When drummers become somebody that everyone knows the name of, it tends to be because of one dominant aspect of their playing style that is so in your face you just can’t miss it. Keith Moon played in such a maniacal way that entire songs were often one big fill that never ended. Meg White has power that makes a two piece sound gigantic somehow. There’s always a thing.
James Gadson doesn’t really have one ‘thing’ like those guys above. Yet he’s played on more hits than them and any other drummer you can name combined.
Gadson’s drumming style is both the reason why he may not be a household name and the reason he has likely been played in your household regularly for six decades. His approach is grounded in groove, restraint and a pure focus on making the song the best it can possibly be rather than making his part of it the most impressive it can be.
A key aspect of Gadson’s style is his use of groove, a nebulous idea of playing certain beats in a pattern very slightly off of the quantised beat. He’s able to drift in front and behind the beat in a way that makes it sound more natural– and in turn more fun to move to. It’s a subtle way to bring a song to life, and an idea that would eventually be adopted by groundbreaking artists like J Dilla and Flying Lotus.
“I can’t make you move if I’m not in control of what I’m doing,” Gadson tells Melodics. “I have to figure out how to make it human.”
In Bill Withers’ Use Me (above), Gadson’s kick drum is unwavering while his hi-hats and rimclicks are often fractionally behind or ahead of the beat.
In Grandma’s Hands, he dances around the beat constantly, giving the song a bounce that alters every other aspect of it. Not bad considering it would later be the key sample and inspiration for the greatest song ever written (see below).
Withers wrote some of the most depressing lyrics of the ‘60s but was still a gigantic popstar known for his catchy tunes. It’s all because of the groove, mannnnn.
Gadson might focus on subtlety over flashiness, but make no mistake – he has chops. He just uses them to make a song the best it can be, something which sets him apart from his peers during a period of excess in music.
To achieve longevity and consistently be the driving force behind artists from every era to achieve both pop stardom and critical acclaim, you must choose your spots with musicality in mind. With Dyke & the Blazers, we hear some of Gadson’s busiest ‘look at me’ drumming (see video below). There are the Keith Moon-like long fills and rapid-fire ghost notes but they are always the bookend to periods of minimal groove rather than the main course.
Gadson doesn’t even use his snare drum for the first quarter of Marvin Gaye’s classic I Want You (below). Instead, he adds aspects to his drum pattern only as the song builds momentum. He also adds subtle fills to help the transition between vocal phrases, while his hi-hat accents emphasise Gaye’s embellishments.
This approach to drumming and music in general as a holistic experience is what makes his style and the records he has been involved with so timeless. The influence of it can be heard everywhere from hip-hop, to jazz and even post-punk.
As Gadson himself says: “It’s not magic like a lot of people think it is. You can learn that.”
It’s attainable, based on shared experience and community. It’s also relevant in a time where groove is at the forefront of a lot of music once again and the perfect starting point for anyone learning the drums in 2020.
Has this inspired you? Check out the Melodics E-Drums course Gadson Groove creative in collaboration with James Gadson: