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Music

How to play the drums like Meg White

@TylerGolsen

There is a strong misconception about Meg White’s drumming: because it’s simple, it’s not very good. For some reason, it’s OK when drummers like Charlie Watts and Ringo Starr purposefully play songs without flash, but when White does it, she gets criticised and commented on for her lack of ability.

The reality couldn’t be farther from the truth. Meg White remains one of the most distinctive players of the 21st century. If you isolated the tracks of her contemporaries in the early 2000s indie rock scene, very few could enter the realm of being instantly recognisable — but Meg White is different. All it takes is the hit of a floor tom, the smash of a cymbal, or the crack of a snare for you to know exactly when White is behind the kit.

Maybe it was because of the stories that were passed down of her origins: she wasn’t a musician of any kind before meeting a young Jack Gillis in Detroit during the late 1990s. Gillis was a former drummer and had a kit in the new couple’s attic that she decided to play on a whim. Gillis, who took White’s last name in marriage to become Jack White, found an immediate musical connection with his wife’s bare-bones playing style.

“When she started to play drums with me, just on a lark, it felt liberating and refreshing,” White told Rolling Stone‘s David Fricke in 2005. “There was something in it that opened me up.” Jack had mostly been a drummer but moved to guitar in order to play with Meg. The two decided to form a band centred around a few of the couple’s quirks, including Jack’s obsession with the number three and Meg’s love of peppermint candies. Focusing on a mix of garage rock and blues, The White Stripes were born.

The secret to The White Stripes wasn’t in the singular tone of Jack’s voice, or the wild flourishes of his guitar playing, but the strange alchemy between those factors and Meg’s drumming. What harsh critics didn’t hear was all the purposeful space left in between the notes, or the steady rhythm that was necessary when Jack was flying from guitar to piano and back again.

Like any drummer, Meg leaned heavily on certain rhythms. The double stop, where a single hit would be followed by a double hit, was one of the keys to White’s style: you can hear it on ‘I’m Slowly Turning Into You’, ‘Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground’, and ‘Fell in Love With a Girl’. It’s all across the band’s catalogue, and it became a signature rhythm from White.

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Another trick to creating a dynamic between just two instrumentalists involved switching between the hi-hat and the crash cymbal hits from verses to choruses. ‘Hotel Yorba’ and ‘I Fought Piranhas’ are great examples of this technique. Paiste cymbals played a crucial role in White’s sound, giving her the loud crashes that became emblematic of her sound.

Another trick used by White was to hold a shaker in her right hand to give the song an added sense of depth. Most notable in Get Behind Me Satan, tracks like ‘White Moon’, ‘My Doorbell’, ‘The Denial Twist’ and ‘300 M.P.H. Torrential Outpour Blues’ are all fleshed out thanks to some added percussion added by White simply holding an extra rattler in her cymbal-striking hand.

Most essential to replicating (and appreciating) White’s sound is when she does very little at all. A steady bass drum, accentuated with a floor tom, for the verses of songs, before opening up the hits on cymbals for the choruses. You know the sound: it’s in ‘The Hardest Button to Button’, ‘Icky Thump’, ‘Suzy Lee’, ‘Blue Orchid’, ‘Hello Operator’, and most famously on the band’s most timeless track, ‘Seven Nation Army’.

Jack White might be the sole songwriter credited to The White Stripes’ original songs, but it’s clear to hear how much impact Meg had in shaping the band’s sound. In his solo tours, Jack has tapped highly technically skilled drummers like Daru Jones and Carla Azar to hit all the marks across his diverse catalogue, but even they tend to overplay the White Stripes songs. It’s not easy to be as willingly stripped down and simplistic as Meg White is, but any kind of showing off is completely antithetical to The White Stripes’ music. It needs someone like Meg behind the kit, and she brings her own unmatched rhythms to some of rock’s most legendary tracks.

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