Devil in the Details: 5 great drum songs

There’s something that I absolutely love about the drum set, and I have no idea what it is.  Drums are incapable of carrying even a simple melody, so why am I so drawn to them as an agent of music?  Perhaps it is because a drum set offers so many sonic possibilities in its unique combination of otherwise disparate instruments.  Or maybe the fact that I have virtually no talent for playing them myself elevates them an unattainable status for me.

Really, though, it’s because they make music sound so damn good.

But what makes a great drum part?  For me, the best rock/pop drummers are not always the ones that will blow you away with their Thor-like virtuosity.  For a drum part to be great, it has to groove.  You do not necessarily have to be able to dance to it, but it certainly helps.  For it to be truly great, a drum part must lend itself to increasing rewards on return listens.  If I am floored by a drummer after hearing them play a song for the first time, that’s great, but I want to have my mind blown even more after the fifth time I listen to it.

In other words, a truly great drum part will be deceptively subtle.  The following are five songs by five drummers (listed by the band with which they were recorded) that I feel strongly demonstrate this, as presented in chronological order.

Dire Straits, “Sultans of Swing”

Pick Withers, the drummer for Dire Straits’ first four albums, earned his reputation for his restrained yet tasteful style, and nowhere is this in finer exhibition than in this single from the band’s self-titled debut from 1978.  The feel and tempo of the song never really change, but the constant subtle evolution of Withers’ patterns propels the song in ways that most listeners will likely take for granted.

The brilliance of Withers’ playing is that it almost never emerges as a foreground element in the musical tapestry, yet the song would sound drastically different if you replaced his track with a conventional hi-hat/backbeat pattern.  If Withers did play with more flash, then “Sultans” would almost certainly be too cluttered.  Dire Straits really have two personalities that battle for attention: lead vocals and lead guitar.  Actually, it’s just one, as Mark Knopfler fills both roles.  Regardless, any other competing musical elements would at the very least add clutter that would detract from the aesthetic quality offered by the band’s rootsy, blues-infused sound.

An examination of the first verse of “Sultans” provides insight to Withers’ subtle craftwork.  The first measure of the first verse (0:14 in the recording) features a standard rock pattern with the right hand keeping eighth notes on the hi-hat and the left hand providing backbeats on the snare.  However, the next measure (0:16) already features a variation on this conventional groove.  Withers adds open hi-hat strikes on the upbeats, which creates a quasi-disco feel for four beats before returning to the original groove.  More importantly, it gives a sense of tension and propulsion to the music that highlights the resolution of the first vocal phrase.

The second line repeats this same pattern, but the third line of the verse presents another new color.  Withers switches from the hi-hat to the ride cymbal, thus providing a more open and brighter sound.  Significantly, this is the point in the song’s progression that switches to the major mode (the song is in a minor mode).  Thus, Withers’ shift is complementary, providing a color change that supports the music around it instead of making itself known solely by its own merits.

The other interesting section of note is during the guitar solo at the end of the track, which is played over the progression from the song’s verse.  Instead of playing the same part ver batim (as he does for the other verses of the song), Withers uses a somewhat streamlined version by using a more consistent time pattern (mostly hi-hat/backbeat) while still incorporating some of the subtle color shifts in a more organic way.  For example, Withers uses the open hat sound, but it’s no longer confined to the second measure.  Like a good jazz drummer, the playing in this solo section is more conversational, responding to the Knopfler’s guitar solo.

Withers’ playing is not completely without flash.  He uses a number of fills throughout, but they are always in the context of setting up a significant moment in the music.  My favorite thing about Withers, though, is one of my favorite traits in any type of music – it can only be fully appreciated when given careful scrutiny and attention.

Wilco, “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart”

That this song was included should come as no surprise to those of you familiar with my canon.  It is, after all, a daring display of sonic exploration featuring myriad percussion sounds that are virtually orchestral in and of themselves.  Glenn Kotche – Wilco’s drummer, and an accomplished classical percussionist/composer – brought a sense of contagious curiosity to the band’s critically revered 2002 release Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (his first with the band), and nowhere is that more prominently featured than on its opener.

That, however, is not the reason why “Trying” is relevant in this discussion.  As awesome as Kotche’s peripheral contributions are, his set playing provides the subtle shaping that drives the song’s otherwise stagnant form to a powerful climax.  If Withers’ playing on “Sultans” demonstrates evolution on a local, phrase-by-phrase level, Kotche’s has a similar effect here on the song’s global form.  The song is strophic (the same verse is repeated with different lyrics), but each verse has its own distinct character that evolves and escalates in tension.  Though there are numerous factors that contribute to this, Kotche’s nuanced time-keeping is the most crucial.

“Trying” has five verses before its single chorus emerges, and each of these is connected by a short instrumental interlude that follows the same basic chord progression.  Of these nine verses and interludes, none of them feature identical drum parts.  Some elements are shared and developed across multiple sections, but Kotche never repeats himself.

