1. Cymbals. Crash cymbals are great for punctuating a key lyrical hook or musical shift in an arrangement, but they should be used with extreme caution. Don’t play the crash like it’s a ride cymbal unless you’re Ringo Starr on an early Beatles record, on which it sounds like he’s squirting an aerosol can.
The ride cymbal is the best of all cymbals, especially when the drummer plays straight quarter or eighth notes. Rare masters, like Levon Helm and Topper Headon, can get away with playing trickier parts the ride. Headon and Al Jackson Jr. (on Al Green’s records) could even get away with playing fancy parts on the most dangerous of all cymbals: the hi-hat.
The hi-hat works best with quarter and eighth notes. We’re talking rock ‘n roll, for the most part, so let’s not worry about measures divisible by 3 or other odd numbers. A swinging, slightly swishy hi-hat, with the cymbals fairly close together, is a lost art. I encourage future generations of drummers to recapture this art, but the current crop may be wise to stay away from this approach. If you really want to record a song with this style of hi-hat playing, let me know and I will hook you up with my old friend and guitar partner John Quincy Nixon. He could play that style better than any real drummer I’ve ever met, no offense to my close personal friend and drummer extraordinaire, Sethro.
In case there’s any doubt, gimmicky cymbals, like those tiny upside-down Chinese splash cymbals, should only be used if you want to make listeners laugh. I can think of only one song that uses that cymbal to a positive musical effect, Captain Beefheart’s “Sheriff of Hong Kong.”
2. Snare drum. No drum better gets to the soul of music like the snare. This applies to all forms of music except, I believe, classical, which rarely employs the snare and is, therefore, one of the least-interesting forms of music on the planet (although not half as bad as opera, which mixes a lack of backbeat with the most annoying style of singing known to humankind). Like the ride cymbal, the snare should be a steadying, nourishing force. Think of Charlie Watts’ snare in “Beast of Burden.” He plays each beat as if he’s laying down the meaning of life. In plain English, or whatever the listener’s native tongue may be. It’s perfect and perfectly recorded, and it’s one of his last performances before he started doing that exaggerated thing where he refuses to hit the hi-hat whenever he’s hitting the snare drum. The snare and the hi-hat can coexist, as the greatest beat on earth, the 4-on-the-floor beat, bears witness.
Fills on the snare are loaded with more dangers than might be expected. At all costs avoid the momentum-changing “shave-and-a-haircut” fill. It’s hard for me to explain, but next time you hear a drummer doing it you’ll see my face grimacing—or worse, the face of Townsman E. Pluribus Gergely, who has threatened to shoot a drummer over that fill. Flams are funny and probably fun for drummers to play, but mostly they’re funny, in a not always productive way. Beware the desire to hit a flam on the snare. The best snare fills are usually in the flow of the song’s rhythm, with longer fills tumbling over into the next measure. The long, evenly paced snare fills of Pete Thomas (Elvis Costello & The Attractions) are the best in the world. For a drummer who wasn’t flashy or thought of as innovative, The Kinks’ Mick Avory also made great use of the snare.
3. Bass slides and octave leaps. Let’s move the spotlight away from the drums for a moment. There are few quicker ways to my heart than a descending or ascending slide and/or octave leap on the bass guitar. These move hit me in the gut like a settling glass of Brioschi after a large Italian meal. James Jamerson, Paul McCartney, and Bruce Thomas (Pete’s rhythm section mate in The Attractions, kidz) perform these moves with more gusto and creativity than any bassists in history, but even more humble bassists like Bill Wyman and Paul Simonon have given songs a warm belly rub with these tricks. Use them, bassists. Make your instrument throb and swoop when the space allows.
4. Lead vocals. There are many valid, effective ways to deliver a lead vocal. Just watch it if you’re gonna go “fake tough.” Who doesn’t like to act tough, and why shouldn’t we, but make the act stick. John Cougar Mellencamp, for instance, actually isn’t that bad, but he tries too hard to sing tough. His voice says, “Let’s you and me take this outside, bud,” but I think he’d quickly try to play peacemaker once the two of you were alone in a dimly lit alley.
5. Keyboards. Synthesizer technology has come a long way since the ’80s and the dreaded Yamaha DX7 and other synths that made big washes of cotton candy chords. Back then I felt synths had no place whatsoever in music unless they were making noises “native” to their technology, that is, the blips and bleeps that early synth practitioners like Eno and Allen Ravenstine coaxed out of them. Sometime around 2005, I came to terms with their use, even when they are used to sound like real instruments. However, few things are more pathetic than seeing a real piano player playing piano on a synth in any live performance. Even a real piano player I can’t stand, like Billy Joel, should not be reduced to playing a fake piano. Roadies, haul a real piano on the road.