What is a bricklayer drummer?
It’s probably easier to first describe who is NOT one – Neil Peart, John Bonham, Barry Barlow, Bill Bruford, Keith Moon, Carter Beauford, Ginger Baker, Clem Burke, Omar Hakim, Mitch Mitchell, and Stewart Copeland, to name a few. These are top drummers who work “progressively.” Grounded in roots found in jazz, progressives tend to play big (sometimes giant) multi-piece drum kits. Their work stands out in the music mix in which they appear, stunning us with their wizardry. They change time signatures easier then we change lanes on the highway. They astonish us with death-defying riffs. They add to the very shape of a song, compelling us to focus on their playing because it’s so entertaining to hear. We love them.
A bricklayer drummer does the near opposite. These drummers create a solid bed of bricks for the rest of a band to dance upon. Their playing is subtle, almost unnoticeable, never getting in the way of a tune. The bricklayer’s outstanding contribution to the art of music is knowing just what to add and when. Their work disappears within the music and is rarely a feature or focus within a recorded track. Bricklaying drummers have their beauty in simplicity, and for that, they can be easily dismissed.
Bricklayers tend to play simple 3 or 4-piece drum kits. Their playing relies on beat instinct, something that can’t be taught. Their time-keeping is impeccable, steady as a rock. This is grounded in emotion and feel, thus making an ability to play like this a talent itself. It is an exclusive drumming style found only in Rock & Roll.
Here are the top 10 Bricklaying Drummers of rock:
10. Bill Berry – R.E.M.
Known as a melodic drummer, Berry reveals his bricklayer roots through his ability to play hard foundations (“Finest Work Song,” “Wake-Up Bomb”) while exercising his subtler abilities to help move a softer song along (“Near Wild Heaven,” “World Leader Pretend”). An interesting pattern in his playing developed throughout the band’s history: Berry would play a simpler style outside of the songs he wrote for R.E.M. thus, instinctively, adjusting his style to let the music of the band come to the fore.
9. David Robinson – The Cars
Being part of the proto-punk movement in the early ’70s with Jonathan Richmond and the Modern Lovers, Robinson eventually became the backbone for those great singles by the Cars. His drumming challenge was to constantly find a way in between the swirling of keyboardist Greg Hawkes’ rhythmic arsenal- not an easy trick. Robinson returned the keyboardist’s lob by adding his own brand of electronic syn-drum sounds reveled in their first released song, “Let The Good Times Roll.” Robinson’s fashion sense led to his serving as the cover art curator for the band, bringing in Alberto Vargas prints for us to lather over.
8. Dave Clark – Dave Clark Five
Just listen to the DC 5 do the classic Maurice Williams tune, “Stay,” and you will hear the masonry of Dave Clark. Known for a 4-beat riff on both his tight-sounding snare and floor tom-tom, his influence has been noted by greats Max Weinberg, Jim Keltner, and Peter Criss. As this was Clark’s band, he produced all of their records (and wrote the original songs), and we can hear his drums featured up in the mix at various points (i.e. “Bits and Pieces”) ……perhaps the first time in history a bricklayer was veering off into Progressive Land.
7. Martin Chambers – The Pretenders
As soon as radio listeners of the early 80’s heard Chambers’ distinctive 6-bar drum solo opening, they knew the Pretenders’ “Middle of the Road” was coming. The admitted “glue” of the band, this wouldn’t be the first time that his playing took a leadership role of knitting a song together, as witnessed in his drumming on “Message of Love.” For this tune, writer Chrissie Hynde handed him just two chords for the song’s verse sequence. The whole song would fall apart if not for Chambers’ construction-site start/stop beat, making those two chords feel like four. Now in his 40th year with the band, his playing continues to be exceptional on the Pretenders 2020’s Hate for Sale album.
