Jonathan Diener of The Swellers breaks down what you actually need to know about being a drummer.
You could go to a fancy university and study music theory for years, but there's a whole grungy touring lifestyle where only those with experience shall prevail. This column is designed to make life just a little easier for everyone from weekend warriors to touring veterans.
PERFECT PRACTICE MAKES PERFECT
Get a practice schedule with your bandmates leading up to the tour. This isn't as much learning the songs as it is conditioning your body and building up your muscle memory. Whether you're a sloppy Black Flag style band or a machine of a band like Dream Theater, you want to rebuild that chemistry so when you hit the stage there's nothing to worry about. In short, you don't want to suck.
If you have access to a drum kit and a spot to play on your own, try to get in there at least once a day leading up to the tour. If you don't, mess with a practice pad during the day while watching TV instead of refreshing Facebook. I unfortunately focus on the latter and the first few shows really kick my ass. Start stretching on a daily basis when you wake up and if you're motivated enough, hit the gym, and start rebuilding your endurance. Drumming is pretty intense cardio and you'll start thanking yourself if you treat yourself to a head start.
STOCK UP LIKE IT'S Y2K
When you're driving and get a flat tire, what do you do? You pull over, take out your spare and replace it (or for those lesser men like me, call someone to help you do it). This isn't any different when it comes to drums. You want to be stocked and prepared for the worst.
Invest in a stick holder to keep on your kit at all times so when, not if, you break a stick you can grab a new one and keep going without creating an extremely awkward situation for your band and the crowd. Keep a bag full of sticks close to you. After all, you can't play your instrument without them unless you're a weirdo hippie guy.
Go out and buy at least one extra set of drum heads for your kit. Your snare head will get busted before anything else so at the very least be stocked with a few of those. You don't know if you'll either smash through a head or have your snare sound like you're hitting a wet sandwich and you're stranded at a venue in the middle of nowhere without a music store nearby. We're drummers and we're possessive assholes so if you ask to borrow a snare there will always be the slightest bit of resentment. Having heads in good shape not only helps your playing, but it creates a better sonic experience for all. Why not sound good?
Bring a spare cymbal if you can afford it. I suggest getting a crash before anything else since they usually crack first. Whether you have an endorsement or not, there are warranties for cymbals and you're able to send in your cracked piece for a brand new one. Unfortunately this process takes a few weeks and if you're on tour it's a total bummer. Don't be the guy playing a crash torn to shreds that sounds like aluminum foil. Chunks are taken out of it? Don't play it. A spare cymbal fixes the problem and buys you time to get a new one before you look like a dingus.
STOP HITTING YOURSELF, STOP HITTING YOURSELF!
You're playing an instrument that involves all four limbs, loading the most gear out of your band, nonstop shock to your joints and most likely pretty terrible posture. The LEAST you can do is take care of yourself with something as simple as your setup. If you follow these few steps you won't end up looking like Zelda from Pet Cemetery by the time you're 40.
I pinched a nerve in my neck a few years ago and after every show, my whole right arm would go numb. Sounds healthy, right? I went to a chiropractor and got weekly massages thinking that would help. A month later jumped back in a van and slept on floors for a month in the UK until I ruined myself all over again. A much cheaper alternative is rethinking the way you play.
Do you notice pain in your back, neck and arms? Lower your cymbals. Sure, playing your cymbals teen feet in the air creates a cool arena rock god image, but it also slowly destroys your body. Watch funk and hip hop drummers and you'll see how low they play and still get a heavy wallop out of every hit. Stop caring about how cool you look and start focusing on the longevity of your career!
When you're sitting, make sure your snare is right up to your waist. Your knees should be a little bit more than a 90 degree angle. You don't want to sit too high above or below because it will throw off the rest of your body and create unnecessary strain. Your hands should never bend below your wrist while you're playing unless you want to speed up the symptoms of arthritis and carpel tunnel.
As I mentioned earlier, changing your heads actually does help the way you play and reduces shock to your joints. Drummers always tighten their heads when they start losing their tone and it just creates terrible shock with every hit whether you get used to it or not. Treat yourself, dog.
