Writing Drums for New Songs

The Vineyard movement has always been a songwriting movement, but there has been a recent explosion in local churches writing songs, recording them, and sharing them! This is great news, but does this mean for us drummers?

It means that drummers across the Vineyard movement have the potential to turn into writing drummers. This is exciting, but scary for the drummer who has never written for new songs.

I've been in lots of churches and played with lots of different bands. A common thread in the church when it comes to worship music is reproduction--hearing a recorded song that you like, deciding to play it on Sunday, then reproducing the track as a band. That's not a bad thing. I love covering songs. There are lots of fantastic songs with stunning production that frankly deserve an accurate and faithful cover, and it's an important skill to have as a musician.

For many drummers, though, reproduction is all the experience they have. If they've never done it before, writing drum parts for new unrecorded songs can leave drummers overwhelmed and nervous. So, I'm going to explain my process, break it down point by point. Maybe it will help you!

This is by no means the gospel. It's not a handbook, or the only way to do it. It's just my process, a general guideline, the things I think about when writing drum parts.

To give this some concrete context, I'll use a song from Vineyard Campbellsville's recent All Things Rise EP, I Love You, as an example of a part that I've written. Here's a link if you haven't heard it. Give it a listen before reading on.

Give the writer what he/she wants.

This isn't a step in the process; this is the foundation of everything I do behind the drum kit. It is my firm belief that it's my job as a drummer to give the leaders I play for what they want, even if they can't articulate it. If they can't articulate what they want, it's my job to figure it out and give expression to it from my instrument. (This applies even if I don't like what they want me to play.)

This goes for songwriters, too. It's my job to find out what they want, and it's my job to give it to them. For me, the whole of my process fits into this. Keep that in mind as we move through this together.

1) Gather Your Basics

This is the easiest part, so we'll start with it. The basics can be compiled in a short list of three necessities you need to gather before playing the song:

1) Time signature
Listen to the strum pattern (guitar in my case, but for some of you your leader may play keys. Same concept) and determine the time signature. In this case, it's 4/4.

2) Tempo
Listen to the writer play the song, and tap the tempo into a metronome. This might be altered later. In this case, it's 68bpm.

3) Kick/Snare Groove
Listen to the strum pattern and the lyrical rhythm to get a feel for groove, then match that with your kick and snare pattern. That will give you a skeleton groove to work with and modify. (For the clearest example of how I've done this in the past, listen to Bless Your Name off of the Promises of Wonder album. I wrote my part to match the guitar pattern exactly.)

This has the potential to get complicated.

When Adam Russell first played I Love You to us, it was a simple 8th note based picking pattern, back and forth between two notes. There was no clear accented pattern, so I patterned the groove loosely off of the rhythm of the lyrics.

As a general rule, your pattern should support the strum pattern and rhythm of the lyrics.

Now, before we get into the juicy stuff, I need to define some terms. We're going to be looking at form and content (message and medium).

Content is the meaning, the intention, the idea, the essence of the song. What is this song saying? The form is the musical expression of the content, the notes, the how. How is this song saying what it's saying?

We could write volumes on how form and content interact with each other. In fact, many volumes have been written. We're just barely scratching the surface here. But these definitions will do for now.

2) What does it mean? (Content)

Learning the lyrics to any new song is vital. When writing drum parts, I want the form to fit and support the content as much as possible. You can't tailor the form to the content if you don't know the content. It's vital to know the lyrics, the meaning, the writer's intention. Here, we'll consider the lyrics as the content.

The first time I heard this song it was finger picked on a guitar. Adam had just written it. I don't even think it was finished at the time. He told us, "it's just a really simple love song I've been playing in my office. The first half is God singing his love song over us. The second half is us responding with a love song of our own."

Basically, this is a response song. It's an acknowledgement of a reality (God's song over us: I love you) and our response to that reality (a love song of our own). The bridge is a self-directed command: "bless the Lord, oh my soul, and all that is within me..." In summary: God sings to us, we sing to God, we are changed. There's the big vision of the song, the content, distilled down to one sentence.

Understanding the content, we have a context for crafting the form. We want the form (how we play) to also give context to the content (what the song means). Actually, the form will give context to, even change, the content whether you intend it to or not. What we want is to be mindful of this, and control it.

We want to think like artists. "How to I craft the form (how I play) to give proper context (proper being what the writer wants) to this content (lyrics)?"

For that, we need step 3.

