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