Finding Your Musical Identity

Inspiration vs Saturation

This is going to show my age, but I remember a time when, as a very young boy learning to play the drums, one of my biggest treats was being allowed to stay up late and watch Buddy Rich on The Johnny Carson Show. It was so exciting and inspirational to get a glimpse of one of my idols; this was ramped up even further on those few occasions when I had the joy of seeing Buddy and his band live – truly a life-changing experience!

We now live in amazing times. Through the magic of the internet, we can access almost any information we want, whenever we want. In addition to streaming our favourite music or watching an inspirational performance on YouTube or elsewhere, we can also search for specific instructional content (much of it by iconic drummers) designed to help us take our playing to the next level. The reservoir of online content to be explored is like outer space; vast, endless and getting bigger every day.

While there are obvious benefits to having such quick and easy access to music and related content, there may also be some potential concerns or problems. Ironically, our 24-7 access to unlimited content (even if it is used for inspiration and learning) has the potential to fill us with a sense of unease. How do we begin the daunting task of curating this content to align with our creative and professional ambitions? Because it is so readily available, does content (however amazing) become so normalised that it loses its magic and ceases to inspire us in the same way? And finally, does the enormity of the information available have the potential to make you feel that you might be jumping from one topic to the next without fully
absorbing anything?

These are difficult questions to answer, and any response is purely subjective. However, as we recognise the potential problems that information overload can create, it’s possible that we might obtain the most success, satisfaction and clarity from our consumption and study of music when we have ascertained what our musical identity is (or will be)

Defining musical identity

While our quest to define our musical identity can help us to be more focused in our consumption of content, we also want to avoid being too simplistic or reductionist in our judgements. For many of us, the ‘self concept’ is constantly changing as we grow older, depending on where we live, the people we interact with, our connection and identification with the zeitgeist of our times (or other times) and many other factors. Similarly, we often evolve in our musical tastes and endeavours; what we are interested in and passionate about today may not be the same as it was 10 years ago. Things always change and we do not live indefinitely in creative stasis.

And yet, despite all of these considerations, we can usually see clear patterns emerge over time regarding how we engage with the creation, performance, listening and appreciation of music. These observations can help us (and others) to put some sort of label on the totality of our musical expression. For example, if we come back to the force of nature that was Buddy Rich, we know that his virtuosity was predominantly contextualised into the genre of jazz. Therefore, in addition to Buddy being one of the greatest drummers of all time, he is also (rightly or wrongly) labelled as a “jazz drummer”. And while there are limitations to this label and it doesn’t fully encompass his prodigious skills and achievements, it is not without merit or substance. Additionally, it conforms to a collective opinion.

Freedom in knowing

Therefore, if we can make an assessment of our own musical identity (which should be based not only on our convictions but in consultation with those who know us) and embrace this, it follows that we may be far more able to distil our focus towards music that can enhance our existing skills and ambitions. We can be more laser-focused towards the type of content that will keep us inspired and not overwhelmed. Admittedly, there is a tension here between the potential benefits we’ve just mentioned and closing yourself off unnecessarily to new ideas and influences. Regarding the latter, we should avoid becoming blinkered in our views and limiting our chances to explore new concepts that may enhance our musical identity. For example, Omar Hakim may not be thought of (or think of himself) as a “reggae drummer” in the same way as Carlton Barrett, who was an iconic drummer within the genre. However, Omar embraces reggae into his playing in ways that are congruent with his complex and multi-faceted musical identity, producing a stylised approach that is wonderful element of his identifiable sound.

Determining your musical identity

Unless you are an extremely rare human being (e.g. Vinnie Colaiuta), you will eventually specialise to some extent in your creative and professional musical activities. Just like the medical profession, it’s impossible to learn it all. Depending on the demands of a person’s health, an entire team of practitioners may be involved; nutritionists, oncologists, endocrinologists, surgeons, etc. All of these practitioners are crucial to restoring wellness to their patients, and therefore none can be ranked more highly than the other in their skills or knowledge.

The determination of your own musical identity is about looking at yourself honestly, embracing who you are, and knowing that it’s something to be celebrated. While not an exhaustive list, here are some things you might do or consider:

  • Pay close attention to your own ‘inner compass’ with regards to your musical interests, i.e. what do you gravitate towards with regards to listening, performing or creating?
  • Once you’ve determined the above, do a ‘deep-dive’ on the things that interest you. For example, absorb an entire album, not just individual tracks – see how this resonates with your musical universe.
  • Consult with your peers/colleagues/family/friends – what do they think you are characterised by?
  • What instruments do you own? How do you set up when you perform?
  • If you’re looking for musical inspiration, where do you go?


Without forgetting some of the potential risks, I believe a thoughtful attempt at defining our musical identity (which may evolve over time) has the potential to make us more comfortable with who we are as musicians and can increase our enjoyment and success. Though it might seem a vague and esoteric concept, be a patient observer of your inner life and where it leads you in your musical journey. Everyone’s path is different; there are no absolutes, and comparisons are usually not helpful. We all have something of value to offer to the world if we remember that music is a gift that enriches the soul and not an athletic competition

Conquering the Russian Dragon



After playing drums for over 40 years, I would like to give you what is ultimately my most important piece of advice distilled into one pithy statement. Here it is.


You must keep good time, and keeping good time is difficult.


