Drumming and Singing
by Robyn Flans
Modern Drummer - August 1994
You've heard the old sayings "Can't walk and chew gum at the same time," or "Pat your head and rub your belly." Those sayings are about doing two things at once. Well, drummers who sing do FIVE things at once, counting the four limbs and voice. Singing drummers take the concept of independence to another level.
As a drummer, why should you bother going to the trouble of playing and singing? Well, read any musicians-wanted section, and you'll see the expression "vocals a plus" written after many ads. Quite simply, being able to sing makes you more employable. More importantly, it allows you to contribute to the musical environment in a whole new way.
To get an idea as to the plusses and minusses involved in drumming and singing, we contacted some of the best pro drummers in pop, rock, and country who sing almost exclusively WHILE they play: the Band's Levon Helm, Cactus Moser of Highway 101, Little Feat's Richie Hayward, Andy Sturmer of Jellyfish, Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers' Stan Lynch, Keith Knudsen of the re-formed Doobie Brothers, Neil Diamond's Ron Tutt, Willie Wilcox of Utopia, and John Dittrich of Restless Heart. The things they have to say just might convince you to take your singing out of the shower and onto the stage.
YOU WANT ME TO WHAT?
That's right, sing. There are difficulties, to be sure, as well as adjustments that need to be made when beginning to sing and drum. Even drummers who have been singing for a long time say it's not second-nature. The pros still hit a few rough spots now and then. Drumming and singing certainly CAN affect your drumming - but not necessarily in a negative way as you might assume.
"I think you tend to be a more economical drummer as a result of singing," says Stan Lynch, who has always sung background vocals with Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers. "I think it tends to cut a lot of 'fluff' off your drumming. What you realize is that what's ultimately important is the SONG. The primary point of being a good rock drummer is to put the song across.
"If you're singing harmony, you want to tailor your phrasing to your lead singer," Lynch continues. "You have to practice getting into the singer's head. Lead singers tend to sing either ahead of or behind the beat. Tom sings well behind the beat, to where he can almost drive me nuts. I have to play in one groove and then pretend I'm him - a little sleepy and a little cool. It's almost like I'm drumming in one tempo and singing in another. If you were singing background with Bruce Springsteen, you'd be on edge, jumping into it.
"The key is to add one more level of intensity to your trip without diminishing anything else. Every beat should feel roughly the same. When you sing, you don't want to compromise that; you just want to add more to it. Also, I think the more athletic you are, the more it helps your breathing. Drumming is extremely aerobic. Get in shape, be strong, under-sing and underplay ever so slightly, and remember to breathe. I actually used to write that on my snare drum - 'Breath and Consistency.' Those were my mantras early in the game.
"The more you hold your breath, the more you speed up," Stan goes on. "You just want to relax and let it happen. It took me until I was thirty-five years old to figure that out. Drums are a great metaphor for life. If you can relax and let it happen, it's really great. You can't force it. I also think it would be hard to be a cigarette-smoking, singing drummer. I don't know how Levon does it. He's a real anomaly - a freak. He was brilliant when we were kids, and he's still brilliant now."
"When we're recording, I need to go through a song a few times to find out where the troublesome spots are - places where I have to hold a note at the same time I'm doing a fill," says the above-mentioned Levon Helm, who actually sings and plays simultaneously when recording with his near-legendary group, the Band. "I have to give myself enough air and breathing room. In working out a tune, I always go with the drums. I go ahead and do the fill and then worry about how to get the vocal phrasing in."
Helm says he added singing to his musical arsenal way back when he was working with Ronnie Hawkins in the '60s. In the Band, he sings both lead and backgrounds. "When recording we usually get everybody's performance down good enough so that it's a take, where the feel and everything is right. Then it's fairly simple to go back and have another crack at it if the vocals weren't right on. I think that recording that way gives a better spirit to the song."
One of Levon's main concerns when singing is how he phrases the vocal part to work with the drums. "I have to lean more towards phrasing with the drum pattern or one of the drum licks. But it's also fun to sing with a shuffle feel over a straight drum feel. When you're playing a march beat - an 8th-note beat, for instance - you can get a little tickle out of it if you swing your vocal lines. It makes the song more of a challenge to play. For me, it's just all in the same pocket.
"But no matter what, my main concern is pitch," continues Helm. "It drives me crazy if I can't get the song on pitch. That's where playing with (keyboardist) Garth Hudson is a real treat. The way Garth plays, he gives you so many possibilities of where to put the melody. At the same time, there's a certain amount of control and comfort in the way Garth sets up the voicings of the chords."
