which is how he describes himself and Ringo). He said that he always wanted to read Billy's lyrics before he laid any tracks in the studio. To him the lyrics are the life blood of the song and he would try and express what he felt the words were conveying ... Angry Young Man is a good example of this ... he wanted to create the aggression and "out of control" feeling Billy was writing about. If you listen to the intro you can hear Lib playing the hats off of the piano melody.

I also get that from any of Elvis's drummers ... Ronnie Tutt especially was a master at interpreting and playing with Elvis's phrasing.


"Uncle Larry"
I think the lyrics are the emotional guideline for the drum part. I can't say I phrase my drumming off of the lyric phrasing. Sometimes I do, if it works, like if the singer sings a very rhythmic phrase. Maybe, depends. I may play the spaces also, only if it works, sometimes it does not, but generally I try and keep out of the way and focus on providing a solid and steady undercurrent that the singer can feel confident and comfortable phrasing over. Drummers provide the contrast in a lot of cases. A really great rhythmic line doesn't make much sense if you do it in a vacuum. But put that same line over an ostinato, and you have contrast, and the line makes much more sense when you know where the 1 is.

Sometimes you really can't do too much with the phrasing. A shuffle song is a good example. That shuffle usually has to be maintained at all times, so I'm kind of tethered to that rhythm. It's hard to specifically describe how you play nuances with the singer, guitarists and soloists. Each song is unique. My main focus is that as much as possible, I want the drum part to reflect and match the emotional content of a song, while keeping the necessary rhythm moving along nicely

My goal is to help the singer and soloists have as much impact as possible, whatever that entails. I have their backs in that regard. I like to see the big picture, and view the song as a whole rather than verse chorus solo....A song is like a story, and the person telling the story (meaning all the musicians) can make it or break it. A good storyteller knows how to work the audience and build the story. There has to be a sense of the larger picture though, and a sense of when to hold back, to build tension, and when to let loose.

It's a dance. Every song is a dance that has certain nuances that are meant just for that dance, personalized.

Mad About Drums

Pollyanna's Agent
I enjoy drumming to help someone else do the expressing (keep it simple) but it's nice to occasionally gv da druma sum :)

Haha... you're mad about drums, aren't you? like many of us here :)

Yes good topic Kyle, and yes again... it "depends" on the song, the lyrics, the style, etc... many factors involved to be taken into accounts before choosing/creating a drum part.

As mentioned already, sometimes is with the bass line, sometimes the guitar riff, sometimes it's both, sometimes is... you get the gesture :) ..its a custom fit for each and every song, but yes the vocal(s) can inspire a pattern or a fill, either rhythmically or emotionally depending on the lyric content, but sometimes a "classic" strong groove with no frill and no fills, just cymbals accents is what the song need, it allows the vocals and other instruments to create the tension, color texture of the song, Stewart Copeland was very good at it, listen to "every breath you take", except the short snare fills at the chorus, it's a straight groove all the way through.


Platinum Member
I do it if the song calls for it. I try not to have rules in my playing such as "key off the bass line"... One of my favorite things to do is to add little tails to the end of lyric phrases. I kinda continue the lyric theme, pace, and rhythm maybe on the toms, while still minding the quarter notes of course.

Every song has a theme and driving force. Sometimes it's the guitar that carries the groove. If there's a particular accent going on with the guitar that I feel has more presence in the song, I'll play "to" that.

Hell, sometimes it's me. Often the drum arrangement is what the audience might key off for a song... I'm partial to those.


Junior Member
Lyrical drumming is a major division from drum machine drumming ... I would add that most of the guys mentioned pre-dated the ubiquitous use of the click track, which I believe is a further step away from soulful expression on the instrument.

Forgive me if I missed these guys but I would also add Mitch Mitchell, Neil Peart and Phil Collins all of whom to a large extent very much played considering the lyrics and melody.

My favorite bands tend to have musicians that each play an individual part that makes the song identifiable by their part ...

These are the drummers that move me to make more music myself.


Drummerworld Pro Drummer - Administrator
Staff member
Just heard an effective use of drumming with the lyric, Smashing Pumpkins "Bullet With Butterfly Wings" (you know the song, "despite all my rage I am still just a rat in a cage..." *) in the b-section before the chorus, Jimmy punches the vocal rhythm and it works perfectly. Doesn't seem like it could work as well any other way.


* Or as some of us have said, "in spite of my wage I am still just a rat on the stage..." :)