Contrasting Styles of Pop Drumming

  • Posted on: 25 December 2014
  • By: sheldonkreger

One of my favorite styles of drumming is played for pop music. While I think most pop music is very boring - and I don't listen to much of it - I love how the quality of the drumming is dictated by what would seem to be minor details. Even small variations in a drummer's playing will have a big impact on the feel they produce in the studio.


For example, we can visit the classic problem of 'ahead' 'on' and 'behind' the beat. While any professional drummer can play on any space, they each have an explicit preference in which one they use. John JR Robinson, a very prolific pop drummer over the last few decades, is adamant about playing directly on the beat. While I agree with him, personally, many drummers like QuestLove play behind the beat, and it sounds great. It's simply a matter of personal preference. Note that every professional pop drummer always plays with perfect time - regardless of where they fall in relation to the click.


When discussing 'feel', I mean the overall activity of the drummer on the song. A drummer may be very active and play lots of fills, lots of ghost notes, and utilize many different instruments around the drum set. On the other hand, a drummer may choose to play in a minimalistic fashion, and maintain a strict focus on the fundamental components of pop grooves - the backbeat on 2 and 4, the bass drum (often synced with a bass guitar line), and the pulsing quarter or eighth note on the hats or ride cymbal. Obviously, there is a wide range between the extroverted style and the minimalistic style.

Personally, in pop music, I have a strong preference for very minimalistic playing. However, many drummers are very active in pop tunes, and some producers like that.

Let's look at two drummers on opposite ends of this spectrum. First, we will see Donny Gruendler, who has a very minimalistic approach to pop drumming.

Donny's playing is oriented around sustaining the backbeat (on 2 and 4) and accentuating the phrasing of the song. There is no superfluous activity during the groove, such as varying the hi-hat pattern, changing the backbeat, or even playing accent patterns on the hi-hat. Each fill is minimalistic, it sticks with the 16th note feel of the song. No triplets, no 16th note triplets, nothing. The cymbals are allowed to breathe independently after being crashed, no fast phrases filling the space between them. Just pure time and groove. It sounds incredible.

A great example of busy playing is from Manu Katche's 1990's solo album "It's About Time".

Katche really lets loose. He does not hold back during the primary phrase of the song. Rather than simply supporting it with good time, he plays around it, explores it, and gives it much more liveliness. He utilizes the hats in many subdivisions, ranging from 8ths to 16th note triplets. He doesn't play the backbeat strictly on 2 and 4. He utilizes many different instruments during the primary groove, including the toms, splash cymbals, and crash cymbals.

I want to point out that these are two if my favorite pop tunes of all time. Each drummer brings tremendous skill to the table. That being said, I personally prefer to play pop tunes in a minimalistic style. In most cases, emphasizing the groove give the other musicians very strong support to bring the listener's attention to the melody, lyrics, and lead instruments.

I reserve my aggressive playing for my jazz fusion band - where the music truly demands more activity, and where the focus is oftentimes on the drums themselves.


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