For more than 50 years, Charlie Watts made playing drums in the world’s biggest rock band look easy. Stoic, solid, and completely unflappable, Watts was the anchor that held The Rolling Stones together through their most tumultuous ups and downs. Through it all, he never missed a beat or played an off rhythm. While Mick Jagger ran like a maniac around the stage, Watts was keeping things calm, like the eye in the middle of the storm.
To understand Charlie Watts is to understand that, despite being one of the most influential rock drummers of all time, he wasn’t all that into rock and roll. “I’ve never wanted to play rock and roll with anyone else,” Watts proclaimed in the documentary Shine a Light. If it were up to him, Watts would much rather be playing jazz or R&B, just like his heroes.
“I was 12 years of age, and I heard Earl Bostic play ‘Flamingo,’” Watts recalled to the San Diego Union-Tribune in 1991, “And when I was 13 I went out and bought a record by Gerry Mulligan called ‘Walking Shoes.’ I’d heard Chico Hamilton play brushes on ‘Walking Shoes,’ and – bingo!– I wanted to play the drums.”
‘Walking Shoes’ is actually a great encapsulation of Watts’ ethos behind the drums: not flashy or flamboyant, but always propulsive and right in the pocket. In an age where his contemporaries were wild players like Keith Moon and John Bonham, Watts was decidedly against showing off. Instead, he kept his playing purposefully simple and easy to groove along with.
“I was always brought up under the theory the drummer was an accompanist,” he said on the YouTube video titled ‘If It Ain’t Got that Swing’. “My thing whenever I play is to make it a dance sound. It doesn’t matter if it’s blues or whatever. It should swing and bounce.”
That simplicity extended over to his drum kit. The ’70s saw a massive increase in the size of drums, with players like Neil Peart and Ginger Baker embracing double bass drums, rows of toms, and an endless assortment of cymbals. But Watts never strayed from his compact kit: during the band’s extravagant 1969 tour, Watts only had a single rack tom and two cymbals to work with.
Watts favoured Gretsch drums all throughout his career, and his iconic ’57 round badge natural maple wood kit can be seen on pretty much every Rolling Stones tour from the late ’70s on. Around the same time, Watts began using a thinner crash cymbal that had similar tonal qualities as a china cymbal. This unmistakable sound can best be heard in songs like ‘Hang Fire’ and ‘She’s So Cold’.
But if you truly want to replicate Watts’ signature playing style, there’s one essential element that you have to key into: never play the snare and the hi-hat at the same time. The subtle lift that Watts does when providing the backbeat may seem inconsequential, but it’s part of the alchemy that is vital to the Stones’ groove.
“I never knew I did that until Jim Keltner saw me play in 1970,” Watts told DRUM! Magazine. “He asked me why I did it, and I didn’t know what he was talking about. And I still don’t know what it is, and I still don’t know I’m doing it. People have asked me to explain why I do it. The only way I can imagine is I play [traditional grip] with my left hand. And maybe it’s a way of getting one hand to make the backbeat bigger. I don’t know. It’s an unconscious thing.”
The lift actually has multiple benefits: it allows the crack of the snare to come through more clearly, it creates a slight hesitation that keeps the groove in the pocket, and it keeps Watts from over-exerting himself on some of the band’s faster songs like ‘Respectable’ and ‘Rip This Joint’. It might seem quaint, but that held back hit on the hi-hat is what makes Watts so difficult to replicate, despite the fact that he’s usually playing beats that are relatively simple.
Oh, also important: no drum solos. “I don’t like drum solos,” Watts said. “I never take them. I admire some people who do them, but generally, I don’t like them. It’s not something I sit and listen to. I prefer drummers in the band playing with the band.” Remember, flash was anathema to Watts, and there’s nothing flashier than a drum solo.
So with a solid base in jazz, a paired down drum kit, and a slight lift in your hi-hat patterns, you too can begin to sound more like Charlie Watts. But the single most essential quality to Watts’ drumming is a tool that every musician needs to have: listening. Watts famously followed Keith Richards’ lead and played off the other musicians around him. If you want to sound like Watts, the first step is just to start listening.