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How many voices on the drums?

Three! The question is how many voices on the drums? Let’s count them: Bass drum 1, snare drum 2, hi hat 3. Three. In rock’n roll,  that’s it. It’s always three. Wow, that one was easy.

Not quite.

Let’s suppose you move your right hand (if you are right handed) to the ride cymbal and that now you pump the hi hat on the left foot. That’s 4 voices going: hi hat 1, ride 2, bass drum 3 and snare drum 4. Now we shall assume that we are playing 8th notes on that ride. Good!  Let’s separate them between the edge of the ride and the bell of the cymbal. Your hand goes back and forth between those two sound sources. Ha! we just added a new voice, which brings our total to five. Now, instead of the left hand playing 2 and 4 with a big wham! it will also do some soft notes to complement the pattern, notes so soft we call them “ghost notes” because they have to be felt not heard. We are at six. Six voices.

What? What is it? I hear some grumbling in the back of the classroom. Yes?… Oh, I see. Someone argues that those ghost notes are coming from the same voice listed before, the snare, and shouldn’t be counted as a new one. I would argue back that usually they are played on the side of the drum head, which changes the pitch and the tone from the slamming 2 and 4. Any takers? Half of the room agrees. Fine, we’ll count it as a half voice. Still, the number is growing: 5 1/2 voices played by one drummer.

Now, let’s dig into the left hand and move it around the toms while playing the rock beat. There is a famous song that uses that musical device. No, not a Latin song, a rock song. Absolutely! “Don’t stop believing” by Journey. The chorus has the hi hat on the left foot, the bass drum, the bell of the ride, the ride played on the edge, and two or three toms going. We are now at a solid 7 voices. I don’t think Steve Smith does any ghost notes, so no 1/2 point for this song. (Steve Smith is a great drummer, check him out: “Journey” and “Vital information” are two bands you can listen to)

I’ll stop there. I could add some splashes, some open hi hat, some rim of the toms, some electronic pads, some cow bells, woodblock, special effect cymbal, etc… But that’ll do. You get the point.  Drum set playing is like any other human craft: it can be as simple or as complicated as you want. The drum set has always been an orchestra. And learning the drums is nothing else but learning to be a conductor of that orchestra.

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