The Final Word on Metal Drumming
For some reason, internet metal nerds love to talk about drummers, even if they themselves do not play drums. Whether it’s “Who has the fastest double bass/blastbeats?”, “Should I use one bass drum or two?” or “What does Pete Sandoval’s drum throne smell like?”, there are few things more tiresome than the topic of metal drumming. What that in mind, in this post I will put the discussion of this topic to rest forever by conclusively saying all that there is to say about metal drumming. After this post has been published, anyone who still debates these points is as foolish, ignorant and stubborn as people who believe the Earth is flat or that God exists. So if you have anything to say, say it now, because this is it — this is your chance to become part of the moment in which we closed the door on dorky, redundant debates about metal drumming.
This is THE FINAL WORD on metal drumming!!!!
Triggers are not cheating
This is perhaps the most tired of all the metal drumming debates, and also the dumbest. Here is the deal: the only thing that matters is the sound coming out of your speakers. If you (the listener) enjoy that sound, it doesn’t matter how it was created. Furthermore, getting butthurt about triggers makes no sense when examined from the perspective of a logical person who is not a moron on a forum — if you are opposed to triggers because they produce a sound that is something other than the exact sound of an acoustic drum, then you should also be opposed to distortion, guitar effects, EQs and amplifiers in general. You should reject any form of music that uses technology more complex than banging a rock on a hollow log, and even then you should make sure to call people cheaters who hollow out the log themselves (rather than scavenging for a naturally-hollow log).
That said, triggers often sound like shit due to misuse. I am sure we could put our heads together and come up with a mile-long list of albums with boring, sterile, lifeless drums that sound like a computerized typewriter thanks to lazy/stupid/unimaginative production. Drums should sound like actual drums, not a series of clicks that keep time with the music. While I appreciate how easy it is these days to get super-clean, “perfect” recordings that would have cost $100,000 a couple decades ago, the problem is that way too many records sound exactly the same because people have bad taste, no imagination, and are content to just use defaults. It’s way cooler to have an “imperfect,” yet unique (or at least distinctive) drum sound than to be another interchangeable meat puppet playing the same triggered sounds as everybody else.
The point is simple: if triggers make your band sound better (whether live or recorded), you should use them if you feel like it. Otherwise, don’t.
Big drum sets are stupid
For whatever dumb reason, metal drummers always have giant drum sets, and it is stupid. Barring some specific, unique aspect of your music, there is no reason why you should have anything larger than a 5-piece kit with 2 crashes, a ride, and perhaps a couple of effects symbols if your band is on the wanky side (a splash, china, ice bell, etc). I can only think of two possible explanations: either metal drummers think that it looks cool to have a big set, or they think that they need 2 bass drums, 6 rack toms, 2 rides and 4 crashes in order to produce a sufficient variety of sounds. Both of these notions are retarded.
It doesn’t look cool to have a huge set, it looks fucking stupid, like one of those dipshits who lives in the city but drives a dually F-350 with halogen lights, chrome grille guard (see above) and other completely dumb, unnecessary accessories that are as tacky as they are impractical. The idea that you need a zillion drums in order to have a wide range of tones is also wrong and stupid. First of all, very few metal bands’ material even calls for/has room for a lot of nuanced percussion sounds, since everything is compressed to fuck and you are probably playing really loud and fast. Can the listener REALLY tell the difference between your 8″, 9″, 10″ and 11″ rack toms?? Second, it is entirely possible to produce all the sounds that 99% of metal bands would ever need with a 4 or 5-piece kit through sticking technique, how you tune your drums, and so forth (ask Travis Barker).
The only reason I can think of to have a big drum set is if you are in some kind of gimmicky retro-metal band like Blessed By A Broken Heart who is trying to semi-ironically evoke the absurd, self-indulgent gear of the 70s and 80s. If that is the case, then you get a pass, and are encouraged to have the most ridiculously giant drum set you can afford and/or fit on stage.
The bottom line is this: I once asked Ken Schalk, the incredibly talented drummer for Candiria, why he played a sparse, 4-piece set. He replied, “I don’t know how to play these four drums yet. When I figure that out, maybe I’ll get more.” If a 4-piece is good enough for Ken, it’s fucking good enough for you.
Blast beats get old fast
Metal “musicians” are not the smartest people, and have bad taste for the most part. For example, most of them think that their best move is to play as fast as possible as often as possible (either blast beats, double bass, or both at once). And when the “human metronome” style of drumming is combined with a generic, sterile, overly-triggered drum sound, the result is the incredibly tepid, monotonous dull roar of riff salad bands like Hate Eternal, newer Deeds of Flesh, and perhaps the worst offenders of all, Vital Remains. (Seven minute songs?! No thanks.)
Look, I love a blast beat as much as anybody. I used to fap over the shittiest bands simply because they played fast (Spastic Blurr or the first Brutal Truth album anybody?), and I still love the intensity of a good blast. The thing is, they are not intense when they are the norm — they are only interesting when they are used as relief, not a non-stop background noise. Playing fast all the time doesn’t make you technically impressive or a good songwriter, and if all you want to hear is some guy playing rudiments as fast as humanly possible, you should just listen to DCI recordings since those guys are much more technical than metal drummers anyway.
