Improving your 

ability to play drums


The physical and mental problems associated with drug use are well enough documented. My purpose here is to zero in on what it does to a drummer’s abilities. What I am about to tell you, I know from personal experience and observations of students and fellow drummers for over 40 years. When I say “drugs” I am also including alcohol as a drug.

Part of the rhythmic skill of a drummer is mental “time sense” and it is the most important natural ability a drummer has. Time sense is the drummer’s ability to perceive the even space between beats continuously and where the center of the beat is. Under the influence of drugs that ability is damaged. Natural steady time becomes uneven. Residual effects of drug use continue to effect the time sense.

If the student is currently using drugs or if there has been a history of frequent drug use, I have been able to observe the consequences after a few lessons. The first area it shows up in is the area of steady time.

I have taught children the basics of time and after three or four lessons they can keep steady time with a pattern on the drums. Mind you, it is not complicated or technical but it is steady.

On the other hand, I have taught the same concepts to teens and adults at the beginner level. It has literally taken these students months to be able to do what the children have done in a few weeks because of drug use while learning the instrument.

I have had to insist to these students they stop using drugs while studying and hoped that with practice, their natural time sense will take hold. Some have not taken my advice and I have had no choice other than to stop teaching these students because it became futile to continue.

When I have taught intermediate and advanced students who used drugs, some struggled to focus their concentration on exactly where the center of the beat was while using a metronome. With some of these students, self-doubt kicked in. This became amplified by drug use and they became discouraged. I am sorry to say that some of these talented students gave up drumming.

I have followed the careers of several great drummers who I knew to be habitual or former drug users. I would question how they were able to perform at their highest level of ability while under the direct or residual effects of drugs such as marijuana, cocaine, heron, LSD, etc. sometimes in combinations.

I knew of one drummer who could hardly stand up at a recording session because of the excess from the night before. Amazingly, right after the count off, he was able to focus himself mentally and sight-read the whole session. He turned in a phenomenal performance. That album went on to be one of the best albums of drumming ever recorded. No, I will not say who it was.

In my observations of others and within myself, I found a common denominator. All these drummers developed their natural time sense at a young age and had strengthened it with many hours of practice and playing before they started using drugs later in their life.

For some, their mental ability with time became so strong that they could override the mental and physical effects of the drugs. However, this did not last forever.

Over the years, I continued to observe these drummers. Their playing became less fluid and more solid. They began to state the time louder and harder as if they were having trouble feeling time because they were playing through a fog of drugs. They weren’t floating with the time as they had earlier in their careers. In addition, their technique was not as flawlessly executed or less technique was being used. Their reaction time also started to slow down and technical deterioration continued to progress.

They began looking unhealthy and many developed physical problems related to drug abuse. Some died prematurely as has been the case with some of our most talented artists. This list is long and the losses great.

At some point a drummer will be confronted with the choice of using or not using drugs and this usually occurs early in one’s life.

It seems easy enough to give the advice of “just say no”. In reality, if one can do that, it is the best choice. Unfortunately, not everyone is emotionally strong enough to choose wisely and peer pressure can be great.

The gift of music is a high no drug can match. The more in control you are of that gift, the more you touch others to embrace music. That brings joy to the listener and fulfillment to the artist.

In the long run, drug use only brings sadness and broken dreams to everyone.

© 2008 by Tom Mendola – All Rights Reserved.

21 Responses to Drumming and Drugs

  • drums says:

    Exciting stuff, it is actually enjoyable to find a couple of drumming sites on the net. There are not all that many sites around about drums that I have found anyhow. I’ll subscribe to your feed then find out what you come up with in future!

  • CJ says:

    Interesting read, and you make good, valid points. However, I would like to point out one flaw here. The type of drug use this article seems to pertain to is habitual and long term use, which creates a sort of misconception of the true nature of “drugs”. When I say drugs, I define it as any substance that changes/alters either your body or your perception as a whole (caffeine, tylonol, alcohol, nicotine, amphetamines {ADHD meds} and all substances therein). Drugs when used continuously and habitually do have damaging effects, as does almost anything when not taken with a little moderation. Drugs (such as LSD and marajuana from those your have listed) can have positive effects on the individual if taken in moderation and used responsibly. Most psychedelics also can have positive effects when used under the same criteria. I’m not here to say that all drugs are good because there are drugs on the planet that shouldn’t exist at all, I.e. heroin, meth, crack ect. because of the amount of damage and havoc they cause, but this mentality that “all drugs are bad because a few of them are really really bad” is a little biased and narrow minded. Some drugs can be beneficial when coupled with responsibility, and can help us see things in a new light, some destroy that light forever. As a whole, I think everyone should advocate the message to do your research on drugs before you even think about trying them instead of “don’t do any of them, some of then make you do bad things”. Again, very interesting article, I would love to see any sort of documentation or personal comments of your students/colleagues!