3) How will I express the meaning? (Form)

As I said in the beginning, what the writer wants is important to me. How Adam will express the content of his song may be different from how I would express the same content (actually, if I expressed the same content in a different way it's no longer the same content at all, but that's another discussion for another time). At this point, it's important to pay attention to how the writer plays the song to you, the form he gives to his content.

As I said in the last section, the first time I heard the song, Adam was lightly finger picking. He sang and played the first half of the song in a quiet, hushed tone. The impression I got was a whisper. Adam had also used this analogy in a sermon: "At the end of the day, when you're lying in bed next to your lover, you're not yelling things to each other. You're whispering. Some things are just better when whispered." When he played the song, I remembered this analogy. This gave me deeper insight into how he wanted to express his song's content.

As the song moved along, he played and sang progressively louder. When he hit the bridge, he did a vocal octave jump, played and sang louder. "Ok," I thought, "he wants this to be a bubble-over song. This is where we are gripped, where we are changed, where we are meant to get excited."

He could have very well kept the song quiet and contemplative. That certainly would have worked with the content. It would have given it a different expression, different form, a different feeling (much like Ryan Adam's cover of Swift's album, 1989--different form, different expression of the same content). But Adam let me know what form he wanted by how he played it to me. Again, the writer gives me my template for form.

(A note to the songwriters: be as clear as possible when having your band write parts for new songs. Tell them why you wrote it. Tell them how it makes you feel. Tell them if it makes you cry, makes you laugh, makes you yell, if it was written out of pain or happiness. Tell them everything. Play it how you want it to be played. Pay attention to everything.)

Now that we know the song's content (step 2) and the form the writer wants (step 3) we can start playing some notes!

4) Dynamics: pick your mountain and climb it.

Dynamics are a journey; always be going somewhere
After I've gathered my basics, content, and form, my next step is turning the song into a dynamic journey. As drummers, dynamics are largely up to us. When writing parts for a song, it's important to not tip your dynamic hand too soon. As a general rule, you never want to play your loudest more than once in a song. Generally, you want to save the loudest playing for the end of the song--the last bridge or chorus. Don't hit your dynamic peak in the first chorus. Leave yourself somewhere to go!

This keeps the listener's ear interested, and turns the song into a dynamic journey. Always be going somewhere.

How big is your mountain?
When writing dynamic parts, I think of songs as mountains. We start at the base camp (quietest) then climb the mountain, getting louder as we go, saving our loudest part for the peak.

At this point I decide if the song is dynamically a molehill in my front yard, Mt. Everest, or somewhere in between. The larger the mountain, the longer dynamic distance there is to travel. The smaller the mountain, the shorter dynamic distance there is to travel.

(A small mountain doesn't necessarily mean a quiet song. It just means the dynamic difference between the base camp and the peak is shorter. You could have a loud and driving molehill song. Reference: All Things New from the same EP.)

With the last two steps in mind (getting content and form) now I have a grid for dynamics. I want the dynamics to match the form and content: in this case, start quiet, then get excited.

This step will take trial and error. I play through the song a few times with the band. I find the high point (usually a bridge or final chorus). Once I find the high point I want to reach, I find where I want to set base camp (base camp is the starting point, the baseline--generally verse 1 will be base camp.)

Let's break down this song dynamically:

1) Mountain size for I Love You is Everest.
2) Base camp is a whisper. (No playing.)
3) Peak is screaming loud. (Slamming 24" cymbals, stick heights cranked, heels up and toes back on the kick pedal, thunderous.)

Now that I have base camp and peak, I decide where I want to travel and how quickly. Here's the breakdown for this song. Read this while listening to the track if you want.

  • Verse 1) base camp: no drums.
  • Chorus) base camp: shaker on quarter notes, no drums.
  • Verse 2) start the climb: using mallets, snare wires off, no cymbals or high end tones, playing in halftime (snare on 3 instead of 2 & 4).
  • Chorus) same groove.
  • Chorus repeat) add hat closes on quarters.
  • Bridge) switch to sticks. same groove, but the attack has more high-end smack.
  • Bridge repeat) snare wires on, introducing cymbals with single crashes, digging in with flams on snare and toms. It's really starting to pump. We're getting excited.
  • Chorus) using it to build, still not at the peak, introducing ride cymbal as timekeeper, starting with quarters on the kick, moving to 8's on the kick, then 16th's at the end of the build.
  • Musical turnaround) slamming, but no 2 & 4 pulse on the snare.
  • Bridge) full loud groove, snares now on 2&4.
  • Chorus) full groove with a busier kick pattern
  • Last 4 counts) huge build. This is the peak. The loudest part of the song!
  • Outro) back to base camp.

