Last weekend I had the great opportunity to work with CCM Artist Big Daddy Weave on a tour date out in Missouri as a fill in for their drummer Jeff Jones. It was an incredible experience for me, and one where I was able to really hone in my skills doing sub-work. I decided after the experience to write a little map about how to fill in for other drummers and how to really nail it.
This is really the most important part of the process. You can never be too prepared for a gig. In this case their drummer sent me side view videos of him playing the tunes, and I also got a copy of the audio from the live show from top to bottom. I spent a good bit of time going through each song. I cannot over emphasize the need to listen to the tunes by themselves without charting first. This helps give me an idea of the feel that they are going for, and gives me a great idea about what kind of chops I’ll need to accomplish it. It also puts me in the right mindset style-wise so that I’m doing my best to duplicate the feel of the person that I’m subbing for. Remember, the goal here is not really to just play like crazy, the goal is to make it seem like you’ve played the songs 100 times and like their drummer isn’t away. You can’t do that without listening to the tunes intently.
Once I’ve listened to the songs, it’s time to start making charts. I always start by finding the general tempo of the tune and writing that on the top of the chart. I also typically will write a style or song association. If it’s very Dave Matthews sounding, I’ll write DMB, or John Mayer or whatever so when I look at the chart I know how fast it is and what tune it reminded me of. That way I can associate quickly on stage if I forget what a song sounds like.
From there I’ll go ahead and listen 1 time through just getting the proper bars and the song form. I write everything in the Nashville number system, but I use all 1′s since I don’t need the changes. So a verse for me that’s 8 bars looks like this ( 1 1 1 1 : 1 1 1 1 :) I use the numbers to show a measure and the “:” is used to tell me a phrase has ended. So that would be an 8 bar verse with two phrases. It can get really complicated when you have odd meters and such, but I have a system for everything these days. Once I have the tune mapped out I’ll take another listen all the way through and I’ll write in the necessary grooves, variations, stops, band hits, etc. Anything that will help remind me of what the song is supposed to sound like. I’ll also write snare drum choices if I’m going to be changing them out in the show.
Charting is the most important part for me. I just played a 14 song show by reading through charts, there was no possible way for me to memorize 14 songs in one week, especially in the middle of doing studio work, so you live, eat, and breathe by the charts you write. So this process is very tedious, but necessary and eventually it even becomes fun. You can create your own language basically.
3) Gig Day.
Finally, you’ve listened, charted, prepared as much as possible. Now it’s time to do the show. The biggest thing for me, especially when we don’t have any rehearsals, is making sure that the tempo is at least close and the feel is right-on. This is much easier if you’re using a click track, but if you aren’t, the best thing is to try to get your own click into your mix so that you can at least start close to the correct tempo. All songs tend to move when you aren’t on the click which is why I am a huge advocate for the click track, but in many cases artists don’t use them, so you have to be prepared for that and be ready for whatever comes your way.
Once you’re on stage reading down your charts, it’s important to stay focused on the form of the songs. Keep your ears open, if you are hearing something different from your charts feel-wise, make adjustments. Your charts are there to guide you but sometimes artists make changes on the fly, you have to be listening as much as reading. If you know what the verse sounds like, and they want to repeat it, just be prepared mentally to keep following along. If you get lost in the chart keep your eyes and ears on the band leader, they will surely give you cues as to what’s coming next. I always try to make sure to make a point of looking out of the charts in the middle of the tune. If the second verse, pre-chorus and chorus are mirrors of the first, I’ll make a mental note, and use that time to interact with the other players. Then I get back into the chart before the bridge so I know what I’m doing. Don’t be so into the chart that you’re not with the artist on stage, but don’t allow yourself to get lost in the moment and forget about the huge stop on the first beat of the bridge :).
Hope this helps some of you guys. I’ve filled in and read charts on the stage for at least 15 different artists in the last few years, this has always worked for me as a survival guide. Peace!