Size and equality matter when it comes to band stage set-ups  

By Tim Kane

Back in the Big Band days, double bass drum innovator Louise Belson regularly set up his two large kicks smack out in stage front of the brass section. He was the main attraction and rightfully so. In today’s age of less is more, with guitar centric compositions and the advent of digital pad triggers, many drummers don’t need an extra kick drum to play 32nd notes with their feet, and they aren’t stage front center either. Last time I saw a drummer set up forward of guitar amps was San Fran’s “Night Ranger”, and that’s only because Kelly Keagy sang some lead vocals set-up sideways.

For most working class drummers – and even practicing ones – we have to compartmentalize our various sized drum kits to fit the intended stage dimensions. Having a 12X12 stage dimension is gravy for bands these days. More often than not, however, we face strange L-shaped stages situated flat against bar walls, no stages at all leaving us to create one around tables and chairs, or an actual elevated stage that a ventriloquist could barely fit on.

So how do we adapt to ever-changing stage sizes? First, Gibraltar Hardware and other drum hardware companies got smart years ago and innovated the use of drum rack systems, which saves tons of space and lessens set-up time and energy. If you don’t own one and play out regularly, you should definitely at least consider purchasing one.

Before anything else, don’t screw yourself over to accommodate guitar amps. What I mean is if you don’t fight for your rights as a musician, you will lose them. Guitarists sometimes forget that drummers also need to hear the music in order to play well. Unless you have a sound man who understands how to mix all the instruments and vocals into a good monitor for you and you alone, then setting your drum kit up behind everyone else is a mistake.

I have yet to meet a sound man who can mix everything together effectively that way.

My point is guitarists rarely stop to adjust control knobs on their amplifiers while playing songs. Most use their effects pedals and guitar dials to control and change sound. So why must guitarists and bassists set up their amps in front of the drums? The audience will still hear everything fine if the amps are placed against the wall to the left and right beside your drum throne.

My advice is for drummers to get to shows and new practice spaces early and own your space first. Your carpet is king. Let the band build their gear around you, and strongly encourage them not to fear placing amps back in alignment with the rear of your drum set. It will help the mix immensely and provide more actual playing space for musicians. If you are unsure of the stage size, call the club or venue earlier in the week to inquire or go check it out ahead of time.

Enough of my drummer discrimination rant, though I’ll conclude by adding that stringed instrument players should leave their cases and back-up guitars back stage or in the cars just like drummers do. Big space saver. And there’s no need to display five guitars on stage unless you intend to play them all.

Then there’s actual stage sound variations to consider. I’m no soundman, but have found better success with my own band setting up our amps somewhat blowing across stage at each other rather than directly pointing out into the audience. You can control the mix better that way. In very small venues, I have even seen a band leader turn all the amps inward toward the stage to control maximum sound output decibels. Obviously, in that case setting up amps behind the drum kit would be a moot point.

Some bands also run everything through the PA system regardless of stage or venue size. I can’t advise you one way or the other on that front; I only add that for most small to mid-sized clubs – unless you are live recording -you can get away with having only three mics on the drums for your kick, snare and an ambient overhead. That will save a lot of on-stage clutter and time. In many cases, you don’t need any mics and neither do guitarists.

The very worst thing you can do as a drummer is to try to cram a 12-piece Gretsch Renown series into a space not made for it. For one, it will take you twice the amount of time as normal to re-configure your cymbal stand spans, and you’ll end up with too tight an area in which to play. Less is more in that case. Leave half the kit in your car and go basic. 

Tim Kane is a freelance drummer, instructor and writer living in Massachusetts.





Applying more ‘Rubato’ (vs. ‘Mr. Roboto’) to the drum set

By Tim Kane

Drummers are first and foremost timekeepers, plain and simple. That is our core mission. But we are also the gateway to a band’s inner time machine. Like the planet we live on, time fluctuates.

When playing live with other musicians, there is an unwritten ebb and flow of tempo to keep in mind. It’s called “feel.” Play with your ears, first, and then your eyes. That’s what my drum teacher always taught me. But how do you know when to play looser interpretations of time and when to be a metronome (which was first used by Beethoven, by the way)? Not an easy question to answer. Time tends to advance and retract from the initial beats per minute you lay down during certain segments of a song – unless that tune actually calls for tempo changes.

