Underplaying?

jon e rotten

Senior Member
I've read countless times on this forum and in magazines, books etc. etc. about not overplaying, and I've always totally agreed. I started gigging before I could drive, and I just
turned 40, so I've been at this awhile, and it has recently been occurring to me that alot of people say they want drummers to keep it simple, but reality might be something different.

I've always focused on groove and kept the fancy stuff in the practice room, and I just assumed this was considered a plus until recently. The leader of one of my regular bands has been asking me to play more fills and more 'flashy' fills for a couple of years now, and I've been telling him that's not really my style. He contends my style is boring and unteresting, but we've managed to co-exist for about 6 years so all is good.

So to make a short story long, last summer I did a one-off blues fest with some really good players and I decided to let loose a little (actually alot, many more fills and some rather over the top endings) and the response was unbelievable. I kept getting the "I didn't know you could play like that" response, and "I always thought you were solid, but not that good". The phone has rang more since that gig than the last ten years combined.....so it makes me kind of wonder...do people really want you to 'keep it simpe'?
 

zambizzi

Platinum Member
Good post - it underscores an important point. My conclusion (thus far) is that NO type of playing is perfect for every setting. You have to try and play what is being called for. Sometimes that might mean playing in a way that some would call "overplaying".
 

caddywumpus

Platinum Member
It varies according to the situation. When playing a song, play in a way that doesn't take away from the whole "experience" of the music. Usually, the audience is supposed to be focusing on one thing at a time. If your vocalist is singing the verse of a straight rock tune, and you're in the back playing "how many drums can I hit per second?", it would be confusing knowing what to pay attention to.

"Overplaying" basically means playing more than the situation calls for. Some gigs call for more flashy playing, while others want you to simply be a metronome. Knowing when to be flashy is good, but overplaying is always bad. Underplaying is safe, but if the band leader wants more out of you, it's your job to give more...
 

CJM

Member
Yup, I've been thinking this for awhile too. Other players are often not good at expressing what they like. They know it when they hear it. They'll try to compliment you for your taste but then go crazy over someone who sits in and is flashy. Or, you try to keep the volume down after someone complained and then someone sits in, plays loud and everyone dances and goes whoo-hoo.

Guess the idea is to stay out of their way, esp if their concentration isn't the best. I haven't worked with a really solid bass player in awhile that sure slows down the ad libbing.
 

Average

Senior Member
From my experience, people want you to play your instrument. Do it tastefully. Soloists want to be driven (at least in jazz and blues). Don't be tacky, but don't be boring either. Hard concept for a lot of people. All I can say is blow it up when you're supposed to blow it up and lay back in the cup when you're supposed to lay back.
 

diosdude

Silver Member
Interesting post. I'm in a progressive metal band and my rhythm guitarist is always comparing me to his old "god of drums" drummer. I can tell by listening to a drummer usually within the first 2 minutes if s/he has a good skill set and i could tell from recordings that his old drummer did have some decent chops but definitely overplayed for the sake of showing off his chops. Unknown to my guitarist though was the fact that the rest of his old band was pretty solid in keeping time and tempo especially when the drummer went off playing some abstract polyrhythm. We don't have that luxury in our current band, our lead guitarist is notorious for jacknife-ing the meter of the song because he can't keep a steady tempo. It would be suicide for me to try any polyrhythmic fills and have to depend on my lead guitarist to keep the groove rock solid. As a drummer i place more value on groove than flash. That's why i play the style i do, often times, my groove IS flash and what the songs call for.

www.myspace.com/burntheskies
 

Average

Senior Member
Interesting post. I'm in a progressive metal band and my rhythm guitarist is always comparing me to his old "god of drums" drummer. I can tell by listening to a drummer usually within the first 2 minutes if s/he has a good skill set and i could tell from recordings that his old drummer did have some decent chops but definitely overplayed for the sake of showing off his chops. Unknown to my guitarist though was the fact that the rest of his old band was pretty solid in keeping time and tempo especially when the drummer went off playing some abstract polyrhythm. We don't have that luxury in our current band, our lead guitarist is notorious for jacknife-ing the meter of the song because he can't keep a steady tempo. It would be suicide for me to try any polyrhythmic fills and have to depend on my lead guitarist to keep the groove rock solid. As a drummer i place more value on groove than flash. That's why i play the style i do, often times, my groove IS flash and what the songs call for.

www.myspace.com/burntheskies
Hehehe. Just saw Mastodon and Dethklok. Talk about some awesome drummers. Is that along the lines of what you are doing? If I wasn't playing Jazz or in a very heavy blues band I would probably try to find some deth metal to play, although the band and the crowd would probably beat me up.
 

Pocket-full-of-gold

Platinum Member
No disagreement from me. I think 'keeping it simple' and showing some flair can definitely coexist.

I'll echo the many here and say that it means playing what's required. Bands dictate this, gigs dictate this and most importantly songs dictate this. What or how much you put into it depends on what's required. Some times this is as simple as a lazy back beat, other times it's tom laden fills, depending on the effect you're looking for. To me, keeping it simple is not employing the flashy fill when I don't think it's neccessary as opposed to not employing the flashy fill at all.

