Originality by Roy Burns

On a clinic that I did recently, a young person made the following comment: “I don’t want to study the rudiments because I want to develop an original style.” My response was, “All rudiments are basically single strokes and double stokes. To learn the ones that can be applied to the drumset shouldn’t take more than a few weeks. There is no need to ‘study’ them indefinitely.”

A young woman told me that she had not taken drum lessons or learned to read music when she first started playing because she also wanted to be “original.” After reading a number of articles in Modern Drummer, including some of mine, she had a change of heart. She said, “I’m studying, learning how to read music and having more fun. I’m listening to a greater variety of music and learning a lot”

The dictionary defines “originality” as something “fresh and unusual: not copied. The ability to produced new ideas in a creative and inventive way.” The desire to be original or to have an original style of playing is a good thing. However, I would suggest that you have to crawl before you can walk and walk before you can run. It is more important to be “good” than it is to be “original”, especially in the beginning.

Let’s put it another way. In order to play a game well, you first must learn the rules. Once you have done this, your originality will come to the surface. Your style will grow out of your participation in the game—which is, in this case, music.

To me, originality is the way you react to other musicians and to musical problems. It is not something that you can “contrive” while sitting at home and then “inflict” on every group you play with. For example, when I was in Benny Goodman’s band, I had to play “Sing, Sing, Sing” every night. This was the number that made Gene Krupa famous and it was mostly tom tom rhythms throughout. I had to play the arrangement as it was written. But I didn’t want to sound like an imitation of Gene Krupa (even though I admired his playing for years). So I added a hi-hat pattern while playing the tom tom rhythms. Gene didn’t play the hi-hat on 2 and 4 on the original record. I added a “splash” accent every couple of measures on the hi-hat. The result was that I played the arrangement, but I added my own “originality” to it. Also, instead of playing the drum solo segment on just the toms, I used the whole kit and especially the snare drum, to change the character of the solo. Fortunately, this was recorded and was a major step in my early career in terms of recognition.

The point I am trying to make is that my originality came about because I was reacting to the music. The late Buddy Rich once said that he used the bass drum for accents in big bands before anyone else did, in order to give the ensembles a more “explosive” feeling and sound. That was only one way his originality showed itself by reacting to the music around him.

Originality is not based on ignorance. These misleading and self-serving drummers who proudly proclaim “I never took a lesson” give me a pain. Who cares? I know I don’t. What’s important is not how you learned but whether or not you did learn.

Today’s great young drummers, such a Vinnie Colaiuta, Gregg Bissonette, Dave Weckl and Steve Smith (to name some of my favorites) are all drummers who have studied both drumming and music. They also have “original” styles. Each one sounds like “himself.” Each one does things that are fresh and different. Each one spent a lot of time studying and practicing

The late, great Count Basie was asked the following question during an interview: “When your band first started, it was very original and innovative. However, over the past number of years, your band has not changed too much. Why is that?” Count Basie responded, “The people you writers refer to as ‘innovators’ were just being themselves. I am still being myself.” This is a very heavy comment. Be yourself but be all you can be while being yourself.

Practicing the rudiments won’t necessarily make you a great drummer. Studying music and drumming is no guarantee, either. However, remember that there are probably a thousand drummers for every job. Give your talent and originality the best possible chance. Learn all you can about drumming and about music while you are young.

Remember, before you can be “original, “you first have to be good enough to play with good musicians. If you can do this, your creative talents will be encouraged and enhanced by the talents and abilities of those around you. For example, the great Joe Morello said that working with Dave Brubeck helped and encouraged him to be more creative. There are many examples of Joe’s originality on records such as “Take Five.” “Take Five” is generally regarded by most drummers as a “classic.” And yet, if Joe had not been good enough to get the job with Dave Brubeck, his originality would not be on records for us to enjoy.

So be yourself, be original but do all you can to be good!