Welcome To My Comfort Zone

Sitting at your drum set is a bit like sinking into a favorite easy chair, with every contour sculpted over time to conform to the geometry of your unique body type. If it wasn’t necessary to watch a bandleader for cues, I bet you could quite comfortably play an entire gig blindfolded and yet still hit every drum and cymbal on a sweet spot no bigger than a button.

The opposite is equally true. Sit down behind someone else’s drum set and you enter another dimension in which things look familiar and yet don’t seem logical. I know for a fact that most drummers find my setup to be nothing short of bizarre. I sit as low as my throne and snare stand will allow, so that the counterhoops of my snare drum and floor tom are actually below the level of my thighs. No kidding.

Because of this, there is a yawning gap between my snare and mounted tom, despite the fact that I prefer playing a relatively diminutive 20" bass drum. I set my hi-hats fairly high above the snare to allow me to plant left-handed backbeats with gusto. And yet my ride cymbal is suspended only inches above my bass drum shell — just enough so that they don’t collide when my right hand gets especially happy.

“I love your miniature drum set,” a guitarist friend recently said to me at a local jam session that my band hosted. The truth is that all the sizes of my kit are perfectly standard — 20" kick, 14" snare, 12" mounted tom, 15" floor. It just looks teeny because I set everything so low to the ground. And believe me, as soon as my band finished the opening set and the jammers were invited to sit in, drummers began madly adjusting all of my stands to make the kit conform to what they consider to be normality.

But I’ve adopted a different philosophy. Whenever I sit in on another drummer’s kit, I try my best to muscle through without altering a single angle or height. For one thing, I know what a hassle it is to try to reset your kit after another drummer has tweaked every possible wing nut. I also enjoy the challenge, since you have to venture outside your comfort zone to play within the constraints of someone else’s. But it’s also a learning experience to see how other drummers feel when they play.

I recently had two very different experiences when I sat behind another drummer’s kit. A couple weeks back I dropped by a club in San Jose to see my old bandleader, Corby Yates. He sounded great, and as we chatted between sets I joked, “Hey, why don’t you let me sit in?” Little did I know that two songs into the next set he would call me to the stage.

“Feel free to change anything you need,” offered Corby’s new drummer, Ian. “Thanks, but I think I’ll be okay as is,” I replied. But in fact, Ian’s setup couldn’t have been more different than mine. He sat really high, with all his drums and cymbals set very close to the same height. I felt as if the top snare drum hoop was positioned only slightly below my chin. And my left arm kept bashing into my right arm since there was barely any space between the snare and hi-hat. Luckily, I stumbled through a couple songs with only a couple glaring blunders.

A few days later I went to see my friend Butch Norton play with Lucinda Williams at The Fillmore in San Francisco. After the show, Butch escorted me on stage to check out his kit, which most certainly had its own eccentricities, with its big 26" bass drum set at an angle and rack tom mounted on a snare stand. It looked as if it would feel really awkward to play, but I was amazed when I sat down behind the drums. Everything was set logically within arm’s reach. And the best part was that Butch sits on a piano bench rather than a drum stool — perhaps the coziest perch my derriere has ever graced.

I think every drummer’s setup is a reflection of its owner’s personality, which is just one of the many things that makes our craft so damned interesting. Why don’t you tell me a little about yours?