I think Zambizzi said it "There is no type of playing for every situation". Hence why we strive to be adaptable.

I've never taken 'keep it simple' to mean 'keep it boring'.

Great thread!!
 
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Deathmetalconga

Platinum Member
Overplaying is easy to do and will destroy a song, so people talk about it more.

That said, I have been to gigs where the rest of the band was excelling musically but one of the band members - sometimes, but not always the drummer - couldn't rise to the occasion and propel the band to the next level.

It takes a fair amount of confidence, creative judgment and technical ability to pull this off. You may spend half your practice time being able to be able to break through and blow people away when called for, and that's maybe 10 percent of your actual performance time. However, all the great players can do this - sometimes even before you are aware they are doing it.
 

bobdadruma

Platinum Member
I went through several periods when I underplayed and overplayed, and everything in between! It took me years to acquire the savvy to know when to do both. I still screw it up now and then!
Sometimes you gotta be subdued, and sometimes you gotta be flamboyant! Sometimes you gotta be in between!
The problem is that there are no set rules for how much you put, (or not put), into a performance at any given time!
There is no video about this, or book that you can learn from! You have to feel the vibes and adjust your playing accordingly! There are many factors that can regulate your playing.
The main things to consider are these.
1) How well am I playing today?
2) How well is the rest of the band playing?
3) How is the audience reacting to the music?
4) What type of event is it and who is in the audience.
5) What are the acoustics of the room that you are in?

These factors vary to some degree whenever you and your band plays.
The main thing to consider when making your judgement is respect for the total sound of the band, The other musicians, And the music!
It is the hardest thing that I have ever tried to perfect in drumming! I'll never get it perfect! I say this without doubt!
 

con struct

Platinum Member
I've actually always made it a point to "underplay." The idea is to support, support, always support, let the contractor or band-leader or whoever know that you understand the structure of the music and can play a good drum part. Eventually they may say, "Hey drummer, play a little more something-or-other here," that sort of thing. When they say that, you turn up the gas! But it's always up to the person who's writing the checks, so to speak.
Give yourself some headroom, that's the thing. The point is that you can never go wrong by "underplaying." There are some situations where the task is to make the drums barely even noticeable, which is a lot harder than it sounds.
 

boomstick

Silver Member
I think the difference is you aren't likely to totally ruin a song by underplaying. Sure, underplaying could lead to a dull song, but it probably won't result in a train wreck like overplaying can potentially do. I'm sure many listeners have been turned off by a distracting and overbearing drummer, whereas I doubt many listeners have thought, "Gee, I wish that drummer would do more," especially listeners who aren't drummers themselves. But I noticed you said you tried your experiment in a blues band. That genre of music does lend itself to individual virtuosity among musicians (especially guitarists), so a crowd interested in blues is probably receptive to displays of ability and expertise on an instrument. So, keep it up if it's working for you.
 

Deathmetalconga

Platinum Member
I've actually always made it a point to "underplay." The idea is to support, support, always support, let the contractor or band-leader or whoever know that you understand the structure of the music and can play a good drum part. Eventually they may say, "Hey drummer, play a little more something-or-other here," that sort of thing. When they say that, you turn up the gas! But it's always up to the person who's writing the checks, so to speak.
Give yourself some headroom, that's the thing. The point is that you can never go wrong by "underplaying." There are some situations where the task is to make the drums barely even noticeable, which is a lot harder than it sounds.
Sometimes, though, the way to support the band is to light a fire under its ass. Drums do this better than any other instrument. Whether the fire should be a Bic lighter or a flamethrower or someplace in between depends on the situation. A good drummer will have the chops and judgment to know when to hold back (which is most of the time) and when to let loose (not that often but usually the most intense audience experience).
 

con struct

Platinum Member
Sometimes, though, the way to support the band is to light a fire under its ass. Drums do this better than any other instrument. Whether the fire should be a Bic lighter or a flamethrower or someplace in between depends on the situation. A good drummer will have the chops and judgment to know when to hold back (which is most of the time) and when to let loose (not that often but usually the most intense audience experience).
Well, as I said all that's up to who's paying you to play their music. Sure, you can make the call under certain cirumstances but for the most part you've got to play what's on the page or what the leader wants you to play. See, I've been a hired gun for most of my career so I've just become used to taking directions.
It is fun to be in a band where you can let loose, but it's really hard to make any kind of a living doing that.
 

Pollyanna

Platinum Member
Great topic with equally good responses. A combination of Construct's and DMC's comments covers it pretty well.

Some musos really enjoy a bit of excitement emanating from behind the stool. Often it's guitarists. If the guitarist is going right off it can go a few ways: go nuts in a Jimi/Mitch way, nail it down, or react without going off the air. Playing wild under vocals? Almost never a good idea.

A while back I decided to go crazy under a guitar solo as a laugh at band practice. At the end of the song our bassist said, "Great drumming!" and I replied that I was just messing around. He suggested that I should mess around more often.

