I’m not gonna lie, i don’t actually like sitting in. I never feel the urge to get up and hijack someone else’s gig. It’s a thankless task. So much can go wrong. Maybe you train wreck a tune you don’t know. Maybe you play great and upstage the drummer. YUCK, neither situation is for me. But there are situations where it can be a good thing to do.
Maybe you want to fill in for the band at some point? The band really respect you and just want some fun to spice up the night? The drummer knows you and wants a break or a chance to chat to the girl at the bar? Maybe you’re new in town and don’t know any musos?
I would classify ‘Sitting In‘ as getting up and jamming in a spontaneous setting. You have no warning and haven’t prepared for the tunes.
‘Filling In‘ you typically get some warning and a set list to prepare with, possibly even a rehearsal or two. You ARE the band’s drummer in this case. For the night at least.
Here’s a cautionary tale to begin with. This actually happened to me at a gig (a very big one). This is about as amateur as it gets. I’m not exaggerating this story and the photo accompanying this post is from that actual night. This is how NOT to sit in!
Backstory: We had just finished our final song and were hi-fiving and having a chat on stage. It was a great night with thousands in the crowd. It was not my kit and there were security everywhere. I had come straight from another gig on the other side of town and didn’t really have a briefing on the plan for the night other than doing a 2 hour set. In short it was a bit chaotic anyway.
A stranger appears on my left invading my personal space…
Punter: Hey… step aside and I’ll show you how it’s done.
Me: (smile… try to fathom what is happening. Is this guy part of the crew? He is joking right?)
Punter: Pass me the sticks.
Me: Who are you? (look at security, look at sound guy for clues…).
Punter: I’m the drum soloist.
Me: What are you talking about? (still keeping it cool and non confrontational).
Punter: I get on after the bands here and do solo’s.
Me: (Security guy looks at me and gives a thumbs up. I look at him and shake my head slowly ‘nooo’).
Security guy grabs a friend and they jump on stage to collect the punter….
Punter: Please man… my girlfriend is in the crowd…
I didn’t get to respond to that before he was whisked away. I wish i was joking. These people ARE out there. And they are allowed to vote!
He had given the security guard a story about doing photos for us and managed to sneak on stage. Anyway, moral of the story… don’t do that.
Some general rules for sitting in like a pro:
1 – Only play when invited. And then always double-check with the drummer (if it wasn’t him who originally asked you).
NEVER ask or harass the drummer like a little kid asking to play with another kid’s fire truck. You will look like an absolute amateur.
2 – If you do get the call… try not to adjust anything. You’re sitting in, not moving in. Respect the other drummers space. Kick pedal is a bit tight? Throne is too high? Too bad I’m afraid.
You may only be there for 1 song. Don’t be a hassle to the band and a drag on the audience who probably just want to dance.
3 – Keep it simple. Don’t go for the million dollar gospel fill into the chorus of the first tune. Maybe the band does a different version of the song…. they might not be going to the chorus!
Motown/80’s rock etc didn’t feature blazing chops. Overplaying just makes you look amateur and threatens to derail the band.
4 – Play great time. Play in the pocket. Easier said than done right? Listen out for the tempo from the dominant member of the group. Adjust accordingly. If the band look up to you (or rely on their regular drummer) dictate the time STRONGLY.
5 – Play style appropriately. You might have thought ‘Sitting On The Dock Of The Bay’ worked great as a ‘one drop reggae’ in the practise room but leave it in the shed. That kind of clever or interpretive stuff will only confuse the band.
6 – Play a decent volume. Not too quiet and NOT TOO LOUD! Take note of where the drummer was sitting in the mix before you got on. Did it sound good? Too heavy on the snare or cymbals? Adjust accordingly. Make it feel great.
7 – Keep your ears and eyes open. Body language will tell you a lot. Are the band smiling and relaxed when you play? Or are they stressed and looking at each other and yelling instructions to you? Watch out for when the leader looks ready to finish a song and follow his axe or head movements to pick up the rit or sharp ending to the song.
8 – Know some good general repertoire and styles that can be adapted to the feel of any tune called. If it’s a jazz gig it’s okay to ask for the form (structure). If you don’t want to ask or the band just takes off with no clues then listen out on the first pass and count bars/bars per section. Make a quick road map in your mind.
You want some styles in your back pocket…. Jazz Ride, 8th Note Rock, 16th Rock, 1/4 Note Rock, All purpose Latin, Reggae etc.
These tips are aimed at non reading gigs. Rule #3 ‘Keep It Simple’ is particularly important if it’s a sight-read. If the band is using charts for whatever reason i would keep it simple and mark sections with a crash. This is reassuring for you and the group to let them know you are keeping up. Don’t panic. If you get lost look out for obvious sign posts and jump back in the fight.
One great anecdote i heard relayed by Matt Chamberlain involved using quarter notes as an emergency holding pattern. He was counted off into a tune on Saturday Night Live, but he didn’t hear what the tune was. The songs were called on the fly and with little warning. He had a second of terror where he HAD to play… it’s live… and he has no idea what the song is. Not only that, he had to come in strong!
Quarters with a backbeat on the snare got him through till he heard what the tune was. Quarter notes are the foundation for rhythm and won’t clash with anything the other musicians play. If in doubt, quarter note it out.
Other than that… HANG ON! Do your best and treat it as the ultimate real life musical challenge. If the band dig what you are doing in a sitting in situation you’ve ‘won’.