Understanding basic classical music terminology governing time signatures and tempo is helpful – even in rock genres. In any original or cover song composition, there are several main tempo ingredients we knowingly and unknowingly follow, including: Allegro (fast), Adagio (slow), Ritardando (slowing of tempo), and Accelerando (quickening of tempo). There are all sorts of variations within these broad terms, but you get the point.

The most important tempo term – and the one most appropriate for contemporary live music – is “Rubato,” or the free adjustment of tempo for expressive purposes.

Most of us live within this expressive shaping of music that is a part of phrasing, which is further defined by the spaces between each note we play – otherwise known as subdivisions. Where drummers tend to experience time fluctuations in a song can be both apparent and elusive. Solos and section transitions tend to inherently lend themselves to tempo rate changes. That does not mean the song’s time signature actually changes, though. While guitar and piano melodies can be flexible with tempo, accompaniment by drums and bass never radically departs from the original meter. The rhythm section must keep the regular pulse (yet not rigidly in mechanical fashion) and adjust to pace changes.

Regardless of incidental time changes as they relate to the nuances of playing live, the song must return to its original rate at some point. And the onus squarely falls upon drummers to reel everything back in.

There are a few tricks of the trade to re-set a tempo during a song, if the need arises. Cracking your snare hard on the first beat of a measure is one good way to send a message. Closing the hi-hat on downbeats is also a great tool in keeping solid time, so get solid with your footwork on it. If your other three limbs are playing more “feel” during a particular point in a song, the musicians around you tend to key in on the security of the hi-hat. Brief stops can provide that brief non-musical interlude that makes everyone think about coming back in together. And if all else fails, simplify your drum parts to the point of awkwardness and count aloud.

The best way for you to experiment with time and apply more Rubato to the drum set is by practicing along to a metronome or online click track, particularly at slower tempos that are more challenging to control. Work fills into your beats and have fun with the fluctuations.

 – Tim Kane is a professional writer and drummer of 30-plus years.




Are there rules for ‘sitting in’ with another band?

By Tim Kane

When known “drum brothers” with similar skill sets have specifically asked me to sit in at my own gigs, I have never not allowed them to play a tune or two if I know they can handle the music. I feel drummers are a rare breed and should stick together.

That said, I hardly ever ask known drummers in the crowd if they want to sit in as it could create unwanted pressure for someone who may just want to enjoy listening to music or is out of practice. But that is my own policy and it is not everyone’s. This discussion really should occur at the band level if all the musicians want to even allow sit-ins, as it can open the door to unwanted guests and potentially mess with the groove and group dynamic already established on stage.

The topic of perceived unwritten rules of sitting in with another band are vast so I have created a few bullet points below from my own experiences that hopefully may help you down the road:

* If you don’t ask to sit-in, don’t expect to be asked. Bands are being paid to play and work hard learning the music in many practices so they may be a bit squeamish toward other musicians wanting to jam. They may also have had bad experiences in the past that you are unaware of. The thought also may never occur to them that you want to sit-in. So just chill and enjoy the music.

* If you are a more skilled drummer than the one on stage, be flattered and humbled by the fact that you were not asked to perform.

* Don’t feel snubbed or bummed out even if a drummer you know well doesn’t invite you on stage. Your audience support at their gig is valued and there may be a chance to sit-in – or even fill-in – down the road. Stay cool.

* If you are asked to sit-in, don’t hog the set or show off. Agree to only play only a tune or two, keep a basic groove, support the other musicians, smile, and express sincere gratitude.

* If you know of an upcoming gig with a known drummer, give him or her a call in advance to see if it would be possible to sit-in. That way, songs could be assigned in advance so you are prepared, or perhaps you could attend one of their rehearsals to get up to speed on material.

In the end, listening to another drummer and band play live can be an awesome lesson in not only humility and patience, but also adding to your own reservoir of chops.

– Tim Kane teaches drums in the Sturbridge, Mass. area. Visit him at