Library #6: Tips For Aspiring Heroes

Over the years I’ve been writing these pages I’ve been lucky enough to have had a healthy amount of correspondence with many regular readers (have you said hello yet, via the contact page? Why not? Go and do it now!) Quite a few of the emails I regularly get are from keen drummers. Some are young, or are grown up but just beginning their drumming studies, whilst others are experienced players in more modern styles of music – but all have expressed an interest in 1920s jazz drumming and requested advice on how best to progress in emulating our mutual Heroes. Responding to these emails has convinced me that perhaps it’s time I added a page of general advice (based purely on my own experiences, and littered with my own subjective opinions!) for aspiring 20s-style jazz drummers.

First, an easy one. Go to Mainspring Press and download Brian Rust’s discography ‘Jazz & Ragtime Records’. A searchable PDF, it’s free, and contains the hard facts about more or less every jazz recording made during the 20s (and before and after, too.) Then, if you hear something you like on a record and want to know when and where it was recorded, and most importantly who the drummer was, you can whip out your phone or laptop, fire up Rust, and it’s all there at your fingertips. ‘Drums In The Twenties’ would have been very very much more difficult to write (almost impossible, in fact) without it, so we must all be very thankful to the late Mr. Rust for his incredible diligence, and the people at Mainspring Press for publishing it to the world for free.


That done, here’s an important caveat. My first and most important piece of advice – in drumming, and life in general – is to be wary of advice! The internet abounds with inaccurate and error-strewn websites and instructional videos, and the world of vintage drumming is no exception. When confronted with a ‘how-to’ video, try not to be bamboozled by the look or production values. Instead, try to think critically if what the drummer’s doing looks and sounds right, and fits well with what you know. Do they really seem to know what they’re doing? Do they have control of the instrument and make a nice sound? If in doubt regarding their credentials, look them up – can you see them playing this music regularly, performing and recording with professional-sounding groups? If not, it’s probably worth treating what they have to say not necessarily with disdain, but certainly with caution. Listen hard to the music (our only really trustworthy source) and compare.

Ok, personal gripe exercised. And having said that, I’m now going to totally contradict myself and start dishing out some practical advice…

POINT 1: Don’t worry unduly about GEAR.

Whatever the instrument and style of music you’re trying to play, it’s only human to sometimes get lazy and even bored with how you sound. When that happens, it’s very easy to fall into the trap of deciding that having that one more new (old) instrument or piece of equipment will finally solve all your problems, make you sound like you want to, and have your talents taken more seriously by the world. But in nearly all cases, this is just your brain trying to take a shortcut to the destination you want to get to, when in fact there’s just the one straight, uphill road. The world abounds with keen musicians who have spent vast amounts of money on expensive gear. But without hard work, dedication and deep thought, the music these people actually play on those instruments can often amount to very little. Such individuals are easy to spot for anyone who knows the breed, and, I’m afraid to say, are rarely thought much of by those they wish to impress. And at the same time, there are plenty of other musicians out there on the scene who use instruments that are modern, or of very indifferent quality – but because these players have worked incredibly hard at learning the language and honing their skills, they still sound great, and are universally respected by their peers regardless.

Cards on table time; old drums are nice things to have around, and obviously I’ve collected a few in my time – and indeed written extensively about them on here. However, these few were bought to be played, rather than just for the sake of amassing stuff – my collection is very, very small and particular, and it all gets used, regularly. I couldn’t afford for it not to.

Sad to say, the same goes for obsessing over appearance instead of working at your art. Again, ‘money where mouth is’ time – I do like dressing in period-style fashion when playing period music on gigs – it can help to bring what you’re doing to life for modern audiences, and it’s also a fun and realtively affordable hobby to get into. But fun as it is, it’s got to be an added extra on top of being a superb, informed player. Musicians respect other good musicians, whatever they look like. They don’t so much respect ‘dress-ups’, who look great but can’t really play that well. You don’t want to be one of those.

POINT 2 : Having said all that, worry ‘duly’ about gear – but within reason, and using your ears!

Following on from the previous point, it is important, if you can, to get hold of a small amount of suitable equipment for playing this music – it needn’t be much: a decent bass drum, snare drum, choke cymbal and woodblock is really all you’ll need. There’s so much you can achieve with just those things – most of our Heroes made their best records using that or not much more. Here are some thoughts to set you on your way:

SNARE DRUM. If your press rolls aren’t sounding quite like Paul Barbarin’s, it might be the way the drum’s set up as much as your technique (most modern snares are built for a sharp, cutting sound designed to compete with huge, loud amplifiers). However, you can very easily make it sound a bit more mellow and closer to the sound of our Heroes’ drums using the following patented dodge… First, tension both heads medium-tight and have the snares a bit looser than you usually would. Then slip a narrow piece of paper (say, a 1” wide strip torn off the short end of piece of normal printer-type A4) under the snare wires, between them and the head. This will artificially thicken your modern plastic snare head so it behaves more like an old-fashioned vellum one – taking some of the ‘crack’ out of the drum and simulating something of the sound character of a vintage instrument. You might need to experiment with paper placement and listen to some old records to find the right balance. When playing music at venues where I’m faced with a modern ‘house’ drum kit, this is still what I frequently do (and I usually forget to remove the paper at the end, which often makes me wonder what the next user of the kit thinks…)

BASS DRUM. Whilst it’s easy to hanker after a 28” period item with a beautiful landscape painted on the head, the bass drum from your modern drum kit will actually work absolutely fine. The typical ‘desirable bass drum sound’ in the 1920s was generally much more warm and resonant than it is today, so to make your drum sound a bit closer to our Heroes’, you can easily modify it by slackening off both heads and removing most of the padding or muffling from inside. You’ll also need a large, soft beater for your pedal – you can’t ‘feather’ the drum gently using that heavy plastic thing you use for death metal. Luckily, it’s easy to approximate a soft beater by taping a piece of faux wool (or even a cloth duster) around your existing beater – or you can even buy reproduction lambswool beaters new (I use Vater’s ‘vintage bomber’ beater, which is great and not that expensive).

