(Originally Published in Tom Tom Magazine)
By Elena Bonomo
As drummers, we are constantly drawing inspiration from our biggest idols and the artists that we like to listen to. They are the ones whom we gravitate towards because their sound, their tone, their touch, their technique, etc. has influenced us in one way or another. But just because they set up and tune their drums one particular way doesn’t mean that we have to do the same. Being an artist is about absorbing all sources of inspiration to eventually develop your own sound–your own musical voice. My musical voice might not be the same as your musical voice, and that’s ok. It’s all about making a statement and adding something to the music that only you are capable of adding.
Developing your own sound takes time. First, you have to listen to and copy the masters before you can even think about having a sound of your own. Drumming is a specific language that one develops over years and years of practice. It is a constant learning experience that people can’t get enough of, no matter how many gigs you play, how many drum solos you transcribe, or how many years you’ve been playing. It’s just like learning how to read. You can’t form coherent, flowing sentences if you don’t even know the letters that make up the words.
This concept applies to drumming. One must learn the language of drumming–the vocabulary–before they can develop their own sound. This means learning all of the rudiments, transcribing the drum solos of the jazz legends of the past (like Philly Jo Jones, Max Roach and Elvin Jones), learning be-bop melodies and playing them on the drum set, etc because this is where it all started. Sure, jazz might not be your thing. But this is where the history of drumming lies: in the hands of the masters who played the music first. Soon enough, you’ll begin to develop a vocabulary, and you can utilize the different solos, rudiments, and ideas you’ve learned from the masters to influence your own sound.
Developing your own sound also has much to do with the actual sound of your drums–the way you tune them. Try to tune your drums in a way that complements the music that you’re playing. What can I do to make my snare drum blend in with the sound of the band? How can I get my toms to sound full but not over-powering? How can I make my bass drum sound like another tom so I can use it to play more melodically? There is not a universally “correct” way to set up and tune your drums; it depends on what works best for you and the music that you’re playing.
I might not use the same drum set on a jazz gig as I would for a show with my band, The Novel Ideas. Our songs call for a loud, thuddy bass drum, low, punchy toms, and a deeply tuned, beefy, loose snare. My little 18″ kick drum from my jazz kit might not do the trick in a setting like this. On the other hand, my 22″ kick drum and deeply tuned, beefy, loose snare drum probably wouldn’t work on a jazz gig either, because they don’t have enough clarity and definition. I’d want drums that I can tune to a higher pitch, so I can utilize them in a more melodic way.
The way you tune your drums, the way you approach the drum set, who you are influenced by, your particular feel, and the musical ideas that you play all contribute to developing your own voice as a drummer. Learn from your idols, know the history of your instrument, play what is right for the music, and everything will fall into place at the right time.
Elena Bonomo is a drummer, percussionist, composer and music educator from the NYC area. A recent graduate of Berklee College of Music, she has recorded and toured nationally with Americana/Folk group, The Novel Ideas. Most recently, she finished up a tour of the the Caribbean, South America, and Europe playing drums aboard a cruise ship. She is currently working as a freelance musician in the NYC area, accompanying artists and playing in the pit for various musicals.