"Singing and drumming is really weird," offers Andy Sturmer, Jellyfish's drummer and lead vocalist. "It's like 'The Two Faces Of Eve,' because the top of your body, your lungs and everything, have to be in the right place. To be a good singer, they have to be in control. At the same time, with drumming, you're all over the place, using a totally different set of muscles that are causing you to breathe hard.
"There are some songs we play where the drums are very aggressive and the vocal is very low and in your face. It takes a lot of energy to play the drums and be really controlled and almost 'breathy' vocally. The biggest challenge is splitting yourself in two. It's like being a computer and running two different programs at the same time and having them work together AND independently. In the beginning, I simplified my playing. I think that now I can play drums, bake a cake, and spin ten plates at the same time because it has become second-nature to me."
Willie Wilcox, who added vocals to his drumming when he joined Todd Rundgren's Utopia in 1974, agrees that in the beginning it was restrictive. "In Utopia, we had some pretty complicated background parts. We also had some odd musical parts, too. Some songs we did had time changes and all kinds of complicated vocal parts. It was just a matter of getting on the bike and falling off, over and over again."
"In general, it's much easier to just play," states Ron Tutt, whose gig with Elvis Presley was the only time he HASN'T sung. Tutt began singing and drumming with Delaney & Bonnie in the '60s and has continued through to his current work with Neil Diamond. "It's much more demanding to do both. Say I'm playing a song where the verse has no vocal, and then the chorus comes up with a background vocal part I need to sing. What am I thinking about at that point? I don't totally focus on my drumming. I hope that I'm experienced enough in doing it that my drumming doesn't go downhill while I'm hitting those notes as a vocalist.
"It's hard to do a real complex rhythmic drum part while you're singing because of the physical aspects involved," Tutt continues. "Your body needs to be fairly still to be able to sing, because body motion or large movements cause your voice to move. And you have to learn how to breathe. When I'm playing and not singing, I find myself breathing as if I were singing a song. It helps my drumming. But it is something you have to be conscious of when you start singing.
"Another difficulty that I've had to deal with in singing and drumming has to do with the vibrations that come from the drum part: they interfere with the sustained notes of the vocal. I'll never forget one of the playbacks of a live recording we did with Neil. We got into the studio and they started playing back every individual microphone track. They put my vocal on and my voice was shaking, quivering along with the beat. It was one of life's humiliating moments. I realized I had to relax my upper body and play with my arms rather than my whole body. You do have to make adjustments. I've never been very cool and relaxed as a drummer; I'm pretty expressive in that sense. So vocally I've had to learn to control myself a bit."
TAKING THE LEAD
Ron Tutt has had to sing lead while playing drums on occasion. Ironically, he feels that it may even be more difficult to sing backgrounds than lead. "A lot of the principles are the same, but when you do lead, it's consistent through a whole song. When you do backgrounds, you're coming in and out, which can be more tricky."
John Dittrich, who sings lead on nearly half of Restless Heart's material, disagrees. "When you're singing background vocals in choruses, you're not singing the entire song. You have more of a chance to concentrate on your playing at that point and listen to the other people in the band. When you're singing lead, you almost have to play on automatic pilot."
Dittrich actually considered coming out front at one point because he felt it can be uncomfortable for an audience to endure a lead singer who is in the back. "Quite frankly," John admits, "it scared the living daylights out of me. The first time I came out from behind the drums to sing, I thought I was going to get sick. I've been a drummer for so long that it just feels funny to be down front without sticks in my hand. I guess the drums are my security blanket."
Cactus Moser agrees with Tutt that singing lead is easier. He sings mostly backgrounds with his band, Highway 101, but he occasionally does sing lead. One of the adjustments he has made is visual. While Dittrich limits his vocals so the audience doesn't have to search for where the voice is originating from, Moser decided early on to set up on the side of the stage at Highway 101 gigs. "Originally I thought it would be something different for country music," says Cactus. "In club bands I had always sung backgrounds and leads and talked to the audience. In a club, it's a little simpler because there isn't the issue of stage size as much. You're basically in the middle and not that far behind the front line. On a big stage, sometimes you're back twenty-five or thirty feet and another two or three feet in the air. If I'm talking or singing, the audience may not realize it.
"What I do is to set up downstage on the left side," Moser explains. "I have most of my cymbals on the right-hand side, with the left hand side open. That gives me a real one-on-one relationship with the audience, and I've had nothing but great comments about it. When I sing lead I can portray the song a lot more. If I want to use my one arm to emphasize a lyric, which almost comes naturally when I'm singing, I can do that, and the audience can see that I'm making some kind of motion.
