Why don't more drummers sing? Is it because it's too difficult to play while grunting more than backup? Is it because most drummers are not primary writers? Or because the type of person who becomes a drummer is more of an athlete or someone who prefers to stay in the background rather than someone with much to say or need to be in primary spotlight? As someone who began writing songs early on, and singing I have wondered why many other drummers don't. Yet some of my favorite drummers do. Levon Helm, for instance, is one of my favorite singers, and certainly my favorite voice in the Band. Other drummers, like Neil Peart, write lyrics, but don't sing. Lars Ulrich drives much of Metallica's creative process, but lead singing and until recently, lyric writing chores were always James Hetfield's domain. Is it only recently that the territory has become so carved up? Ringo always had his vocal moment (though he was in band with two of the greatest singers in rock, and George was no slouch, either) and Carmine Appice was the original heavy drummer (and inspiration for Bonham) as well as lead vocalist. When Dave Grohl decided to become a lead singer, he ceded the drum throne in his own band. So I set out to finally explore this phenomena starting with my own experience.
The first kind of music I liked was classical music. I loved Bach, Beethoven and Mozart. I still do. After that I was into any kind of instrumental music, the Ventures, Johnny and the Hurricanes, String-Alongs, Benny Goodman, Cozy Cole, Les Paul etc. I thought that vocal music was kind of a cop-out. You had to put on something to be a singer. Musicians had to really do it. It’s funny now with the proliferation of computer music that now it’s the singers who have to really do it (more or less). Anyway once I got into my little band with my cousins and my brother in high school it became all about the singing perhaps because the Beach Boys and then the Beatles were what everyone wanted to hear. We did a lot of harmony vocals but I didn’t have a mic on the drums in the beginning so I only sang when my cousin Teddy took over on drums and I played guitar and sang.
In college I still mostly stuck to playing the drums until I saw another drummer in a band that sang all the leads. It was quite amazing to me because he really sang pretty well even though our band was much better. I started getting into the blues and I would jam with other students for hours on end late at night singing and playing harmonica. My college band became a Blues Project clone band and I would sing all the Al Kooper harmony vocals on a mic hung from an Atlas boom stand off to my left side.
My first full-time professional band, the Soft White Underbelly, had no lead singer so I sang most of the songs while playing drums. Eventually we got a lead singer/frontman type and I went back to just playing the drums and keeping my mouth shut. The lead singer quit and we got another guy who wasn’t as gifted. Management decreed that we needed harmony vocals (especially on the choruses) to make the vocals sound good so I started to sing again. By the time this band evolved into Blue Oyster Cult I was still singing both lead and harmony vocals.
But I still had a hard time singing and playing. Overdubing the vocals in the studio for the albums I felt so much freer without having to worry about keeping the beat. Live there would be some songs I could pull off and some I couldn’t. Those songs I couldn’t sing and play well enough would then go to the “lead singer” to perform. This was not really a subjective evaluation. We recorded every show and analyzed each recording compulsively. The world of arena rock is highly competitive and any band that wants to survive in this milieu has to bring their A game every show.
Now many years later through much practice and thoughtful dedication I am able to sing and play better than I ever could before. How this came to be is something I would like to share with drummers who have good voices and want to sing.
The problems with singing while playing drums can be categorized as either visual, audible or physiological. In visual terms, most drummers sit down when they play which isn’t necessarily bad except that most drum kits have a lot of things directly in front of the drummer (toms, percussion, cymbals and kick) that make it hard for the audience to see the drummer. Secondly the traditional band set up usually has the drummer in the back making it hard for the drummer to be seen. Finally the act of playing the drums requires the drummer to utilize all his or her limbs making it hard to move around on the stage or exhort the crowd to sing along. My solutions are to try to make sure the drums are well lit (I carry some par 64s just in case) and try to setup as far downstage as possible. I only use one rack tom and keep the cymbals in front of me low. I also keep my drum stool high. I try to find a way to play with only one hand during a dramatic part of the song. Spinning a stick, singing and keeping the beat at the same time is guaranteed to get some attention.
Sound engineers have a host of problems unique to and associated with drummers. One of the biggest is leakage from the drums into the vocal mic. What is an optimum sound for vocals is usually too mid-range for the drum kit. Another less serious issue is leakage from the voice into the drum mics. This is more a problem in the studio when you may want to overdub a line or two in the vocal but the original vocal is embedded in the drum tracks. Live, the problem is more the leakage of the vocal in the drum monitor to the drum mics which besides messing up the drum sound increases the overall stage volume and blare. Positioning of mics around a drum kit in a way that they won’t get hit is always a challenge but a vocal mic and stand just adds more. These days I carry my own vocal mic that has a super-carotid pattern. It does not pick up so much sound from the drums but still gives me a full sound on my voice and has more gain before feedback.
The position of the drums upstage also makes it complicated because the monitor speakers for the drummer are usually not very adequate especially considering the amount of competing sound that is coming from the drums themselves. Most clubs and concerts have vocal monitors that are optimized for the usual lead singer who is upstage center. Many well-known clubs that feature national acts have no drum monitor whatsoever. Now I have my own set of wireless in-ear monitors and they have been a lifesaver and voice-saver on many a night. I have any house monitors turned low so the vocals don’t bleed into the drum mics and the stage volume stays relatively low.
As far as where the mic stand goes, the blues drummer Sam Lay (I Got My Mojo Working) placed the mic on a stand between his legs and the snare drum. This is an OK solution in a pinch but I find it inhibits the motion of my body and I have to stay more still than I like. I prefer the stand off to my left on a boom. It’s probably just habit because most drum monitors are placed on the left side and you want the mic to be facing away from the monitor to minimize feedback. The stand has to be fairly high and the boom has to be extended nearly the entire length to prevent the left stick from inadvertently striking it. Sometimes this makes the stand unstable and it falls over in the middle of a song. I’ve found two solutions to this problem. If the stand is a tripod simply place a drumstick in one of the legs to lengthen it and place that leg parallel to the boom. If it is a round base you must find some sort of weight to put on the base to act as a counterweight.
Sitting down means the diaphragm is being compressed. The movement of the legs also causes the diaphragm to move creating a kind of involuntary amplitude modulation. This can also affect pitch. Because the monitors are usually bad for drummers pitch can become an issue even for good singers. Expressive lead vocals are usually not rigid rhythmically so a singing drummer usually has to split the rhythm in his brain into strict and flowing rhythms simultaneously. Let also face the fact that if the drummer stops the party’s over. No other instrument has as much responsibility to keep the steady pattern. Psychologically it is a combination of the players with the most and least responsibility in one being.
As far as my vibrato syncing with my bass drum pattern I've decided it's not such a bad thing and learned to live with it. Sitting up higher takes a little pressure off the diaphragm making it easier to sing with a full lung of air but another thing that I discovered when I shared a kit with Mike Peterson (who’s a southpaw) from the band Jed when we toured with them is to put a cable hi hat on the right side. That way when you’re singing the verses you don’t cross your right hand over your chest to play the hat.
Finally I make sure I have the drum part, the words and the melody all down pat so I can do the drums mechanically and never think about it while I’m singing. Knowing all the words is crucial to pulling off a great vocal. I also practice doing both things at once so that I understand how the rhythm of the vocal and the drum part interact. With the in-ear monitors I really can get into my own little vocal world and put everything into being expressive when I’m doing a lead.
We’ve all seen those people who seem to be born to do all things well. I don’t seem to be one of them but the beauty of life is that if you want something bad enough and are willing to work and suffer it is possible to attain. Besides if you think singing lead and playing drums is hard you should try drumming and playing blues harp simultaneously.