At the very end of the extended instrumental prelude (1:00), Kotche introduces the first verse with a rhythmic motive that supports much of the material in the first couple verses.  This pattern consists of one measure of energetic syncopation and a subsequent measure of more conventional time.  This disappears for the first two lines of the verse, only to reemerge halfway through (1:16) and continue on through the first interlude.

Once the second verse starts, Kotche drops the beat yet again, only this time he stays out for the entire verse.  When he reenters with the same idea in the second interlude (2:00), he consistently omits the second measure of the pattern so that he’s only playing the syncopated part every other measure.  This pattern then continues on through the entire third verse (2:12), but the second measure of the pattern is added back in.

The third interlude (2:34) presents something entirely new: the driving pattern that persisted through the first three verses gives way to a more conventional backbeat in support of the new piano hook.  Following the precedent established by the first motive, this new idea vanishes just as easily as it appears with the fourth verse (2:56).  It is replaced by swells of metallic scrapes and rapidly shifting shakers that zing from an extreme left panning to extreme right.

The latter of these elements persists through the following interlude (3:18), as they remain a background texture in support of the new groove.  Marked by an echoing backbeat on beat two in lieu of a single snare shot, this groove proves to be the song’s most prominent.  Significantly, it only enters at a point by which many pop songs would have already concluded.  This groove connects into the fifth verse (3:00), but now the shakers have departed.

When the chorus finally arrives (3:52), Kotche drops out one more time, as if to highlight this moment’s significance by letting Jeff Tweedy’s voice take supreme precedence.  The groove picks back up right where it left off once the extended coda begins (4:14), but this time it combines elements of all the major ideas presented throughout the song.  The groove established in the fourth interlude serves as the foundation, but the syncopated figure from the beginning resurfaces spontaneously, adding some tasty chaos to the increasingly dense casserole of sound.

Nothing in what Kotche plays during the verses and interludes is virtuosic, but closer examination reveals that his ideas are presented and developed in a way that adds a radically new dimension to the track.  The use of strophic form is particularly effective here because of the meta-through composed form that Kotche’s drum part implies beneath it.

Queens of the Stoneage, “Song for the Dead”

Songs for the DeafQOTSA’s critical and commercial breakthrough 2002 release (released not long after YHF, coincidentally) – just might be my favorite album-length display of rock drumming, and this epic fourth track is the clear standout.  It also really makes you appreciate the depth Dave Grohl’s musical talent.  Grohl essentially defined rock drumming in the 90’s when he joined Nirvana, but after his success as a singer/band leader with Foo Fighters, most people no longer associated him with the kit.  This album (and especially this song) proved that not only did he still have his chops, they were even better than we realized.

“Song” is a great feature piece for Grohl, and the intro is basically an extended drum solo.  What strikes me most about this solo is how well he balances virtuosity and aggression with phrasing and restraint.  The predominant use of low and dry sounding drums is certainly idiomatic to hard rock drumming, but his sense of space and developed gestures suggests something more classical.  There is also a clever manipulation of meter towards the end of this section, which is particularly effective when pitted against the strongly metric guitar riff.

Much like Kotche does in “Trying”, Grohl uses markedly different patterns to distinguish different sections in the song.  When the full band joins in on the opening guitar riff after his solo (0:39), Grohl propels this atomic blast of a groove with a conventional driving double-time backbeat.  The verse then changes to a more spacious sound (0:59), and this is led by Grohl’s switch to a more subdued and relaxed feel.  While his playing is still aggressive, its looseness and lyricism lends itself to jazz influence (kind of like if Art Blakey played metal).  This time feel is also interrupted throughout to leave space for short guitar solos, and the rapid switch from full, resonant drums to silence is a nice aesthetic.

The chorus (1:54) builds off this same groove, but every other measure is replaced with a bombastic swell of steady drum hits.  In a way, it is the inverse of Kotche’s pattern of syncopation/groove.  It also creates nice contrast, but towards the opposite extreme that is achieved with the incorporation of silence in the verse.

In addition to implementing a variety of different grooves, Grohl also incorporates some tasteful and subtle timbral shifts.  For example, the groove change between the song’s intro and its verse is reinforced by a modification to the timbre of the snare drum.  The intro features a relatively dark and boomy snare sound, while the snare used in the verse sounds a bit brighter and tighter (which would also be more characteristic of jazz playing).

Another subtle shift that borrows from Grohl’s jazz influences is the use of the bass drum in the guitar solo section (3:02).  He uses the same basic groove from the verse/chorus, but the biggest difference is that the bass drum plays a more active role.  It is very conversational, as if it is responding to what the guitarist plays rather than merely following a consistent pattern.  This is similar to Withers’ technique in “Sultans”.

What amazes me the most about Grohl as a drummer is the way he transcends the mold of a conventional rock drummer by fusing numerous styles together,.  Sure, he bangs the drums as aggressively as any hard rock drummer.  But he is also a master of phrasing, feel, and subtlety, which is a rare feat for any rock band.

Spoon, “Finer Feelings”

This is definitely the least flashy of the drum parts in this collection.  Spoon have always been great at getting high mileage out of minimal material, though, and that starts with the way they manipulate and dissect a groove.  Much like Withers in Dire Straits, Spoon drummer Jim Eno has received praise for his ability to enhance and enrich his band’s sound while never becoming more than a supporting role.