Notice in this song I saved the peak till the very last second. There was dynamic room to travel, all the way to my last note.

To recap:
Give the writer what he/she wants
This is the foundation for everything else.
1.) Gather your basics
Time signature, Tempo, Pattern
2.) What does it mean? (Content)
Lyrics, meaning, overall vision
3.) How will I express the meaning? (Form)
Listen to how the writer plays the song, and craft your parts to that form in order to express the content.
4.) Pick your mountain and climb it
Set points A & B for dynamics, and travel the distance between.

Again, this is by no means the gospel. It's simply my general process when writing parts. It's my sincere hope that drummers in local churches will feel comfortable writing parts for the new songs being birthed there.

If anyone would like to chat, I'm available. Shoot me an email. We need to talk to each other, stay connected, share ideas. No one person has the corner on the "market." Each church is different, each expression unique. Share your ideas!

Much love


How to Practice

This is a repost of something I wrote last October about practice techniques, or "Practice Practices." Drummers, give it another read.

I've said in a few past blog posts that I would write a post on how to practice. It's about that time. There are a few things that I do on a regular basis that are incredibly helpful for me, and that I highly recommend. Some of these things may seem too simplistic or boring. That's practice for you. Here are eight Practice Practices that every drummer should know.


Practice //

But really, you have to practice. I know that a lot of you (Worship Drummers) don't have drum kits at home, and that's fine. Growing up, I had a kit in my room, but I could never really play it because we had a family of 5, and the noise level was an issue. Some of you live in apartments. Some of you have babies and/or little kids that nap during the day and go to bed early at night. And that's ok. But if you want to get better, you have to find a way around those obstacles. You have to find a way to practice. Maybe it means working out a deal with your worship pastor to get a key to the building and using the church kit a few nights a week. Maybe it means having a setup at a friend's house. I will say that waiting till band practice to do your practicing isn't a good idea for several reasons. A.) You don't get in-depth practice time--you're confined to the songs you're playing that Sunday. B.) You'll want to cut loose, and you won't be able to. Or you will, and your worship leader will smack you for hacking. C.) It's not long enough of a practice (usually). Set a time for at least a total of 4 hours of practice time a week, and stick to it.

Metronome // 

I've said it several times in the past: buy a metronome. Actually, if you have an iPhone, Tempo (by Frozen Ape) is an awesome metronome, and 'tis free. Get something on which you can save tempos , and something into which you can tap tempos. If you have a Mac, you can use Garage Band to make some click tracks. (The process is pretty self-explanatory, but if you need some help, just shoot me an e-mail from the Contact page, and I'll help you out.) Don't go buying anything super expensive if it's your first metronome. But get something. Don't practice without it! I'll get a little more in-depth with how to use the metronome below. But hey. Do it. Get a metronome. It's not a step you can skip and still build an awesome cake. Gotta have the metronome.

Warmup // 

Don't go trying to play Everlong at full speed as soon as you pick up the sticks. You really can hurt yourself in the long run doing stuff like that. Take 10 minutes to warm up and stretch. Das ist muy importante. (How's that for diversity?) There is a warmup exercise called 8's. If you were ever in drumline, you know what I'm talking about. If you weren't, here is a quick explanation. Here is the the musical notation in a pic. It's 8th notes, and here is the sticking pattern for them: (R for right stick, L for left stick). 

Accents make the exercise easier, which you don't want in a warmup. Play every stroke at a 9" distance from the drumhead, and keep it consistent throughout. Start out by playing this at 100bpm (beats per minute) two times through. Then move it up to 110bpm a couple times through. Then move it up to 125bpm a couple times through. Then up 140bpm a couple times through. Then 165bpm a couple times through. Keep increasing the tempo until you find your peak. You want to still be able to keep up. (Maybe you can only do 140bpm right now. That's fine. Do this warmup every day and you'll be doing some pretty break-neck speed in a matter of months.) Don't put the tempo so high that you can't keep up, but you do want to push yourself. After one round of 8s going at your peak tempo, drop the tempo down to 75bpm and play it once through. When you do this, it's going to be difficult to not push the tempo. Just relax. The application of this in a band setting is being able to go from a fast song to a really slow song without pushing the tempo of the latter, which is essential for pocket-playing. Repeat that whole process twice. It should take you between 10-20 mins. After that you'll be plenty warmed up, and maybe sweating a little bit. It seems really boring, I know, but so much is going on during this warmup that you have to pay attention to, which brings me to my next Practice Practice.

