Virgil Donati With Band

3 Ways You Can Be A More Creative Drummer

[Photo: Virgil Donati with his band, 2014. Taken by Carl King.]

Hey drummers! Need some inspiration to break out of your percussive rut? Want to be a more creative with your playing? I have some suggestions that might help you. 

Although my main instrument isn’t drums, I’ve worked with Virgil Donati, Marco Minnemann, Thomas Lang, Morgan Ågren, Travis Orbin, and more. In fact, they all played on my album Grand Architects of the Universe. You may buy it on Bandcamp.

Grand Architects of the Universe by Carl King

(Note: some of the concepts presented here are probably on the more advanced end of the spectrum. If you haven’t been at it for a while, playing in bands, taking lessons, learning those rudiments, etc., don’t worry. You don’t have to do all of this stuff yet. But it surely won’t hurt you to be exposed to these concepts.) 

#1 Put the sticks down. 

Don’t just think of yourself as a drummer. Try getting away from the drums and try being a drum composer for a bit. If you don’t step back and create a drum part intentionally, you might be repeating yourself. Here’s why: If you play your drums without thinking, you’re probably only playing what is familiar to you. This is the same for any instrument. Our limbs will repeat whatever physical patterns we’ve programmed into them. The same fills, the same scales, the same beats. They just come out. So… before you hit your drums and cymbals, think about what you’re going to do. How can this drum part be unique? Get into that state of mind.

I’d like to recommend a band to you: fIREHOSE, and especially their album Flyin’ The Flannel. George Hurley offers a distinct drumbeat for each song. Their music has a strong identity and it’s a lot of fun. Once you know their songs, you can identify each just from the drum part. Every track has a special “drum hook.” Now, George Hurley may not have been doing that intentionally. Maybe he was just playing whatever he thought would be cool. But I think custom drum parts are something to aspire to (depending on the purpose of the music, of course). Separating the process of composing and playing can help you do that. 

And of course, there’s Neil Peart of Rush, who is legendary for his composed drum parts, which he played the same way each time. My personal favorite album of his is Hemispheres. I’m wearing the T-shirt as I type this. 

My favorite Rush album.

This is a big deal: If you can write notation or program MIDI, it will allow you to write drum parts that you can’t yet play. (And I don’t mean just fast fills. I mean challenging rhythms that you naturally wouldn’t stumble upon if you were just jamming.) The next step would be learning those parts you can’t play. It allows you to be creative beyond the current limits of your playing. 

It’s a good idea to spend a large amount of focused time playing things you can’t quite play, even things that could feel frustrating. That’s where the zone of growth is. But don’t just get stuck there. Keep a balance. Challenge, then back to the familiar. Challenge, then back to the familiar.

And one more thing… it will help you to learn additional instruments beyond drums. It’s common for drummers to also learn to play piano (Virgil Donati is an adept classical pianist, believe it or not), and Piano Class / Keyboard Skills is required in music school. Likewise, it can help other musicians like guitarists to learn to play drums. (Just make sure they stay away from your kit, right?)

Virgil Donati makes us all want to quit. 🙂

#2 Think Orchestrally 

Another mental method is to stop thinking in “drum beats.” Consider how an Orchestral Percussion section functions. Most of the time, there are multiple players, each with their own instrument. The bass drum has its own player. The snare has another player. Timpani, another. They’re each doing their own thing.

If you play a drum set, I know how it goes. You sit down at the kit, and that drummer motor starts up. The swinging of the arms, the stomping of pedals, the playing of “beats.” It’s a package deal. To play more orchestrally, try to de-synchonize your limbs. Think of each one as a different player. See it as an alternate method of playing, or learning exercise. Try not to drum as a “primal whole-body activity.” That doesn’t mean you can’t switch into that mode when it is called for. I’m just suggesting a different option, another way of thinking about your instrument(s).

Something I always like to hear in a right-handed drummer is an independent right hand. Terry Bozzio comes to mind. The hi-hats (or china cymbals or roto-tom frames in his case) don’t need to be playing steady quarter or eighth notes. He gives the right hand its own unique rhythm. Listen to his 2-minute drum improv at the end of Still My Bleeding Heart by Steve Vai. For extra credit, count 1-2-3-4 all the way through it…

Check out Terry Bozzio’s ending drum improv…

Try to inject some counterpoint (two or more independent voices) into your playing. You can get better at this by selecting an ostinato / repeated pattern in your right hand (for instance, something broken up into random quarters and eighths), and then improvising the kick and snare against that. Or, play a straight kick and snare pattern while randomly altering your right hand pattern. Try talking about your day and playing each spoken syllable on your right hand, while keeping the kick and snare going steadily. The purpose of this is to break out of thinking of the drum set as a single instrument. Separate yourself into multiple orchestral players. Each instrument can then make its own rhythmic statement.  

Want to take this to an extreme? You could play 4 counterpoint lines (one with each limb) as Thomas Lang does here on Time!

Thomas Lang taking 4-way independence to an extreme.

#3 Explore Quintuplets and Septuplets

These are not for everyone, but using them can lead to some unusual sounding and fun drumming! 

OK, the basics. A “tuplet” is a way of dividing a note duration. Dividing a duration by different numbers gives us these:

2 – Duplets
3 – Triplets
4 – Quadruplets
5 – Quintuplets
6 – Sextuplets
7 – Septuplets

Note: it seems Quadruplet can have more than one meaning in drumming. I leave that up to you to research. For this blog, I use it to mean a space divided by 4 equal parts. 