  • Tom says:

    Hi CJ. When I first read your post, I thought of not responding to it but after thinking more about what you state I felt it would irresponsible of me not to respond.

    Yes, there are positive reasons to administer drugs. There is definitely a need for drugs to alleviate pain, for surgery, to prevent or cure disease, etc. This is not what I am stating in this article. My focus is on the devastation street drugs, alcohol and the abuse of prescription medication has on a drummer specifically.

    I feel the flaw here is inherent in your statement “Drugs (such as LSD and marijuana from those your have listed) can have positive effects on the individual if taken in moderation and used responsibly. Most psychedelics also can have positive effects when used under the same criteria.”

    I can tell you from first hand experience that in the case of LSD I have witnessed friends who lost their sanity after taking LSD one time. Two were committed. There are scores of documented incidents where individuals have had such extreme hallucinations that resulted in accidental deaths or terrible accidents. I have also known people who have lost their short-term memory after taking LSD and suffered “flash backs”. It is like playing Russian roulette. It is illegal to make and sell let alone be “taken moderately” in an uncontrolled environment. What is positive about this? Nothing.

    In the case of Marijuana, the jury is still out on what exact health benefits it has. Now that it is becoming legal in some states, extensive medical research can be undertaken. There is some evidence it helps certain conditions but there needs for more controlled research and standardization on the amount of THC that is acceptable, the amount of pesticides in the samples, and many other variables.

    It is interesting you don’t mention the “gateway” effect to other drugs these two drugs drugs can produce. Your assumption, “can have positive effects on the individual if taken in moderation and used responsibly”, leads one to believe that everyone who tries these drugs are responsible, educated, and sound of mind. I don’t think most people make the choice to try street drugs in a rational state of mind or after weighing the pros and cons. Nor do most people continue to use these drugs or prescription medication abuse in a rational state of mind.

    Everyone does not react the same mentally or physically to any substance put in their body. There is no standard for tolerance. Addiction is always a risk and so is death.

    I could go on and on but I won’t. Whatever your definition of moderate is, it sounds like your personal standard. I hope if you are using that it doesn’t eventually erode you mentally and physically and you are also able to lead a happy and productive life.

    Thanks for your comment and if you want to read what my students have to say, go to the Testimonial tab on my website.

  • David says:

    Hellay, Tom,

    I’m a drummer from germany, having had about a decade of semi pro work with 40 odd bands of all styles, little studio work since we’re not exactly nashville here (:) but a modest average of 50 gigs/yr.
    Now my question is about legal prescription drugs and their side effects on drumming, more precisely, lithium(-carbonate, see also Cobain, Sting). Leaving all obvious matters about musicking and hypo- or maniac mental conditions aside, I’m worried about what I experience while drumming and being on a continuous prescription of the above mentioned as preventive measure:
    While I’m ok with a little weight gain and stuff, I’m missing my usual sensitivity, speed, and foremost, my definition and…insistence in my play as I observe it in the sense of self. I find myself playing in a rather clumsy, delayed way and lack finesse, edged accuracy, dynamics. I remember the positive feeling and humble mastery of some parts, but I don’t seem to realize it like I did.
    I have to take into consideration that I a) am 49 yrs. old and have 2 boys, drawing the one or another ampere out of me, so to speak and b) have only some 2 gigs/yr. left these days…
    So adrenaline shortage, age and stuff may take their toll but I would be interested in fellow drummers with similar experiences to exchange and discuss.

    David, Freiburg

    • Tom says:

      Hi David. Thanks for contacting me. I am not a medical doctor so my opinions are based on my observations and research. I have trained drummers on various medications for different mental problems. As I have not taken medication for such, I cannot comment from my own experience. However I can tell you the side effects of such have produced some problems for a few of my students. Simply, they were over medicated at a young age and often I could not get them to focus on the lesson. It was interesting in that the medications were supposed to “help” them focus. I didn’t find that to be true with the students I dealt with. Mental illness is a slippery slope and there are a lot of opinions and research on how to treat these problems. I don’t believe we are all meant to be the same and that there is a model for what is a normal personality. When it comes to drumming your great players all have their own unique voice on the drums. Think how boring it would be if we all played the same. I don’t feel that medicating everyone to be the same is the answer. That said, there are people who do need help. I suggest you find time to play your instrument more just for your own pleasure. When we play less we do lose some of our finesse and it brings us less joy. The less joy, the less you want to play and the loss gets bigger. I don’t think age is as big a factor. I play with a trumpet player who is 85 and he can still swing and hit his notes. He practices every day. Just make time for yourself and have fun.

