As a young man I had the opportunity to play percussion (xylo, BD and the like) in an orchestra with a top studio drum set artist in the SLC metro area. He's a guy I've seen on liner notes my whole life, and he's very well known for being the studio drummer you want on your project.
During the course of rehearsals, studio sessions and performances, I asked him if it was hard to always be creative in the studio. I'm paraphrasing, but the answer was something like this, "You don't have to be creative. You have to play with the click, and sound like a drummer."
It seemed like a strange answer. You don't have to be creative? Just play with a click? Obviously there's more to being successful than just keeping good time, but it's an absolutely critical skill - besides, I think he was just being modest.
Seriously, though - nobody cares about your "chops" if you can't play in time. Call it what you will - the pocket, groove, solid - whatever. If you can't do it, you won't find a place as a drummer.
So, how do you start? Let me suggest three steps to get you started.
1. This seems obvious, but get a metronome. A good one. I recommend one with a tap function, and a wide range of tempos (tempi?). A set of isolation headphones is a good idea, too. Then use it enough to get to know what it can and can't do. Read the instruction manual (seriously, do it!).
2. Play very easy stuff while getting used to playing with the click. Start with an exercise that you can play in your sleep without thinking about it - so you can think about playing with the click! Focus on "landing" with the click on each beat and making your subdivisions very even. It shouldn't take long for you to get comfortable and progress to more complex exercises, grooves, etc. But be aware of the click always. Treat it like another musician, and focus on staying together.
3. Test yourself without the click. I have a metronome with a "mute" button. It doesn't stop keeping time, it just stops making noise. Try playing a measure with the click, then one without (Benny Greb has a fantastic example of this on his "Language of Drumming" DVD - check it out!) to make sure you're keeping good time. Another way to do this is to reduce the number of beats you're hearing per measure. For example, if you're playing in 4/4 at 100 beats per minute (BPM), turn the click down to 50, and play the same exercise at the same tempo. Instead of getting all four beats, you'll just get 1 and 3 (or 2 and 4).
Many of my students hate playing with the metronome. But I view it as one of my "real" friends. You know, the kind that can look you in the eye and tell you that you're fat - and you're still friends.
If you learn to be comfortable keeping great time (and feel) along with the metronome, you're well on your way to being a great drummer - one that other musicians will love playing with.
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