Most of us grow up learning to divide note durations by 2, 3, 4, and 6. But very rarely 5 or 7. And that’s for two reasons:

One, we are not accustomed to hearing them (or knowing that we are hearing them). Two, they’re more tricky to figure out because they are higher prime numbers. Sextuplets can be reduced to two triplets. Quadruplets can be reduced to two duplets. But a Quintuplet can’t be reduced… is just a 5! 

There aren’t a lot of bands that use these regularly. You’ll hear it in the more complex music of Frank Zappa, Steve Vai, Stravinsky… and in a lot of my music. Here’s a piece I recorded with Travis Orbin. (He’s another drummer that has learned to play more orchestrally, especially in his own original music.) On this old Dr. Zoltan tune, on pretty much on every beat, I use a different tuplet, freely jumping between 5s, 2s, 3s, 7s, etc.

Carl King and Travis Orbin. Tuplets Galore!

If you like the sound of this sort of thing, here are some ways to practice using Quintuplets and Septuplets:

Using The Good Old Pyramid
Set a metronome to 60 bpm. Play alternate strokes, LRLR, 4 measures of quarter notes, which will occur right on each beat. You can consider this a 1-Tuplet, since there is only one note per beat. 

Then, divide each beat by 2. Duplets. LR. Then, by 3. Then 4. When you get to 5, this is where the wheels probably fall off. 

As I have said 5s are a highly unusual rhythm, so don’t be surprised if you can’t get it at first. 

It helps to focus on shifting between 4s and 5s. One measure of each. 1-2-3-4, 1-2-3-4-5, 1-2-3-4, 1-2-3-4-5. I love practicing that one. 

Just remember, they all need to be EQUAL LENGTH. A Quintuplet is not a Triplet followed by a Duplet. They need to all be spaced equally. 

Once you’re comfortable with that, try switching between 5s and 6s. They’re a little harder to discern. 

Now try 7s. Those start getting pretty tricky. I find there’s less difference between 6s and 7s than there is between 7s and 8s. 5s and 7s sound like strange 6s to me. 

Try working your way all the way from 1s to 8s and back down. By the way, speeding these up doesn’t really offer much value. In fact, the slower the better. 

You’ll notice when you are playing odd numbers like 3, 5, or 7, you’ll start the next beat with the opposite hand. For instance, a 5 would be played LRLRL, and then if you repeated it, RLRLR. LRLRL, RLRLR. Don’t let that throw you off. Sometimes it helps to remember that, so you can expect which hand the next beat will start on. 

OK, how is all this math creative, you ask? Once you become familiar with hearing and playing these new tuplets, you have some fresh vocabulary to work with. You will eventually be able to just conjure them out at any time, as you do with 2s and 3s. 

A drummer who has achieved incredible mastery of these odd tuplets is Anika Nilles. Check out this video of her practicing Septuplet fills. Sorry, I couldn’t embed it. It’s worth clicking!

And here she is explaining Quintuplets…

Anika Nilles explains using 5s in a groove.

Her Instagram feed is full of all sorts of unbelievable warmup exercises — and she also plays with a lot of intensity and groove. I hope to someday work with her. 

For even more of a mental challenge, here’s what it sounds like to play 4s and 5s at the same time: a Polyrhythm. Some might think this just sounds like a broken drum machine, but I love the sound of it. 

A 5 Against 4 Polyrhythm. More of these please!

I know. 5s and 7s aren’t for everybody. For whatever reason, I was exposed to them many years ago and they sounded cool. If you don’t like the sound of them, don’t worry. I once asked Dave Weckl if he ever plays them and he said, “No. Because people will ask two things. One, what are you doing, and why are you doing it? I’d be out of a job.” 

What About Serving The Overall Creativity?

Now for the counter-argument. I’ve shared methods for drummers to be more creative. But that doesn’t mean the drummer of AC/DC isn’t creative! He’s doing his job, and clearly zillions of people appreciate it. If he were to step out of playing a straight beat it wouldn’t be AC/DC. Often the drummer’s contribution to the greater creativity is simplicity, and that’s okay! One of my favorite albums to listen to is Metallica’s Black Album. The occasional Lars Ulrich crash cymbal on beat two is enough for me in that context.

But I’m arguing that it’s a special experience when a band allows the drummer to play a more “lead” role instead of a 100% supportive role. Sometimes each player can stand out equally and share the spotlight. Try Victims Family and NoMeansno…

August 6th by Victims Family is a personal favorite from this record.
NoMeansNo — a band that allowed the drummer to be catchy!

Closing Thoughts

There are so many ways to be more creative with drums, more than could ever be listed. The above suggestions assume you play on a standard drum kit and standard-ish music. None of them are outrageous, even the use of 5s and 7s, as those have been standard in Classical music for hundreds of years. 

If you want to throw off more conventions, you could, for example, build your own percussive and stringed instruments like Sleepytime Gorilla Museum or Harry Partch… 

Sleepytime Gorilla Museum built some of their own instruments! Pretty cool.
Some unique handmade instruments by composer Harry Partch.

Other ways to “deviate from the norm.” You could use electronics, loops, invent a new form of stick (or some other device for striking the drums and cymbals), play with just your bare hands, devise some elaborate pedal system, or even build a drumset with a bunch of car horns on it like Llyn Foulkes did…

Llyn Foulkes performs on The Machine.

There are no rules here, as long as you have a way to pay the rent. 

Thanks for reading this blog, and if you have suggestions, ideas, or questions, I am here:

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