Access All Areas: a drummer's guide to playing live
31st Jul 2013 | 07:20
Whenever you play, make it groove
“I want to be sure that everybody who comes to see the band has a good time. I need to put that feeling across and make sure everybody knows what that groove is, right to the back of the field.
"The most important thing is to stay relaxed. When you get up and sit down at the drums, I try to play from the neck down - I try not to let it get in my head. I try not to be academic or technical about it. I try not to think about the stuff I practised all day. I just stay relaxed and think musical things.”
Maintaining stamina through a high-impact set list
“I am fortunate to still be in the music touring industry after over 30 years of world travels. For Queensrÿche to perform at our best requires all of us to keep our health in top form, meaning that it usually starts with good rest, healthy diet and the utmost clean living.
"Performing a 90 minute-two hour rock show is difficult enough without also having bad health. I pride myself in being as relaxed and as prepared as possible."
Relax and stay loose
“Use your drumsticks like an extension of your arm. Your drums are there to be worked with, never against. While on the surface this sounds like generic advice it's a massive cause of fatigue that can ruin any show or practice session.
"Relax and let your technique carry you through. Remember, playing the drums should be the fun. Keep yourself challenged and never give up.”
Build stamina before you hit the stage
“Right now I'm on Warped Tour and it's the most insane tour I've been on. There are 80 plus bands, thousands of kids - it's chaotic. Everyday I try to work out, run and stretch when I wake up. It only takes up about 30-45 minutes but in the long run it's necessary. As a drummer playing in a fast, loud band, I need all the stamina I can get.
"It's all about using the right amount of energy at the right times. You need to breath and make sure you're not wasting all of your energy reserves in the first two songs because an hour later when you're //still// playing, you're going to be fatigued. Playing on a pad for about 45 minutes a day is something everybody should get into. It gets your hands and arms loosened up so when it's go time, and you're muscles and tendons won't tighten up and cramp.”
Don't forget your pillow
“For a festival, always make sure you know what you need. It might just be cymbals and snare but if you can’t find out assume you need everything. I have a ‘fly-in’ kit for festivals: my cymbals in one case and a floor tom case that holds my kick pedal, snare, stick bag and percussion.
"One advantage is that I pad out the second case with a pillow - you wouldn’t believe how many hire / festival kits come with empty kick drums desperately needing dampening!”
Catch some zzzzzzs
“Festival season... You never know what you're going to get, but you can control how you want things to turn out with new fans and people who don't know your band by giving that undeniably kick ass performance.
"For me, the key to making that happen and playing to my best ability (while surviving festival season) is simple: sleep! With the intensive travelling and, most of the time, having 'throw and go' shows it gives me the ability to relax in case a tricky situation arises, or equipment issues or weather changes. It always makes a tour more enjoyable when you're taking care of yourself.”
Tom Heron, The Xcerts
“Having a day job is hardly the rock star dream but it can be a necessity, especially in the beginning. I'd say try to find something you enjoy doing or just about tolerate that lets you keep playing drums (ie, teaching), or work that's flexible enough to allow for touring. The dream is to earn money from your band but until that day comes, there's no shame in a part time job.”
Arejay Hale, Halestorm
“Drinking a lot of water and staying hydrated is important on tour, especially for hot outdoor gigs. Drumming is very physical so it helps to think like an athlete by staying hydrated, eating healthy and getting proper sleep.
"Also, respect the headliners, keep your gear out of the way, don't jam on your drums while the sound engineers are tuning the PA system or line checking the other instruments, make sure you get you gear on and off stage quickly so the other bands can start on time and for Pete's sake keep yourself and your clothes from smelling nasty! If there's no shower around I find that baby wipes, gold bond and Febreze are essential supplies.”
Don't drink and drum
“The one rule I have that helps me is to play sober. That's not a popular thing to do, but it keeps me going and keeps my playing up to the standard I demand. I have no problem waiting until I'm done working before I have a couple of beers. I'll save the rage for the days off.”
It pays to be prepared and punctual
"Make sure you are well prepared before hitting the road. Have lots of spare equipment with you: sticks, heads, felts and take a lot of drum keys because, from experience, I always seem to lose those.
"I'd also recommend taking all of your stands/hardware to every show you play as it can be frustrating if the stands you are borrowing can't be adjusted or don’t even work properly. One final note is that it's important to get to the venues promptly as the more time you have to set up and check the better. There's nothing worse than rushing things at a show."
Sticky is good
“Outdoor festivals are totally different from indoor. The main thing I notice is the grip of the sticks. I pour a full can of coke all over my hands before I go on stage because it gives my hands some grip to stop the sticks flying out of my hands mid riding the crashes!
"Most of the time a soundcheck won't exist so I'll ask the monitor guys to rock my drums full as possible and I'll take it down from there as I’m playing. Depending on the weather and temperature the feel of the heads might be different. I played an outdoor show in Quebec this March. It was freezing and the heads felt like concrete, so be careful you don't break your arms!”
