BEFORE YOU READ THIS ARTICLE…
If you want to get the most out of this article, and you’re alone, then actually time yourself and try to talk about sheep farming for 2 minutes as if an audience of people were in front of you. Your aim is to keep them entertained and keep going without stumbling too much, getting stuck or giving up. It doesn’t have to be accurate, just give it your best shot… ready – GO!
That’s what it’s like being in the middle of a song when the band leader turns around and says take a solo.
Let’s break this down and look at what is going to make this a successful venture.
Technique, Vocabulary and Ideas
I want to use metaphors to separate these 2 concepts. Let’s use the example of language.
If you’ve ever learned another language you probably started off with some basic phrases. “How do I get to the station?”, “I’d like a ham sandwich please”, that kind of thing.
It doesn’t take long to learn a few of these and to be able to use them to get what you want. I think that’s a little like learning some basic drum grooves. Maybe “I’d like a ham sandwich please” is the equivalent of playing a Billie Jean groove. You can achieve a certain amount with that basic vocabulary. Perhaps the chorus of the song requires the “How much is a hotel room for 1 night?” phrase.
A convincing accent
It’s not difficult to identify most French people speaking English. They’re very clearly French. Even though they’re saying the right words in the right order they still sound French because of the way they pronounce certain vowels, miss out some consonants, run some words into others, etc. In the same way it’s probably pretty easy for them to identify you when you try to speak French. Learning a convincing accent requires more detailed study of how to pronounce words, paying attention to intonation and stresses in words among other things.
In the drumming world you could liken this to a jazz player trying to play rock (or vice versa). In jazz the ride cymbal is usually the most predominant sound, followed by the hi-hat. The snare and kick generally add a little spice at a quieter volume. In rock it’s the opposite. So, a jazz player playing a rock groove might be playing the right drums and cymbals at the right times but the ‘accent’ is all wrong. They’re easily identified by any rock drummer as being foreign to that style.
Even if you learn all the nuances of how to play a style and sound convincing you really need the right sounding instrument. John Bonham on a jazz kit with high pitched toms and an 18” bass drum wouldn’t sound like John Bonham.
Vocabulary and Grammar
So, basic statements and phrases along with an appreciation of how they should sound when you use them allow you to communicate in certain circumstances. That’s basic technique.
Let’s say you go to France and ask how much the hotel room is in your best French accent. It’s so good that the concierge thinks you’re French. Great! He replies in French and you have no idea what he said. He spoke so fast and used lots of words you’re unfamiliar with. You need to learn some vocabulary in order to move forward…
In the musical world we might liken this to learning what kind of fills (vocabulary) work in different types of music; having an appreciation for 8 bar phrases and other common phrase lengths (grammar); waltz time and various time signatures; basic cadences and song endings; having a feel for when there’s going to be a break or a change to a different section; etc.
A lot of these things you pick up without realising it. You already know a lot about western music because you’ve grown up listening to it. You can predict what a lot of songs are going to do because they have a familiar feel. Listening to Asian music or African music or Chinese music on the other hand might leave you utterly confused. I certainly wouldn’t want to be called to fill in on a gig playing Chinese music – I wouldn’t have a clue where to begin.
Ideas and Experience
With technique, basic grammar and vocabulary and a convincing accent you’re capable of doing pretty well as a drummer. You can do what most people require when hiring a drummer. Most recording dates don’t require 2 minute drum solos. So, when you’re asked to pull one out of the bag on a gig it’s a little like being asked to talk about sheep farming for 2 minutes.
If you have the aforementioned skills and knowledge you’re in the same position as a musician as I’ve put you in as a native english speaker. You know what sheep are and what farming is, but you (well, most of you) have little first hand experience of actually farming sheep. No anecdotes. No advice. No real idea of what’s really involved.
In this situation you’d do your best. Remember, you get no preparation time you just have to start talking. If you did the exercise then you have some experience. You know what it’s like to have to talk about sheep farming for 2 minutes. You’ve probably learned a lot about what you don’t know. You may have had some ideas of directions you could go in. Perhaps you tried to go in some of those directions and then realised that actually you weren’t really sure of what you were trying to say. Perhaps a good little anecdote came to mind and you rattled that off but then found yourself wondering what to say next, or how to finish you your little talk.
That’s what soloing is like. You get better with practice and the only way to find out what you don’t know is to have a go and see where you get stuck.
Once you’ve had a go you probably have a list of things you could research to make your next attempt better. You might read up on the basics of sheep farming and think up a few anecdotes you could use. That’s a bit like coming up with a general solo structure and choosing a few licks that you know will fit nicely. If you have a particularly good anecdote (lick) then you might save that for the end as a nice way to wrap things up.
Development and refinement
When you’re giving a talk you usually have a pretty good idea of what you want to say, but most speakers don’t go to the trouble of memorising a speech word for word. When you memorise an entire speech it’s easy for the delivery to sound stale and unnatural. Instead, you have your basic points and you know the anecdotes you want to use. You then just talk about it and rely on your ability to speak and put sentences together to produce a talk that sounds natural and covers the topic.
If you have to give this talk every night of a conference for 2 weeks then every time you give it you’ll probably make mental notes about which bits flow nicely and which bits could do with some work. Over the course of the conference you’ll begin to incorporate these ideas and certain sentences will be used again and again. You’ll make better use of pauses in delivery and your delivery will improve as you become more confident with what you’re saying. It’s possible that at the end of the 2 weeks you’ll have something that comes out almost identically every night and that it’s hard to find fault with.
You are now giving a composed speech – even though it was composed by improvising around a framework night after night. This is what most stand up comedians do. They deliver carefully rehearsed material and make it sound like they’re saying it for the first time.
Very few comedians truly go out on a limb and try to come up with something completely new on a gig. Just imagine trying to invent a joke on the spot.
Improvisational comedy can be amazing and very funny, or it can be painful to watch. Most improvisational comedy or acting has more foundation than is apparent to the audience. When more than one person is involved there are usually rules and structures that get followed along with known ways to get out of trouble. (A drum solo might sometimes be a way of getting the band out of trouble when the power goes and all the amps die!)
Different Topic, Different Requirements
After delivering 14 talks on sheep farming you’re pretty confident you could pull that out of the bag when necessary. You could probably narrow your talk down to 1 minute if required, and might even be able to talk for 5 or 10 minutes and have enough ideas to keep it interesting. You finally feel like a public speaker. However, when you turn up to a conference and are asked to talk about solar power you find yourself starting over.
When you have to play a drum solo the basic factors are: the musical style, the time signature, and the tempo. Ideas and vocabulary that work in a jazz setting in 3/4 will not work so well on a rock kit behind a wall of guitar amps. Your double kick chops are not going to be so useful at a champagne reception when you’re asked to play with brushes.
Even if you’re comfortable playing solos in a rock context you may find that the song you’re asked to solo in is faster or slower than you’re used to and when you go to play certain licks you either can’t play fast enough to execute them, or the tempo is so slow that they don’t sound right.
The only way to be prepared for those situations is to have some experience. Listening to different styles of music will give you an idea of the things that work well in those styles. Spending time in the practice room soloing over different sequenced vamps will give you the opportunity to try things at different tempos and challenge yourself. Eventually you’ll begin to feel like you can hold your own when the singer drops you in the deep end.
If you’d like to see the evolution of a drum solo this sequence of videos was recorded on my last tour with Wishbone Ash. Each night I had a few ideas but wanted to try new things. Sometimes I’d have an idea that just wouldn’t come out and I’d think about it the next day and try again. Sometimes I opted to start from scratch and try something completely different.