With the news of Charlie Watts’ passing there have been some reflections by fellow drummers, which makes me wonder whether any non-drummers (ie readers) reading these articles are able to make any sense of them; that is, what it is that these drummers are even talking about? Drumming’s a weird line of work, and drummers are an idiosyncratic breed. I should know because I was one, on and off, for several years (to riff on the Steven Wright joke, “not in a row”).

A good drummer, like any other good musician, is a good listener foremost. Don’t forget that. A part of me wishes I could forget my tainted impressions of virtuosi like guitarist Steve Vai and drummer Neil Peart. Don’t get me wrong, those individuals are super talented, super dedicated, respected by their peers and great examples of their respective craft. And yet both, I would argue, because of their intense discipline and skill almost became exaggerations of their trade, not by intent but by association. For Vai, by his association with the height of inflated 80s hair rock (hello, person who became David Lee Roth’s solo wingman); because I grew up with this it distracted me from his more substantial recognition, that Vai was known more obscurely as a musician’s musician, noted for his collaborations with such diverse artists as Frank Zappa and PiL previously. For Peart, somewhat more ironically, by association with his very skill. There is no doubt that there wasn’t a Chinese crash cymbal or glockenspiel in his kit that didn’t get a workout, but I would argue that his penchant for literally surrounding himself with every type of percussive instrument imaginable visually detracted from what makes a good drummer — see the first sentence of this paragraph. I worry that there are a lot of drummers with way (way) too much gear because they’re Neil Peart fans. Drummers like Charlie Watts, it should be known, kept it simple by comparison, rarely straying from a 4 or 5-piece drum kit. Neither Vai nor Peart did anything wrong, but I think they are examples of how the wrong idea about what being a good musician (or artist) is can get across despite the most honest of intentions.

One of the greatest compliments I ever received as a drummer was a bandmate nicknaming me “Mattronome.” At least I took it as a compliment.

Drummers are eccentric, which isn’t entirely surprising for a breed of people who deal not with melody and harmony but rhythm, which itself can be difficult to communicate to a wide audience (think shape vs colour). Reading Stuart Copeland and Max Weinberg’s reflections on Watts, I was struck by how unrhythmical their technical descriptions were of what made Watts stand out. It reminds me of the famous Martin Mull quote: “writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” We’re an odd bunch, with inter-dimensionally oblong interests, but, I insist, ultimately we are eminently loveable creatures.

How to take care of drummers:

  • Never mind the fact that we are nearly always tapping our fingers/feet to some piece of music that’s playing in the background, if only in our head. We aren’t being rude, just dutiful to our nature.
  • Never mind the fact that we tend to be either shut off from the outside world, or, paradoxically, so attuned to some microtonal aspect that regular humans can’t sense that we haven’t had a chance to listen to the very important thing you’ve been trying to explain to us for the past twenty minutes (this also applies to writers).
  • If you want to impress a drummer, mention how much skill it must take to play tambourine, and how people commonly underestimate this.
  • Empathize with how, unlike lead singers and guitarists, drummers can’t exactly roam around the stage when playing live.