Stock up on palm leaves and sticks
“When touring you obviously need to bring lots of extra sticks. I bring two pairs for every show. Back-up cymbals, snare, heads, and pedals, and medical tape for blisters.
"We're currently on Warped tour and the first show this year, none of our tracks or monitors worked so we literally couldn't even hear each other. We just played old songs and roughed it but it turned out great and we just had fun with it. That to me is the most important part of live shows - having fun! Having said that, heat is something we have to deal with. I pay my drum tech extra money to fan me with giant palm leave when it gets too hot!”
Keep calm and carry on
“From equipment breaking to getting food poisoning, you learn to adapt to all eventualities on tour. My best advice in any situation is to be adaptable. If something's not going your way or a piece of equipment isn't to your standard or taste, it's not the end of the world - roll with what you're given and treat it like a challenge.
"The best personality traits to have on tour are to be calm and relaxed, for your own sanity as well as others around you. I've found having a meal and going for a long walk on your own does wonders for your sanity if it feels like you're losing it to cabin fever and home is still a long way away.”
Invest in a fan
“While on tour or during festival season, it is mandatory to have spare supplies with you in the van. Sticks, drum heads, drum keys and even screws to name a few. No one wants to start looking for a music shop one hour before your soundcheck in a city you’ve never been to and where nobody speaks your language.
"Also make sure you bring a fan on tour: those are lifesavers for hot summer shows or tiny packed venues. The fresh air will make a huge difference in keeping your energy level up during the set.”
Take care of yourself on all levels
“Don't work for free. Too many young musicians are being exploited for this. So make sure you negotiate with the label, management, agent or promoter before the gigs happen.
"It's important to enjoy yourself and bond with your band mates but everything in moderation. It's too easy to eat badly and drink alcohol everyday when you're on the road and doing so over a long schedule can affect your performance. Also, be creative on the road. You will have a lot of down time so this may involve song writing, organising your diary, sorting your taxes, using social media to promote the artist or your band. Organisation is important.”
Warm up, warm up!
“We all know the importance of warming up before a show. It's good for the joints and tightens up your chops. I like to start slow with some single and double stroke rolls then do some paradiddles and flam taps.
"Stretching is very important too. I stretch out my wrists, shoulders, back and legs to limber up before a show. You can also do a few warm up exercises like jumping jacks, push ups, side lunges, jump squats to get your heart rate up and blood pumping. These also help your overall endurance on tour to prevent feeling tired or fatigued half way through a set.”
Feel the tension
“Tension sensitive drum keys were recommended to me recently by a good friend of mine, Jamie Cross (of JC Drums). I now love them! They’re awesome for when your drums naturally detune due to temperature changes.
"The key tells you when they’re perfectly in tune every time, which in turn saves time for more important things like warming up! Warming up is key. I know it’s been said time and time again but no one wants to be ‘that guy’ who pulls a rock muscle on tour.”
Put down the Fanta, pick up the Evian
"Playing live during the summer time can be a stressful but very fulfilling experience. You spend your days in vitamin D rich environments and it's hard not to be happy. It's quite hot though most of the time and making sure you are properly hydrated is everything.
"Drink your water and stay away from your sodas and sugars. An important thing is to breathe and relax. If you're onstage and tense, it's difficult to stay fluid. The more calm and relaxed you are, the better you'll feel about your playing."
Get cosy with the crew
“The sound engineer is your best friend. Make their job easier by being quick and efficient when setting up and sound checking (no noodling between songs!).
"Getting to know their name and being friendly could mean the difference between a shit show and a good one. Play every show as if you’re playing Wembley. Showing your committed looks a hell of a load better than shying away and not performing at all.”
Sometimes it's nice to just reminisce...
“I've played Download Festival twice now, once with my old band Nya on the Doghouse Stage in 2011 and once with The Defiled on the Pepsi Max stage last year. Both were great shows with an awesome atmosphere.
"I'd also have to put a couple of The Defiled's London shows in the list: Playing Brixton Academy for the first time was a childhood dream come true (with Therapy? And Skindred) and Shepherd’s Bush Empire last year on the Dragonforce tour was a real highlight. I just love a home crowd and a nice big old venue! Performing in front of 80,000 people with Stomp at the Olympic Closing Ceremony is probably worth a mention too.”
Enjoy it always
“The most important part of being a drummer, or anyone, in a band is that you enjoy it. Chances are you'll be the one with the car organising the shows and making sure the band get where they need to be. If you reach a point where that doesn't seem worth it or you find yourself constantly arguing with people in or around the band, stop right there.
"Why did you start playing anyway? If it was for fame and money then you're an idiot. If it was for fun, make sure it stays that way. It's your music and your life. Do it the way that works for you.”
