Five Ways to Breathe New Life Into Your Drumming

[Editor's Note:  Candace Hansen is a drummer and gear enthusiast who spent the better half of her twenties working in a drum shop teching, fixing, restoring, teaching, repairing, and tuning a lot of gear for customers, friends, and professionals. She's a writer and contributor at Tom Tom Magazine, the Weekly, and Spark Mag. Currently she plays drums with YAAWN and just recorded drums on Alice Bag's new record due out this year.] 

Being a drummer is simultaneously the coolest and shittiest kind of a musician you could ever wish to become. Most drummers just look cool doing what we love. We get to hit stuff in both graceful and aggressive ways. We get to make music in a way that engages our body, mind, and spirit while non-verbally connecting with other musicians and the crowd, an exchange that can sometimes feel like magic.

On the other hand, we are the constant targets of ridicule in the musician community, our gear and maintenance is expensive, and our kits are bulky and a pain in the ass to get in and out of a gig. It’s astonishing how quickly every member of a band seems to disappear when a drum kit needs to get loaded in or out of a club. But one thing about drummers is that we’re always open to new ways of improving our game. It can be easy to get in a creative slump, but through some practice and tricks, there are many ways drummers can reinvigorate our kit and our style. Here are 5 ways drummers can get creative and breathe new life into our drumming. 

Give your drum kit a tune up
What better way to reacquaint yourself with your craft than by getting to know your tools up close and personal? One of the best things you can do for your drums is take them apart, clean them, and put them back together again. If you have the money for new drumheads, replace as many as you can starting with the worst ones, especially those resonant heads that lose their tone after a while without being hit. You don’t have to have fancy or expensive gear to have decent tone from your drums, and one of the ways that you can really make any drum kit sound good is by figuring out which drum heads sound best on your kit, something that can only be learned by trial and error. Even if you don’t have money for new heads, it’s good to take heads off and clean the bearing edge, the part of the drum that touches the drumhead and is critical in creating your drums tone. Small particles of wood from sticks and dust bunnies accumulate under drum heads, and when this is cleaned out it gives your drums the best possible tone by letting that bearing edge do its job: resonate freely.

When your drumheads are all put back, check out all the moving parts such as tension rods, wing nuts, and bass drum legs. There is always a part that could be tightened or needs to be replaced, and trust me it’s better to be done in your garage than on a dark dive bar stage five minutes before you’re set to play. Freshening up your kit will give you confidence, because when your drums sound good you will feel good playing them, and when you know everything is working properly you are less likely to experience anxiety that may hinder creativity. If you want to get really into it, you can wax your kit after wiping it down, the best stuff to use is Meguirs car wax, a lot of the old pro techs swear by it and you wouldn’t believe some of the stuff I’ve fixed on drum finishes with this. Weather you identify as a gear nerd, a gear nihilist, or somewhere in between, any drummer can benefit by sprucing up their drum kit. 

Get a new addition
Ever wondered what impact a cowbell would really have on your life? There’s no way to know until you try it out. Adding shakers, electronic percussion and triggers, or any auxiliary piece no matter how boutique or trashy can be enough to inspire you to create new rhythms and sound scapes that weren’t possible before. You can really use anything, try putting a splash cymbal on a snare drum to give it an electronic slap sound, put jingles or chains on cymbals or toms, try new sticks like brushes or broomsticks, the world is your oyster, experiment however you see fit! Heck Josh Freeze even played a drum kit made entirely out of frying pans once in Nine Inch Nails, who’s to say you can’t do the same?

Find inspiration in stripping down
There’s a reason “Kick Snare Hat” has become an adage associated with some of the most influential shredders of our generation. Change your set up by stripping it down to its smallest possible configuration and see what happens. Focus on the basics, it will reinvigorate your set and your playing, pushing you to be more intentional with what you’ve got. Don’t be afraid of space, visually or sonically, it will give you room to grow. 

Clean your cymbals
Cleaning cymbals can be a source of anxiety for many drummers, and rightfully so. There are about a million contradictory methods on YouTube ranging from ketchup to heavy industrial tools and just as many horror stories to scare you away from ever doing it. Some people swear by never cleaning their cymbals, and I totally understand why, especially if their arsenal is made up of vintage stuff. But despite some fears, cleaning your cymbals can be a way to bring life and shimmer back to your kit, especially if the cymbals you use are really dirty or starting to oxidize.

There are a lot of products out there and a lot of them are good. I especially like cream based cleaners because they are the least abrasive and give the most shine. Some people have had success with home remedies and hardware store cleaners such as Brasso and Bar Keepers Friend. Whatever you do, be careful of your logos if you want to keep them, because most cleaners will strip them off instantly. Also, traditional finish cymbals have a more matte finish than brilliant finish cymbals, keep that in mind with your cymbal cleaning goals. Have a few things handy: gloves, a few microfiber towels, water, elbow grease and patience. May your cymbals be as mirrory as you wish them to be. 

Dig up old gear you stopped loving and put it to use
One thing that’s always fun is finding old gear and seeing what kind of sounds or inspiration you can get out of it now. Unfortunately, many people believe that only new, immaculate, or high end gear is worthy of being played, but some of the coolest sounding stuff is sitting in a garage rotting away. For example, recently I found the first hi-hats I ever owned that are totally thrashed, but I set them up on a kit and although they look like shit they have a super cool trashy tone similar to some boutique percussion I’ve been eyeing online. If you don’t have old gear, raid your friends’ old gear, they’ll probably be happy that their old stuff is getting some use. One drummer’s trash is another’s treasure! 

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