Glen Caruba is one of Nashville’s most in-demand studio percussionists, Glen has not only recorded with Jimmy Buffett and on countless jingles and soundtracks but is also the author of three percussion instruction books & videos distributed by Hal Leonard. Glen’s insight into what drummers and percussionists should be thinking about in the studio is invaluable information for any songwriter wondering what to expect from their session musicians when demoing their songs. Enjoy!
Drumming is an obvious common element in all genres of music, but there is a whole world of rhythms and instruments that run fathoms past the simple “2 & 4” snare drum backbeats. Not to take away from the tried and true “Boom-Boom-Crack” that anchors most songs, but there are ways a songwriter can differentiate from the norm and still have a foot-tapping groove. Be adventurous but first mindful when tracking and “stacking” (overdubs) drums and percussion on a song by keeping a few essential concepts in mind.
It is very easy to turn down vocals to get the right mix of the rhythm, but only do so after the essence of rhythm of the lyrical content is realized. If a song is about “heartbreak” for instance, I would consider cymbals that are less bright or shakers that are soft. Basically muted tones and frequencies to exemplify the mood and what the songwriter is trying to convey. Also phrasing is key. If a line extends 5 beats it doesn’t necessarily mean that the drummer needs to fill the last
Space…the final frontier! But it should be the first. One tambourine hit, a wood block drenched in verb, a cymbal swell, and a single tom hit fill. You can build more tension and release with drums with what is not played than most listeners can realize. As a recording percussionist I am equally pleased when a listener does not hear, or better yet, call out what I play. Pull up a mix of one of your songs that has multiple tracks of percussion, and listen to the song as a whole. Does a percussion instrument stand out? Try muting the percussion tracks and listen again…do you notice a difference. If you answered “no” and “yes”, then mission accomplished.
Okay not literally, but a phrase I reference when talking about so much going on with either the amount of percussion instruments or polyrhythms that it sounds like….well, tools in a dryer. Unless it’s a drumming clinic or master-class, holding the groove is paramount. When it’s time to shine, go for it. Otherwise reread the first two concepts.
Laying back behind the click, playing on top or burying it can be a useful skillset for the drummer and can significantly affect the feel of a song. And as the songwriter, it is good to identify what you are looking for as certain instruments can augment this. For instance, a shallower metal snare drum (piccolo snare) has a smaller wave and will cut milliseconds quicker than a deep wood snare. Bongos will pierce more than a djembe or cajon. Sometimes adjusting the percussion instruments can be as effective as bumping the BPM up or down a click.
Go to your local music store, and check out the drum department. You’ll recognize the traditional drum kits, but spend a few extra minutes in the percussion section. You’ll probably discover instruments that can open up new doors and concepts for your writing. Make notes of frequencies and nomenclature. Short attacks to deep sustain. Log what you find piquing your interest and give it a Google. You never know…the next time you are behind the mixing console, you may ask the drummer to try a “detuned djembe, with a caxixi backbeat, stacking an udu bass, and jingle accent!”