Become a multi-tasker
“Unless you have thousands of pounds to spend on touring, splitting roles is key to a stress free and enjoyable time. As a band, we all have our strengths but that doesn't mean you can't help someone out with theirs or cover a position you don't have filled.
"For example, while I'm setting up my kit our singer, who only has an acoustic guitar to plug in, sets up the merch display. On another day, he might be re-stringing his guitars and someone else who's free will set up merch. If somebody's been sitting on merch for half an hour and wants a break, I might jump on. Our bassist is also our tour manager and splits the driving between him and our singer. This saves money on getting in other people.”
Become a multi-tasker: part two
“If you’re in a band, hopefully you’ve figured out that everyone mucks in to making the business side run smoothly - taking t-shirts to the post office, keeping Facebook updated, taking it in turns to be the sober one operating the vehicle after a show.
"Even as a hired gun with Frank Turner and The Sleeping Souls I try to do more. The guitarist, bass player and I built a rehearsal room; I’ve tour managed while drumming; and until recently on some tours I would guitar tech for Frank. Don’t undersell yourself if you’re getting paid for a gig, either. I still get palpitations when I quote a day rate to someone but I know I’ve worked hard to be worth an OK wage. I’m not going to be shy about what I think I’m worth. If they don’t agree someone else gets that gig and so be it.”
“Never spill your drink onstage again! Simply 'borrow' a beer crate from the venue you are playing, take your trusty hacksaw from your well-stocked tool kit and cut out a block of six bottle holders. Trim it up and hey presto: two x water, two x Lucozade, two x Beer - you're sorted for the show!
"And her's how to never loose your drum tuner key: purchase a stretchy cable with a dog clip then attach your drum key to it, clip on to a nearby floor tom lug and let it dangle. Any time you need a quick between-song tune up, you know where to find it.”
When crowds go wild
"One of my all time favourite gigs was the Download Festival 2010. There were close to 90,000 people there and our show was going ok, nothing that special. We made it to the last song and Ivan invited the whole crowd to crowd surf up to shake his hand. Within seconds there was close to 5,000 people that jumped over the barricade.
"It was complete awesome chaos! They didn't have enough security and we had to actually stop playing. The promoter asked us to help him get everything under control and then let us finish the song. Our performance ended up being one of the talked about of the festival. I'll never forget that show."
Bust out the knitwear
“When you go on tour, you need a hoodie. That's it. A book or music player helps in those times when you need solitude and having instruments and sticks and gaffa tape and all that is important of course but you'll either have sorted that out or you won't last very long playing live.
"When it's freezing cold in Bradford or where ever and you have to sleep in the van (because someone must ALWAYS sleep in the van if you don't want your gear stolen) then you'll need that hoodie. Christ, take two. Two hoodies. You need two hoodies. And a bottle opener.”
Don't forget the home comforts
"I need to make sure I come prepared with everything that is possible to help make me feel like I'm 'at home' - there's nothing worse than needing something you do not have when stuck on a tour bus or when getting ready to play a gig. After 30 years of touring, I usually make a check list at home of what I need and want to take with me. This insures I come as prepared as possible.”
Know your rights
"Those of you in bands like myself who cannot afford to employ your own tour manager will end up taking on the role yourself. I have personally tour managed my own band for the past few years and the most valuable lesson I have learned is to always make sure you know your show contract to the last letter, and always print one out for every promoter. Unfortunately, some promoters try to cut as many costs as possible to the extent of not even accommodating anyone but the headliners whether it says so in your contract or not – they will often ignore it. You have the right to enforce this and get what you have contractually requested. We all know we don't ask for much on the way up, so it's not fair to not be looked after properly."
Planning tours in advance saves cash
“I used to tour manage my early bands and try to get the most for our money by routing the tour in advance and knowing where we would stay - hotel or crashing on someone's floor. As soon as I got the dates I'd hit the Travelodge website and plan my drives according to the cheapest Travelodge hotels on the tour route. Book early enough and you can get rooms for as little as £15 for four people. I once ran a whole 14 date tour on £15 rooms - £210 for the whole tour!
"You'll want something reliable for a vehicle, so make sure you can fit your drums in comfortably with everyone else's gear. If you're smart you'll get a van with bunks in it and pull a trailer with the gear (make sure you have a hitch lock), that way you need no hotels.”
At the end of the day, it's all experience
“Festivals are really important for your band. You not only get to perform in front of thousands of people, but you also get to hang with your peers and share road stories. Most of these shows are called 'throw and go's'. This means it's imperative for your band to have a solid, knowledgeable crew because there are no sound checks.
"Having all of your gear in order is also very important. You're going to experience every type of gig from playing in front of 350,000 people to not being able to start on time in front of the Big 4 crowd due to technical difficulties. Chalk it all up to experience. Nothing else can match a live performance; this is what I live for.”