by Nate Beier, artist, musician, and MFA student in the Creative Inquiry, Interdisciplinary Arts program
When I think of subtleties, I often remember songs from my youth. The first song that comes to mind is "Lowdown,” by Boz Scaggs. I'm thinking here of the song's beginning—not the intro section, but the very first second: "chuh duh-dm ch-ch-dm." In this one second drummer Jeff Porcaro says it all. He encapsulates all the subtlety that makes good music beautiful. And this one second does not overshadow the rest of the piece. Rather, it contributes to the betterment of the song, making the whole better than the sum of its parts.
I'm reminded, too, of "I Can't Tell You Why" by The Eagles. In this song, drummer Don Henley plays his part with great restraint and understatement. At the 2:59 mark the song opens for a drum fill. Don gives the right amount: "chuh ch-chuh." A lesser drummer would have played more.
Let's bring our discussion to the cowbell. Ordinarily a cowbell is used to drive a song. Good examples of this are the "Duke's Theme" from Escape From New York by John Carpenter and the song "Bambi" by Prince. But I'm thinking here of how a cowbell can be used off the beat to help generate great joy. "Caravan", as performed by Van Morrison and The Band in The Last Waltz, is a great example of this. To help understand this, know each beat of the song breaks into four equal parts: "one-ee--and--uh". What drummer Levon Helm does is he hits the cowbell on the "ee" section. He does so twice, at the 1:25 and 3:10 marks. Hitting cymbals is also a great emotional release. In the song "Round and Round" Ratt drummer Bobby Blotzer takes cymbal-hitting to an ecstatic place. He does so by hitting the cymbal, grabbing and then hitting it again as he releases his hand. This all happens in about one second at the 3:13 mark (for best effect see the video). I have since called this technique: "The Bobby Blotzer."
Let me share one more magical moment. This moment involves how a drummer makes magic by removing a beat. In the song "Mama" by Genesis, drummer Phil Collins propels the last third of the song with a driving heartbeat rhythm: "Bom b-chuh bom-bom chuh." There is one time where he removes the little "b" (at the 4:02 mark in the video and the 5:31 mark on the album). The removal of this beat creates a tension I always feel on both sides of my face. It's possible this moment was a mistake, but many subtle moments are mistakes. Even still, I'm grateful for them.