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Essential Listening - The Sound of Rock Drums

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This post is part of a series called Essential Listening.
Essential Listening: The Sounds of Rock
Essential Listening - The Sounds of DnB/Jungle

Welcome back everyone for another round of Essential Listening. Last time we took a look at various rock albums and how their sound so widely differed yet still worked inside the genre we call rock. Today we are going to go over something more instrument related, namely the drums.

In rock music the drums are the unquestionable rhythmic backbone of the music and as such needs to be played well and sound right or everything will fall apart. So today we are going to look at various famous rock drummers and how their playing style and sound helped create the sound of their music so when you are mixing or producing you know what kind of sound you should be going for!

So with that in mind get ready to feel the beat!


The Big Classic Sound - John Bonham

Most everyone in this day and age have heard of John "Bonzo" Bonham because the reach of his playing and sound is ever present in the music industry. Most famous for his time with Led Zeppelin, he was known primarily for a larger than life sound that sang just as well as it bashed you over the head with its power.

But despite the raw power he conveyed, he also had an amazing sense of groove; nothing was robotic and perfect. Here are some things to listen for and keep in mind about the "Bonham" sound...

  • The ebb and flow of his playing depending on what the music doing; nothing mechanical sounding.

  • He played with 2-ply coated heads as opposed to the clear heads you see now and days; this helped give him a rich rounder sound.

  • Listen for the sense of space in his drum sound from the mixing and recording. Despite their being a lot of power in his playing it doesn't sound like your ear is literally right on top of the drums.

  • Bonham also tuned his heads fairly tight so they would produce a nice resonance and not sound flat and dead.


Raw Intensity - Keith Moon

If John Bonham was the epitome of a big but controlled grooving drum sound, then Keith Moon is the epitome of shear raw intensity. Moon was known for his destructive personality irregular time keeping and his playing shows that while with The Who. While you will of course still see typical rock playing by Moon, you will also see irregular beats and rhythms that add an extra dimension to the sound of The Who. In addition, simply watching Moon was as much as experience as it was to listen to him since he flailed relentlessly at the drums.

Here are some things to listen for and keep in mind about Moon's sound...

  • The raw grooving beats that despite the wild playing stay together and have actual dynamics.

  • He played large drums with coated heads like Bonham, but used 1-ply heads which gives a distinctly different sound to Bonham's coated heads. Top that off with the fact that he used birch shells as opposed to Bonham's maple which gave him a more cutting sound.

  • Most of Moon's playing was not in the forefront of the mix. This actually helped convey his wild playing more because you could not hear every single note clearly, but you could tell a lot was going on.

  • Another notable trait of Moon's playing is his spontaneity while playing and how he offsets the typical rhythms. While it is not always easy to hear because of the mix, listen closely for how he doesn't always really on the typical two and four snare rhythms.


Clarity and Complexity - Neil Peart

While Bonham and Moon convey the big raw sound of rock, Neil Peart with Rush shows us what can be done with control, moderation, and odd time signatures. He is by and large considered one of the most technical rock drummers of all time but that does not mean he is a machine either. His supreme technique affords the ability to do whatever he so chooses musically without being inhibited.

Here are some things to listen for and keep in mind about the Peart's unique sound...

  • His rhythms rarely stay the same for more than a bar or two which adds a greater musical complexity to the music.

  • Peart also uses coated drum heads but has so many drums and cymbals at his disposal that he can use a wide array of timbres and sound colors to create a unique sound for that particular song or passage.

  • Typically Peart's sound in the mix is rather clean and dry since it is so complex and integral to the sound; they could not risk muddying it up.

  • As the music shifts from one time signature to another, Peart effortlessly leads us through the changes and leaves us no hint that we even switched from 4/4 to 7/4 or where ever the music went.


All Groove - Mitch Mitchell

While Mitch maybe one of the least known drummer on the list, the drummer for Jimi Hendrix was a power house groove machine. While he could hit hard like Bonhman, Mitch brought instead a jazz fusion background into the rock scene that dug deep when it needed to and backed off when the time was not right. Couple that with the vintage sounding recordings and gear of the time, and you almost get a precursor to drum and bass music.

Here are some things to listen for and keep in mind about Mitch and his playing...

  • Mitch's sense of groove almost has a swing feel too it but hits hard like a rock track. Also pay attention to the tasteful use of double bass.

  • Like everyone else on the list, Mitch played with coated heads (noticing a trend?) but listen particularly to the perfect sound of the snare; just enough resonance for tone but plenty of crack to hit where it needs to.

  • In the mix you do not hear too much low end from Mitch which does not mean it was not there, but instead means it was not as important in the day. If you need that older rock sound keep that in mind.

  • Also keep watch of his timing, nothing is out of place and it all sits perfectly with the rest of the group.


Conclusion for Now

The drummers covered here were defining forces in the sound of rock and their influence can still be felt to this day. From the playing, to the instruments, to the mixing, all of it added up to creating their sound. Take what these drummers had done and apply it your own music, mixes, etc. and then create something new!

Until next time, thanks for reading!

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