Time to Add Percussion to Your Arsenal?

Playing percussion is an art, just like playing any other musical instrument and, if you’re the percussionist in a band, then you also need to learn how to work seamlessly with the drummer and other musicians. In this blog, you’ll find out what’s involved in being a percussionist, including the kind of attitude you need to have, and who the masters of the percussion craft are. Right here, the ultra-experienced, all-round percussionist Martin Verdonk tells all!

Photos: Gerard Burgers

About Martin

Percussion is still a relatively young practice within the music world in these parts, meaning that most of the best-known percussionists in Europe are actually autodidactic, having been forced to discover and learn certain techniques on their own. It was only in the eighties that percussion started to appear on the course list of music conservatories. One of the most renowned European percussionists right now actually hails from the Netherlands and is also, for the most part, self-taught. Martin Verdonk has been teaching as part of the World Music department at the conservatory in Rotterdam since 1990. He’s also played with the likes of Daniel Sahuleka, Ilse DeLange, Nick & Simon, Rob de Nijs, Ruth Jacott, Laura Fygi, Lee Towers, Doe Maar – the list goes on. His CV is a pretty impressive read and is packed with the names of international artists and world tours with big names like Steve Winwood, Incognito, Richard Bona, Lionel Richie, Santana and Roy Hargrove. He also leads workshops around the world for Tycoon Percussion, for whom he’s also helped develop his own range of percussive instruments.

“I was around nineteen years old when, pretty much by chance, I bumped into percussion for the first time,” says Martin. “I was so taken by it that I decided to abandon my previous plans for school. From there, a lengthy journey of discovery started and never really stopped. Bit by bit, I made playing percussion my own. In the eighties, I went to Cuba three times to take lessons for a full month. Cuba is definitely where the roots of Latin percussion lie.”

Time to Add Percussion to Your Arsenal?
Martin behind the congas

In the Caves

The word percussion comes from the Latin work ‘percussio’ which literally means to ‘strike’ (in the musical sense). Percussive instruments are generally rhythmic instruments and can be struck, shaken, ‘scraped’ and so on. There are also melodic percussion instruments like the marimba and xylophone.

Time to Add Percussion to Your Arsenal?
The güiro

Many historians and anthropologists have the view that percussive instruments are probably the first musical instruments that humans ever made. Ultimately, the human voice was probably the first ever human ‘made’ musical instrument, but percussion was undoubtedly the next step in the musical evolution of humanity. Inside caves in France, where people dwelled thousands of years ago, paintings were discovered on the walls accompanied by mysterious red dots. It’s now believed that these red dots where placed specifically to indicate where best to strike the cave walls for the best sound, so that it resonated throughout the entire cave. This indicates that, even 25,000 years ago, we had at least some awareness of the acoustic properties of percussion instruments and echoey spaces. As humanity evolved and learned, the percussion instruments we developed became more ingenious and sophisticated and their acoustic properties continued to improve.

Time to Add Percussion to Your Arsenal?
The cajón

A ‘Fresh Lift’

Percussion is played worldwide and plays a more or less essential role in every musical tradition. In Western classical music, the presence of percussion isn’t constant. Instead, it’s used at specific moments where it provides accents, with timbales or cymbals, for example. Percussion plays a central role in traditional music of Africa, Asia and Latin America and the influence of Latin American percussion in particular has spread all over the world. The way that percussion is generally played actually originated in the Latin American tradition, especially Cuban percussion.

Time to Add Percussion to Your Arsenal?
The claves

“Percussion fits every musical style,” according to Martin. “There are even heavy metal bands with a percussionist. It fits perfectly! In some specific music styles, the percussion is an essential. Think Latin, fusion, smooth jazz, old soul, Motown soul, funk and pop. Even blues artists like B.B. King always had a percussionist in the band.” Martin continues, “The beauty of percussion is that it’s really adaptable and, when tastefully added, can really help give any song from any genre a fresh lift. It can put an entirely different spin on a familiar song by giving it a completely different timbre. It also works on numbers that sound like they don’t even need percussion. For example, I was hired recently to record on an album by an acoustic pop duo and, despite the apparent genre clash, ended up recording on every one of the ten tracks instead of just the two they had planned. Even if it looks like a number doesn’t need anything else, working in some percussion can do something pretty magic.”

Time to Add Percussion to Your Arsenal?
The shaker

Latin & Pop

There are a few ways to categorise percussion instruments, but according to Martin, you can just as easily categorise them depending on the kind of musicians they’re associated with. “On one side you have the musicians that play according to Latin American tradition. These are the beasts on the congas, the bongos and timbales. These musicians are masters of their instrument and have studied every detail of the techniques involved right down to the last detail. On the other side, you have pop percussionists. These musicians play a broader range of instruments, like shakers, tambourines, chimes, triangles and so on but generally, don’t dive as deeply into the instrument like their latin-inspired colleagues. Between the two groups, you have musicians who master both approaches, which is where I sit.”

