The biggest thing I stole from Charlie Watts was the hi-hat lift.
I think I first noticed it in the video for “Start Me Up:” that thing he did where he never hit the snare and the hi-hat at the same time. Watch any video of the Stones and you’ll see it: instead of “tick-tick-tick-twhack-tick-tick-tick-twhack,” his sound is “tick-tick-tick-WHACK-tick-tick-tick-WHACK.” It was a little thing that was also a big thing. There was a lot of that in Charlie Watts drumming — a whole series of little things that were actually big things.
And while the hi-hat lift might have made him look less fluid than peers like Keith Moon or Ringo Starr — all of that lifting of the right hand — when I started playing a few years later, I decided to use that technique because I liked how it made the snare even louder. And I loved — love! — teeth-rattling snare.
Charlie Watts died today, at the age of 80, having been one of the greatest drummers in the history of the world for nearly three-quarters of that time, and the fact that he played up until the moment he couldn’t was just one of the reasons that he was a hero of mine; the angel on my shoulder when I want to overplay. (Sometimes I ignore him for the Keith Moon devil on my other shoulder, of course, but he’s always there.)
The cult of Charlie Watts grew slowly: despite great, innovative performances on songs like “Paint It Black“, “Get Off of My Cloud,” and “My Obsession” it wasn’t until Jimmy Miller and Glyn Johns started miking his drums properly during the recording of Beggars Banquet that people realized what a fucking monster he was.
And in fact, I’d like an oral history of the drum sound on Beggars Banquet, because on a song like “Jigsaw Puzzle,” his drums sound as big and powerful as anything — the toms like skyrockets — and when he and Keith and Bill locked into the groove, it was like a runaway train. And so it went: his great work on songs like “Gimme Shelter,” “Sway,” “Rocks Off,” and etc and so on.
And so when I was a teenager and experiencing the Stones for the first time in real time, I focused on Watts — his groove on “Miss You,” — another thing I stole was his hi-hat/kickdrum breakdown in the middle of it — the double-time in “Just My Imagination,” the weird breakdowns in “When The Whip Comes Down” and “Shattered,” it was all too weird and inventive and yet rock-solid to comprehend.
I didn’t know I wanted to be a drummer at that point. Well, I guess I knew, but I thought it was already too late to start. And so I didn’t start until I was younger, at 24.
Then there’s “Start Me Up,” which we’re all still sick of, but where he’s beyond space and time, coming in wrong and correcting with Keith in real time, and all of those crazy building drum rolls in the chorus. It’s a fucking master class on every level, and I’ve listened to it and still can’t grok all of its secrets.
Anyways, he’s gone now, but he left behind more great recordings, more solid grooves, more great fills, more commentaries and jokes — and did I mention the solid grooves — than any drummer who ever lived.