The point: Drums are an instrument, not a metronome. They should sound like a human is playing them (unless the point of your band is to sound machine-like), and variety is the spice of life. Use blast beats with restraint, not as your default.
Examples: how to play metal drums the right way
I will conclude by sharing a variety of examples which will illustrate the principles I have outlined above. Naturally I could go on forever when it comes to talking about drummers I like and why I like them, so this list is not exhaustive — just a few selections. These bands/drummers are all pretty different, but the point is that they all do the right thing for the song, and that is what makes them great. In general, you’ll see a few things that come up: solid technical fundamentals, restraint, and more than anything else creativity (without ever getting wanky).
Donald Tardy is one of my favorites because he is the epitome of restraint, especially when you consider that during the time Obituary came up, bands were always trying to one-up each other in the speed department. DT’s playing is deceptively complex: it sounds really straightforward at first blush, but is actually pretty intricate if you listen closely — and needless to say, nobody in death metal grooves like DT!!!
Cephalotripsy has a relentless quality that other bands just can’t seem to duplicate — I almost feel like the drums are a machine that randomly shifts gears between mid-paced chugging and doubletime, with nothing in between. Also, notice how infrequently he hits his snare, it’s really weird! Love the drum sound too, absolutely perfect for slam.
With all the complaining I did about “human metronome” drumming and typewriter triggers, you might be surprised to see this band/album included in my list. The point is that there’s a place for just about everything — this album is all about nonstop, inhumanly fast and ultra-precise riffing, so machinelike, robotic drumming is entirely appropriate. (Yes, I know this is the wrong version, but I couldn’t find the right one on YouTube.)
Of all the bands who have tried to combine metal and jazz, few stand above Candiria, and few drummers in all of metal can hang with Ken Schalk. What makes him so great is that he really has his feet in both genres, rather than grafting one onto the other like most do, and his fills are some of the smoothest you’ll find. His playing actually reminds me a lot of the next guy, 311’s Chad Sexton. (The actual song above starts at around 1:10 after the long, weird intro)
Chad Sexton is the epitome of a drum corp guy who plays in a rock band, and one of my very favorite drummers in any genre. This video is interesting because it illustrates how many sounds you can get out of a drum if you’re a little creative with your technique, as well as sharing the secret to one of the best snare sounds I’ve ever heard.
The Confessor LP is an underappreciated little gem with very unique drumming. I guess the drummer has a DVD, and in this clip explains how he builds his drum parts. Adding and subtracting accents to create something cool and unexpected is a much more interesting approach to progressive metal than just trying to play more notes.
VOD were kind of lumped in with all the dumb Long Island mosher bands, but they were really on a whole other level of polish and sophistication (aside from a few awkward early song like, uh, “Rhythm of the AK” or whatever). The drumming is super, super smooth, with both great playing and tone — I don’t think I’ve heard anything quite like the rubbery kind of drum sound on this album, and would be interested to know how they got it.
It’s almost redundant to include Bloodlet in the same list as Helmet and 311, because the drumming is very much in the same vein, but I just wanted to take the opportunity to give Charlie King some dap. He was without a doubt one of the most technically solid drummers in the 90s hardcore scene, and you should definitely pick up “Entheogen” if you get a chance.
For the most part I think drum videos are pretty boring and pointless exercises in showing off, but this one is entirely different. “Brain’s Lessons,” produced by Primus’ drummer Brain about ten years ago, is really more about creativity, feel, and groove than it is technique, and that’s exactly why I like it. The whole thing is on YouTube, so check it out.
I would find it very challenging to play in Angelcorpse, because their songs are pretty much all fast, all the time, and that makes it very tough to be creative. Despite that, Tony Laureano manages to make non-stop blasts and double bass feel very organic and human, with interesting bits like the awesome hi-hat work during the verse of this song (starts around :10).
When it comes to super-tight, rock-solid, ultra-syncopated drumming in metal, John Stanier has no equal. You can definitely tell he played quads/quints in marching band when he busts out weird shit like the left-lead run up the kit in the beginning of this song, but he is the blueprint for restraint. Also one of the first to have the cranked snare sound and to play his cymbals (to borrow a phrase) “sarcastically high.”
Apparently Origin’s first album isn’t popular with their fans, but it’s the only one I like, and the appeal is largely from the odd and unique drumming. While their later albums are very standard riff salad tech-death, the arrangements on this one are totally off the wall, and the drums sound like a schizophrenic person practicing rudiments. As I recall from interviewing him years ago, John Longstreth played on this album, but all the drum patterns were written by the band’s previous drummer (whoever that was), which could explain the difference.
Did I miss anything?? Are you glad that I just settled every debate about metal drumming???? Why do people think it’s heavy or brutal to sound like a typewriter? What’s so cool about giant drumsets? Why are metal drummers so lacking in creativity??!