Sympathy for the (Seattle) Drummer, Part 2

Posted: August 16, 2011 in Sympathy for the (Seattle) Drummer

“I’ve been sort of viewed upon as a second-class citizen,” says Mike Musburger, who has played drums in a number of Seattle bands including the Posies and the Fastbacks.  “And it’s very frustrating, ’cause I’ve always had a lot to offer other than just playing drums.”

Despite the second-class citizen status, drummers are more highly valued than guitar players.  Shake a tree hard enough and a dozen decent guitarists will fall out.  Even musicians with limited skills can pick up an electric guitar, turn up the distortion and volume, and play a few barre chords that sound like something.  I even play guitar in front of my class twice each semester and most of the time I don’t embarrass myself too much.

Drums are a different story.  Getting behind a drum kit and playing competently is harder than it seems.  Even so-called simple beats require the drummer to use all four limbs in unison or at different tempos.  The arms are playing the various drum heads and cymbals, while one leg plays the high-hat cymbal and the other the bass drum pedal.  Keeping all elements going at the same time, while maintaining a consistent tempo requires incredible dexterity and physical prowess.  In addition to all of that, the drummer must be on the same page as the other musicians–particularly the bass player.

“Guitar players–I understand–that they have to move their fingers around.  They have to do fingering chords and what not,” says Green River’s Alex Shumway.  “And it’s very difficult, ’cause I can play guitar to some extent, but I’m not that good.  Drummers, however, we are working all four limbs.  Sometimes we’re working ’em at different time progressions at certain points.  And guitar players–a lot of the time don’t understand that–that [drummers] will be doing something off-time, but on-time at the same time.  And they don’t get it.  I think that we actually have to listen to things more than they do, ’cause we have to hear where they’re at.  They have to listen to where I’m at, but I actually have to listen to everything that’s going on around me.  If I can’t hear them, I’ve gotta play it by rote in my ear.”

“Guitar playing does not necessarily require great technical skill in order to be competent and play rock n roll on stage,” Jack Endino states.  “You just need to play the right chords and have good songs that contain the right chords.  So, it’s all about having good songs.  And good songs don’t necessarily have to be really hard to play on the guitar.  Whereas drumming, there’s a certain level of physical proficiency that you have to have in order to get away with it.  Otherwise, it just sounds bad.

“A band with a shitty guitar player and a good drummer will still be perceived as a great band–if their songs are decent,” Endino adds.

“You [can] get a lot farther with a bad guitar player than you can with a bad drummer,” he continues, “because the bad drummer–there’s no hiding it.  He’s the framework.  He’s the whole pulse, the heartbeat, the whole deal.  And if you don’t have a solid metronome behind you, your music has no power.”

“It’s up to the drummer to really kind of keep that drive going,” says Chad Channing of Nirvana, “and keep everybody moving.  And then, at the same time too, working with the bass player to help keep the whole back-beat and the meat of the songs–pushing forward.  And then like the guitar player and the singer, they’re like the frosting and the icing on the cake so to speak.”

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