  • David says:

    Hello, Tom,

    thank you for your understanding words. It is interesting too what you tell about the young kids and the paradox results of calming medication (ritaline, I suppose).
    I think, that the quality drumming challenges nervous system, muscular condition and cognition plus the balance of it all could is a pretty interesting model for researching neurologists. These abilities react pretty sensitive.
    It is a difficult field really as you say and you sure are right with the point “stick to practice”. I’m going to look out for bands I suppose :-)

    Thank you,

    Some of my temporarily defunct chanson band:

  • Peta daniels says:

    I dont belive what your saying is true because ive been playing drums 8 years and druming while intoxicated does not stop you from keeping time think about john bonham when he played live he was about 30 shots deep and he kept the best time out of anyone playing on drugs such as lsd and shrooms your mind is more open so you can really see what you can do behind the kit so if your saying drugs are bad with music then your not very smart why do you think so many musicians use drugs and achohl beacuse it inhances there playing

    • Tom says:

      Peta, you are proving my point to be true by your response. Bonzo DIED because of his alcoholism. Had he sobered up his playing would have improved even more over time. Who knows how much greater he would have become had not abused himself and stretched himself beyond Led Zeppelin. With him we lost another great artist because of substance abuse. Of course I cannot convince you of something that isn’t true for you. I’m sorry to say that you are misguided and I suggest you get yourself straight and try to find happiness within yourself without drugs. You only think you are playing better. Record yourself with and without being under the influence and compare the two while you are straight. Also put a metronome to both recordings when listening back. Also, go ask some of the great drummers you may or may not admire. Ask them if they felt they played better under the influence or not. I bet one for one they would tell you NO! Also your statement “why do you think so many musicians use drugs and achohl beacuse it inhances there playing” is flatly false and a generality. The vast majority of musicians are NOT drug abusers. Remember, most great musicians were great BEFORE they started abusing drugs.

  • Stan says:

    I’ve fairly recently read some research that claims the effects of some drugs and alcohol seem to help “some” musicians with creativity; especially when they’re improvising. That should probably be no surprise. It also does not say that using drugs are necessary or the best way to expand creativity.

    I think a couple of things are missing from this discussion. The fact that some unknown number of drummers or musicians played some amazing things on recordings or in performances while drunk or high is not evidence that all musicians will do the same on the same drugs. Generalizing Bohnam’s playing to yourself simply because both of played under the influence doesn’t mean anything.

    In my mind, the biggest issue is that alcohol and the most commonly used drugs ALSO have long term effects on the brain and the body that have nothing to do with music or functional health in general. Yes, I’ve seen and played with a couple of people who really could not play well until they were under the influence. One is dead and the other does something else for a living because he became unreliable and was often incoherent.

    Yeah, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards and others were (maybe still are) heavy users and they still make big money. That’s them. Try making a list of top name musicians/artists that you personally know for a fact are usually or always high or drunk. Then make a list of those who are not. I have no idea how long your lists will be but I’d bet the lives of the consistent users are not lives most artists would choose for themselves.

  • Matt says:

    Heya Tom, I am 16 years old and have been playing drums for 4 years, however with lots of success and an incredible amount of passion for drumming it is all I want as a career in life. This year I was introduced to marijuana and have smoked it around 10 times i’d say, 1-2 times a month. I do really enjoy the high but if it is likely to have a large effect on my drumming I would be more than happy to attempt going 100% clean of it. I just want to know, if I continued to smoke 1-2 times a month, but doing no other drugs, over the years would it have a big negative effect on my drumming.

    Just to reiterate, I am not talking about playing drums high and have no intentions of doing so just wondering if it would have long term effects.

    Smoking weed was never something I planned to take up and also would be hard to never do again, all if this is a result of there being a massive drug culture where I live and peer pressure is often high.

    • Tom says:

      Thank you for the question. Taking any drug is a personal choice and one has to weigh the feelings of euphoria vs. prolonged side effects over time. I can only speak from personal experience and from observation of fellow musicians and my students who were users. It never helped me play better. I have recorded myself both straight and under the influence and although I thought I was playing better at the time, I wasn’t. I could never sight read a chart under the influence.

      I have seen students change in motivation and commitment to the instrument as getting high became a part of their life. Some started experimenting with other drugs after marijuana and their life took a turn for the worse. Regarding other musicians I work with most have not been able to perform as sharp. I cover that in the article and what happened with some of them. Recently, a close friend who is well known has developed brain cancer that his doctors attribute to a long life of drug and alcohol abuse. He was a brilliant musician and even though he could still play under the influence he played better when he was straight. He cannot play anymore as he has had several brain surgeries.

