The best books on why drummers do what they do

Who am I?

I’ve been intrigued by drums, drummers, and drumming since the age of 12 when my sister gave me some brushes and told me to swish them around on a vinyl album sleeve. I was fortunate to begin my drumming career at the top, which gave me options as to how I could manage whatever came next. I spent 41 years playing the music I wanted with whom I wanted and where and when I wanted, in an endless search for the unusual and the unlikely. This brought me into contact with the great, the good, and the downright hopeless, from all of whom I learned that life isn’t about ‘finding’ things or ‘finding yourself,’ it’s about creating things and thus creating yourself.

I wrote...

Uncharted: Creativity and the Expert Drummer

By Bill Bruford,

Book cover of Uncharted: Creativity and the Expert Drummer

What is my book about?

My book is a study of creativity in the context of expert popular music instrumental performance. What do expert drummers do? Why do they do it? Is there anything creative about it? If so, how might that creativity inform their practice and that of others in related artistic spheres?

Applying ideas from cultural psychology to findings from research into the creative behaviors of expert drummers, I demonstrate the ways in which these people experience creativity in music performance and offer fresh insights into in-the-moment interactional processes in music. I draw on the perceptions of a group of internationally renowned, peak-career professionals and my own experience to introduce and guide the reader through the many dimensions of creativity in drummer performance.

The books I picked & why

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Kick It

By Matt Brennan,

Book cover of Kick It: A Social History of the Drum Kit

Why this book?

If you want to know about drummers, Brennan’s book will guide you through the cultural, psychological, economic, technological, and entrepreneurial shifts which have collectively drawn the perimeter of the ballpark on which today’s drummers must perform. Now that we can all agree that drums are real instruments, that drummers are real musicians, and drumming is a real art form, this book provides an instrument-led social history that accords the subject an appropriate level of dignity and respect. Compulsory reading for the inquisitive citizen.

Effortless Mastery

By Kenny Werner,

Book cover of Effortless Mastery: Liberating the Master Musician Within, Book & Online Audio

Why this book?

Drummers may have their own distinct culture, but in common with most musicians, they prioritize mastering their instrument. Unhappily that can lead to hours of enforced purgatory as limbs and fingers are bullied into behaving correctly on demand. Mind and fear can hold back progress. Werner argues persuasively that mindfulness, self-love, and patience can achieve better results. The suspension of ego, intellect, and judgement; the letting go of perfectionism; the surrendering and accepting of ‘whatever comes out’ are all surer paths to the goal of effortless mastery. It’s an essential read for teachers and autodidacts alike.

Traps, the Drum Wonder

By Mel Tormé,

Book cover of Traps, the Drum Wonder: The Life of Buddy Rich

Why this book?

This biography of a person that many consider to be the greatest drummer that we’ve had so far, is excellent on several fronts. First, it is written by a long-standing friend and roommate Mel Tormé. Tormé was there when it happened, and as a highly rated jazz singer experienced in Rich’s world, he is able to help us understand why it happened. Second, it speaks volumes about American music and entertainment in the context of the Swing era. Rich could be mean, prickly, and arrogant, and then turn on a dime into a sweetheart. It says much for their friendship that, despite periods of estrangement, it was able to withstand such vacillations. I interviewed the drummer in his Dorchester hotel suite in London in 1968 and I got the sweetheart. Finally, as Jerry Lewis says on the back cover, the book is “written by a champ about a champ”.

Thinking in Jazz

By Paul F. Berliner,

Book cover of Thinking in Jazz: The Infinite Art of Improvisation

Why this book?

This book is about collective collaboration and how musicians learn to improvise. Berliner interviews more than fifty professional musicians from whom it’s clear that improvisation requires a very high level of musical and social cooperation. He explores the alternative ways - aural, visual, kinetic, verbal, emotional, and theoretical - in which these performers conceptualize their music and describes the delicate interplay of soloist and ensemble in improvisation.

Berliner's skillful integration of data concerning musical development, the rigorous practice and thought artists devote to music outside of performance, and the complexities of composing in the moment leads to a clearer understanding of jazz improvisation as a language, an aesthetic, and a tradition. It’s a dense read and you’ll need to want to know something about jazz. But then, if you want to know about kit drumming, you’ll need to know something about jazz.

This unprecedented journey to the heart of the jazz tradition is both fascinating and enlightening.

Six Days at Ronnie Scott's

By Brian K. Gruber,

Book cover of Six Days at Ronnie Scott's: Billy Cobham on Jazz Fusion and the Act of Creation

Why this book?

Many of the best drummers write, or otherwise initiate, their own music for the very best reason: because they have to. This book is an oral history of Panamanian drummer Billy Cobham at the height of his powers, preparing his oeuvre for a 17-piece big band engagement under the guidance of British arranger and trumpeter Guy Barker. The gig is a 6-night run at London’s Ronnie Scott’s Club. Author Brian Gruber hangs out with the band for the duration to capture the verbal and musical fruits of an improvised series of encounters with elite performers. While the story pivots around the drummer, it is nevertheless an excellent multi-viewpoint guide over six decades as to how musicians collaborate and survive in an ever-changing music landscape.

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