Agile Beast: Arctic Monkeys Drummer Matt Helders
If Dave Grohl calls you a “killer drummer”, you know you’re onto something good…
When four schoolboys from the same council estate in Sheffield decided to start a band, it was first-come-first-served in terms of who would play which instrument. According to now world-famous Arctic Monkeys drummer Matt Helders, he wasn’t left with much of a choice:
“It was very inconvenient for me to buy drums because we didn’t have anywhere to put them in our house, but it was the only choice because the others had already got their guitars.
“If I wanted to be in the band it was drums only. So I used to keep them in Alex’s garage, and we practiced there. It meant that I could only practice whenever we all practiced. It was a slow start. I just didn’t want to be left out.”
Since Arctic Monkeys exploded onto the scene in the mid-noughties, they have evolved from cheeky indie-rock upstarts into one of the biggest bands of their generation.
Inspired by classic British rock bands, rap music, as well as the guitar-based music renaissance on both sides of the Atlantic at the beginning of the millennium, the band’s inaugural gig included covers of ‘Harmonic Generator’ by The Datsuns, ‘Hotel Yorba’ by the White Stripes and ‘Teenage Kicks’ by the Undertones. The band began to hone a quick-witted, twangy-riffed anthemic sound and recorded a collection of demos called ‘Beneath The Boardwalk’ in 2004.
These songs resonated so much with the UK youth that by the time the band were ready to release debut album ‘Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I Am Not’ at the beginning of 2006, they were already the hottest new act in the country. The album went on to be the fastest-selling debut album of all time in Britain and was followed up by the critically acclaimed ‘Favourite Worst Nightmare’ in 2007.
While the other Arctic Monkeys band members contributed greatly to this meteoric rise, drummer Matt Helders brought a rarely-seen energy that was critical to the band’s sound. So much so, that The Guardian commented:
“If you removed everything from the album except Matt Helders’ drumming, it would still be a pretty gripping listen”
But what is it that makes his drumming so ‘gripping’? What part has he played in propelling the Arctic Monkeys from another middling 2000’s indie band into the coolest stadium rockers in years?
Today we’re taking a look at exactly that, so read on for a complete overview of what goes into the sound of Arctic Monkeys drummer Matt Helders.
Matt Helders: High Energy 16th Notes
Helders’ fondness for high energy 16th note drum grooves is placed front and center on the opening tracks of both of the first two Arctic Monkeys albums. In ‘The View from the Afternoon’, between his thunderous intro and outro parts, it’s pretty much all rapid-fire 16th note hi-hat patterns.
It’s a song played at a pace matched only by the rate of sales the record the track heads up. It signaled the arrival of a band with a fresh swagger, and which resonated with their generation in a way that few other new bands could replicate. The accompanying Arctic Monkeys music video shines the spotlight on Helders’ drum part here, albeit through the lens of an unknown drummer in a parka.
‘Brianstorm’ is written for a similar effect as the opening track on sophomore Arctic Monkeys album ‘Favourite Worst Nightmare’. With Helders moving between thundering toms and tight hi-hats, and using more bass drum to drive the beat, it’s played at 20BPM faster than ‘The View From the Afternoon’, and feels even more powerful.
This 16th note drumming technique is littered across the first two Arctic Monkeys records, and was a key component of the band’s early sound. Songs such as ‘Dancing Shoes’, ‘D is for Dangerous’ and ‘Balaclava’ are further examples of it being used particularly effectively by Matt Helders. Since then, the changes in the sound of the band have demanded less of this style of playing.
Matt Helders: Busy Bass Drum Patterns
Some of Matt’s most well-loved drum parts are those which are locked into the bass lines through his half-driving, half-funky bass drum playing. The man himself has said he thinks this is a result of growing up listening to rap music:
“We were rap fans at school more than now … it still influences us in some ways; like for me, it’s the drummin’. The groove element, like foon-keh music.”
Lots of perfectly placed bass drums under tight and accented hi-hat patterns are signature parts of Helders’ early Arctic Monkeys drumming style. Listen to what his busy and energetic playing brings to the verses in ‘From The Ritz to The Rubble’, ‘Teddy Picker’ and ‘Fake Tales of San Francisco’.
