Multiple drummers. Multiple bassists?

I was watching Eric Clapton’s Crossroads concert yesterday. As per usual in these things, the finale featured bunches of musicians for the old favorite songs. (Two Blind Faith and Dear Mr. Fantasy, all with Steve Winwood. Awesome.)

They had two drummers, each with a giant full-sized drum kit. That got me to wondering how multiple instruments work in such a setting. Both drummers seemed to be playing together, but does one set the beat and the other fills in? Can they both synchronize properly? What are the other musicians listening to or for?

Guitarists. Of course Clapton and Winwood were playing twin leads. But what about the other several guitarists on stage? How many different flavors of rhythm parts can there be at once?

I think there was only one keyboardist, but I know I’ve seen several at other times. Comment on them.

And can there ever be multiple bassists? If so, how would they work that?

A band called Ned’s Atomic Dustbin had 2 bassists. And of course Spinal Tap has 3 when they play “Big Bottom”.

At different points, King Crimson sort-of had two bassists and two drummers at once. That is, during their Nineties “double trio” phase, they had both Bill Bruford and Pat Mastelotto on drums, while Tony Levin and Trey Gunn were trading bass duties.

Or, rather, both Gunn and Levin played the Chapman stick, an instrument that’s sort-of a guitar and bass in one. Sometimes Levin played a conventional bass while Gunn played both guitar and bass parts on the stick.

There’s the incarnation of King Crimson that featured a double trio - Robert Fripp and Adrian Belew on guitars, Bill Bruford and Pat Mastrellotto on drums and Tony Levin and Trey Gunn on sticks and basses. ETA - Just like Astorian said.

Then there’s the Ron Carter album Piccolo where Ron Carter plays bass solos over top of Buster Williams playing regular bass duties. Carter’s bass is tuned a fourth higher than Williams’.

Stanley Clarke usually played bass and piccolo bass, but did it by overdubbing. For Stanley Clarke, the electric piccolo bass means an instrument an octave above a regular electric bass, not dissimilar to the bottom four strings of a guitar.

Details about the piccolo bass can be found here at a Wiki link.

I can’t really address multiple drums, and I’ve never had experience with multiple basses, but even in a band with two guitarists, when laying down the rhythm there are certain – not tricks, but methods – to make two parts, which are essentially the same, sound like two parts and not just one muddled part.

Let me explain. No … let me sum up.

When playing dual rhythm parts, you really don’t want to play the exact same thing – the same chords, but not the same way. One may be playing a bar-chord, while another open. Or one an octave up from the other. Or one playing a couple syncopated root notes while the other strums and chunks. Things like that.

I could imagine the same technique could be co-opted to dual basses, and dual drums (octaves notwithstanding).

Not a band, but the song “Take a Walk on the Wild Side” by Lou Reed has a bass guitar and a double bass playing together (the electric bass ascending, and the double bass descending) to create that memorable bass groove that gives the song its unique character. The same bassist (Herbie Flowers - seriously, that was really his name) played both parts, on separate tracks.

Also, the strange jazz/rock version of “When Johnny Comes Marching Home” at the beginning of the obscure John Cassavetes movie “Husbands” (which was billed as a comedy, but actually might be the most depressing movie of all time) has two double bass solos going on at the same time. Not sure if it’s two separate tracks or not.

I went to the trouble of uploading the intro song on Youtube. I absolutely love the bass playing (and the drums) on this little tune. And the bizarre chatter leading up to it.

“One two three four nine!”

(Has ANYONE else seen this movie?)

When the Rhythm Devils play (whoa — actually have a reason to mention them in a thread! I feel so… so… validated) a few things can be going on. They can both carry the beat but have an interweaving conversation (sort of call and response) that is much more fluid and expressive than one drummer constantly putting in fills. The rhythm keeper actually opens up more space. They can both be playing intricate (or simple) syllables that together form a cohesive beat. Also, one drummer carrying the beat gives the other time and opportunity to play other percussion instruments (i.e., those not attached to the drum set) to add accent or drop into one of the above possibilities.

Take a listen to Grateful Dead shows in the early seventies — shows sans Mickey. They are a lot tighter in some ways and can take some pretty sharp turns. But add Mickey back in, and the depth and color intensifies beyond reason.

I play in a lot of drum circles (djembe) both pick-up and with traditional African rhythms, and all the above applies with three, four, ten, whatever drummers you have.


(Thinking of your nick, consider the difference between Groucho on his own (say, in You Bet Your Life) and the brothers interactions in a film. Humor and drumming are similar in the pacing of a joke and the timing of a punch line.)

Butthole Surfers had 2 drummers for a long time.

Sometimes, there can only be multiple basses.

As did the Allman Brothers and the Grateful Dead.

And the Doobie Brothers.

Well, not exactly what you’re after, but apparently, during the post-tour studio preparation of the great Stones live album Get Yer Ya Yas Out!, Bill Wyman overdubbed some bass parts over his own ones from the live performances, so you can hear two basses going at it on the finished product.

The Dirtbombs do it with pretty good success.

Japanese girl-rock group MARIA does the dual-bass thing nicely:

Chiisana Uta

They don’t play the same lines - they play complimentary parts.

I thought you were going to beat me to it—Big Bottom at Live Earth with at least a dozen bassists:

While the period that Mickey was absent did have some great performances, and the flow was quite distinct, only when Billy and Mickey were playing together, entrained in tandem, did the Grateful Dead realise its full musical potential…

Long forgotten Brit sensation band Zigue Zigue Sputnik had two drummers, often performing at the front of the stage. The question of whether anyone could keep time with anyone else was largely irrelevant.

Talking Heads used two bassists - Busta Jones & Tina Weymouth - on their 80-81 tour. I’m not schooled enough on the album from that period (The Name of this band is Talking Heads) to comment on how it worked out.

Trey Gunn also plays a Warr Guitar

Thanks, guys, but I already know there are dozens of examples.

I’m more interested in how it works out musically. Who does what.

The short answer is: it depends.

Ideally, as other posters have said, there is either clear roles (you keep the beat while I add fills for drums; you hold down the low-end while I play more melodic stuff up the neck for bass) or clear communication where the two/multiple players can “finish each other’s sentence,” i.e., each play parts of a full rhythm figure, riff or melodic phrase.

The question is - how do you figure that out? And again, it depends. I can speak to guitars, because it is what I know, but this applies to any situation where you have more than one of the same instrument.

When I am picking apart and arranging a song -

  • First figure out the obvious parts - if they are clear and more than one X is called for, then you’re all set - assign the parts and move on

  • if the division of labor is not so clear, then you need to assess and negotiate between the two players. Is one particularly good at one aspect of the instrument and the other player good at something else - and can that division of labor be applied to this song? Are there any cool ways to break the part down so you two can “finish each other’s sentences”? What would that look like? Are there any crescendo-type sections where playing in unison adds volume and power and isn’t just a weak-ass lack of arrangement?

  • this involves random brainstorming and experimenting - you two simply get behind closed doors and try stuff out…then you re-join the full group and trot out what you’ve worked out and see if it works with them, too…

how’s that?