Technique // 

A lot of drummers, especially Rock drummers, will tell you that good technique isn't important at all. Well, that sounds nice in theory, and is in keeping with the Rock tradition of sticking it to the man, but I'm telling's a lie. Technique is what will give you longevity (both in a set, and throughout your life as a drummer), and tone that the other guys just won't be able to get. You'll have speed that the other guys won't have. You'll have control that the other guys won't have. You'll get more rebound off of your strokes. You'll be able to play for longer periods of time. I know several drummers post-40yrs old that can't play how they used to because their wrists and fingers are ruined due to bad technique. Carpal Tunnel, guys. You don't want it. There is so much impact going on during drumming that incorrect technique can shave years off of your drumming life. Here's a great basic video lesson on how to hold your sticks properly. Technique is something you want to pay attention to during practice, especially during warmup. Find a mirror to sit in front of and pay attention to your hands. It's ok if you think you look awesome. You do look awesome. You do.

Rudiments //

Rudiments are amazing. Here is a link to a rudiment chart that Vic-Firth put together, with links to videos on what they sound like. Using the same speed-up/slow-down technique you used in warmup with 8's, practice one of these rudiments per week for 15-20 mins of each practice time. Do not forget the metronome! I'd start with the double stroke roll (or Diddles) and then move to paradiddles. I use different rudiments all the time, especially in fills. Each one of these rudiments is applicable somewhere, and you definitely want them in your tool belt. 

Limb Independence //

This is one you can do at the dinner table, in the car (as a passenger), at work, or on the toilet. Start with a simple Kick on 1 & 3, snare on 2 & 4, hats playing 8th notes. Easy enough to tap out on your lap. Now comes the tricky part. Use your left foot instead of your right hand to play the hats' 8th notes. Use your right hand (or whichever you use for the hats) to play the Kick notes on 1 & 3. Use your right foot to play the Snare notes on 2 & 4. Simple enough? Now play Sweet Home Alabama doing the same thing. Hate that song? You'll hate it even more after doing this exercise to it. This exercise will help you develop limb independence that the majority of other guys won’t have. You'll be able to use your hats in ways you never thought you'd be able to do without ever touching them with a stick.

Learn Cover Songs //

I know in practice you'll just want to jam, but save that for the treat at the end. First, pick a song that you really like, and learn it. For example, The Killers song When You Were Young is one of my favorite songs. Sit down and listen to every detail of the drumming. Every hat raise, every fill and the proper sticking for it, every space, and learn to play the song exactly like Ronnie did in the studio. Some people think this is lame, but it's actually the best way to learn how to play in context. A fill out of that song would not sound good in a Sigur Ros song. Learning fill styles is the difference between a good drummer and a great drummer. You don't play 32nd note fills in a Ryan Adams song. You just don’t. Unless it’s on the Orion album, but that’s another animal. The song that you learn (it doesn't have to be When You Were Young) has already gone through a rigorous process. The parts have gone through the drummer's mind, through the band, and through the producer(s). It's been filtered, tested, and affirmed already. Use that to your advantage. Platinum album makers know what they're doing. Learn what they're doing, what they approved, and apply it. After you know how to play within genre without moving out of it, that's when the real creativity can come. You can push the boundaries, play outside of the norm, but still within the genre. But you'll know, "a 32nd note fill would be a total no-no in this song." You'll also know when a song needs a 32nd note fill. 

Repetition //

Repetition is key in practice. When you practice something new, you won't always get it the first time around. That's ok! No drummer gets everything the first time around. Slow the metronome down as much as you need to, and practice the song, the fill, the rudiment at that speed over and over again until you get it right. Even if you have to slow it down from 100bpm to 30bpm. It'll take time, but that's what practice is for.

If you have any questions, shoot me an email.



The Cabin Fever Recordings

Back in March of this year I had the incredible privilege of drumming on an album called The Cabin Fever Recordings. Working on this album was probably the most fun I have ever had--which is saying a lot, because I really enjoy my life. Throughout that week, I slept not 25 feet away from the drums. It was any musician's dream. Wake up, roll over and start playing music. Roll back over and go to sleep. Rinse and repeat.