"Our newest record was the toughest to pull off live," Moser confesses. "Maybe it was more orchestrated on the playing side of it and there were more intricacies in the parts we played. I did have to think about the drum parts more for a long period of time. It wasn't more involved vocally, although there were more parts where we would counter Nikki's lead vocal with answer parts. In that case I'm playing one set of rhythms and singing another set and thinking about pitch and blend. You have to blend differently when you're singing an answer part as opposed to a melody. One of the big keys to singing background vocals is texture and blend."
The Doobie Brothers' Keith Knudsen admits he's had some challenging coordination problems to overcome. "having all four of my limbs and my mouth going in different directions at the same time can be difficult," he admits. "When I started singing, I was young and still learning how to play drums. I remember it being difficult. When I was fourteen or fifteen, we'd be rehearsing and I wouldn't be able to sing a whole line because I had to think about the drum fill, or I'd blow a fill because I was singing and hadn't quite coordinated it yet. There are still times when I'm learning a vocal part with the Doobies where it's difficult and I have to spend five or ten minutes working it out.
"My style is very simple, and I keep my playing minimal anyway," Knudsen states. "The sining probably influenced my drumming style. In the beginning, I was probably not able to play some things att the same time, which would make me leave drum things out. I think I probably have a different feel when I'm singing from when I'm not. I think it may be better if I'm singing, actually. If I'm singing a lead vocal, it probably helps me get into the feeling of a song more."
Little Feat's Richie Hayward, who started singing along with his playing in 1962, agrees with Knudsen. "I never got it to where I could play like I do when I'm not singing," he admits. "Normally I have to simplify the drum part. You have to almost think of the vocal as a third appendage - it all has to work together. Your part in the music expands. You can't separate the singing and drumming too much.
"It's a zen thing," Richie laughs. "One hand does the cymbals, the other hand does other drums, one foot does the bass drum, the other does the hi-hat - and one foot does the singing! I never got good like Phil Collins who can actually sing and emote a lead vocal and play a real full drum part. I mostly sing background vocals.
"Sometimes I can't do a vocal at the time of a fill," Hayward confesses. "While I'm playing the body of a tune, it's no problem for me, but I have to learn the drum part first before I even attempt to sing, so that the drum part is almost second-nature. Then I can embellish. Once I know the song inside out, I can start experimenting with the singing and see what I can do and what I can't.
"When I'm doing a fill or something really big, my breathing becomes a problem. I often find myself holding my breath through a big fill or just slowing, expending the air. I can't breathe like that and sing. You have to think about breathing when you sing, and pace it accordingly. Sometimes I'm a little red in the face at the end of 'Fat Man In The Bathtub' because I sing more long notes in that."
Richie has had an added vocal challenge recently since Craig Fuller left the band and Shawn Murphy joined. Her vocal range is higher than Fuller's, so everybody else had to change. "The vocalist in the band has changed, so the keys have all changed on song I've been singing for a long time, and a lot of my parts are unreachable now. I'm having to rethink everything - it's like starting at square one."
FOCUS ON SINGING
Most of the players agree that when they're learning new material, the process begins with the drums; vocals are added later. "The Doobies rehearse instrumentally and try to get a sequence to the set, which includes pacing," explains Keith Knudsen. "The next day we'll start running it with vocals and concentrate on that for the day. On the third day any of us who are singing do a vocal rehearsal to make sure everybody knows their parts. We might change some notes if something is not working and see who is blending on what parts and who is not, and which parts have to be doubled. There are six singers in the Doobies, so often it's very important to have the vocals carefully arranged."
"I would say that the first thing to keep in mind when you're singing is your pitch," suggest Stan Lynch. "It's tough because your pitch is going to have the tendency to waffle a little bit while you're playing. You just have to work at it. Sing in your car, sing to your rehearsal tapes. Make sure you have the harmonies pretty well plotted out in your head. Make sure you have your part down to where you do it in your sleep. Do your homework. Even though the guys in the band are your friends, they're just as impatient as you and they want it to be good as soon as you try. My advice is learn the vocal part and have it nailed."
THE ETERNAL MICROPHONE SEARCH
"There can be a lot of problems when you're dealing with trying to find a microphone that will work for you while you're playing drums," Willie Wilcox points out. "Drums are incredibly noisy and that's a big problem, so you have to find an appropriate mic that will make your vocals sound good yet deal with all of the noise the drums are producing. Plus you have to set up the mic so it won't get in your way.
