What Ever Happened To Individuality?
There was a time when most drum set drummers you heard had their own, identifiable sound. And by sound I mean both the actual sound of their drums and cymbals, and the sound of their playing style. It was easy to hear a new recording and identify the drummer by their sound.
Jazz drummers certainly had their own sound. You could tell Tony Williams' ride cymbal from Buddy Rich's, or Gene Krupa's toms from Max Roach's. Rock drummers had their own identities too. Bill Buford's snare drum was always identifiable, as was Phil Collins' concert toms. Mick Fleetwood always had that very muffled drum sound, and no matter what brand of drums Neil Peart decided to play, he always sounded like Neil Peart.
Today, things are much more homogenous. And not just at the major pro level, but at the local level too. There just seems to be a general inclination towards sameness. This is due to multiple trends.
One trend is that young drum students don't seem to have the same deep level of interest as students in the past did. They want to learn to play drums, but they also have a multiplicity of other things they do, like sports, other school activities, and then all the world of the internet and video games, which takes up a lot of their time. I look at some of my students and all their activities, and wonder when they have time to just breathe. No wonder they don't have time to dig into drumming in a deeper manner.
Back in ancient times, when I was a young drum student, we didn't have as many distractions vying for our time, so when I discovered drumming and music, it basically became a full time thing for me: go to school, come home and drum for hours. Repeat the next day. Weekends, drum for even more hours. And it was not just playing the drums, but learning about them. I used to take my drums apart and put them back to together, experimenting with different tunings and muffling. I was curious about the sound. And this experimenting with sound carried on through high school, college, and all the way up to the present day. But maybe I'm just an exception?
Another part of the ongoing problem is how many drummers don't take the time to care about their sound. They just want to play, and don't worry about the sound the sound of their drums. If they play jazz, they'll just put some coated Ambassador heads on their kit, tune it high, and that's it. If they play rock, they'll put some Pinstripe heads on their kit and tune it low. And they do this blindly, because that's what most other jazz or rock drummers do. That's what they see in the drum magazines: “Steve Gadd uses Pinstripe heads, so I should use them too.”
But this misses so many points, like what are the reasons for Gadd, or any other name drummer, to use a particular type of drum head (or drum, or cymbal, or stick, etc.). It also misses, how does what someone else use relate to the music they play, versus, how does what someone else use relate to the music you play? Drum magazines and advertisements do a great deal of work to convince us to buy the same gear that our drumming heroes use. I remember that in my teen years, I was as susceptible to that as anyone, but later, I started to look for something different, something of my own.
Is There An Answer?
Is there an answer here, or am I just dreaming of days gone bye? From my perspective, I would invite young (and any age) drummers to look at what they do with a critical eye. Have your drumming heroes, but don't just blindly follow and copy what they do. Look at, and listen to, what you do and experiment with it. Try new things, like different drum heads, different tunings, even different drums. If like me, you have a collection of different sets and odd drums, mix them up.
- Instead of 4 toms of the same, try a Roto Tom, mounted tom, timbale, and a floor tom.
- Mix up shell types: maple, birch, fiberglass, metal, etc.
- Don't use the same type of head on each drum.
- Put your toms in a different order.
- Use different muffing on each drum.
There's a whole, wide, unlimited universe of sound out there. Don't just limit yourself to the same thing so many other drummer do. Find your own voice.