Rule 1 – Don’t Listen to the Drums.
Seriously though, you can learn drum parts of a song by listening to the vocal, the bass and the main guitar or piano rhythms of the song you are trying to cover.
Because in effect drums play to, with and between those other instruments.
~ and the vocal most especially
The song’s vocal will have the most memorable, immediate and visceral meter, cadence, and prosody. The bass will underline that, or counter that.
In between the bass and vocal is where the feel of the drums can be, often.
Whenever music is playing anywhere, I am always listening.
What surprises me (a lot) is how a crappy sound system in a fast-food restaurant might really accentuate the hi-hat of a song. Or the kick drum.
Sometimes it can be like hearing the song or drum parts for the first time.
Always pay attention when a song catches your ear in a new environment.
It is also highly informative to watch drummers when you can. At every live show or by watching any of the hundreds of videos on YouTube – Video of Steve Gadd can save hours of frustrated listening, trying to figure out a part.
WHERE THE VOCAL SITS
One thing to remember is that guitar players often tend to rush, bass players often tend to drag. Not always, of course ~ but where the vocal sits depends a lot on the balancing of the rush and drag, the push and pull.
A drummer in a band might find in rehearsal then, that usually they and the bass player understand how the song works better than the guitarist and singer. Drummers understand the push and the drag and many times become the center of that dynamic tension.
Drumming on a cover song really is about understanding and unlocking the song’s “feel.”
Unlocking the feel is something that takes a bit more attention.
I am not technically very brilliant, but to me “feel” of a song or genre is more important and every song* has a small part, groove or attitude that unlocks the song for me.
I do homework, reading up on drummers, production of songs or albums and so on.
* every drummer or musician has a feel as well. Ringo for example is left-handed on a right-hand kit and leads fills with his left hand. Knowing this helps to unlock the feel of many Beatles songs and many Ringo parts.
And likewise, listening to Little Richard will help in understanding Led Zeppelin drum parts. John Bonham Influences
In other words, knowing the headwaters of a song or performer will help unlock the feel of a song.
And at a gig, “feel” is what audiences connect with deep down. Feel goes straight to the heart.
LISTEN TO YOURSELF
I will record myself practicing with the band and listen back. What I try to do is put that microphone or device near to where the singer might be, to hear from their perspective. It can be hard to know what the drums actually sound like “out front.”
Comparing how the band is coming along with a cover song with the original can be helpful. Often times the band’s version sounds better where the feel is down, while not being an exact copy of the original. There is always room for your own feel, your own sound.
Homework is satisfying when the compliments are genuine.