Updated: Sep 15, 2020
There are many ways to get a different meaning from the same sentence. A simple four word introduction, for example, can change by accenting any one of the words. "MY name is Steve." conveys a different meaning than "My NAME is Steve." And we can emphasize the other words to get two more meanings still. What if we repeat the words in a hard, chopped manner? Or with a Southern drawl? Every different way we pronounce the sentence will change the way it is interpreted. This is an important concept for drummers, because just as our body language and speaking voice convey our feelings when we speak, so do the placement and volume of our notes when we play. Every sound we make on our instrument is filtered through the emotion we are experiencing at the time, resulting in a timbre and lilt in our playing that actually transfers the feeling to the listener.
A consistent, defined feel gives the listener something they can recognize and latch onto. It accentuates the lyric, helps the band groove better, and often defines the mood of the song. Great feel is the difference between a promising player and a working pro, and yet, because the topic is so individual and subjective it is difficult to notate on paper and, consequently, there isn't a whole lot of instructional material on the subject. So how do we work on feel? How do we find the right emotion for the song? What can we practice to make our feel deeper, more consistent, and more convincing?
The easiest way to start is by playing a mid tempo rock groove. Then stop and play it again… only sadder. Often, when asked to play "sadder", a player will slow the tempo down. But slower tempos aren't always sad. Sometimes slow songs can be triumphant, or heavy, or sinister. So what then, besides tempo, can make a beat sad?
To answer this question think again about how sadness is conveyed with the voice? When sadness is felt we naturally speak softer, with bigger gaps between phrases. Our voice may trail off at the end of a sentence, or slow to a halt before we even finish speaking. Try acting sad and your voice will naturally take on these manifestations. Now try playing with sadness. How does it affect the parts you choose and the way you play? What tones do you decide upon? What volume? How hard do you hit the snare drum, and where on the head, and with what type of stick/mallet/brush?
There are other emotions, too. Like excitement. What does excitement sound like? (Remember, you can't just play faster.) For excitement, imagine your best friend just won a million dollars and you get to deliver them the news. Really! Imagine the feeling you'd have between the time you saw your friend's face and the time you got the words out. Now, with that same feeling, play a groove at 105 beats per minute. How does the feeling affect your energy? How does that energy affect your parts and playing?
Sad and Happy are two examples but there are as many different feels as there are emotions. Take love songs alone and you've got lots of intense feelings. New love, lost love, spurned love, breaking up, making up, moving in, kicking out, moving on (reluctantly, defiantly, secretly, etc.) There are so many ways to approach a song.
Most times the perfect feel can be reached by considering the lyric, tempo, and chord progression, but if you look at those clues and still aren't sure of an approach, ask the singer what the song means to him/her. Not only will the conversation help you play more appropriately, but knowing that you intend to reinforce the vocal delivery might give a singer the confidence to dig deeper into their performance. Modeling your feel to the lyric and vocal delivery has a way of making every note you strike fit naturally into the proper groove, and when the drummer and singer are locked together it accentuates the vibe of the song, creating a more powerful and compelling experience for everyone involved.
Besides common moods like happy, sad, loose, confident, etc., it is also possible to mix and match characteristics of different ideas to create more complex and interesting feels. One feel I love to sink into is inspired by a Hunter S. Thompson novel called "The Rum Diary". In this book the lead character is a young, cocky journalist who spends most of his time drinking Rum at a tropical hamburger stand in San Juan. He is an intellectual and a lush, successful despite his self destructive nature.
I try to imagine what it would sound like if this character was called up to play a tune with the band. You can imagine from reading the book that his playing would most likely be simple and a little stilted because he's not an experienced drummer, yet loud and confident because of his nature. He would be a little reckless because of the booze, and a little lazy because of the sun and sand, but in the end, would hold it together out of sheer vanity. You could take this character and add a delusion of grandeur. Or a sense of rebellion. Maybe the character is also feeling nervous, vengeful, pompous, sullen, or guilty? Every layer you can keep in mind when you play will affect the end result.
After deciding upon the appropriate feel it is important that the sentiment remain consistent for the duration of the song. Once a feel has been established, recognized, and adopted by the listener, it is vital that we not let anything push or pull us out of the mood we have created. Sometimes a new section of the arrangement can cause a novice player to accidentally change their feel. This can also happen after a big fill or a long break. But consistency is crucial, because switching the feel breaks the spell of the song. Our playing has invited the listener to give themselves over to a feeling that our notes have generated so that we can enjoy a musical bond together. Unintentionally changing the direction after the mood has been established causes a confusing let down, forcing you to win back the listener's trust. (Good luck.)
One trick to keeping the feel consistent is to imagine what our character's feelings would cause them to look like. Would the character be hunched over? Sitting up proudly? Holding the sticks backwards or with an improper grip? Try it. Not only can a physical difference remind you to "stay in character" but it might add something to the sound or timing of your feel. I once sawed a pair of drumsticks in half and cut the track with the butt ends. It affected the feel in a subtle way that I couldn't have consistently reproduced with a full sized pair of sticks. Don't worry about how it looks. Successful players tend to glorify the music and put the song's needs over their own.
Passion without order is just noise, and technique without heart is just math and exercise. What makes a musician great is their ability to create a solid groove with a consistent and appropriate feel. When our playing allows the listener to drift into a satisfying experience of deep, mutual connection, we are providing the highest service a musician can offer.