6. Bun E. Carlos – Cheap Trick
For such a loud and ballsy band, Carlos (birth name Brad Carlson) is the perfect subtle foundation for guitarist Rick Nielsen and bassist Tom Petersson to play off. A quintessential bricklayer, his playing is designed to never be in the way, but always be there. The ambidextrous Carlos has said his personal growth as a drummer started when he listened to tapes of himself and came to realize he was “interfering” in the band’s performance. The best example of his “holding back” while still clobbering the beat can be heard on “Auf Wiedersehen” from their Heaven Tonight album.
5. Larry Mullen, Jr. – U2
With all the sonic opportunities that guitarist The Edge has handed Mullen, he never played along to that level of ambience (who could? ……it might have killed him!). Rather, he chose to produce solid beats to avail The Edge and Bono more room to hang sounds on the U2 clothesline. This is not to say Mullen made it simple, as revealed on “Sunday Bloody Sunday” and “Bullet the Blue Sky.” Both of these tricky beats are rooted in military marches. No doubt influenced by his young teenage years with the Post Office Workers Band of Dublin, Ireland. Later, when U2 expanded to drum machines in the 2000s, Mullen let the digital loops do the hard work and he simply laid his plain vanilla playing on top. Perfect bricks!
4. Pete Thomas – Elvis Costello and the Attractions
The most underrated of the bricklayers, Thomas spent a career keeping Costello on target with great musical control. His playing could be considered shy of original riffs and breaks, but no one will argue that his foundation building is consistently present. He is every recording producer’s dream drummer, as he must have saved Costello millions in studio fees by getting the drum track right every time – the first time. Thomas is one of the only drummers who insists on having to understand the lyrics before playing a new song, as those artful subtitles come out in his selection of playing. Check out Thomas’s playing via YouTube with a supergroup of Costello, Springsteen, Steve Van Zandt, Dave Grohl, and Flea (on bass), at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s induction of The Clash in 2003. Pure bricklaying!
3. Max Weinberg – The E Street Band
Mighty Max is a machine. In concert, he could go on for 10 minutes with a simple Bo Diddley beat while Springsteen riffs over “Not Fade Away.” This would stagger most drummers, but on-signal from the keys of Roy Bittan, Max creates another orbit for the band and launches them into “She’s The One” with even more punch. In 2017, I had the honor to stand next to Max on stage while he played with his Jukebox band. That is where I realized how tight his snare-to-bass drum ratio is. The man never lets in any room for error. His accuracy is how he guarantees a great sound contribution. Metronomes would be jealous.
2. Ringo Starr – The Beatles
Ringo is the Godfather of bricklaying drummers. Solid, out of the way, but always delivering great accessories to those iconic tunes. His inventive sound of open, “sloppy” high-hat beats are a hallmark in recording history (this famous “swooshing” sound can be heard throughout the Beatles’ first five albums, then he finally closed his high-hat beginning with the Rubber Soul album in late ‘65.) There are only a handful of Beatles’ tracks where his drumming is prominent, (i.e. “Day in the Life”) and he has openly regretted his over-playing on their 1966 single, “Rain.” His best bricklaying afternoon was his machine-like work on “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)”, where during the long 18 reiterations of John Lennon’s exit riff, he never repeated himself a single time!
1. Charlie Watts- Rolling Stones
Is there anyone who symbolizes the bricklayer player more than Charlie Watts? He gets the top spot partly due to his abilities to play proper jazz, even though he’s rarely showed off those chops in his years with the Stones. Over six decades, he’s kept it pure and simple. A minimalist supreme, his musical influence over Jagger and Richards provides a dynamic structure to the band. Watts’ beat dexterity can be witnessed in his range of styles from “Sympathy for the Devil,” to funk (“Hot Stuff”) to the country-punk of “Far Away Eyes.” In the years when he linked up to Bill Wyman’s bass, it was said they were the best rhythm section in the world.
Honorable Mention for Bricklayers: Don Henley (Eagles), Simon Kirke (Bad Company), Kenny Jones (Faces), Topper Headon (The Clash), Chris Frantz (Talking Heads) Brian McGee (Simple Minds), Jim Keltner (session drummer supreme), & Mick Fleetwood (you know who he played with).
Photo: Charlie Watts, 1973 (Getty Images)