The setting was perfect. We were up in the mountains, about 45 minutes outside of Missoula, MT. Standing outside, even at midday, I would hear nothing. Absolutely nothing. No hum of an HVAC unit, no white noise from car tires a mile away--nothing. I didn't even hear birds, which I thought was odd at first, but came to appreciate. Apparently they flew south for the winter. Every now-and-then one of the horses would sigh, which, comparatively, sounded like a shotgun going off.

It was a gorgeous and silent country.

And then we showed up.

John & Marie Barnett (guitars, vox & hosts) invited us all--Bobby McDonald (bass), Bob Hartry (guitars), Jon Meek (keys), JR Rund (guitars & vox), Ryan Delmore (guitars & vox), Matt Turrigiano & Cameron Ingalls (film crew), Jesse Barnett (engineer), and me (drums & percussion)--to come and record an album in their cabin. If you've done any research into sound pollution, you know what changing the soundscape can do to a local ecosystem. We probably killed every animal within a 5 mile radius of the cabin. And that was just when Ryan and JR showed up.

When we finally started playing, I watched birds fall dead from the sky--the ones who decided to stick it out through the Mantana winter, of course. (Mantana is a more appropriate name for the state.)

Being in a cabin in the woods, we had to improvise quite a bit. We couldn't just run to Guitar Center if something broke. If you've seen any of the videos from the project, you'll notice that the backing is removed from the organ. Jon Meek had to take it apart to get it working. He did something with a sonic screwdriver, shot it with a phaser set to stun, and it sparked to life. We left the backing off because it kinda looked cool.

You may have also noticed a .22 rifle hanging in the middle of the room. We had to use it as a counterweight by hanging it from the back end of the drum overhead stand, because the mic kept falling into my face.


After hanging the rifle, I looked around the room and took stock of what was happening. I realized then that there were seven states represented in the cabin: CA, MT, TN, GA, TX, AZ, & KY. How does this happen? How does a small group of people this diverse find themselves locked in a cabin together out in the mountains of Montana? It took me a few days to answer that question, but I think I did find the answer.

The Vineyard is a family full of people who love Jesus, who value creating with and for Jesus, and who value creativity contained in others. John Barnett (affectionately known as Pappy) and Marie (Mammy) didn't destroy their living room and spend who-knows-how-much to feed, house, and record a bunch of hungry, smelly men for kicks and giggles. They had a dream in their hearts to create something for Jesus and with Jesus. They saw that others did, too. So they reigned us in and let it happen.

They would never have met any of us hungry, smelly men if it had not been for the Vineyard. The Vineyard is a movement that values co-creating with Jesus. The Vineyard is a movement that values family and friendship. The Vineyard is a movement that values the creativity in someone else, and shares the mic with them. Pappy and Mammy were there from The Vineyard's beginnings, and they continue to bring together far away family members who share the same song. They continue to have faith in the little guys, the no-names, and invite those little guys to the party. And that is the reason why, in The Vineyard, there are no little guys. I remember thinking, why else would I be here? How else would this have happened if not for a love for Jesus, the bonding-agent of the Vineyard, the value for far-away-family, the value for the song inside of someone else?

It's because, in The Vineyard, we're all family. The Vineyard didn't come to Pappy and say, "hey, make this album." But when it came time to make it, he made it happen. He pulled guys from the Vineyard to make it. Instead of going to LA and hiring The Wallflowers to be the house band, he picked Vineyard guys. That speaks volumes to me. It says that, in The Vineyard, we all have permission to create. It says that in The Vineyard our pool of friends and resources is nation-wide (and world-wide). It says, "Just go do it. Do what is in your heart."

But what do I know? I'm just the drummer.


The Cabin Fever Recordings isn't named that because we were recording in a cabin. John Barnett explained it this way.

Cabin Fever means you're about done with being boxed in. You're ready to get out. You're ready for Springtime. You're ready to let it all out. So that's kind of the theme of this recording. It's cabin fever. Spring's coming. Spring is here. Let's let it out, you know? We need to get out and do it--expressing that stuff that's been building up in you all winter long. And so we have all these musicians and writers up here, expressing what's been building up in them. And it all comes out in Cabin Fever.

My sincere hope is that you really enjoy the album. I hope that the joy of Spring bursts through, and that it helps melt away any Winter cold that has attached itself to your life. I hope that it fills you with new life and vigor! But if none of that happens, at least you can dance to it.



Photo on 7-8-14 at 8.29 AM copy.jpg

Check out some of the videos and rough cuts from the recording!

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