Several years ago I fulfilled the dream of every musician. I bought a drum kit. Because every musician wishes they were as cool as the drummer.
I’ve had the chance to play with some amazing drummers in my musical journey. While I may not be the most proficient on drums, I can suggest a few things that make them sound better. Here are my top 5 tips for playing drums in worship:
Keep it simple. Like I said, this really does apply to every instrument in the ensemble. If everyone dials back what they play there is room for the vocals (and thus the spiritual content of the song) to breathe. For drummers this primarily means simplifying the kick drum patterns. Less kick is more. You’d be surprised how often playing the kick on two and four is all a section of a song needs.
Careful with the fills. Fills are tricky. You can’t leave them out. Fills occupy the transitional spaces of a song. They need to carry a song from section to section. On the other hand, fills can be overdone. A redundant fill is the worst. Too many fills are overkill. I suggest thoughtfully mapping out where fills will be used in a song. Think about how the fill helps with the transition during the song. Is it shifting down into a softer section? Is it heading to the beginning of a building section? The fill can set this up. Please – no tom rolls.
Vary the cymbals. Change which cymbal you hit when you move to a different section of the song. If you’re playing high hat on the verse, don’t continue playing high hat (the same way) on the chorus. Switch to ride or open the high hat. Explore all the different ways that the cymbals can be used.
Hit the drum. To get the best tone out of a drum, you have to hit it. A soft touch produces a wimpy tone. The drum doesn’t even have a chance to sound correct. Much depends on the room and how microphones are being used, which is why you have to…
Use sensitivity. Hitting the drum properly to produce a good tone will cause problems. That is why they lock drummers in fish bowls. You have to know when to sacrifice tone for the greater good. That requires sensitivity (and a dose of humility). A good drummer notices all the sound levels. They know how loud the mains are, how loud the monitors are, and how the drums will need to be complimentary to all.
You might not know it, but when I first started leading worship in high school I played bass guitar. It is still my favorite instrument in a lot of ways. I enjoy every chance I get to play bass with a group. Here are my top 5 tips for playing the bass guitar in worship:
Keep it simple. If you’ve ever played in a band with me, you’ve probably heard me say this many times. My critique is often that instruments play too much and play rhythms that are too complex. This is true of any instrument, but is especially true for the bass guitar. It doesn’t have to be complicated. There is no shame in staying on the root of the chord and letting the note sustain. The bass guitar is rarely the focus. Make room for the other instruments.
Color the drums. The bass guitar is the harmonic foundation of the band. It does this work in tandem with the drums or percussion. I like to think of the bass guitar being the tonal coloring of the drums. So when the drummer plays the kick drum, giving the band a rhythmic foundation to build on, the bass guitar is providing the tonal color for the kick drum so that the rhythmic foundation now has pitch.
Stand near the drummer. Because drums and bass guitar work in tandem, creating a hybrid harmonic/rhythmic foundation for the band, it makes sense that they should be in proximity to each other. But I often see them separated. Being close enough to visually cue each other is essential. Being close enough to “feel” the groove from each other is better.
Use the middle of the neck. All the tone and sustain comes from the middle of the neck on the bass guitar. So instead of playing the note “A” using the open string, play it on the fifth fret of the E string.
Finesse the notes. Every little detail matters. Give attention to how the notes are started and stopped. Plucking the string doesn’t have to be done so harshly. Let the amplification do the work – not your fingers. Do your notes buzz or sound rough? Make sure your finger is placed right against the fret of the note you’re playing. Work to smoothly transition from note to note, with no gaps between the pitches.
Technologies for Worship Magazine had a great little tip from John Chevalier on how to build a Worship Band. I’m going to break apart his points and riff on each of them.
1. The bass should always play in sinc with the beat of the kick drum. This is key, as about 60% of your sound comes from these two instruments.
“Always” is a relative term. As will be the case in all of these tune up posts, these rules are flexible and should be taken more as guidelines. There are “always” occasions when they should be ignored.
The final comment about 60% of the band’s sound being generated by bass guitar and drums is a good and important statement. Unless of course, your band lacks either bass or drums. Again, there are occasions when these guidelines do not apply. But when bass guitar and drums are present, you can not underestimate the importance and function of these foundational instruments. They lay the chordal and rhythmic framework on which all other instruments and vocals are constructed upon.
It is also wise not to separate the bass guitar and drums into different sections or layers, but to think of them as 1 cohesive unit of tone and rhythm. I like to think that the bass guitar exists primarily to give tone and melody to the kick drum. When the kick drum is “punched,” the bass guitar provides the color and pitch to that impact. This combined sound has to be strong, just like the foundation of the house, so that everything that rests on top of it is secure and finds it’s place.
Drummers and bassists that play in sinc are rare. They are rare because it takes a relationship. It is much more than mechanics. It requires friendship and partnership. Of course, the bass guitarist needs to be positioned on stage so that he can keep an eye on the kick drum. That’s a basic thing in order to keep the sound tight. But the really good teams are able to anticipate each others playing. As I’ve been known to say, “the bass guitarist needs to know what the drummer had for breakfast before he sees him.”
In my 10+ years of worship ministry, of all the groups I’ve led or played in, I’ve only experienced this drum/bass sinc-anticipation playing maybe one time. It takes time to build. And it takes discipline for the drummer to play a beat consistently the same way so that the bass guitarist can follow along. Discipline is also needed from the bass player to accent the rhythmic pattern initiated by the drummer.
Start with the kick drum. Generally, the kick will produce less volume than the other drums, and the dynamics of contemporary Christian music rely on a strong kick drum sound. Improving or amplifying the kick drum will produce the most immediate impact on the overall drum set sound for the audience. First, check to see if the kick drum has a front drumhead or not, and if it does, see if there a hole cut in the drumhead. This will determine how you can place the microphone. If there is a front head with no hole on the drum, place the kick drum microphone about 2” in front of the drum head, between the dead center of the drum, and the edge. Aim the microphone straight at the drumhead. If the sound is too “boomy” perhaps the drummer can place a blanket or some other form of muffling inside the drum to “deaden” the sound.