I have never been great at playing with brushes – but I’m working on it. I’ve loved the sound of them, just not the sound I make with them. Under lockdown, with two drummers in the house, we have turned more to brushes – for the sanity of our household and out of respect for the street. And if Oscar (9) gets into brushes now he’ll be doing a lot better than I did, aged 12, with a set of brushes left to the side and dozens of splintered sticks milled to bits and absolute pieces as I bashed along, technique-free, enjoying Cream and The Beatles and CCR and AC/DC and blissfully unaware as to whether the neighbours were enjoying it or not.
Playing brushes isn’t just about reducing volume – it’s about opening up a whole new world of sound, about painting from a different palette. And I’m not a great player – so it’s going to take me even longer. But it’s a nice hobby. I have my QuietTone practice pad and I play along to the 1pm Covid update, I take micro-breaks from work and play along to a single song pad at my desk two or three times a day. (you can play brushes on a newspaper – if we still had newspapers).
And why am I telling you this today, non-drummer. Well – in the last few weeks I’ve started listening very closely to songs where the drummer plays with brushes. I’ve made a playlist that features jazz and folk and country and pop songs, and I thought about how it’s actually a great bunch of songs. Regardless. Also – I don’t know about you – but I love having a new angle in on old music. Listening to music not just because of the drummer, but because of the particular technique, or in this case the tool of the trade, well it opens up your ears to all sorts of things. You hear songs in new ways.
One of my favourite Fleetwood Mac songs, one of my favourite songs actually is Sara. It’s also one of the first I can remember being aware of as a tune where the drummer plays with brushes. The Tusk album has been big in my life for my entire life (as I’ve mentioned here before) and when I first started playing drums this was the tune my mum selected to try to teach me brushwork. The great thing about this song is that it’s fun to play along with – you can get the feel but there are still things to learn. It’s almost rudimentary, but it has enough subtleties that you can keep practicing it. You can pat yourself on the back after but you go back to it for more.
When I was in a band during my uni years we started off busking, we played in cafés as a three-piece without a bass, we covered Violent Femmes and Crowded House songs. So I played with brushes a wee bit – but I wasn’t great. My playlist features some of the songs we used to play. I’m better now. And the songs are better too because I’m no longer sick of them from playing versions of them twice a weekend.
Remember Perfect by Fairground Attraction. That song really made me sit up and take notice. It’s been ruined by a second life in advertising purgatory. But I remember it best as a song with brushes.
I don’t think it’s just the fluke of timing that I blur Perfect by Fairground Attraction in with The Beat(en) Generation by The The. They’re both charming wee pop songs from the late 80s by bands that weren’t ever quite pop groups – but the thing that has linked them in my mind is that the drummer used brushes; this wasn’t common in pop songs. But look back and you find brushes providing the beat on big hits by Simon & Garfunkel and The Beatles, by alt-/indie-cool bands like Echo & The Bunnymen and Talk Talk.
And then of course there’s jazz.
Ed Thigpen is the master of brushes. He’s best known for his work with the pianist Oscar Peterson. But all of the great jazz drummers played brushes well – it was a crucial component. Buddy Rich, Max Roach, Joe Morello, Philly Joe Jones – they’re all masters. And there’s so many more. Chico Hamilton is someone I’m listening to a lot now. And one of the modern masters of jazz brush-work is Clayton Cameron. I first learned about him when I heard Tony Bennett’s monster ‘come-back’ MTV Unplugged album. The band was sublime, the setlist was perfect, Tony was in good form too of course. I sometimes think this is one of the albums I’ve listened to the most in my life. One Christmas I bought a copy of it for my brother, he bought a copy for my folks and they had bought a copy for me. We all opened our copies of the album on the same day. It’s the closest I think I’ve ever felt to them. What a perfect moment. The gift of music. We gave the same gift to each other. Then spent the day taking turns playing our respective copies of the same album over and again.
So I sit down at the end of a working day, or into the night – and for hours at weekends in lockdown – and I work through as many of these songs as I can on my playlist. I shuffle it and get a bunch of Tom Waits and Paul Simon songs one day, or straight jazz the next (everything from Blossom Dearie to Miles Davis to Dorothy Donegan). Some of these songs are my favourites because of the brushwork, some of them are fairly new to my ears. But sometimes I’m sitting there reminiscing about Fleetwood Mac and Tony Bennett and the Violent Femmes while either successfully copping the feel and flow of the music or when I’m totally botching it. Either way, an honest attempt.
Sometimes the brushes are used as an element of surprise. They are absolutely a mood-conjurer. Listen to this wonderful album-length single-track by Napier’s Jakob. Not just one of the very best bands in New Zealand, but one of my all-time favourite bands in the world. Probably the band I’ve seen live more than any other act.
The track (ep) Dominion has accompanied me on many walks, it was perfect road-tripping music around America, it’s often part of a drive between Wellington and Hawke’s Bay and now it’s drum-meditation for me too. (It’s often been a soundtrack to meditation for me in fact).
So I’ve hopefully spared you the technical details – I really didn’t want to bore any non-drummers but I like the idea that focussing in on one part of the music, or one style or technique or one instrument/instrumentalist can give you a new appreciation for music you’d previously ignored or maybe even felt you didn’t have a facility for. I firmly believe that if anyone is of the “I don’t get jazz” variety then listening in to the jazz tracks that feature fine brushwork will give you an entry point and appreciation.