You’re No Innovator. Big Deal.

You're No Innovator. Big Deal.

You’re a bad ass, and you know it. You’ve studied with the best drum teachers in your area, attended workshops with the greatest drummers on the clinic circuit, practiced for hours every day and for years on end, burned through a mountain of method books and instructional videos, and even carried a practice pad in the car to work your weak hand at red lights.

So take a bow. You deserve giant props. Few people are willing to dedicate the time and effort it takes to reach the level of skill you’ve achieved. You have the chops, gear, and experience to compete in the big leagues. But you still might have one more hurdle to overcome. Let’s call it accepting reality.

Face it. You’re no Vinnie. No offense, but Vinnie Colaiuta already owns that title. Just like Dave Weckl is the best Weckl, and Jeff Watts is the best Tain. These legendary figures not only possess the technique and musicianship to back up their formidable reputations, they’ve honed distinguishable drumming styles that are all their own. So if your goal is to be the next Vinnie, prepare to be disappointed.

Believe me, I’ve been there. After trying to master every lick played by Mitch Mitchell, Ginger Baker, and Ian Paice, Billy Cobham’s drumming pulverized my teenage psyche into mush when I first heard Mahavishnu Orchestra’s groundbreaking 1971 debut The Inner Mounting Flame. Humbled, I set my sights on learning how to match his mad drumming skills.

Of course, I never actually managed to do it. But that didn’t stop me from trying my quasi-Cobham licks whenever and wherever I could, which led to more than one embarrassing situation in my early twenties. At the time I was sure my drumming impressed the pants off everybody, when in fact I was just overplaying.

Before I finally awoke from my Cobham stupor, “overplaying” didn’t simply mean I played too many notes. It also meant that I played them poorly. My tempo and dynamics suffered as I strained to execute licks that were beyond my ability. I thought that’s what you had to do to become a better drummer. I was wrong.

I eventually realized that it’s better to sound like yourself rather than struggling to be a second-rate imitation of somebody else. After I moved to San Francisco from L.A. in the late-’80s, my first gig in town was with a blues band. Within a short time, I became part of that network and started to get calls from other local blues artists.

Guess what. None of them wanted a Billy Cobham clone, and my drumming organically found its true level. When I didn’t have to strain to play parts beyond my ability, I relaxed and discovered that I possessed a deep groove that helped the band play in the pocket and dancers get up out of their chairs. My inner drummer had always been there, waiting to emerge, hidden way beneath my ego. It just needed time, and a nudge. I learned to accept that I’d never be an innovator, like those drummers I so admired in my youth. But it just didn’t matter to me anymore. I was having too much fun just being me.

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