Time to Add Percussion to Your Arsenal?
The triangle

Martin is an open latin and pop devotee, “Playing either style of music is great, but as the percussionist, you have to be aware that you hit one button when playing pop and another button when you’re playing latin. If you try to fit pop music to traditional latin patterns, then the song will just end up sounding really latin. It’s a really easy mistake for a percussionist to make. You hear a straight pop song for the first time and immediately reach for a pattern that you know is going to fit. That pattern is almost always going to be latin inspired, which is a flavour that the song might not necessarily need.” Martin let this go a long time ago. “If I’m looking for the rhythm, I avoid the patterns that I’ve learned from Latin and try to come up with something myself. However, in my opinion, you need to know all of the Latin patterns really well, since they’re a big part of the percussionist’s canon. But you also have to learn to let them go when the music demands it, or you just end up using a derivative of a pattern you know.”

Time to Add Percussion to Your Arsenal?
The cabasa

Working with the Drummer

The lineup of most bands will include a drummer, so a percussionist is almost always an extra additon. Of course, this is a situation that Martin has encountered many times. “If there’s a drummer in the band, then the drummer is always leading and, as the percussionist, you’re always following the drummer. I also often tell the drummer to just play as if I’m not there. If a drummer isn’t used to playing with a percussionist, they can often find that really reassuring. Otherwise, I just seek out any gaps in the rhythm that I can fill with percussion and, to be honest, actually try to inspire the drummer to play better.” In principle, the drummer doesn’t even have to pay any attention to the percussionist, but if they do want to really incorporate the percussion into the rhythm section, what’s the best approach? Martin offers an example: “Say the percussionist is playing a tambourine. The drummer could then adjust things a touch by playing more hi-hat and less ride, since the tambourine and hi-hat lie in the same frequency range. It’s these kinds of small tweaks that can really make a difference.”

Time to Add Percussion to Your Arsenal?
The tambourine

A percussionist can also help out the drummer. As Martin says: “Maybe the drummer struggles to play tightly, so they’re not quite in the pocket. By adding a tight rhythm with a shaker, you can actually make the drums sound a bit better.” As the percussion player, Martin prefers to set up next to the drummer. “It doesn’t matter which side of the drummer I’m set up, just as long as I can see them clearly. Eye contact is essential, so there can’t be any cymbals or other hardware in the way. I also need to be able to hear the drummer and the drums really well, especially the bass drum, the snare and the hi-hat. Those are also the three parts I really need to hear through my monitor. The same goes for the bassist. The drums, percussion and the bass need to form a sort of golden triangle, keeping everything as tight as possible. Also, I constantly have an eye on the drummer’s body language. That way, you’re immediately aware that specific things are about to happen, like a fill, so I can anticipate and quickly adapt.”

Time to Add Percussion to Your Arsenal?

Know Your Drummers

“It’s also worth getting to know and recognise different types of drummers,” advises Martin. “Are they a busy drummer or a timid drummer? Or do they play in a pretty controlled and sparse way but hit really hard? Is the style really in your face or more subtle? Do they sit just behind the beat or just before? As the percussionist, you need to quickly learn to recognise these kinds of traits. The art lies in pin-pointing these traits during sound check. I always insist on running through at least three numbers: a ballad (the biggest challenge for drummers), a medium-tempo number and a more up-tempo number. You don’t even need to play the songs in full. As soon as you understand the kind of drummer you’re playing with, you can respond with the way you play your percussion.” Martin also insists on the importance of coming to agreements with the drummer beforehand. “For example, if I have a solo, depending on the kind of drummer and the quality of their playing, I’ll ask if they can just play a straight beat through the solo, or break things down to just the kick drum, or just not play at all.

Time to Add Percussion to Your Arsenal?
The batá drum

Impossible Situations

So what gets under the skin of a professional percussionist? “Bad timing. Whether it’s the drummer or the band as a whole. I can’t really help with that. If it gets really out of hand, then I have no other option than to just stop playing for a bit. Another thing that really gets me is when the band members just want to show off what they’ve got and start doing things that do nothing for the song we’re playing. As a musician, you always need to be playing in service of the song. That’s the first priority. You always need to be aware that most of the audience is only listening to the bigger picture as well.”

Percussion encompasses a mass of potential, but is Martin sometimes confronted with the impossible? “Something that I get asked a lot is if I can play it exactly the way it’s played on the CD. But I just can’t always do that because, sometimes, different parts are recorded in and then stacked. I mean, I only have two hands. Another thing that happens a lot is people requesting a specific sound that I just cannot make. Like electronic sounds for R&B numbers – the kind of sounds that you can’t reproduce with acoustic percussive instruments. Another regular source of frustration is sound engineers asking me to play louder, otherwise they can’t hear me. That’s just not possible. If I’m not loud enough, then it’s a technical problem.”

Time to Add Percussion to Your Arsenal?
The djembé

Dose Your Playing

“The techniques involved in playing percussion can be learnt by anyone who’s willing to put in the hours,” according to Martin. “But with technique alone, you’re only halfway there. What you also need to learn is how to use those techniques musically. In pop music, that’s actually pretty difficult to pull off, because you need to build your foundations on the Latin tradition. The transition doesn’t work out for all percussionists. Instead of being a trick in itself, percussion should always serve the music. This often means that you need to dose your playing. In other words: don’t play through the entire song, and when you do play, make sure to choose your instrument wisely. I’m always thinking about the role the percussion can play in the music. I think that’s something that every percussion player should be doing as part of their practice.”