      There will be a lot of peer pressure. There was a lot when I was coming up as well. Are those pressuring you have the same goals you do or do you want to languish in a stupor with them the rest of your life? Just realize that as you get better and the music becomes more demanding and your income depends on your performance, you have to be very sharp in your execution! You have to be the best you can be. Anything that gets in the way of that must be eliminated so you and one day your family can survive well and prosper.

      There is scientific evidence that smoking marijuana from late childhood or early teens puts the smoker at risk of developing schizophrenia. Also, women who are pregnant and smoke marijuana put their unborn at risk for several problems. Marijuana is classified as a hallucinogen and most people forget that. The potency of marijuana has been manipulated through hybirdization to be as powerful as possible. This poses a risk if people are driving or doing mechanical work under the influence. There is no federal limit established for dosage. Also there is no regulation on the amount or type of pesticides used on it which are often illegal to use on plants that are consumed or smoked. I have provided links below.

      There will be some who argue these points. It is up to you to decide. Does this make you a better musician or not? Does it enhance your life and the life of those around you? Does it help you achieve your goals? That is the bottom line.

      Thank you for your honesty and I wish you success.

  • Ronnie says:

    Dear Tom,
    I totally understand what you are saying about the negative long-term effects of drug use. I also have seen drummers smoke weed and play phenomenally. One drummer in particular–who will remain unnamed–I saw toking up before recording sessions and he still kept perfect time. I saw him smoke before recording and playing numerous times. Also, another noted jazz drummer I know of, loved to smoke marijuana before playing. The “zero tolerance” attitude, I believe, is too extreme. I admit that when I smoke before playing, depending on the situation, I can get a bit paranoid, but this says more about me emotionally than the marijuana. Those great pros i’ve seen smoke did not seem in the least anxious while playing after smoking. I wonder, if people were totally honest, if you wouldn’t find that at least half of the great jazz drummers and of course many rock, soul, and funk drummers, had a toke before playing.

    • Tom says:

      Hi Ronnie. Thanks for your candor. “I admit that when I smoke before playing, depending on the situation, I can get a bit paranoid, but this says more about me emotionally than the marijuana.” I ask you the question, why do you smoke if you are having this reaction? Certainly this must be uncomfortable while playing to say the least. Using mind-altering substances is a personal choice. I don’t agree with your generality “at least half of the great jazz drummers and of course many rock, soul, and funk drummers, had a toke before playing”. I hear this position from musicians and people who are defending the use their drug of choice. The complexity of the music and particularly sight-reading would be prohibitive of this. However, per my article some are able to do it for the reasons stated. I don’t know how long you have been a professional musician but in my experience the use drops off, as many have grown older. That is if the abuse doesn’t do their career in first. Good luck to you and practice a lot. I wish you success.

  • Charl says:

    Hey Tom
    I know this forum is pretty old but thanks for opening up a dialogue about it. I gotta say, I’m seeing a lot of blanket statements here that I dont think you can apply to every case. I’m only talking about marijuana as its the only drug I’ve used, but what people have to understand is weed effects people differently. If it so happens that weed trashes your timing and makes you a worse player, than that’s fine, but it definatley doesn’t apply to everyone. For people like me, it hones your concentration, and lets you tap into an incredibly artistic and creative version of yourself. I’ve been smoking weed and drumming for a couple years now and my skills have sky rocketed since then. Technique, keeping time, limb independence, ghosting, chops, and creativity especially have all gotten exponentially better for me since I started. And no, weed doesn’t “just make me think I’m playing better” that’s truly a dumb statement to apply to everyone. I know it’s made me better, I play sober just as much as stoned, and when I’m sober I actively build off of the things I learn and create when I’m high. Creativity is the biggest factor, the stuff I can come up with when I’m stoned is un-paralleled compared to when I’m sober. I’ve been playing for 13 years, which to some is a lot and others almost nothing. But at this point I’m comfortable enough behind the kit to try new things and push my limits as a drummer, and weed has been an incredible tool for me in helping with that. If used appropriately, marijuana can be a beautiful thing man, especially with music. And it blows my mind that, from what I’ve read, so much of the drumming community has a negative view about it. Granted I am from Canada, where it just got legalized nation wide, but regardless.
    Just thought I would give my experience and opinion.
    Best of luck!

    • Tom says:

      Hi Charli. You are correct. Drugs affect everyone differently because of their own perceptions, realities and biochemistry. You are trying to generalize my viewpoints on this subject and that doesn’t work in this conversation. It works for you and that is OK. Its your world, your body, your mind. After many years throwing this subject around with many great musicians the overwhelming majority do not agree with you. I have seen video of Buddy Rich screwing up an into when he was high on weed. Did he play better or worse on weed? You would have had to ask him. I never saw him screw up a part when he was straight. Good luck to you and keep playing.

Copyright © 2012 TOM MENDOLA