"It used to bother me to always have a boom arm around when I was playing," Wilcox continues, "because it was like constantly having somebody in my personal space. I tried using a microphone on round-based floor stand, which I put right in front of my stool, between my legs, so the mic was right a mouth level. My arms actually went around it. I did that for quite a while, because then I didn't have any boom arm near my hands or restricting my arm movement. That worked pretty well.
"When we did the tour for Utopia's live album last year. I used a headset mic and that felt much better. A funny thing happened, though. When drummers play, most of them grunt and make all kinds of noises. A headset mic is by your mouth all the time, so when we were mixing the live album and they soloed my vocal mic, when I wasn't singing, I was grunting."
Keith Knudsen says he now is able to avoid those problems with his headset mic. "For most of the years with the Doobies, I have used a headset microphone. I have an on-and-off switch on my hi-hat stand so that when I'm not singing, the audience doesn't hear me grunting and groaning. I just reach over with my hand or my stick to flip it on or off. That's just a natural reflex for me since I've been doing it so long.
"I decided to start using a switch because of those gigs when I'd be having a bad night. I'd do a fill that really sucked, and then I'd swear into the mic, which would go right out into the audience! If you have a mic on a stand or a gooseneck, you can turn your head away or push your mic away when you're not singing. In the days before there was a road crew, that's what you did. But with a headset mic on, that thing follows your mouth. Aside from the fact that you have all these live mics from the drums, you really don't need another one that's on all the time.
"The most uncomfortable thing about the headset is getting the wire out of the way," Knudsen continues. "You tape it to the top of your headset so it goes down the middle of your back, or you put it under your arm. I've tried different things over the years."
Richie Hayward doesn't like headsets because he wants to be able to use vocal dynamics and "work the mic." "With a headset, no matter what I do, my mouth is the same distance from the mic. When I'm singing louder, I pull away from the mic a little and when I'm singing softer, I come in closer. When it's always right there, it makes it difficult to do that."
Ironically, Hayward says he uses a mic from a headset on the end of a boom. "I had trouble finding a mic I didn't hit all the time. I ended up with the smallest mic I could find. Most are about six to eight inches long, and they stick out in front of your face nearly a foot with the cord, and that's stick area for me. I kept hitting them all the time and pissing off the soundman."
Stan Lynch says he won't give in to the headset generation because of cosmetic reasons. "I haven't ruled it out," he says, reluctantly. "It's just that it's not old school, which is where I'm at. I use a Shure SM57, which is a reasonably inexpensive, traditional rock 'n' roll microphone. It's very uni-directional. It picks up what is right in front of it, which is cool for drums because it doesn't affect my drum sound much. But you actually have to touch the microphone with your upper lip. The tech moves the microphone right into my lips when it's time to sing. I kind of put my nose up as a guard and pushes it into my nose. If I'm working through the whole tune, I'll just leave it there, and if I want it out at the end of the song, I'll just elbow it out. It's still a clumsy thing. It still looks a little bit like the tap-dancing, head-rubbing octopus, but you just do it."
Stan adds that before there was a tech to help out, he just had to grab it himself. "You find yourself playing snare and hat with your right hand and grabbing the sucker with your left. You learn. It's another chop."
Cactus Moser says he also is not crazy about the headset visual. "We experimented and found a Crown microphone, but you have to be right on it in order for it to pick up. If you get off of it two inches, it doesn't hear you. But a vocal mic like an SM58 will pick up sound all around you, and the biggest problem becomes the cymbals and hi-hat. We found that with the SM57 the sounds of the drums sounded better when we killed the vocal mic. They sounded tighter, and in big halls, that's a big plus. You'd add the vocal mic and all of a sudden you'd hear this big SSSSHHHH."
Dittrich says the Crown headset saved his life. "Sometimes you have to change your setup to accommodate a microphone. I have hit many microphones because they've been in the way. The Crown headset sounds great because it has anti-feedback technology. When we first went to a headset mic, it was not anti-feedback, and the problem we were having was cymbal leakage through the little condenser microphone, which was really wreaking havoc on our sound people. That was an unworkable situation. The Crown mic solved the problem altogether."
"I use a Shure Beta 57," offers Andy Sturmer, who stands while he plays. "Technically, the biggest problem about singing and playing the drums at the same time is getting separation from the vocal, the drums, and mainly the cymbals. I play hard, and the cymbal rings and goes right into the vocal mic. So we use a lot of gates and compressors to be able to isolate them as much as possible without sacrificing the sound. But there are gates where you can dial in frequencies, so the gate might knock out the cymbal, but it won't knock out my vocal because it's in a different frequency range.
