Public Drum Kits: What It’s Like Being A Drummer In Tokyo

This is just an informational article for musicians who are curious about what it’s like to play in Japan. It’s mainly for drummers but there is useful information for all musicians in here. It’s very dull. I took out all the jokes.

All prices have been converted to dollars on the simplifying assumption that 100 yen = US$1.00.

TOKYO IS A VERY dense city where people live in tightly packed-together apartments and houses with thin walls. Also, there are no basements, and no extra space in the garages and no driveways in which a car could sit while you played drums in the garage. And there is no street parking.

You might think this would make the country very inhospitable to drummers, but that is only partly true. Much like public transportation picks up the slack in the city where it would be impossible for everyone to drive or even own a car, so too do essentially public drum sets pick up the slack where it would be obnoxious if everyone who wanted to play drums set up a kit in their tiny apartment or garage.

This is a distinct advantage because you don’t even have to own a drum set or figure out where to put it (which can be difficult even in the U.S.) to play drums. You could be a drummer your whole life here and never own a single drum.

First, for a band, there are practice studios everywhere in Tokyo and often there is one in most any moderately-sized city outside of Tokyo. I had a band in Tsukuba city in Ibaraki prefecture north of Tokyo for awhile, and we had two practice studios to choose from in that city.

These things are great, better than almost any setup I’ve ever had being in bands in America. First, you rent the room by the hour. Second it is really well equipped and appointed. Not only are there already top notch drums with fresh heads, amps, PAs, and possibly keyboards and other amenities in the studio, so you don’t have to bring your own, but the rooms are designed with acoustics in mind, and the sound is generally very warm and nice. And they are excellently soundproofed, so you can turn up. And they are as clean, warm, and welcoming as the room Kanye recorded his last album in.

The cost is generally about $20-50 an hour, depending on size and location, so if you are a 4-piece band that practices once a week for two hours, it’ll cost you about $20 a week for practices. You can also get package deals for overnight practices or weekday afternoon practices and get for example a 6-hour stretch of time for much less.

I’ve had the extra good fortune of finding a drum-only practice studio in the neighborhood in which I work. These are tiny studios containing just a drum set. Being so small, the sound is not great, but the drum sets are all quite nice and the heads kept fresh. And I can pop around and practice for $4 for a half hour after work. With these and the full band studios, you either book ahead of time, or sometimes there will be a studio open if you just show up. The one I go to is called Beats Paradise, and it’s about a 10 minute walk from Ichigaya station (access map here).

Compare this to the situation for trying to practice in America. When I was in high school, my step-father built the family a semi-soundproofed music studio off of our garage. This was great good fortune for me. He was a quite-good electric guitarist in the 70’s classic rock and blues style, and several other family members played guitar, so he was sympathetic to my desire to have a place to practice and used my interest in drums as the instigation to build a music room for everyone. But most people don’t have such luck. It’s either in the garage during the warmer months annoying the neighbors, or in the basement, with practice hours severely restricted by the other people in the house.

Then, when you strike out on your own, it’s even worse. You’ve got to find someone with a house rather than an apartment. Sometimes these sorts of considerations are key factors in deciding who gets to be in the band. Another option is to rent a studio for the band, but here the situation is so much worse. I rented a practice space in the dingiest part of downtown Minneapolis once, an ugly, smelly, crumbling building that was hard to get to and unpleasant to be in. And of course, you still have to have all your own equipment. And you have to rent the space by the month, no matter how much you use it.

I did once see a guy in Tokyo who had set up his entire drum kit, and it was like a 7 or 8 piece, under a bridge over a very large river in central Tokyo (The Sumida-gawa, up around Asakusa), at about 10 on a weeknight. It was the one place he figured he could practice where no one could hear him. He was mostly right. I still had to laugh. Partly because he had this huge multi-tom-tom set and wasn’t very good. He was playing basic rock beats reading sheet music. I’ve seen this here in Japan and no place else. A drummer will join a rock band and read off the song as they play, sometimes on stage. Suffice it to say, they don’t usually play with much feeling when they do this. I think this says something important and interesting about Japanese culture that I won’t comment further on here.

The first band I joined in Japan was when I went to see an American friend play and the Japanese drummer they had just hired was sitting back very gently playing along to the songs while reading sheet music. I’m generally not a very aggressive person, and I didn’t attend that gig intending to take anyone’s job, but I went up to my friend immediately after the show and told him they desperately needed me.

I hasten to add that I’ve seen some incredible Japanese drummers, whose ability likely has nothing to do with being Japanese. They just took a modicum of native talent and worked really hard to master their craft. And a few of the most original percussionists I’ve ever seen were Japanese. People with a unique style. But I think the hobbyists attitude towards drums is different here than in the U.S., and it’s interesting.

