Hear Charlie Watts Inimitable Isolated Drum Tracks on “Gimme Shelter,” “Beast of Burden,” and “Honky Tonk”

When I was a kid in New Jer­sey, if you were look­ing for work, there’d be ads for musi­cians. In the mid-60s and 70s, they would invari­ably say: “Want­ed: Char­lie Watts type drum­mer” — Max Wein­berg

Since Char­lie Watts passed away last month, trib­ute upon trib­ute has poured in to cel­e­brate his style, his aus­tere sim­plic­i­ty, his role as the calm, steady eye of the Rolling Stones’ roil­ing storm. “Drum­ming is often ugly,” Aman­da Petru­sich wrote at The New York­er, “but Watts looked so beau­ti­ful when he played … His pos­ture alone sug­gest­ed a preter­nat­ur­al ele­gance … there is always poet­ry in restraint.”

This is the way Watts’ play­ing looks to non-musi­cians, and most Rolling Stones fans are not musi­cians, and do not lis­ten to rock drum­ming alone. “It’s pos­si­ble to find Watts’s iso­lat­ed drum tracks online,” Petru­sich writes, “If you’re into that sort of thing. They’re not always per­fect in the tech­ni­cal sense, but they are deeply per­fect in oth­er, less quan­tifi­able ways.” Watts him­self described his drum­ming as non-tech­ni­cal and decried his lack of train­ing. It was all about the band, he said repeat­ed­ly.

But ask oth­er drum­mers to quan­ti­fy Watts’ per­fec­tion and they’ll do so hap­pi­ly. Watts taught him­self to play by lis­ten­ing to his favorite jazz drum­mers, writes Max Wein­berg, “among them the great Eng­lish jazz drum­mer Phil Sea­men, and Dave Tough, an Amer­i­can drum­mer who even looked like Char­lie: a fas­tid­i­ous dress­er, appar­ent­ly with the most incred­i­ble groove and sound.” Wein­berg, who incor­po­rat­ed Watts’ influ­ence on Spring­steen songs like “Born to Run,” elab­o­rates fur­ther.

One way Watts com­mand­ed a room, he says, was as a pro­po­nent “of a style of rock drum­ming pop­u­lar­ized by the late, great Al Jack­son, the famous Stax drum­mer, where you delib­er­ate­ly play behind the direct back­beat. The way you do that — which is a lit­tle tech­ni­cal — is not by focus­ing on the two and the four beat, but the one and the three. Anoth­er exam­ple is James Brown’s music, which is heav­i­ly focused on land­ing on the one. It takes a long time to be able to do that.” He devel­oped the skill as a blues and jazz drum­mer even before Mick and Kei­th seduced him to the Stones.

Anoth­er drum celebri­ty admir­er, Stew­art Copeland, writes about Watts’ unique dynam­ics. As a rock drum­mer trained on jazz, he “went for groove, and derived pow­er from relax­ation. Most rock drum­mers are try­ing to kill some­thing; they’re chop­ping wood. Jazz drum­mers instead tend to be very loose to get that jazz feel, and he had that qual­i­ty.” While Mick strut­ted and dripped across the stage, Char­lie “hard­ly broke a sweat.” From this, Copeland learned that “you can actu­al­ly get a bet­ter sound out of your drums, and a bet­ter groove, if you relax.”

In the clas­sic drum tracks here, lis­ten for some of Watts’ dis­tinc­tive, sub­tle moves, and read more about his tech­nique in Copeland and Weinberg’s rem­i­nisces here. It’s fair to say that every rock drum­mer who came after Char­lie Watts learned some­thing from Char­lie Watts, whether they knew it or not. But while “you can ana­lyze Char­lie Watts,” Copeland writes, “that still won’t get you to his feel and his dis­tinct per­son­al­i­ty. It’s an X‑factor, it’s a charis­ma, it’s an unde­fin­able gift of God.” Petru­sich con­cludes her trib­ute with a sim­i­lar expres­sion of non-tech­ni­cal awe: “Watch­ing Watts play is still one of the best ways I know to check in with the rid­dle and thrill of art — to wit­ness some­thing mirac­u­lous but not to under­stand it.”

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

Say­ing Good­bye to Char­lie Watts (RIP), the Engine of the Rolling Stones for Half a Cen­tu­ry

A Char­lie Watts-Cen­tric View of the Rolling Stones: Watch Mar­tin Scorsese’s Footage of Char­lie & the Band Per­form­ing “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” and “All Down the Line”

Rolling Stones Drum­mer Char­lie Watts Writes a Children’s Book Cel­e­brat­ing Char­lie Park­er (1964)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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