Most drummers look very confident when they’re playing drums on a stage. You may be wondering how they know exactly what to play all the time and how much practice went into all of that. There are a few key factors that drummers use to know what to play.
Drummers are good listeners, so they know how to play drum parts that work well with all the other instrument parts in the band. They also learn drum beats and fills that are commonly used in the genre they’re performing in. In other instances drummers will read chart music as they’re playing.
Let’s take a deeper look at everything involved with knowing what to play as a drummer.
To be a gigging musician, you have to be a good listener. This is especially true with drummers as they need to listen carefully to what everyone else is playing in order to play something that adds value to the overall song.
If a bass guitar part sounds very busy, a drummer will know to lay back on the bass drum and not play too many notes to make it sound too convoluted. If the instrument parts are fairly open, a drummer might play out a bit more to fill the space.
When a song starts to build in intensity, it’s the drummer’s job to drive that as a lot of energy comes from the drum kit. Having an ear for this kind of thing is something that every drummer develops over time.
You’ll find in most cases that the best drummers are always the best listeners in the band.
There are particular types of grooves and fills that drummers can play that will fit the style of music that the band is playing. Part of learning to play the drums is learning how to play these grooves and when to apply them.
A Latin Samba groove would work incredibly well with a band that is playing a Samba tune. On the flip side, that groove would sound very out-of-place in a straightforward pop song.
Drummers start to learn which grooves fit the best in different types of songs, making it easy for them to know what to play.
Some examples of different styles of music would be rock, pop, metal, funk, jazz, and hip-hop. When drummers learn how to play grooves that cater to each of these styles, it puts them in a better space to play the right thing when they’re put in a band environment where these styles are played.
Band environments are great in regard to everyone keeping each other accountable. A drummer might be playing something a bit off, and another band member will give them some advice and tell them to play something that fits the song better.
This happens all the time in band settings. So, a drummer will know what to play because another band member told them exactly what to play to make the song sound better.
You’ll see this happening occasionally in live settings. Band members will send cues to the drummer to tell them what to do, whether that be stopping or building the song with a huge drum fill. When this type of thing happens in live settings, drummers need to be very aware and ready to react quickly. It also comes back to being a good listener.
Many bands have songwriters that write all the lyrics and music. In modern-day songwriting, you’ll find musicians writing out the songs on software on the computer. They’ll often program the drums themselves, giving the drummer a reference track to listen to when they learn to play the song.
So, a drummer in this context will know what to play because they learned to play it directly from the demo track.
This also happens with session drummers who fill in for artists that are already established. A session drummer will learn the exact drum part from a record that has already been released. They’ll try to mimic everything that’s already being played on those released songs.
Depending on drummer’s skills, this is often an easier route to go as it’s easier to learn established drum parts than it is to create ones from scratch.
Drums are fairly repetitive. The same grooves get played over and over in many different songs, making it easy to apply them in new songs when once a drummer has learnt them.
The best example of this is the basic rock beat. It’s been used in thousands of songs over the years as it’s a staple groove in most styles of music.
A drummer will know what to play because grooves like this fit incredibly well in most songs, so they can pull it out when needed. The more a drummer practices, the better they will get at playing different types of grooves. They will then have an arsenal of beats that they can pull out in band settings.
Knowing when to play these beats also comes back to being a good listener!
There are a few types of gigs that drummers can play that are a bit more formally structured. These would include big band jazz gigs and musicals. In these settings, all the musicians have the drum notation they can follow. This means that all the instrument parts are written out for everyone to follow.
A drummer will know exactly what to play in this context as the sheet music is showing them exactly what to play. The chart music can be less detailed (allowing for the drummer to improvise as they play) or very detailed (in which case the drummer will follow beat by beat exactly as it’s notated).
Not all drummers have the ability to read music, though so this isn’t common to all drummers.
Every song is played in a certain time signature (or for more complex songs multiple time signatures). For example most rock songs will be played in a 4/4 time signature which means that every 4 quarter notes a new bar starts.
Drummers will use the time signature to know when they have to come in, when to play an accent on the snare drum, when to start playing a different beat for a chorus and when to stop playing.
For basic beats even beginner drummers can follow this pattern - for instance they could remember that first 4 bars are guitar only, after that they play 4 bars of eighth notes on the hi-hat, and then they start playing every 1st and 3rd quarter note on the bass drum and 2nd and 4th quarter note on the snare (a basic rock beat).
A professional drummer will also keep this in mind but, depending on the genre, may also improvise while playing and move in and out of different time signatures as required. You’ll see this often happen in a genre such as Jazz.
All of the above becomes much easier once you have more experience. In the early stages it can be hard to keep track of the song structure, your timing and what the other band members are playing.
After years of practice this will become second nature however. Drummers will spend a lot of time practicing basic and complex beats, independence, playing to a metronome to improve their timing and hours practicing rudiments on a practice pad.
After all this practice a beginner drummer will be transformed into a great player that has mastered their musical instrument.
Some drummers are really good at playing specific songs. Maybe they didn’t put in a whole lot of time into becoming a well rounded drummer that can play any beat, genre and time signature - but instead just wanted to play to have fun.
Playing for fun is one of the best ways to learn an instrument like the drums so there’s nothing wrong with this!
Some drummers can play their favorite song amazingly and maybe that’s what you heard them play.
One of the best ways to improve at drums is to learn from a drum teacher. Some drummers learn quicker with a teacher and prefer to get private drum lessons, others might have been part of their high school music program or the school’s marching band.
Having a teacher is great because they can teach you proper technique, help you develop your right hand and left hand co-ordination and speed, foot pedal technique and how to read drum sheet music.
The better your technique is the less you have to concentrate on what you’re doing and the more you can concentrate on what’s happening around you in a musical context.
You can also work on specific songs with a teacher and that can be a great way to learn a new song. Drum teachers can quickly tell you which areas you need to improve in your technique or if your timing is off.
They can also help teach you basic concepts you can use when playing various musical genres which will make it look like you can play any song - even if it’s the first time you’re playing it.
The longer a drummer has been playing in bands, the better they’ll be at knowing exactly what to play. Knowing to play the right thing at the right time is what being a good musician is all about, and it comes with experience.
If you see a drummer on stage that appears to know exactly what he’s doing, it’s most probably because he’s been playing drums at live performances for years.
He’s taking all the above points into account, being a good listener, and serving the music as best as possible with his or her arsenal of drum grooves and fills.
Daniel started drumming as a teenager after realizing just how fun air drumming is. He was blown away by the power of the drums at his first drum lesson and hasn’t looked back since.
He has almost 20 years experience drumming and was heavily into Metal when he first started playing but has since transitioned to Jazz, Funk and Progressive Rock.
AboutDrumming.com is run by a group of drum teachers, drumming professionals and hobbyists. We love all things drums, and when not drumming we spend our time adding more awesome content to this website!
Affiliate Disclosure: When relevant AboutDrumming.com uses affiliate links (at no additional cost to you). As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.