Yep, from my point of view, that’s pretty much what it boils down to. This is probably true for most if not all musicians, but for a drummer it is non-negotiable. If you can’t play in time, nothing will really sound good, even if there are many other positive attributes to your playing. And unless you run your own band, you’re unlikely to be doing many gigs as other musicians are relying on you to be the expert when it comes to accurate timekeeping.

We must face the Russian Dragon (referring to our propensity to be either rushing or dragging!) squarely in the eye and emerge victorious. This is not easy, and the degree of difficulty can depend on a variety of factors. These include, but are not limited to:


  1. Tempo
  2. Style
  3. Dynamics
  4. Other musicians
  5. Transitions
  6. Fills
  7. Fatigue
  8. Technique
  9. Equipment
  10. Concentration

For example, you timekeeping may be solid and consistent at medium tempos like 100-120 bpm, but playing something really slow (40-60 bpm) may become much more difficult. This is due to the vast space between the notes creating much room for error. Conversely, you may be playing a fast tempo, but your technique may be inadequate and eventually you start slowing down (dragging). Or maybe you’re just tired, and having trouble focusing – your capacity to remain consistent and accurately monitor, assess and correct errors in your playing can be affected. The opposite of that is being ‘pumped up’, and your adrenaline is racing – when this happens, you have a tendency to play things much faster.

When you really start to think about all the factors that can undermine your capacity to keep good time, the task can seem pretty daunting. If this is a problem for you, I would like to suggest a few ways you can increase your consistency (and although I’m predominantly speaking to drummers here, this applies to other musicians too).

Get the most out of your metronome.

This might include changing how you ‘hear’ the click. For example, you might just have the click on beats one and three, or two and four. Or maybe just the first beat of the bar. You may even want to move away from the downbeat completely, and perceive the click on the ‘and’ of each beat, or even the 2nd or 4th partial of the beat (assuming 16th note subdivision). There’s lot’s of different things you can try that will challenge your timekeeping and enable you to strengthen the inner clock.


Record yourself, and map this against the metronome.

If you have a metronome with a tap feature, you can tap with the recording and find out the tempo. Let the metronome run at this tempo across the recording and note where things may be speeding up or slowing down.

Take time in rehearsal to play with the metronome.

This could be through the PA if you want everyone to hear, or just in the drummer’s headphones if appropriate. By playing with the metronome, you’ll hear immediately where the tempo varies and you’ll begin to form a clear image of all the sections of the song being played in time. When you take the metronome away, you’ll be used to how it feels and be in a much better position to keep things consistent.

Learn to hear (and sing) subdivisions

This is particularly valuable at slower tempos. If you are only thinking about each downbeat, there is a relatively large gap between each of these that creates plenty of room for error. However, if you start to internalize eighth notes or even sixteenth notes, you’ve chopped up each beat into smaller components that are easier to deal with. Conversely, faster tempos can be made to feel much more relaxed if you don’t focus on subdivision – it may be more manageable to think of the tempo in half time. If you are ‘hearing’ these subdivisions in your head that’s great, but being able to ‘sing’ them (even if very quietly) can be a fantastic way of reinforcing the time. Also, many metronomes have the capacity to play the subdivisions of each beat, like 16th notes or 1/8th note triplets. Introducing a fuller representation of the subdivisions can really help refine your timing.

For a more detailed look at these concepts, I really recommend Billy Ward’s Big Time DVD. He talks about these concepts in detail, and also provides lots of other useful tips. I wish you well with you battle against the Russian Dragon – keep fighting the good fight!

Weather Report


Call me reductionist or judgmental, but I tend to inwardly wince when someone tells me about a ‘fusion’ (jazz) recording they are checking out and how killing the playing is. My first thought is that it is probably a sad, self-indulgent effort in musical masturbation performed by a group of talented but condescending musos who wouldn’t really know a good groove if it hit them between the eyes. Does that sound a little cynical?


Well, I have a little confession to make. Against the odds, I’m turning my ear again to music that would probably have the ‘fusion’ label. Specifically, I’m rediscovering a band that was a big musical influence on me in my formative years – Weather Report. Their music defies description – is it jazz, fusion, ‘world music’ (a description that in itself is inherently flawed) or something else?


If you were trying to create instrumental music that had no limits (stylistically, harmonically, rhythmically, etc) you could do worse than starting with the formidable partnership of Joe Zawinul and Wayne Shorter. Both are unbelievable musicians – technically brilliant, amazing improvisers and legendary composers. Add to that the influence of Miles Davis, and you have a perfect blend of components to create an approach to music that hadn’t been done before and in many respects hasn’t been equaled since.


The personnel that have been in the band over the years are literally ridiculous. And like Miles Davis (or a good football manager) the band members changed periodically to accommodate and/or reinvigorate the direction of the music.

For this and other reasons, the music of Weather Report has a timeless quality; it almost impossible to overstate its depth, in both the compositional and the performance aspects.



If you’re new to the band, you might want to start with Heavy Weather, which features the band’s ‘hit’ Birdland. However, the album has much more to offer than that – for example, I’m moved every time I hear A Remark You Made, which for me is one of the most beautiful tunes every written.



And, if you’re looking for a current band that is following in the footsteps of these legends, try listening to Snarky Puppy, specifically their Tell Your Friends CD. Absolutely stunning musicianship combined with compositions that are fresh, intrepid and endlessly creative. Or check out the music of Janek Gwidala ( who is fast becoming one of the leading lights on the jazz scene today.