Any percussionist has a load of instruments to choose from. “It’s really tempting to use everything you have, but you don’t have to play every instrument. Most of the time it’s better to just choose one or two things. Often, a well-timed triangle strike is enough rather than some over-fussy and busy percussion work,” advises Martin. A percussionist can really improve their playing by learning how to step out of Latin percussion. “You can learn that by listening to the percussion included in non-Latin music. Another great piece of advice is to play with love. Too often, I see percussionists ripping through their chimes with a tambourine. Take your time, prepare well and play your chimes with a triangle beater to get a more controlled and well-timed response. It’ll sound far better.”

Time to Add Percussion to Your Arsenal?
The shekere

Good to Know

Conga, Bongos & Timbales

The congas, bongos and timbales are considered the basic Latin American percussion instruments, which all come straight out of Cuba. Percussionists within the tradition are masters of these instruments and play in a really disciplined way. Even Fidel Castro declared that the conga is part of national Cuban heritage. It was the influence of African drum-building techniques and European tuning systems that allowed the birth of the conga.

Time to Add Percussion to Your Arsenal?
The bongos

Common Percussion Terms

Here’s a list of a few common terms used within the percussion world:

  • Tumbao: a basic rhythm instrument from Afro-Cuban music.
  • Guaguancó: a sub-genre of Cuban rumba with a complex rhythmic structure.
  • Martillo: a basic rhythm played on the bongos.
  • Cascara: a rhythmic pattern played on the side of the timbales.
  • Fill: has the same meaning as it does for drummers and is a bar where the drummer or percussionist varies the basic rhythm, usually to indicate a transition.
  • Floating hand: is where the drumhead is struck with the palm of the hand (bass) and the fingertips at the same time.

Be On Time & Be Flexible

A percussionist will usually have a lot of gear /with them. “This is why I always make sure that I’m maybe half an hour earlier to the venue than the rest of the band,” says Martin. “Then I can get set up on time. I can also make sure that I have enough space on stage, so it’s worth being early or on time, since other musicians tend to be bad at predicting how much space the percussionist is going to need. Of course, you can be unlucky enough to find yourself setting your gear up on a small stage, which is why you need to be really flexible and be prepared to leave some instruments out.”

Legendary Latin Percussion Players

Raul Rekow (1954-2015) was a conga player who played with Santana for 30 years and formed part of the acclaimed latin-rock band, Malo. He had a remarkably round conga sound and beautiful flow to his playing. Martin has toured with him.

Armando Peraza (1924-2014) was another conga player who toured with Santana for a long time.

Conga player Mongo Santamaría (1917-2003) came to North America from Cuba with Armando Peraza in the 1940s. He composed the jazz standard Afro Blue.

Ray Barretto (1929-2006) played with a host of jazz musicians, including Charlie Parker.

Tito Puente (1923-2000) is considered the king of the timbales and Latin music in general.

Conga player Carlo Valdes (1926-2007) was renowned under his stage-name, Patato. He was a pioneer of the tunable conga besides being an outstanding musician and a real showman.

Orestes Vilató (1944) is a bongo and timbales specialist who has also worked with Santana.

The newer generation of Latin percussionists includes:

Giovanni Hidalgo (1963) hails from Puerto-Rico and mainly focuses on Latin-jazz. He’s currently considered the best conga player in the world.

Richie Flores is known for a range of works, including Cachao and the Caribbean Jazz Project.

Legendary Pop Percussionists

Ralph MacDonald (1944-2011) was an American percussionist and songwriter who originally came from Trinidad. He plays with a long list of well-known pop acts.

Luis Conte (1954) is a Cuban percussionist who moved to Los Angeles in the 1960s. He’s played with many big names, including Madonna, Phil Collins and James Taylor.

Paulinho da Costa (1948) hails from Brazil and is one of the most recorded percussionists of all time. He can play more than 200 different percussive instruments across a range of different genres.

The new generation of pop percussionists:

Lenny Castro (1957) is an American percussionist who originally came from Puerto Rico. He has played with an array of well-known pop artists, including Toto.

Rafael Padilla has played with acclaimed artists, including Gloria Estefan and Shakira.

See also…

» Bongos
» Congas
» Djembés
» Cajons
» Tambourines
» Shakers
» Alle Percussion & Accessories
» All Drums, Percussion & Accessories

» What’s the Best Percussion Instrument for Me?
» 7 Awesome Percussion Instruments for Pop and Rock
» Three Basic Cajon Beats
» How to Play the Cajon
» Pull the Best Out of Your Cajon: 5 Quick & Simple Tricks
» A Closer Look at Special Effects Percussion
» A Closer Look At: Frame Drums
» Frame Drums: from the Bendir to the Bodhran

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