CHOKE CYMBAL. Unless you’re playing in a band with a very niche and rarefied 20s repertoire (mid-decade Red Nichols, say!) your best bet for a versatile and fairly authentic-sounding principal choke cymbal to use playing 1920s jazz is something medium-weight and fairly small – around 14” or 15”. You may not have thought about it, but in fact nearly all of you will likely have at least two of such cymbals lying around already – in a pair, on your hi-hat stand.

Yes, believe it or not, individual hi-hat cymbals (particularly the top ones, which are usually thinner) can make excellent choke cymbals – they needn’t even be expensive or well-made models. For many years I’ve socked away on budget Zyn and Krut top hi-hats (made in Britain in the 1950s or 1960s and picked up for a few pounds on eBay) and have sometimes had musicians remark how genuine they sound. Just like hi-hats, real early-mid-20s cymbals were built for projection, weren’t really designed for being ‘crashed’ and tend to have a strong fundamental tone. This is because, like hi-hats, they were originally designed to played clashed, in pairs (albeit in marching bands, rather than rock bands – but both are loud musical settings). This is why they can sound so similar and work so well.

WOODBLOCK. This should be an easy one to source as there are many affordable and pleasant-sounding examples on the market that will do perfectly. Ideally, listen to a good few of our Heroes on record and get some idea of the kind of sound you’re after in your ‘mind’s ear’. Apart from that, it’s just got to be durable and have a nice flat surface for playing with the tips as well as the shoulders of the sticks (I’m not even against brightly-coloured plastic blocks per se, except they’re often a weird shape which makes tip-playing difficult).

Once you’ve got the above sorted, forget about adding more GEAR and instead focus on PLAYING.

POINT 3 : Practice!

You can split the skills required to be a good jazz drummer up into several compartments.

First (obviously) you need to develop good technique, allowing you to strike the drums and cymbals cleanly and make a nice sound at any volume and tempo. This is a physical thing, produced by muscles, nerves and tendons as well as brains. I can’t really teach you this here (there are drum teachers all over the world, and billions of instructional videos online, after all) – I can only stress how vital it is. You’ll need this technique to stay consistently strong over time, too, because a gig lasts hours. Physical stamina is important. This stuff really does require focused hours each week with a drum or practice pad, a metronome, and your brain fully engaged.

Then you need to practice the mental side of things. Most vital of all is to develop a strong time feel, i.e. not speeding up or slowing down (at least, not drastically – a tiny bit is forgivable). You need to be able to generate that time feel yourself, without any help from any other musicians (and sometimes with hindrance!).

N.B. I’m going to talk about practising by playing along with records below, and it is a great tool – but remember, it won’t help you improve the most crucial of drumming skills one bit for that, you need a metronome.

As well as solid time, you’ll need an understanding of how the music is constructed, an idea about the most common song formats and rhythmic patterns, and ideally a working knowledge of the main stylistic subgenres of the period, and what the most appropriate drum styles would be for each (hopefully this site might be of use for a good part of that). Happily, this is the kind of stuff that can be partly picked up by osmosis, provided you’re willing to immerse yourself in the music whenever you can, and keep at least half an ear open for what’s going on rather than letting it just wash over you. After a few months of dedicated listening, you might find that things start to occur to you when playing that you hadn’t thought of before, or that something you’ve heard elsewhere occurs in a song you’re listening to.

Play along to as many records as you can. Try the ones I’ve embedded on these pages, for a start – I chose them because they show off our Heroes doing interesting and distinctive things on the drums! Try to listen to what the drummer is doing, and copy them; don’t just do your own thing, to start with, at least. Practice keeping steady time along with the band, listening out for the rest of the rhythm section (piano, banjo, and bass/tuba) as well as the drummer. Try to learn the tune and the ‘shape’ of each piece as you go. Are there solo breaks halfway through each chorus, and between choruses? If so, be ready to anticipate them and leave a gap.

And lastly, of course, if you don’t read drum music, personally I’d strongly advise that you learn. Compared to other instruments drum music is relatively easy: we’e only got to worry about five or six different ‘notes’ to learn, and no sharps or flats to make things complicated. Once you can read, you can write – and, as I’ve mentioned elsewhere on this website, if you want to do something well, study someone who already does it well, and write that stuff down in detail. This applies to drumming just as it does to baking, or embroidery, or plumbing, or tennis!

Transcribe, transcribe, transcribe, transcribe.

For people who play other instruments as well as drums, and wish to investigate the styles of the ‘twenties on those too I’d also heartily recommend my friend and colleague Michael McQuaid’s wonderful video series ‘Overthinking Old Jazz’.

This is of course only a temporary and partial list, and as with everything on DITT, it will inevitably get revised, expanded and rewritten in the future as new ideas occur to its author. However, hopefully there’s enough food for thought here to help at least in part for all those budding 20s drumming Heroes out there in the world.

Happy drumming, all of you, wherever you are.