I was told many years ago by an orchestra leader in New York City that the most important part of any band or orchestra is the drummer. “The drummer,” he said, “is the steam in the engine. It is the drummer who sets the beat and everything else flows from that rhythm. Without a good drummer, you have no direction, no impulse leading you forward.”
The lesson I took away from that conversation is that the beat the drummer sets is what forces everyone into the same context. Without that anticipatory thump, everyone else makes their own time, and you end up with chaos.
A few years ago, I remember something Late Night with David Letterman Sadowsky bassist Will Lee said in an interview about how having a bad drummer can sink a session, and how he then has to step up as the bassist and take over the role of the drummer.
I found part of that interview on Will Lee’s website:
Q: How do you approach working with new drummers (in terms of striking a groove) and what do you do if you and the drummer aren’t locking in?
A: Aha! That’s an important question! Each drummer has a very specific feel (or non-feel, as the case may be). It’s important to be able hear kick, hi-hat & snare in the monitors or on stage, or whatever, so you can “lock.” Simply listen & don’t fight it, just ride it. If the drummer has no time whatsoever and you know you do, you have to become the timekeeper. It’s hard work from behind a bass. Nobody but you will know how hard you are working, because you really can give the illusion that the tune is grooving, and nobody but you will know how it got there. If the drummer is a half-decent person he/she knows they can’t groove & will be unspokenly thankful for a lifetime that it was secretly you that kept them on the map for so long-it’s up to you to be cool about it.
I love that answer from Will because it has a real world authenticity that is based on direct experience. It must be a difficult conversation to have between an unqualified drummer and an experienced bassist — especially if the drummer doesn’t know the time isn’t quite being kept right. I admire Will Lee’s bluntness — and I’m sure if he had to — he’d just be even more direct about it and tell the drummer he’ll keep the time with his bass if the hints weren’t being taken.
That reminds me of an amazing drummer I met in high school. We were in the same grade. His whole family worked as professional percussionists and so he had “metronome blood” and yet he was the coolest, most kind, and laid-back, guy you’d ever hope to meet. Most drummers you meet at that age are pretty wild and over-the-top.
One day, to test his timekeeping, we all sat around in his basement as he started playing a complicated rhythm on his drum set. It was bone-rattling, and his local fame, even at 16-years-old, was that he could “keep time” just as accurately as a clock. You could “set your watch” to his beat. He told us to time his playing with a stopwatch and he’d carry the beat every second and put “flare” every five and ten seconds. We agreed to “time” his playing and we all passed around the stopwatch to witness the magic in real time.
After 30 minutes of non-stop playing, we were all amazed. Our friend was drenched with sweat and he had actually kept perfect time without missing a single beat. We felt as if we’d witnessed history and we were awed by The Human Metronome — and today I can’t help but want to hear my friend and Will Lee pound out some great music together — because I know they’d get along great like twin atomic clocks.