So I go a bit nuts (but not as wild) late in that song and play the rest the same - or even more stripped back. Too often I've sacrificed the groove of a song on the alter of "more excitement" or "more sophistication". The older I get the fewer notes I play. Learning all the time.

As Bob said, finding the right balance takes a while to work out and I'm still working on it, and probably always will. As a rule of thumb I stay put and add extras just to keep the groove alive or play a motif to give the song some individuality.

IMO the main thing is to know your limitations and not overstep unless it's an overstepping kind of moment/song/band (and bands that regularly push their limits are usually either very, very good or very, very bad).

How many musical monstrosities have less naturally talented disciples of The Moon Method perpetrated on their victims', er, audiences' ears? You either got it or you ain't, and if you ain't then it's best to be a support player. Or you could woodshed like mad but then you'll probably lose that "gifted garage drummer" vibe that Keith had.
 

jon e rotten

Senior Member
Sometimes, though, the way to support the band is to light a fire under its ass. Drums do this better than any other instrument. Whether the fire should be a Bic lighter or a flamethrower or someplace in between depends on the situation. A good drummer will have the chops and judgment to know when to hold back (which is most of the time) and when to let loose (not that often but usually the most intense audience experience).


This quote sort of jumped out me. In the past I've always thought of myself as just the foundation for everyone else to build upon, leaving the energy to come from the soloists or the vocalist. Lately though, I've been trying to add a little bit of the spark myself, and it seems to be having an effect. Now I haven't went all Portnoy or anything, but I think I might have gotten a little to comfortable(dare I say lazy) in the past. It might be more attitude than anything else, still trying to puzzle it all out........anyway, thanks for all the great responses. It's nice to know I'm not the only one thinking about this stuff, even after all these years.
 

dairyairman

Platinum Member
this is a very interesting topic and something i've wondered about a lot. how much is too much? or not enough? it seems like every time i go crazy at a show, girls come rushing up to me afterward gushing over my awesome playing. how can i ignore that?

but i don't want to be known as the guy who plays on top of everybody either. i've been yelled at at jam sessions for doing that.

what i try to do is always hold back a bit when the someone is singing, especially in the verses, and twice as much if it's a quiet song. i cut loose a little in the choruses usually, but not too much. if someone is soloing, i bring it up the intensity a bit but i keep the playing relatively simple. i only go crazy if no one else is being featured *and* the song calls for it.
 

larryace

"Uncle Larry"
The topic has been well covered for sure. I try to be transparent as possible, not doing any overbearing drumming, trying to allow the music to happen, and when it does, gently push it along, giving everyone the playground to do their thing, without them even knowing they're being guided as I read their minds. Like the guy who pulls the strings on the puppet Mua ha ha ha.

I try to never stick out, instead support from within. Basically I would sum it up as leaving as much space as possible for everyone else. If that's underplaying, then I'm an underplayer. You don't have to do a fill to set up every solo. You don't have to put in crash accents to the singer. You don't have to nail the last note harder than the rest of the notes. Your fills don't have to be played twice as loud as your regular playing. You don't have to compensate for a lead that is not quite cutting it. Sometimes NOT hitting the obvious crash sounds SOOO much better. One rule I've learned, a good press or a clean double stroke roll ALWAYS makes a great fill, if a fill absolutely is required.

The OP's story kind of surprised me, (Drummers getting kudos for playing more fills?) my guess is he's a really good drummer who plays tasty stuff that maybe fits better than he thought.
 

Pollyanna

Platinum Member
Larry, your post reminds me why I've been missing your regular input of late. I've erred in every area you talked about and often still do - lol. You are one organised drummer.

Some more cliches I'm trying to watch out for:

  • you don't need to finish every fill with a crash
  • crashes don't always have to be full CRAAAAASH!
  • fills work well when they are a rhythm that could be played as a groove in it its own right
  • there need not be a hard line between what is a beat and what is a groove

Jon E, your comment about "It might be an attitude" struck a chord. There's always this tension between having stuff worked out beforehand and having big ears while you play. Your ears and technique give you the limits of what can/should be played but your attitude decides which of the 14,682 options you decide to take.

Ow, my head, my head! I'm just gunna jam it out tonight!
 

larryace

"Uncle Larry"
Yes Polly lately I haven't been here as much as in the past, but not to worry. This is by far THE best drummer site in the world, and I'll be here for life.

All great points you made Polly. Avoiding the obvious things to play are the mark of a thinking drummer. Any drummer can crash at the end of every fill, set up every solo with a fill, end every solo with a fill (and a crash), and do all the predictable stuff, but it's the guys who think beyond that and avoid the obvious that catch my ear.

I get my jollys out on my hi hat. It's almost as if the hi hat has diplomatic immunity to overplaying. Even behind the vocalist you can get away with playing adventurous stuff on the hats (assuming it is tasty of course). Thank God for my hi hats.

Could you expand on the line, "there need not be a hard line between what is a beat and what is a groove"

In my mind, the beat is the groove, I'm not sure what you mean by this. An example please.
 
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