The power and swagger of these already catchy basslines are in Matt Helders’ hands, and of course, in his right foot.
By drumming this way, he not only adds an incredible amount of ‘dance-ability’ to the tracks (which is critical to the Arctic Monkeys sound), but it also serves as an excellent tension builder which always pays off in the chorus in a variety of ways.
In ‘From The Ritz To The Rubble’ and ‘Teddy Picker’ Helders changes the snare drum pattern and plays less but louder cymbals, while in ‘Fake Tales Of San Francisco’ he drops the snare out altogether in between verses. Either way, it is one thing being able to convey energy in drumming, but quite another having the expertise to control and tell a compelling story with it. There can be little doubt that Matt Helders is one of the best in his genre at doing just that.
Matt Helders: Riding On The Toms
Another key feature of Matt Helders’ style is his tendency to ride on the floor and rack toms in intros and verses. In ‘Dancing Shoes’ for example, he plays the hi-hat pattern from the second verse on the floor tom in the first and third verses. It gives each part of the song much more purpose, and provides the extra depth and variety that a lot of Indie songs often don’t have – similar to the technique that is used in ‘Brianstorm’.
Perhaps his most iconic use of toms to date is the drum intro to Arctic Monkeys debut album closer ‘A Certain Romance’.
The thunderous 16th note drum pattern, accented by well-placed crashes, serves as the perfect energetic build to the explosion of fills that set up the first verse. In this part, the drums are at the forefront of the song, but the technique is also used in a more subtle way elsewhere.
Take the breakdown which precedes the outro to ‘That’s Where You’re Wrong’ from Arctic Monkeys album ‘Suck It And See’. The tom part is actually pretty similar to ‘A Certain Romance’ but it is simply playing a supporting role, as crash cymbals are replaced by tambourine. It’s also played much lighter and without accents – keeping it steady rather than building to a crescendo.
Matt Helders: Hooky Drum Fills
Some of Arctic Monkeys’ catchiest songs are punctuated beautifully by some equally hooky Matt Helders’ drum fills. Although he has more flamboyant fills in his locker (see ‘R U Mine? And ‘The View From The Afternoon’ for examples), his most recognizable fills are often used like mini-riffs.
The famous intro fill to ‘Fake Tales of San Francisco’ is unmistakable, and plays off the ensuing bass lick perfectly. Helders expertly brings back the fill later on, by playing half a bar of it before the outro which creates an interesting extra narrative thread through the track.
A slightly busier but very similar example can be found in the song ‘Teddy Picker’. Again, this Matt Helders fill is instantly recognizable, and it provides some percussive vocabulary to build other fills into the track later on. In other words, he plays little variations of it elsewhere and it illustrates a kind of theme to his drum parts. It’s truly a sign of some well-thought-out patterns and progressions to drive a song forward.
Matt Helders: Knowing When To Sit Back
Having gained all the plaudits for his distinctive energetic drum style, Matt Helders completely changed his course for Arctic Monkeys’ fifth and most globally successful album ‘AM’. Albums three and four had already demonstrated versatility and evolution in the Arctic Monkeys sound (‘Humbug’ was produced by Stoner Rock legend and Queens of the Stone Age frontman Josh Homme, and ‘Suck it and See’ had a more vintage rock ‘n’ roll influence) but ‘AM’ was reflective of a newfound ‘musical maturity’ by the band.
Other than the anomaly of the air-drum baiting ‘R U Mine?’, the drums are much less prominent on Arctic Monkeys’ ‘AM’ as Helders made a conscious effort to suppress his chops and simply serve the song. A lot more emphasis is placed on the instrumentation, and leaving space for other elements in the tracks to breath – the vocal harmonies in particular.
The use of electronic samples (‘Do I Wanna Know’, ‘I Wanna Be Yours’) and liberal use of tambourine with (or in place of) the snare (‘No. 1 Party Anthem’, ‘One For The Road’, ‘Snap Out Of It’) create a laid-back, classic sound with subtle yet deliberate contemporary inflections.
