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Survival Guide to Playing on Other People’s Drumsets

And Pulling Yourself Out of Wobbly Setup Quicksand ... It’s a known fact: drummers are particular (read: really freaking picky) about their setups. Single bass. Double bass. Double pedal. 4-pc. 20-pc. … and every possibility in between. That’s why it’s no surprise to find yourself in a slightly awkward situation when you do sit down behind someone else’s kit (what I like to call Other People’s Drums, or OPD). Such was the case for me last weekend, when I got to play a multi-act benefit concert on a kit that belonged to the closing band’s drummer.

I pride myself on being able to play on anybody’s drumset. As long as there’s a hi-hat, snare and bass drum, I’m in! I closely watched the band that performed before we did, and noticed that the drummer was struggling a bit with a creeping bass drum. When he got offstage, I asked him: “hey, is everything cool with that kit, anything I should know about?” “Na, you’re good,” he replied. Then I met the drummer who the kit belonged to. “Nah, it’s solid,” he said. Much like the person who spends five minutes trying to get the lid off the jar, gives up and hands it over to someone who then gives it a half-assed turn and easily removes the lid, I was about to find out that the guy before me loosened the lid.

Midway through the first song, the bass drum had moved forward one foot and was tilted sideways. The beater of the pedal was barely touching the head at this point. To make matters worse, the bass drum had taken the ride cymbal with it, now a fully extended arm’s length away. The floor tom must have been resting on the bass drum somehow, so it was now falling over. It was the drummer’s equivalent of stepping into quicksand, and with 15 more songs left in the set, I realized quickly that I needed a survival strategy that combined an altered playing approach and frequent “adjustments” between (and during) songs.

  1. Drum key is “key”. Even if you’re not playing on your drums, always bring a drum key. I did not. The bass drum clamp didn’t have a finger adjustment, so I needed a key to tighten the pedal, and could not find a key on this kit. Consider yourself sh!t out of luck.
  2. Think ahead. When the world is sinking beneath your pedals, think of the next break or opportunity in a song that may have a pause long enough for you to do a quick re-arrangement (such as pulling the bass drum and ride cymbal within striking distance). When your time comes, be ready and move fast.
  3. Don’t panic. This sounds obvious but it’s critical. I took several deep breaths and forced myself to smile. Compartmentalize the problem so that it doesn’t get in the way of enjoying the music and making the beats that moves the feets.
  4. Pack duct tape. After a couple more songs I realized that the carpet was moving too, and not uniformly — it was pinched, bunched, folding and sliding. I straightened it out between songs during one of many rearrangement sessions. If the jar was loose before, now it was spilling everywhere. Duct tape could have helped stop the bleeding here at the very least. I actually use it on my drum rug every time I’m in need of a solid foundation and that Velcro-on-the-bottom-of-my-pedals security.
  5. Simplify your playing. In times of austerity, conserve. I was quickly thinking of ways to not play as many notes on the bass drum just so it would stay in place longer.
  6. Improvise. Obviously, my options narrowed as the bass drum took the ride cymbal on a road trip out to left field. So, instead of playing on the “&” on the bell of the ride, I went to an opened/closed hi-hat pattern. Instead of doing a solo based on snare-bass-tom fill patterns, I played it all on the snare only (and was told later that people really dug it).
  7. Focus. Playing with this many distractions requires much more focus than normal. I usually let go completely and go into my performance head, thinking about nothing outside of the moment and developing that “feel”. Dealing with unexpected duress requires a concentrated focus to keep from getting swallowed up by the quicksand.
  8. Always look on the bright side of life. I kept telling myself that the seat was really comfortable. It was a beautiful day, and we were playing outdoors (always fun) and for a good cause. Anything to distract from the quicksand.

In the end, I realized that I’m completely spoiled by my kit, but I’m also a firm believer in being over prepared. Next time I "sit in on other people's drums," I'll be on more solid footing.