Though many of Spoon’s songs follow this mold, “Finer Feelings” (from 2007’s Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga) stands out because of its constant evolution of groove.  Eno uses three distinct percussion sounds – drum set, hand claps, and shakers/maracas – but he mixes and matches these in ways that constantly keep them fresh.  All are vital to the song’s infectious groove, but the fact that they rarely appear as one cohesive unit creates a subtle tension that proves surprisingly effective.

The first two measures of the song serve as a neat microcosm of this – the groove is as basic as they come, but hand claps and shakers weave throughout Eno’s set part.  Specifically, hand claps highlight every other backbeat snare hit, and shakers pound out 16th notes in only the second measure.

The first two cycles of the song’s verse/chorus pattern reflect these shifts on a larger scale.  The first verse continues the gesture of hand claps accenting the backbeat, but these are dropped in the verse’s second stanza (0:24).  Their departure is short-lived, however, as they return for the chorus (0:37).  The shaker idea undergoes a similar cycle in the next go-round, as they return for the second verse (0:51), get dropped at the second chorus (1:05), and return yet again at the repetition of the chorus (1:20).

The subsequent interlude (1:35) features the first substantial modification to the actual set part, as the snare becomes more active in the advent of the latest departure of the shakers.  This section also continues the yoyo effect of the shakers.  However, when they reappear in this context, they do so in the middle of a phrase (1:48) instead of the start of a new section.  Just when you start to develop expectations of when the groove is about to be modified, Eno’s deceptively spontaneous playing continues to keep you on your toes.

The Roots, “Rising Up”

Picking a great example of drum playing from The Roots’ catalog is like picking out a flavor of Ben & Jerry’s – it’s hard to go wrong.  This nearly-title track from their politically-conscious 2008 release, Rising Down, was my selection, though, because it is a great showcase for what ?uestlove and crew do best: it uses a couple stellar yet deceptively ornate grooves that interact with other musical elements in refreshing ways.

The chorus and verse of “Rising Up” both prominently feature percussion, but they feature strong contrast between the drum parts themselves.  These differences highlight the stark orchestral shift that occurs between these sections.  The sprawling chaos of the chorus’ beat supports the lush orchestration beneath Chrisette Michelle’s vocal hook, while the tightness of the succinct verse beat matches the minimalist vibe created by the lack of pitched instruments.

While the drums in the chorus (0:20) are far more unpredictable, this sense is basically the responsibility by two distinct elements: the use of tambourine and snare.  The former adds a shimmery gloss to the dense orchestration, lending a flowing quality to the music as it grows and tapers freely.  The latter is probably the most definitive aspect of ?uestlove’s part here, as it is the most clearly unique factor from a conventional groove.  Instead of anchoring a backbeat (as it will during the verses), it has a free, almost melodic quality that responds to and, at times, challenges Michelle’s aforementioned part.  And in typical ?uestlove fashion, there is very little literal repetition in his part from measure to measure because of constant subtle tweaks in the groove.

Except for single bass hits on every other downbeat and the pre-chorus motive that appears every fourth measure, the verse (0:50) is a duet between The Roots’ percussion section and their MC (Black Thought takes verses one and three, while guest rapper Wale gets his chance in verse two).  The percussion part is simultaneously simplified and dense – simplified because it introduces a more conventional backbeat-driven groove, but dense because there emerges a greater spectrum of percussion timbres.  Agogo bells and timbales now take prominent roles, although everything is meant to lay down a foundation for Black Thought and Wale to freely explore lyrical and rhythmic permutations.

One other aspect of note here is the way the band uses the hip-hop trope of “dropping the beat.”  This is a tactic in which producers/DJ’s will momentarily cut out the instrumental portion of the track in order to more prominently feature the MC on a particularly notable line.  (A classic example of this occurs in Beastie Boys’ “Intergalactic” on AdRoc’s line “Beastie Boys known to let the beat… drop?”)  This happens in both of the first two verses: during the first verse, the drums lay out (although the percussion keeps going) for the line “I know the world been waitin’ for that” (1:15), and the second features a total drop of the beat for “good rappers ain’t eatin’, they Olsen-twinnin’” (2:14).  Making a metaphor involving pop culture figures is another common trope in hip-hop, so this is a clever way of using one convention to highlight another.

* * * * *

If I wanted to write an article about the greatest drumming in rock/pop music, I could probably begin and end that list with “Moby Dick.”  This, however, is not that list.  While flashy and virtuosic drumming is amazing on its own, I can think of little in this genre that is more aesthetically pleasing than a drum part that just lays perfectly.  As these examples have shown, the most effective way to achieve this is to play in a way that allows the drum part to remain a supportive element while still giving the curious listener ample rewards for their efforts.

This list is hardly exhaustive, and I do not intend to suggest that these are the five absolute greatest examples of these qualities in the history of music.  They are, however, examples that stand out to me.  If you have ones that do the same for you, please share them below!

John with Glen Kotche, 2007.



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