Music Learning Systems - Guitar, Piano, and Drums

A Perspective on Drum Covers

by Omar on June 12, 2009

in Editorials

Drum Covers - A Perspective

How many times have we heard a great song and thought, "Man, if I could play like that!"  This not only applies to the drums, of which this web site gives the most emphasis, but to guitars, bass, piano/keyboards - the 'end is listless'.  I for one favor the drums (although piano/keyboards are my 1b favorite instruments).

As I was growing up and through my adult years, my appreciation for drummers grew and grew.  Many times I thought that they were under-appreciated, though now I know better.  Drummers are crucial to the sound of their band, and percussion in general can create many landscapes in all forms of music (see the article "Beyond the Drum Kit").  There were several drummers that if one day I had my own kit, I would play their songs.

It would be well into my adulthood that I would finally be able to play these great songs, but it's a dream come true.  I absolutely love playing, and you know what I say:  even if it sounds bad, just have fun!  I was sounding pretty bad at first since I was so rusty.  But with practice comes accomplishment, and I've posted several of these covers on my YouTube channel, with more to come.

There are many approaches one can take when playing a drum cover.  Some take a song and make it completely their own, adding extra fills, or changing the ones in the song, to the point where the original drummer is somewhat drowned out.  Others try to play exactly, note for note (or strike for strike), what the original drummer played.  To me, both of these are extremes and somewhat unnecessary.

I have a great respect for drummers and the role they play in music.  And although many people think that it is easy to play drums, just ask any of them to play even as simple a beat as a song from Creedence Clearwater Revival (no disrespect to CCR - more on that later), and just watch them fall flat on their face!  It is no simple task to be the backbone of a band.  The drummer keeps the song moving in a familiar direction, maintaining control of the groove while every other musician can do whatever they want.  Now before the other musicians start throwing tomatoes, guitar strings, and amplifiers at me, I want to make clear that I'm not degrading any role that everyone in a band plays towards maintaining the beat of a song.  Everyone has a role; everyone counts (i.e. 1-2-3-4), but it's the drummer's role to maintain that beat, that groove, and many times just get out of the way and let the rest of the musicians do their thing.  Phil Rudd of AC/DC is a classic example of this.  One of the greatest rock bands ever, and Phil lays down the heavy beat, no frills, and lets the rest of the band shine.  It works for them!

For a very long time, I would be frustrated when listening to a drummer such as CCR's Doug "Cosmo" Clifford.  To me he just did nothing for the band.  He could have added at least a fill or two to many of the songs he played.  But that was not his role.  It's all about the song, and although we may not remember CCR for their drumming, we most definitely remember them for their songs, which in the end is the most important thing.

So back to the extremes.  Although making a song completely your own may have its place, it's not the way I would cover a song.  I'm more of a 'copier' than an original.  I can hear pretty much what the drummer is playing, and I'll play to that.  I like to show the drummer I'm covering respect for deciding how best that song should be played, and for the most part, I'll stick to that.  That's right, I said for the most part (more on that later).

At the other end, we have the drum covers that try to play note for note what the drummer is playing.  This is almost impossible, so I tend not to do it this way either.  Heck, even the original drummer plays their songs differently every time!  Even if the original could play exactly the same, they most likely won't because it becomes boring very quickly.

However, I tend to lean toward the latter extreme, but not all the way.  Out of respect for the drummer, I will try to play just like they did.  They know better than I do how best the song sounds, after who knows how many iterations.  I may add something to the song, but only if I think that's how the drummer would play it themselves.  Basically, it becomes a guessing game, but a fun one at that!

Here are a few examples for you.  When I covered System of a Down's "Toxicity", I wanted to make sure that I played the ghost notes as closely as possible.  They are so a key part of the drumming that I couldn't ignore them without sounding too different.  I practiced quite a bit, and even after my finished version, there still could be improvement.  But I wanted to catch at least the essence of that technique, since John Dolmayan plays it so well.  However, at the end of the song when the lead singer belts out the final scream, I added an extra snare strike (double-snaring, if you will).  I added it because, for one, I like how it sounded!  And two, it sounds like something John would do, so it didn't bother me to add it in.

Now when I cover a Rush song, I pretty much leave it alone (yeah, I 'leave that thing alone'!).  There really isn't anything to improve upon, since each note seems to be meticulously selected.  The last Rush song I covered was "Dreamline", the live version from the Snakes and Arrows tour.  This is one of my favorite versions, and I wanted to cover a version that hasn't been out for too long.  There are minor differences between my playing and Neil's, purposely so.  But the differences would be how Neil would play, say, on another night of the tour.  At least I'd like to think so!

On one of my covers I took a few liberties and added a fill or two extra.  U2's "I Will Follow" was a request from a fellow Twitter user who said he might want to see me play what could be Twitter's theme song, so I decided to cover it.  Larry Mullen is not my favorite drummer, but again, it's all about serving the song, and his style fits perfectly what U2 is all about.  I always want my drum cover, regardless of how much (or how little) I change it, to seem like how the original drummer would play it as well.

Of course, there's no hard rule.  It's all about having fun, and it also depends on your audience.  So go out there and have some fun playing to the songs you love!  Even better, record yourself as much as possible, so you can see steady progress, which will serve as encouragement to continue.  And whatever your goal may be, you'll be able to show others that you can play some of the best drumming songs of all.  Now go impress!
For an introduction on what it takes to record great drum covers with inexpensive hardware and software, see "Record Yourself Playing Drums", the first in a four-article series

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