"I have a DW rack, and the mic is part of the rack, so it never moves," Andy continues. "My drums are high and I have a very small set. I have a bass drum, a snare drum, and two toms off to the side, so there's nothing in front of me except the snare drum. I step up to the drums and I have a mic in my face."
"When we first started using the stage-in-the-round with Neil Diamond," says Ron Tutt, "it was very difficult because I was still using a gooseneck to hold my mic. There'd be times when I'd have to look over my shoulder to cue closes and cut-offs due to the position I'd be in on the stage. Occasionally I would have to hold a vocal note at the end of a song, play a drum roll, and look to watch Neil's arm. I found myself having tremendous neck problems. We finally went to the configuration with the little mic that comes up from the earphones. One of our vocalists has a foot switch, and she switches me on and off. Since she's singing the same parts as I am, it's easy for her to do. Now I don't have to strain my neck and do everything at the same time."
TO FEED, OR NOT TO FEED?
Monitors are always a problem. Add singing to the list for a drummer, and it makes it that much more difficult.
"I've gone from really big monitors to small ones," begins Lynch. "Now I'm just using three wedges, which is pretty conservative for an arena monitor rig. I use one wedge for my drums, one for the band, and one for vocals. I can get a little of the natural sound of the kit and turn the volume way down, so I get a bigger sound without trying too hard. Building a giant PA on my drum riser turned out to be counterproductive. It rashed my sound because the sound coming through the speakers came through the microphones.
"The more you bring the instruments down, the louder you get the vocal, and I started wanting to hear a lot more of Tom on stage," Stan continues. "He changes the arrangement of things spontaneously, and if you can't hear him, you don't know what the hell is going on. I started turning his and my vocals up pretty loud, with a little bit of kick, snare, and hat, and a little of the guitars, which works pretty nice."
"When you're singing," says Willie Wilcox, "you've got to deal with instrumental and vocal monitoring, and it gets very loud because the drums are inherently loud. When I used the motorcycle set, we wanted to keep the visual aspect the main focus, so we used floor monitors that were UNDERNEATH the drumset. Most of the time I would have my vocal monitor on the hi-hat side, because a lot of times I would be playing hi-hat in places where my head would end up being, and there would be a vocal monitor on that side. I would generally have my vocal the loudest so I could hear what I was doing, and then I would have a mix of the vocals of the rest of the band. I would try to get a blend of what they were doing so that when I was singing harmony parts, I could sing in tune. For lead vocals, we'd always have a different setting. When we would do a soundcheck for vocals, I would have two needs: One would be as a background singer so I could blend properly, and the other was on songs I sang lead.
"For a while we used ear monitors and completely did away with all the monitors on the stage," Wilcox continues. "We had impressions made of our ears and had monitors installed in that device. We had stereo monitoring and we could hear everything perfectly. But it's a little different situation because it's like listening to a record of what you're doing as opposed to being there. I felt a little bit removed from the situation."
Andy Sturmer says Jellyfish has considered them but, "We do a lot of group vocals where people can't believe we're singing live. We do a lot of harmonies, and there are four really good singers in the band, so the harmonies are not a problem for us. We wondered if we should get the ear monitors, but we decided we liked being able to hear the stage. Rather than sacrifice that and have these things in our ears that would REALLY convince people that we weren't playing live, we decided to approach it organically and use regular monitors."
THE FINAL CHORD
"Singing provides a unique perspective for a drummer who hasn't sung," Wilcox maintains. "When you're doing vocal-oriented music, your job as the drummer is to complement the musical situation. When you're playing and singing, you get a new perspective on what that means, to be actually singing those vocals to see where the vocal phrases lay in relationship to what you're playing. Then you really get to see where the holes are - the spaces and fills - and you can comment on what the lyrics mean."
"When you sing and play drums together in a live show, you have to focus a little more," explains Lynch. "You have to get into the performance mode a little more, and get into the song and the singer's head. It gets you out of your little world. In a sense, it brings you more toward the front of the stage, rather than the back line. And emotionally, it makes you real aware of what the actual mission up there on that stage is - to put that four minutes over, to make it really work and make it believable. I think everybody should do it, whether they're on mic or not. You should be singing along."
"I think if you're a good interpreter, it makes you a better feel player in the end," offers Dittrich. "If you are more in tune to the emotions of a song, it's going to help you with the feel."
"Singing make me more conscious of and sensitive to what the vocalist needs, and it makes me a more musical player," says Tutt. "I always tell drummers: Forget about becoming a drummer; become a musician who plays drums."