Spoiler alert: if you want to play drums like Stewart Copeland, all you need is a bass drum and a hi-hat. Delay machine? Throw it away! Elaborate full percussion set-up? Unnecessary! Even something as simple as the snare drum? Not in this house! With just a bass drum and a hi-hat, you can play a pattern that just about any music fan will instantly recognise as Stewart Copeland.
Are you ready? OK, start with some driving eighth notes on the hi-hat. Got it? Pair that up with quarter note hits on the bass drum. From there, through in some syncopated hits whenever the mood strikes. Congratulations: you have now successfully emulated Stewart Copeland.
Throughout his tenure in The Police, along with his collaborations with everyone from Les Claypool to Peter Gabriel, Stewart Copeland managed to throw every last bit of flash, technique, show-offy skill, tricky rudiment, and extreme rhythm that a drummer was humanly capable of. But the secret was that Copeland always got a long doing more with less.
Take, for instance, his use of the snare drum. Although the tightly-wound sound of his snare is iconic in its own right, Copeland never seemed overly eager to smash and bash what most drummers consider the centre of their setup. On songs like ‘Roxanne’, Copeland simply shifts over to the standard backbeat, while the verses of ‘Driven to Tears’ barely use the snare at all (just like we learned at the top).
‘Roxanne’ is a fascinating microcosm of Copeland’s approach to rhythm. By taking a relatively straightforward beat and syncopating his hits by as little as an eighth note, Copeland gave The Police a unique drive that landed somewhere in between the driving power of punk and the danceable rhythms of reggae.
If you want mind-bending speed, Copeland has that in spades as well. Tracks like ‘Peanuts’, ‘No Time This Time’, and ‘Synchronicity I’ give Copeland the ability to unleash his manic personality without sacrificing accuracy or technique. No matter how fast the tempo is set, Copeland manages to match it with fiery precision and insatiable technique.
So let’s talk about that technique. Notably, Copeland plays with traditional grip, the kind of style utilized mostly by jazz musicians. But Copeland doesn’t play jazz – his hard-hitting style owed as much to tribal rhythms as it did to the fierce attack of rock players like Neil Peart. It was a mix of styles, along with his own exuberant personality, that set Copeland apart from his peers.
When it comes to equipment, if you decide you need a little bit more than a bass drum and a hi-hat, there are some important elements to keep in mind. Snares should be tightened within an inch of their lives. Don’t be afraid to tune the toms up high as well. Cutting through the mix was an essential part of Copeland’s style, and lower-pitched drums simply won’t do the trick. Once your rack toms start to sound like octobans, you know you’re heading in the right direction.
Copeland’s engagement with the ride cymbal is also a unique aspect of his style. On songs like ‘Miss Gradenko’, ‘Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic’, ‘Re-Humanise Yourself’, ‘Omegaman’, ‘Man In A Suitcase’, and ‘It’s Alright for You’, Copeland’s syncopated hits between the bell of the ride and the cymbal itself create kind of driving rhythm that is essential to The Police’s overall sound.
Around the time of Reggatta de Blanc, Copeland and the rest of the band discovered the beauty of echo, reverb, and delay. This is important to keep in mind if you find yourself getting frustrated trying to replicate the beats of ‘Walking on the Moon’, ‘Don’t Stand So Close to Me’, or ‘The Other Way of Stopping’: Copeland also had technology on his side, specifically the Roland RE-201 Space Echo that let his hits hang in the air for a fraction of a second.
Ultimately, though, to play the drums like Stewart Copeland takes an almost impossible mix of technical skill, extravagant flash, and tasteful restraint. Copeland gives you a defiant basic backbeat when you expect a frantic driving rhythm. No matter what style or speed he’s playing at, Copeland delighted in keeping listeners on their toes. That excitement and untamable energy are what truly makes Stewart Copeland a legend among drummers, even if all you need is a bass drum and a hi-hat to replicate it.