Playing Chops Vs. Mental Chops

Today your regular bloggers have been replaced by Ben, Chris, Nick, and Jason of Death Cab For Cutie. The band’s new album Narrow Stairs is out now. DCFC are not professional bloggers, so please send them tips.

By Jason McGerr

Playing Chops
As a drummer, I’m a proud part of a culture that gets together to simply nerd out from time to time. We drummers like to trade chops as they say. Like the aspiring Wookiee who’s not afraid to shake paws with the Ewok at Comic-Con each year and admire each other’s regalia, we too, gather at drummer only events and talk shop. We look forward to buying Drum books and drum DVDs. I wouldn’t expect anyone to think there’s much to talk about with an instrument that gets hit and kicked and produces loud noises with hardly any melody, but it’s actually a deeply appreciated art form (funny right?). And like many fields of endeavor, there is a competitive spirit that drives us to perfection.

Our modern day drum set dates back to the 1920s, when a player would sit down to a combination of drums, cymbals and percussion, referred to as the “Trap Kit.” Each drummer would have a pair of sticks and couple of pedals on the floor to kick the bass drum and splash cymbals together. The drummer of course needed to be naturally ambidextrous with their hands and feet in order to be worthy for hire.

The youngest drummer to become a household name was “Traps, The Drum Wonder,” otherwise know as Bernard “Buddy” Rich. He was brought up in a sort of vaudevillian family and was therefore a born performer. He was also a fierce band leader who took drum solos every chance he could get. If you were in his band and didn’t like it … too bad, ’cause it was part of the show. In 1981, Buddy even suffered a heart attack while playing a solo and didn’t stop playing. Check out the footage:


(Check Buddy’s face at the three minute marker.)

There have been plenty of famous drummers who have played solos that have stood the test of time. The Dave Brubeck Quartet’s “Take Five,” with a 5/4 solo by Joe Morello. Zeppelin’s John Bohnam with his famous solo on “Moby Dick.” Or even Iron Butterfly’s lengthy “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” solo by Ron Bushy. All are amazing and worthy of mention. But these guys were listening to Buddy Rich before they began constructing their solos, while he had been doing it all along.

Now there are drum solos, and there are drum battles. A drum battle usually begins with two players trading four bar phrases or equal amounts of time. Eventually someone usually takes the lead and steps out, or displays superior chops by playing faster and longer, while the other gracefully concedes. Once I stumbled upon a drum battle that changed my life. It was between two of the biggest names in showbiz. It was Buddy Rich who hosted the Muppet Show and went up against Animal. All I can say is, we’re experiencing a serious lack of entertainment by not incorporating more battles these days. We’ve got Lyricist battling so why not more beat makers?

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Mental Chops
How could anyone not enjoy the process of recording or playing music? I suppose in the same way that some people don’t like to have their picture taken or be put on the spot. But the challenge and benefits of working with a band or artist in the studio or on any stage is worth 10 times a solo practice. The discoveries I’ve made through repetition and observation, the happy accidents and constant challenges are something I live for. It’s the absolute best form of practice in my opinion, especially if you’re tracking live with a band. There’s no time to think too hard about what you’re doing because guess what … they’ll hear you think!

Have you ever wondered why some players rush in and out of changes? It’s because they’re sweating it before they even get there, or the opposite, they haven’t thought about the change until it’s almost past. The same thing can happen if they’re expecting too much, or attempting to play beyond their means. A little bit of push and pull feels good, but the brain, like a computer’s processor, only has so much power, or in this case, focus. If while you’re playing music you think about it too much, it’s like running a number of huge applications on your laptop. It will tax your system in a noticeable way, causing your computer to perform poorly. For most musicians, this is analogous to having a bad show or recording experience because they’re caught up in their mind. The only problem is we can’t upgrade our RAM before we play music again.

We can all launch our heavy apps from time to time, thus is life, but if we’re aware of its effects on our system, then we can learn to work with it or even around it. There are two places where you can almost always find this scenario: on the stage and in the studio. On the stage setting, a musician is usually only susceptible to a taxed mind at the start of the show. Once he or she gets going though, they usually level out and begin to focus and enjoy themselves. When it comes to the recording studio, I sometimes find it to be the opposite. A player can be really optimistic and clear at the beginning of the day but may tire after several attempts of the same song, which means thinking about it too much, and eventually their performance suffers.

Evolved musicians don’t always owe their success to experience. If this were true, the world wouldn’t know music of Mozart, nor would we have Stevie Wonder, and we certainly wouldn’t have punk rock. So get out of your goddamn heads, quit judging how you play, what you sound like or what you write. Just play lots and lots of music.