A Dennis Chambers Q&A About Recording Drums

From DRUM! Magazine’s January 2018 Issue | By Pete Vassilopoulos

We’ve published volumes filled with how-to articles that describe every tip and trick a drummer should know in order to make a successful recording. Yet none can measure up to the firsthand knowledge that comes from someone who’s been there and done that hundreds of times.

Dennis Chambers is one such drummer. With a recorded track record that spans back to the early ’80s, brimming with masterful takes cut with funk, rock, and jazz artists like Santana, Funkadelic, Maceo Parker, John McLaughlin, Tony MacAlpine, and Mike Stern, Chambers always brings a potent arsenal of chops, taste, groove, and perfect drum sounds to every session.

It’s hard to imagine a better candidate for an informal recording rap session. Here’s what Chambers had to say. —Andy Doerschuk


DRUM!: What was your first recording experience?

Chambers: The first recording I remember was a gospel song called “God Gave Me A Song That The Angels Could Not Sing.” I must have been about seven or eight years old. A lady by the name of Gloria lived across the street from me and used to hear me practice all the time. She brought me to her church in Washington D.C. and had me sit in with the band. Then I was asked to do the track, which we recorded inside the church. Lo and behold, it became a big hit all over the country — actually, somebody just emailed me the track two weeks ago.

I was a kid just doing my thing. Even the first time I went into a professional studio, I was too anxious to record and hear myself coming back over the speakers to be nervous. Of course, I’m not that same guy anymore. I was testing the waters and warming up here and there. When I listen back now, I think I would have done it differently.

Music back then was different than it is now. We weren’t thinking about making a pop record. What I mean by that is when you make a pop record, everything has to be perfect and under a microscope. It’s to the point where everything is up on a grid and you can see where your beats lie. If your downbeats are not on the 1, they can move it. It wasn’t necessary back then, and we didn’t even care about it. As long as the feel was good, that’s the only thing we cared about. It’s still the same as far as that goes, but they get a little more involved where they have to manipulate and move things around. It’s the imperfections that made the music sound so good back then.


Do you have a favorite recorded performance?

There’s a [saxophonist] Bill Evans record called Petite Blonde. Also, Live At The Beverly Theater In Hollywood with P-Funk All Stars.


How many takes do you usually do for a given song?

A lot of recordings I’ve done are first or second takes. If I don’t plan anything I may do three different takes three different ways. If I remember correctly, the most I’ve ever done was 15. It wasn’t because of me; it was because someone else had screwed up on writing a chart.


Do you ever choose your own takes during sessions?

I don’t normally get involved in it, unless they ask me. A lot of times I don’t like listening back to myself. The only time I’ll listen to myself is if there’s a section that felt a little funny to me. A lot of times I’ll listen to myself and think I would have done something different here or there. Not that what I recorded wasn’t good, but I’m creating, so I’ll hear it differently.

Where do you stand on click tracks?

I love them for the reason that a lot of times you’ll have a producer who will splice in here and edit there. With a click you know that tempo-wise you’re in the right place. Without a click you might be inspired to do a song a little faster, and it’s impossible to splice. With a click track there’s no question about it.

There are drummers who go into the studio and cut a record and can’t play those songs at a clinic without a click. That baffles me. What do you mean you can’t play it without a click? You recorded it! When I do clinics, I might have a two-bar count-in, but after that there’s no click.

I normally play right on the click, unless I’m asked to do it differently. Sometimes I’m asked to play a little behind it, where the click is a flam to the snare drum. That’s how I play behind the beat. I treat the click like a percussion instrument. Depending on the feel of the song, I may ask for eighth-notes, or quarters or sixteenths. I like a woodblock or a cowbell on the 1.


How do you compose drum parts?

I definitely have to hear what the bass is doing so I know which way to go with it. Then I listen to the melody of the guitar or keyboard, which will inspire me to put the icing on the cake as far as fills.


Do you ever have to edit your drum parts?

I try to stick to one performance. If the take is so good except for one section, I’ll replace that section.


What do you like to hear in your mix?

What I ask for in a mix is anything, and everything but me. If I’m playing in a four-piece, I want to hear all the other three pieces. I don’t need to hear me. I normally pump up the bass more than anyone else because I have to lock with that. Over the top of that is the click or sequencer.

The way P-Funk used to play was interesting. They would pump the click to the drummer and nobody else would have it. If it was a good drummer they could just trust him. Now, people don’t trust the drummer. They’ll hire a great drummer but they want to play to the click as well, and it sounds so stiff because everyone plays to the click instead of playing to the drums.


How much do you prepare before a session?

I usually insist that an artist send me something, because I hate going into the studio cold. Some artists will say, “Oh it’s easy, it’s an easytrack,” but when you get into the studio you have to break out slide rules! It’s easy for them because they wrote it, but not for you when you have to play a bar of nine, then five, then three — and it has to be syncopated! I don’t read a lick of music; it’s all memory. Listen to Niacin’s record Organik. There’s a lot of stuff going through there, and I had to remember all of it.


How do you feel about playing in an isolation booth?

It depends on the sound of the room. I can enjoy being in a small room if the sound is right, just as much as I can enjoy being in a big room.


What kind of relationship do you normally have with producers?

When you’re in the studio you shouldn’t be insulted if someone asks you for another take, especially if they give you a reason why. It gets into a grey area when they ask you for other takes but don’t tell you why, or if you ask if you should do something differently and they say no. Normally, I just try to give people what they want. If it’s something that rubs me the wrong way when I do it, I’ll let them know why I feel that way. People hear things in different ways. I’m paid to give people what they want to hear and I try to give them the best of what I do.

There was an incident in the studio with Mike Stern where he wanted me to ride this China all through a song. I told him the reason why I didn’t like the idea but I played it the way he wanted it, and I didn’t even go back and listen to the playback. Less than a week later, Mike was trying to track me down so I could do another take of that song the way that I heard it.

In the beginning of my career I would get asked to play like other players, especially when Steve Gadd came on the scene. They would hire you but they’d try to get you to play like their favorite players. When people started hiring me to be myself, and when other people heard what that was about, their minds got a little blown.

When I was recording with Special EFX, I was just playing parts, playing ride cymbal or tom fills. Meanwhile, Dave Weckl would play the drum chair on a lot of their stuff. For some reason they didn’t trust me to play drums. In all the time I was with them, I recorded drums on only one or two songs. When I started playing with John Scofield, the percussionist George Jinda called me up and asked, “Who else is doing the record?” I said, “Well, the first recording is Gary Grainger, Hiram Bullock, George Duke, John, and me.” He said, “Who else? No Omar? No Steve Jordan?” I said, “No, it was just me.” He was like, “Really?!” Like, I wasn’t good enough to play on the stuff!

Excerpted from Pete Vassilopoulos’ forthcoming book Recording Drummers.