Playing live, for a lot of people, is the ultimate goal of taking up an instrument in the first place, and it can be one of the most exhilarating experiences you’ll have as a drummer. However, while on paper it’s just a case of moving your gear to a venue, setting up and doing what you’ve practised, all those hours spent in the rehearsal room are just part of performing your music in front of an audience.
Here, we’re taking a look at 10 common problems that can derail any drummer’s live show, and crucially, how to avoid or rectify them when they do occur. This writer has been gigging for well over 20 years now, and has experienced - and learned from - each and every mistake on this list!
1. ETA: long before you play!
You’re due to start playing at 20:30, so you’ll get there about 20:00, right? Wrong! Often, most of the main concerns and problems when gigging have very little to do with the actual playing part itself. Depending on the gig and its location, you’re going to need to factor in traffic, unloading, parking (if the venue has none), getting your kit set up, soundchecking…
Drum kits require a bit of space to set up, as you’re going to need somewhere to place your cases and so on while you do it. All of this is made significantly easier if you aren’t navigating an assault course of guitar amps, cables, pedalboards, stands and other instruments just to get set up. So, speak to the rest of your band, find out what time they plan on arriving and try to get there earlier – or at least on time. This way you can get everything set up in plenty of time, have a break beforehand and be ready to count-in Valerie before the brawling starts.
2. Kit-sharing is kit-caring
This one is for the kit-share gigs, which throw up a lot more logistical questions. We’ve written a full guide here, but in a nutshell there are a few things you can do to make playing on a multi-band line-up with a set backline run smoothly. First, if you’re just bringing breakables, it’s polite to get in touch with the drummer who is providing the kit ahead of the gig. This way you can thank them, but also get an idea of any other peripherals you might need on the night if you’re not familiar with their set-up.
When you get to the gig, introduce yourself, and find out where your gear can be stored until it’s time to play. Keep things tidy, and have as much of your gear set up before you get to your change-over to keep things speedy, and give the previous drummer plenty of space to pack their stuff away before you start trying to add your gear to the kit. At the end of the night, you could even offer to help pack the kit away!
3. Spares: a thought
Chances are, you have a stick bag with at least a few pairs of drumsticks in them, because your hands don’t sound anywhere near as good as hickory when you snap your last pair of 5As… So similarly, take a look at your set-up and identify any potential gig-stoppers that you can’t live without.
We’re not saying you need to take a Noah’s Ark approach (see the next point) and bring two kits and a fleet of backup hardware, but is a spare snare going to weigh your car down? If you can’t bring additional drums, consider putting some spare heads inside your gig bags, just in case the worst does happen. Similarly, an emergency kit of snare tapes/cords, tension rods, bass drum patches, gaffer tape, cymbal felts and a spare clutch can get you out of a jam, so that the jamming can continue. If you use electronics, it’s worth thinking about spare power supplies and cables too.
4. Take what you need
What do Terry Bozzio, Neil Peart and Mike Portnoy have in common? None of them are squeezing their Mission Control stations into the back room of The Arse & Feather of an evening. You are, and a common problem – particularly on ever-decreasing stage sizes – is too much gear. While it’s great to have that aux snare, tree of splashes and a bank of pads, every piece of gear you add to your kit requires setting up. That means more stands and clamps (even if you’re using a rack), and less space on stage.
Give your set-up an audit before you leave for the gig, if something is only required for one part of one song, can you live without it? If so, you’ll shave considerable time off your setting-up/packing-down, meaning you won’t hold the rest of the band up, and the bassist won’t be muting that fifth crash cymbal for most of the set. If you’re sharing a kit, there’s every chance you’re going to need to adapt to someone else’s sizes, set-up and placement anyway. Try not to let that be a problem – instead, you might discover new tunings, hardware settings and positioning that you might never have otherwise tried!
5. Silence is golden
We get it, you’ve fine-tuned your snare sound to reach sample-level quality: those replacement hoops really made a difference, and you could talk for hours extolling the virtues of the brass snare wires, sweet-spot on the strainer, and how you raided your nan’s jewellery box for that ‘unique’ cluster of dampening materials. But for the love of god, please stop hitting it between every song while the guitarist is trying to tune. The same goes for that Copeland hi-hat lick, Instagram-worthy linear groove, and the round-the-kit quads you haven’t quite perfected yet. Trust us, the band and audience will thank you.
6. Cold Start
One of the biggest pieces of advice pro drummers will give is to hit the stage warmed up. Except there’s a problem: we aren’t playing in an international touring band with a backstage jam room and techs to assemble a kit to limber-up with. Nope, in our world, the only facility for ‘warming up’ is the hand dryer in the venue, which looks like it could have been the origin of COVID-19.
