Cymbal-ism: Take Advantage of What Is Within Your Reach
As Loincloth's debut album, "Iron Balls of Steel" was about to be released Tannon and I were deluged with interviews and essay style pieces that we had to write about ourselves and about the band. I have never been as up to speed with underground metal as any of the writers I have interviewed with, and unless they happened to mention one of the five or six drummers who played in one of the few bands that I really enjoyed I never had any idea who they were referencing when the obligatory "Well, you must love so and so from this band or that band" comments came up. My problem with drummers is the same problem I have with metal in general... there are hundreds of great drummers and dozens of well schooled bands, but only a small handful that are interesting.
In a brief effort to introduce myself to some of the drummers whose names I have heard for years but whose music was still unknown to me I looked online for videos of their performances. What I found was exactly what I thought I would find. Very "well educated" drummers in the sense that they were smooth, adept players but there were none that I found compelling. Predictable double bass playing and zero vision ruled the day. I gladly accept the title of "music snob". I have no problem with that at all. I love some very basic things, and some very complex things. I just want a band to have its own unique identity. I don't expect to be blown away by every drummer I hear, and there will always be a place in music for the drummer who can play in an understated way and drive the bands' music at the same time. After all, there is no one other than Phil Rudd who should ever play for AC/DC. I ask nothing of any specific musician, but ask instead of all musicians that they seek their own voice.
One thing that stood out in all of the videos of drummers was the lack of interest in cymbal work. When I started playing drums the only guys who stood out as visionary were in prog rock bands. Most metal drummers kept things pretty basic, but the underground scene was still figuring out what it was capable of and it was exciting enough to be a part of a genuinely new form of music. Within a few years there was a kick ass drummer on every corner. Metal, at least in its more extreme form lends itself to unbridled creativity. That's the thing I appreciate most about the genre. There is a pioneering spirit that keeps bands pushing themselves in ways that is rare in other forms of music. Still, with the limitless areas of exploration in metal I just don't see that there are many drummers taking advantage of their cymbals in creative ways. Cymbals seem to be an afterthought, but they can have real impact with some careful planning if you are willing to play around with them.
When I first heard Metallica's "Fight Fire with Fire" I just about lost it. The accents at the beginning of that song were so mean! It really helped solidify the notion that a well placed cymbal choke can make an accent many times more impactful. I started practicing them all the time. Eventually I began to insert accents like that at different points within a riff instead of saving them for intros and the ends of parts. I had to learn how to choke a cymbal with one hand (sorry, no dirty jokes today) so that I could keep the ride or hi-hat going without interrupting the beat. My fingers paid mightily for that and I will quote a popular, though ultimately mediocre horror movie brand as a warning to all who care to practice the move... "Oh yes, there will be blood!". You will have sticks flying all over the place until you get your grip down as well, but hopefully you will find it all worthwhile. Choke a cymbal at the same time as a bass drum hit, or with a snare hit (no choice but to do it one handed that way) or as an exclamation point all its own without hitting anything else. It sounds like an effect that way, and most people hear it very clearly.
Some of the things that I have kept as set moves within a song came about as a result of me trying to get anyone in the band to laugh at practice. You never know when you might stumble onto something that sounds cool, so don't be afraid to play around with your cymbals. The first song on Loincloth's demo has two quick, tight cymbal chokes on a china type that are floating all on their own without a bass drum or snare to make them true accents. I remember doing that while making a stupid metal face at Pen during practice one day. While the face was meant to enhance the absurdity of the choke, we all thought that it sounded pretty damned cool and I have played it every time since! Sometimes I still think it sounds silly, but it really jumps out. I call that, and other china chokes "spanks" because they sounds like someone getting slapped with an open hand. It still makes me laugh, but I love it. It looks ridiculous but it creates something that you can't get any other way. That same song has a constant cymbal pattern (every third note) over a repeated seven note guitar pattern that I played on an effect cymbal to make the guys laugh that has stayed in the song ever since. The part is really thick and the cymbal is so tiny that I thought I'd get a chuckle out of them. I did, but I got an ironclad pattern out of it, too. It pays to play around.
I have a lot of different cymbals. I use them all, and for me they keep things interesting. Some people may not like effects cymbals, but I think that there are ways to use them that help create different aesthetics. I applaud any drummer who makes his or her kit sing, and that does not require an elaborate set up, just a musical personality. I'll take a person who rocks a four piece over the guy with an enormous kit and cymbals all around him who does nothing with them any day. I have a china type on either side of me, a small splash, a large splash, and two small china splashes that I set on top of each other like opposing hamburger buns. They all have their uses, and while it's true that I could survive without them, I like having so much variation right at my fingertips. Be silly, be adventurous. Try to throw in something that you think will look ridiculous! I guarantee you will play something you never would have otherwise, and you may discover a thing to add to your bag of tricks!