Ditch the Drum Machine: Use Live Percussion to Amp Up Your Sound and Show


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By Sammy Wags

Making a power trio, rock quartet, or any standard instrumental formation stand out in an ever growing crowd of great bands can be tough. Adding some subtle flavors and outside influences into the mix can be a great way to spice things up and give listeners something else to latch on to throughout your album and live show.

While many rock bands these days are adding horn players, electronically sampled sounds, and back-up singers, another great way to diversify your sound and add a unique flair is to incorporate live percussion. I’ve found that percussion helps to make one’s sound and visual presence on stage exponentially more interesting.

Samples vs. real instruments

It can be tempting to simply add some samples from a sound library and call it day, but you may be selling yourself short on a great opportunity. With some styles of music, samples work really well. Perhaps you’re a small group, and you already perform with backing tracks/laptops/drum machines, adding new sounds in the mix using these tools can be quick and painless, but the reward might not as great.

The sound of samples can be very lacking or sterile. I find it noticeably disappointing out when a great sounding band using real instruments adds a percussion sample on a record or in a show that’s obviously a MIDI track. Make sure to decide what works best for your genre when picking the right percussion sounds.

Adding percussion ideas without adding another band member

Before looking to add a dedicated auxiliary percussionist, consider adding some elements of percussion using the personnel you already have. It’s a great way to freshen up some of your existing arrangements. Adding the classics, like a tambourine or cowbell, can help develop the flow of a song, and can be played when an instrumentalist drops out for a section, or by a dedicated singer who doesn’t always have another instrument in their hands. I’ve also seen some really cool and creative things done with foot pedals and hands-free percussion. There are a ton of options to hook up varying sounds to a bass drum pedal, so a bass or guitar player can stomp on something at a certain point in the song. Or think even further outside of the box, if you’re a tribal-gypsy-blues band, why not tie a bunch of jingles to the guitar player’s feet and have him stomp around during the chorus?

It can be very easy and cost-effective to grab a tambourine at the local music shop and have somebody shake it during the choruses or the guitar solo — in fact, that’s kind of the oldest trick in the percussion book — just make sure they know how to play the darn thing, which brings me to my next point…

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Still from Ian Chang’s new online course, Ian Chang: Warped Rhythms & Abstract Beats, exclusively on Soundfly.

Invest the the time to take percussion seriously and learn how to play it correctly

Now that may sound like a lot, but really all we’re saying here is to make sure you’re actually adding something to the mix, not just playing percussion for the sake of having it. There are some pretty specific techniques to use when shaking a tambourine, or, as expressed in this very serious video, hitting a cowbell. These techniques can often be mastered in a matter of minutes, but still demand the attention to practice. If you decide to add a little percussion to the group, take a second to research how to hold it, hit it, and get the best sound. Practice it as you would any other instrument. The second you discount the legitimacy of the instrument, that’s the second it becomes a gimmick.

+ Read more: Thinking of adding African flare to your sound? Try a Djembe!

Adding a dedicated percussionist to the group

There can be a ton of benefits to this, and if your music works especially well with percussion, an actual dedicated player can be a huge asset that will make your music and your live show that much more entertaining. In the studio, this can give your songs another layer of depth. In a live environment, you could be bringing on board another soloist, and another great personality for the fans to watch during your performance. While adding another member might come with its own set of challenges, you’d be investing in their knowledge and understanding of the instrument, which means they’ll usually have the best ideas on how to employ percussive sounds in creative ways. A lot of percussionists can play a wide variety of instruments, so challenge them to come up with parts that are truly unique and exciting, ways of thinking about the song that your band may never have considered.

Don’t have a drummer in your band? Try a cajon!

I can’t believe I wrote that… I’m actually kidding…. well, kind of… Let’s be honest, the drums are loud and big, and with the more and more steady involvement of the cajon in varying styles of music these days, why not embrace all the options we have to add percussion! Honestly, the cajon is a fantastic way to add a solid backbeat to a mellow ensemble without having the volume or presence of a full drumset. It often works very well, and is extremely portable and versatile. Personally, I both love and hate cajons — it’s a complicated relationship — but I’ll leave you to make up your own mind if it fits your style.

Caution: Just watch out for tag-alongs

Yup that’s right. Tag-alongs. I’m not sure why, but for some reason, people seem to gravitate towards the percussion section when they want to sit in, jam, or just make noise. They would never dream of walking over to the band, picking up your guitar and just start strumming away, but for some reason that is totally ok with a set of congas, or a tambourine or cowbell. I guess it comes down to the fact that percussion can be a ton of fun to play, and you don’t need a ton of experience to join in. There’s something so visceral about getting into the basic rhythm of a groove.

Keep on Grooving…

Continue your learning with hundreds of lessons on songwriting, mixing, recording and production, composing, beat making, and more on Soundfly, with artist-led courses by Kimbra, Com TruiseJlinKiefer, RJD2, and our new The Pocket Queen: Moving at Your Own Tempo.

Sammy Wags is an active performing and composing multi-instrumentalist in and around NYC. He is the drummer/producer of the critically acclaimed afrobeat/jazz group, The Brighton Beat, and is an accomplished educator. Sam’s playing is featured on the records of many established artists, and his recording/production work has been featured on commercial and independent radio, network television, and large market video game releases.

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