But, that doesn’t mean you have to warm up during the first three songs. Pack a practice pad, find some space (even if it’s in your car), give yourself 10-15 minutes to work on some basic rudiments and you’ll feel the benefit immediately. If it’s really not possible, try doing some ‘silent stretches’ with your sticks to get your arms freed up.
7. Not quite my tempo
There’s only one thing worse than another member of the band starting a song at the wrong tempo, and that’s when you get it wrong yourself. It can happen easily, particularly if you have a large number of songs in the set. Everyone’s perception of what speed is correct can vary too, and of course when you’re playing in front of (hopefully) a large group of people, there’s always the danger of ‘gig tempo’ setting in.
“Yes, but I don’t want to use a click!” That’s fine, a simple way around it is to note down the tempos from recorded versions of the songs beforehand using your metronome’s tap-tempo function. Or, if there aren’t recorded versions, agree the right tempo with your bandmates during a rehearsal and write it down. Then, when it comes to the gig you can mark the tempos on your setlist and remind yourself using a metronome before you start the song. Obviously, this is best done using headphones, but with a few bars of the click in your ears you should be able to start the song at the right speed, and the best bit is that nobody can argue that it’s wrong!
8. Don’t forget the Six ‘P’s
“Proper Preparation Prevents P**s-Poor Performance”. Yes, it sounds like a quote from your Monday morning ‘Battlecry’ meeting, but in essence, it applies perfectly to playing gigs. There are plenty of things you can’t control when it comes to playing live, but get on top of the ones that you can and everything will be a lot easier, of course, and that should start with the music you’re playing.
Hopefully by the time you’re ready to play your finely crafted set to an audience, you’ll be on top of the music, but if not then give yourself the best chance. Make notes on your set list, prepare cheat sheets for any songs that you frequently make mistakes on, know how a song starts and ends, pay attention to the rest of the band and keep the gaps between songs to a minimum and you’ll come across as a much slicker operation.
9. Rug Life
The sight of a smooth, hard stage floor is the gigging drummer’s red flag. Why? Because by the third song your bass drum will be skating forward like an Olympic curling stone. Next, you’ll probably find it starts to turn, and before you know it your bass drum pedal is starting to detach, your foot is at a 45-degree diagonal, the microphone is now pointing at nothing and none of your bandmates can hear your pitiful cries for help.
You can combat this by using the spikes on the feet of your bass drum spurs, pedal and hi-hat stand to anchor everything, but the venue probably won’t thank you for leaving claw marks on their floor. So, invest in a drum rug and you’ll never need to experience bass drum-creep. Better still, you can mark out your kit placement with tape, or buy some markers such as Protection Racket’s Mat Markers, making set-up and perfect placement even easier!
10. Trigger, Happy
Electronics have become a very common part of our live set-ups, but they do add an additional layer of consideration, as well as potential errors if you’re not paying attention. The main thing is to be organised with your sounds, settings and pad/trigger placement. If you’re using tracks, it’s important to make sure that you have your signals routed properly (so that you hear the click, and the audience doesn’t). Likewise, switching off dynamics for triggered phrases/loops/tracks, linking pads to your click track (if necessary), and making sure you have the sample set to play back in the way you intend are all crucial. For a multiple-pad or trigger set-up where you’re assigning playable sounds or samples (percussion, electronic drum sounds, effects etc), you’ll want to keep track of which sound is assigned to the respective pad and playing surface.
Otherwise that trouser-flapping sub-drop could very easily become a staccato cowbell! Think about the physical placement of pads within your kit so that they’re accessible and playable without tying your arms in knots. Be consistent with your workflow, if necessary use a template patch for each application, and give yourself time to check everything before your set starts.
11. Play what you can, not what you can’t
We’ve all seen the ‘Drummer at the wrong gig' video. Now, we’re not saying that you should avoid chops and play every song like it’s AC/DC, but you should try and make it appropriate to the style of music. Likewise, it’s important to play within your abilities – that crossover fill you’ve been working on will be great, but if you don’t have it down yet then it’s going to have the opposite effect to what you’re looking for when the whole band loses the ‘one’ count.
If you’ve never tried recording yourself, a gig presents the perfect opportunity. it doesn’t have to be a pro recording (your phone will do just fine), as long as you can hear everything clearly. This way you can listen back and hear what works, what doesn’t and where you can make tweaks to improve overall as a band.