My impression is that you’re more likely to see a young woman playing drums in Japan than you are in the states too. The drummer that I replaced in the story above was a female university student, learning drums as a sort of official or semi-official extra-curricular activity. I knew of a few all-girl high school bands from my days as a teacher, as well. When I was teaching middle school in the early 200os, the school bands (the 20-piece groups with the brass, woodwind and percussion sections) were usually entirely girls. All official extra-academic activity was done at the same time, so if you did a sport you couldn’t do band, and vice-versa, and I believe it would have been viewed as un-masculine for a boy to choose band over a sport, and would have likely invited a lot of ridicule and bullying. So I suspect that this is the source of this.

For gigging in Japan, almost every venue has a drum set and amplifiers on site. Often there is a high quality professional PA system as well. So once again, you don’t have to lug your gear around. In fact, whereas in the U.S. the drummer generally has the worst time of it with load in and load out, in Japan he or she has the easiest time of it. While the guitarists are lugging an axe or two and a box of effects pedals on a crowded rush-hour train, I can just show up with a couple pairs of drums sticks and be ready to go.

There are two types of venues you can play in Japan. By far the most common is the live house system. This is called pay-to-play in the U.S. Generally there will be a bill of 3 or 4 bands on a given night at a live house, and a goal for the total number of people who pay the entrance fee to get in. Let’s say the bands altogether have to clear $200. Generally entrance is $20, with maybe a required extra $5-$7 charge for a drink ticket (drinking is expensive in Japan, but that doesn’t stop anyone). When each audience member shows up at the door, they’ll be asked which band they are here to see, and that information will be marked down. When the night is over, if all the bands together don’t cover the $200, they will be required to pay the house to make up the difference. If they go over the $200, they’ll get a percentage of everything over $200. In my experience some live houses put their minimum attendance requirement very close to their maximum capacity, so it is next to impossible to make much money. Although we have found some quite generous live houses and on some occasions have raised in the range of $1000 for charity.

This system is most definitely stacked against bands. Live houses generally don’t have any walk-ins. Only people who were invited to the show will attend. And there are so many of them, competition is stiff. Further, the live house schedule can start as early as 6:00 pm, even on a Wednesday night. Bands are usually done by about 10:00, even on weekends. So it’s not a party all night thing. It’s a very efficient entertainment machine. The one good thing about it is that the equipment is often top-notch and the sound very professional. Often the drum heads are often kept relatively fresh and the drums well tuned. Usually there is a thorough sound check beforehand with a soundperson who really knows his or her craft. Often though, in an attempt to look professional, the stage is so deep that even at a small venue the drum kit has to be miked, and the sound pressure can be absurd. I’m not a big fan of that. I think in a small enough venue the drums should just play at their natural volume, and everything else turned up just to match it.  But then, I really like natural drum tones.

The alternative is a very small subculture of Western-style bars and venues. These are often British-style pubs or other places that are more plugged in to the foreign community here. These are much more like what you might be used to. The booking process is often informal, you don’t have to pay if too few people show up, and they generally have some amount of walk-ins. Most of the bands that play these places tend to have a connection to foreign culture, usually a few or all members being foreigners. Depending on the place, these places may throw some money your way at the end of the night. They will usually at least give you a few drinks on the house.

Unlike in the West, these places also have their own equipment. The downside is that it’s often of a lower quality than the live houses, and less reliable. The drum heads are rarely changed, the hardware is ratty, and the cymbals often cracked or otherwise have poor sound. I finally decided to buy my own snare drum after showing up to a place that had a batter head on both sides of their snare. And I bought my own pedal a long time ago. I’m holding out on cymbals, though I would very much like them. It’s just there is already so much to carry on the train with me to gigs. It’s a similar mixed bag with the other equipment, though the venues do at minimum understand that things like amps and PAs have to be operational.

The one great salutary effect of all this is that as a drummer you get to try out a lot of different types of equipment, from high-quality stuff at rehearsal studios and live houses, to crappy stuff at pubs. I’ve become much more knowledgeable about different types of snares, cymbals, and kits than I would have before, and about tuning all these different instruments. I can understand now how some kits are better for jazz and some for rock, how some tom-toms ring with a great tone and some sound terrible. I discovered the advantage of leaving one lug loose on the floor tom after I kept noticing that the drummers before me had left it that way. Just yesterday I discovered a new (to me) kind of hardware mounted tambourine, and tried it out on a song with the band. The guitarist in my last band fell in love with Vox amps shortly after moving to Japan for the first time and joining a band, after having spent decades in Canada as a Fender Twin man, simply because he had the chance to play one for a few sessions at a practice studio.

So that’s pretty much what it’s like to be a drummer or other band member in Japan. Feel free to ask me any further questions in the comments.

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If you liked this, you might also enjoy A Listening Guide For Rock Drumming.