MY OWN WORST ENEMY: THE DRUM MONITOR
I've played everywhere from a living room in New Jersey to a small arena in Singapore. Other than the extreme size difference in the venues, the similarity is struggling to find the perfect monitor mix. In the small to mid-level touring world, drum monitors (or working drum monitors) are a rarity. I can't even count how many times I've had our singer turn to me and yell, "BASEMENT SHOW!" That's our code for terrible sound and hurry up. There's nothing that peeves me more than watching a band play in the middle of a bill and line check for half of their set. Every member should have one to three key things they need to hear during the set and be OK to play without the rest. It speeds up sound checks before the show and line checks during the show.
If you don't have a monitor it shouldn't be a problem. You should know the songs well enough and have good enough chemistry with your bandmates to still plow through your set. Whether they like to admit it or not, you're leading the band. If you're a singing drummer like me, I highly suggest you invest in filtered ear plugs. I can hear my voice vibrate in my head while still being able to hear the rest of the band and protect my inevitable hearing loss.
In the situation where you have a drum monitor that's constantly cutting out or distorting beyond sanity's capacity, just unplug it. That's the best advice I've gotten from (name drop) Bill Stevenson of the legendary Descendents. He'd get up between songs and politely unplug the monitor so he wouldn't have to scold the sound guy from across the room. It's ballsy, yet effective.
LOAD, RELOAD (NOT THE METALLICA ALBUMS)
You just pulled up to a venue in the dead of winter. Your fingers are numb and cut up from grabbing gear out of the trailer and your guys are pissed off because you left early and didn't have time to stop at Taco Bell before the show. You want to get the hell out of the cold and into the venue to slowly thaw your body until you play. A simple solution? Pack your gear in the easiest and most accessible way you can.
If you don't have a hardware case, you're making life worse for you and the rest of the world. I still see bands pull up in their little cars and grab one stand at a time when loading into a venue. Just invest a few hundred bucks in a hardware case or even find a big bag at a military surplus store and shove all of your hardware into it. This step alone eliminates half of your load and helps you get to Taco Bell much sooner.
If you're not in Rush, you don't have more than five piece kit and the standard cymbal setup PLEASE GET RID OF YOUR RACK SYSTEM. If you're not familiar, the rack system is a huge metal monstrosity created to hold tons of stands and tricks people into thinking loading is easier. Every time we play a show with this kind of drummer, it takes them an extra ten minutes to get their kit off the stage. I can set up my whole kit in NASCAR speed while someone with a rack will slowly load out of their van and get all of their specifications to their liking. If you disagree with this, you probably wear drum gloves and use aluminum sticks. If that's the case, then I tip my hat to you and your lifestyle choice.
An alternative to individual drum cases is a drum boat. A drum boat is a big case that fits all of your drums and cymbals. If you're playing bigger venues you can roll the sucker in, but if you're doing smaller shows just keep the boat in your trailer and load out from there! Your band members will understand its simplicity because each piece of gear will have it's spot and it will make them more inclined to help you load in and out if you're busy or running late. Stack your drums when you load in and out if you choose this method. I can get my whole kit in three trips now when I'm not pushing my whole drum boat.
It's quicker to set up your whole kit right when you get to the venue than to share a kit and have to adjust all of the stands and replace the cymbals, snare and pedals. The second I get to a show I get everything set up perfectly, tune my kit before anyone is around so I don't annoy them, then shove it into a corner so it's out of everyone's way and ready to grab for our set. I've shared too many kits in my life and will always choose the extra loading step than the inconvenience of readjusting someone else's setup. If it's a house show or situation where you literally cannot fit more gear inside then sharing a kit is the best bet.
When you're done playing you should NEVER EVER EVER TAKE YOUR CYMBALS OFF FIRST. Take the mics off of the drums then grab the stands with everything still connected and load off the stage. You're not only helping yourself load out quicker, but speeding up the changeover process and helping the other band get on in time. If you play last, you're helping the venue staff get home sooner so they don't have to babysit for an extra hour while you schmooze and fart around. I worked at a venue for years and time management is the key to a successful show.
Jonathan Diener plays drums in The Swellers and mocks your drumming gloves behind your back. Follow him on Twitter - @jonodiener