Embracing weirdness to find your uniqueness

On my business card for my performance practice, I call myself a ‘tone merchant’, among other skills. I use that term for a couple of reasons. #1 It describes one of the things I’m obsessed about–getting the right tone(s) for the song (esp. snare drum, hi-hat and cymbals, tambourine/shaker ‘overdubs’, etc.), #2 it’s a term I’ve heard more commonly associated with electric guitarists and their pedals & amps, so that makes it a bit unique for a drummer, #3 through my teaching and performing, it’s an idea that I want to spread throughout the world.

But at a certain level, it’s just weirdness.

I got inspired to focus on this by a picture of all things. It was a picture on the back of a CD of Jim Keltner’s stick bag (one of my favorite song drummers). It was a CD that Ry Cooder produced of a Cuban electric guitarist, Manuel Galban.


What I saw in that stick bag was a couple of small maracas taped to a drum stick. I now know that Jim used that tool to eliminate the time needed for percussion overdubs, but all I knew then was that it looked cool, and I could think of any number of ways a tool like that could be useful for me.

(The list of tools/implements I use in this fashion are shown in this picture, and are detailed at the bottom of this post.)


For me it turns out that I use these tools primarily for live shows, to cover things like percussion overdubs, or just to make a certain section of a song really ‘pop’. Most recording sessions I generally do the percussion as an overdub (I’m not as in-demand as Jim Keltner ;), but I sometimes use those implements on a ‘live’ recording session, or an acoustic recording session.

OK, now that I’ve explained what this is, why should you care about this? There are a couple of reasons why I think you should:

Number one, this was a big part of how I discovered what makes me unique as a musician. I can’t tell you how important this was and still is to me. It’s weird, but it’s also very ‘me’.

When you’ve been playing a while, and you have not yet reached the top levels of your craft, it’s very easy to question your worth as a musician. As in, ‘there a bunch of drummers better than me in this city alone—why do I even bother?’ And now that I know important things that inform my aesthetic approach—this tone merchant thing among others–it’s easier to answer that question. One answer for me might be, “the world needs more tone merchant, song drummers”. Before I knew enough about myself I struggled with this, and gave up on drumming for quite some time (~15 years).

Second, it’s an extra level of detail that most people in my position don’t worry about, and therefore helps me stand out. (For example, “Who’s Miguel? Oh, that guy with the foot tambourine and the weird sticks…”)

Third, these details reinforce the idea that I focus on the song, since they sure as heck don’t make me look like a cool and sexy drummer. (It sometimes makes me look like a one-man band, or some vaudeville drummer from the 20’s and 30’s—talk about embracing vulnerability 😉 Definitely weird…weird, weird, weird. So then, the approach really only makes sense if you want to make the song come alive. There are lots of (much) easier ways to do cool, flashy licks and sexy drum solo stuff, and not look so weird.

This has parallels in many others parts of my life as well. At the 50,000 foot view, it’s about knowing yourself very well, and understanding what makes you unique.

In a work context, this makes me a better employee in that I know my strengths and limitations, which gives me a clear idea of what I can offer the team. It increases my confidence, which makes me more generous with my time and suggestions (i.e. I’m not ”defending my turf’, or some such thing, because I’m confident in what I can offer my co-workers).

As a parent, it helps me have some empathy for my daughter. What I mean by this is, in the process of learning about what you’re uniquely suited to do, you learn a lot about what you’re NOT suited to do. For me, these are things that I suck at. This gives me empathy and compassion for folks who struggle with the things that they are not well-suited to do. When my daughter was growing up, I would see her struggle with this, and I was able to relate to her struggles better because I was in the midst of struggling with my own limitations.

Can you think of a situation where having a clear sense of what your strengths are really helped you (and possibly also others around you)? What about your weaknesses? How has having a deeper understanding of yourself made you a better person?

In my next post, we’ll about hear about how a tone merchant drummer deals with the snare drum–the source of the ‘signature sound’ for many, many songs.

The list of tools/implements I use include:

SPECIFIC DETAIL…down to the SKU number…?

Higher volume live settings:
* Foot operated tambourine (DW 2000 Series Tambourine Pedal)
* Foot operated maraca (LP Fusheki Foot Shaker Bracket w/ Maraca)


Lower volume live setting (acoustic, small rooms, etc.)
* Sticks and rods with shakers/maracas taped to them (LP Mini Rawhide Maracas taped to a 1) Vic Firth SD9, and a 2) Vater Acoustick; Rhythm Tech RT 2430 Shaker
by Rhythm Tech)
* Sticks with tambourine-style implements fastened to them (Rhythm Tech Stick Jingl-Er, Pernan Percussion JingleMute, Mike Balter Louie Bellson Series Jingle Sticks)

* Various standard wire brushes (Vic Firth Heritage Brush, Regal Tip “Clayton Cameron” Rubber Covered Wire Brushes w/ Nylon Butt)
* Various nylon brushes (Regal Tip Ultra-Flex Nylon, Regal Tip Whiskers)
* Various rod-type implements (Regal Tip Blasticks [wood], Vater Acoustick, Flix Tips)


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