The Singing Drummer — How to Sing while Drumming
by Dendy Jarrett
A recent thread in the Harmony Central Drum Forum asked about singing while drumming. There was some good discussion on the subject, and I thought it deserved an article.
First things first — you need to be able to sing. If you can’t sing, don’t sing and drum. And if you think you can sing and you really can’t, face that truth.
There are two types of singing drummers: one who can sing lead and one who can sing backup (harmonies). Either way, a drummer who can sing and play will traditionally be in higher demand than one who can't, unless you are a really fantastic player or in an instrumental-only band.
For some, drumming and singing is a natural combination. For others, drumming and singing is possible but doesn’t come as easily. Many drummers (especially if you are a schooled drummer), studied Jim Chapin’s Advanced Techniques for the Modern Drummer, which is a study of coordinated independence. While the focuses on jazz and be-bop, the techniques apply to any current playing style. Interestingly, these same techniques that teach independence of your limbs (arms, hands, and feet) also works wonders for singing and drumming. While playing, you simply introduce words to the notes (like a fifth part with which to sing along) as you play the ride, hi-hat, snare and bass drum. Working out these fundamentals will help you overcome difficult vocals over which you might otherwise “stumble."
KNOWING WHEN “YOU GOT IT”
In most cases, you’ll know if you are cut out for singing lead (and if not, your audience may give you some hints). There have been some great singing drummers, like Don Henley (The Eagles), Dave Grohl (Foo Fighters, Nirvana, Them Crooked Vultures, Probot, and Queens of the Stone Age), Levon Helm (The Band), Ringo Starr (The Beatles, Ringo & His All-Starr Band), Karen Carpenter (The Carpenters), Sheila E. (Prince, and more), Phil Collins (Genesis, Phil Collins), Nigel Olsson (Elton John), and many more. One of my favorite contemporary singing drummers is Abe Laboriel Jr. (Paul McCartney and Mylene Farmer). All of these drummers made big names for themselves not only as great drummers but also as successful vocalists. These drummers “got it” when it came to playing and singing. As Abe Laboriel states: “It’s definitely a fifth limb … You have to think about breathing and pacing yourself.”
You’ll most likely discover quickly whether or not you have the knack for singing and playing.
Also, factor in nerves. It’s one thing to sing with “the guys” in the band, but getting in front of an audience can be completely different. Stage fright is a very real phenomenon and sadly, it can be crippling to some people. Know your limitations and fight through them if you can — I speak from experience as it took me a long time to overcome stage fright when singing (ironically, I didn't have that problem when drumming).
ONCE YOU’VE “GOT IT”
After you decide you’ve “got it,” you’ll have to determine the songs and parts where you excel. This is usually a coordinated effort between bandmates or handled by the Musical Director (MD).
You’ll also have to choose a mic setup; following are three different approaches.
· Headset mic: This can work well, especially if you’re an “active” drummer (have a lot of movement when you play). However, they have limitations. You lose the ability to play the microphone, and move closer or further away to accommodate dynamics. Headset mics sometimes pick up breathing, and they often can (and do!) shift when you’re playing. It can become a battle with the headset.
· Boom stand from the side or rear: This is a more common approach. It lets you swing the mic out of the way when you’re not singing,which provides a more liberating playing field.
· Straight stand beside your drum throne: If you typically sing only backup vocals, this is a quick and easy setup—simply turn and sing.
A singing drummer can be in high demand! Singing and drumming can also be a great compromise if you love drumming and you also love singing. And even if it takes a little work to master both, the personal satisfaction is rewarding. So don’t be afraid to sing out — it can take your performance to an entirely new and enjoyable level.
Abe Laboriel and Mylene Farmer:
Modern Drummer Video Interview with Abe Laboriel about singing while drumming:
Abe Laboriel sings Sgt. Peppers Lonely Heartsclub Band:
Don Henley Sings Hotel California:
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