Drum fills are kept to a cool minimum, meaning those that are used, such as the intro fill to ‘No. 1 Party Anthem’, can be used to their full effect. ‘R U Mine?’ and its flurry of fills is the singular call back to the Matt Helders of old.
Matt Helders: Drum Kit, Drumheads & Cymbals
Matt Helders’ Drum Kits
Matt Helders has used a number of Premier drum kits over the years, and in an interview with musicradar.com he spoke about his affection for the brand and how it originated:
“The first good kit I had was a Premier kit for my 18th birthday, and obviously Keith Moon played Premier. When I started I didn’t know what each drum was called, I just loved the idea of being a drummer. Pearl was the drum kit that the one person I knew played drums had.
“I started looking into it and saw that Premier were a British company, and when I first had the opportunity to get a decent kit and saw they were being made in England I thought that was quite important, and they sounded good”
Along with his Premier drum kits, Matt Helders has a 1971 Ludwig kit. His noteworthy drum kits include the following:
Premier Gold sparkle vintage drum kit
- 22″ bass drum
- 12″ tom
- 16″ floor tom
Premier Series Elite drum kit in custom Union Jack finish
- 24″x14″ bass drum
- 14″x9″ tom
- 18″x16″ floor tom
- 14″x6.5″ maple snare
- 14″x6.5″ hammered brass Modern Classic snare
1971 Ludwig drum kit in black bowling ball wrap
- 22″x14″ bass drum
- 13″x9″ tom
- 16″x16″ floor tom
- 14″x6.5″ Supraphonic LM402 snare drum
Interestingly, when it came to touring ‘AM’ Helders opted for a larger drum configuration than he had previously, perhaps taking inspiration from legendary players like Moon, John Bonham, and Buddy Rich. He even uses DW 6000 hardware as it’s thinner and looks more vintage. So aesthetically as well as sonically, there is more of a classic vibe to the Matt Helders drum sound.
“My latest Premier kit is the Union Jack one I used at the Olympics and I’ve been touring that. It’s the first bigger kit that I’ve got. I always used the same configuration, 22″, 13″, 16″, but I went 24″, 14″ and 18″ which has been great, it sounds massive. It’s one of the ones that was made in England”
Matt Helders’ Cymbals
In terms of cymbals, although a variety of Zildjian A and K cymbals are meticulously selected and utilized in the studio, Helders uses a pretty minimal live set-up.
- Zildjian 14” Dark K Hi-Hats
- Zildjian 20″ Dark K Crash Ride
- Zildjian 18” Dark K Crash Cymbal
An 18” crash and 20” crash/ride along with his 14” hi-hats (all Zildjian Dark K), are complemented only by some sample pads and a tambourine. This only serves to further highlight his creativity and versatility, as well as his knack for harmonizing vintage with modern.
Matt Helders’ Drumheads
Matt Helders has used both Evans and Remo drumheads across his career. A typical drumhead setup is:
- Snare Drum: Evans EC Coated drumhead
- Toms: Evans EC2 Clear drumheads
- Bass Drum: Evans EMAD2 Clear drumhead (batter side) with port hole on resonant drumhead
Helders recorded Arctic Monkeys album ‘Suck It And See’ with coated Remo heads (likely coated Ambassador or coated Emperor heads on toms and bass drum), as well as Moongels on toms and snare. Along with this, Helders has also used Remo Controlled Sound drumheads (both clear and coated).
Matt Helders’ Ever-Evolving Drum Sound
Against all likelihood, Matt Helders’ has become one of the most well-known and well-loved drummers in the world. Although there were only a couple of years between him taking up the instrument and Arctic Monkeys playing sold-out shows, he really managed to develop a creative and effective style all of his own in that time. On the first two Arctic Monkeys records in particular, you can’t help but feel and appreciate his youthful energy and action-packed drumming.
He has since become an extremely mature and assured drummer, knowing when to take the foot off the gas and how to accentuate all of the other elements in a song. In recent years, his style has become more classic, seemingly inspired by retro rock ‘n’ roll aesthetic both visually and sonically, while not shying away from modern techniques when required.
With all of his signature traits and versatility, combined with the ever-evolving Arctic Monkeys sound, it’s exciting to think where the drumming of Matt Helders will go in the future.