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.
Play Well Together
Want to hear a word that really bugs me? It’s “outro.” You know why it bugs me? Because it’s not a word. At least it shouldn’t be. It first materialized in 1967, in a song called “The Intro And The Outro” by The Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band. Everyone who heard the song knew the title was a joke, and yet just a few years later “outro” found its way in to the vernacular of garage bands nationwide. They just figured “outro” had to be the opposite of “intro,” right? Wrong. If “intro” is short for “introduction,” then “outro” must be short for — what? “Outroduction?” I don’t think so. And yet you can now find the word in (gasp) the Oxford Dictionary, of all places. So even though I’ve decided to get used to the idea that it has entered the lexicon, I still think of an outro as the “end of the song.”
To be fair, I’ve been known to mangle a phrase now and then, too. For example, having come of age in the rock era, I grew up calling singers and guitarists the decidedly genderinsensitive term “front men.” Drummers and bassists were the “rhythm section,” which I’m sure drove my dad crazy. He was a composer and arranger who specialized in big band music, and from his perspective the rhythm section included more than bass and drums.
Back in the big band glory days, the players at the front of the stage were the sax and horn sections. At the back was the rhythm section, made up of a pianist, bassist, drummer, and possibly guitarist, whose jobs were to collectively lay down a foundation for the melodies and harmonies being played by the rest of the band. Well, guess what? It’s still their job in 2016, even when there aren’t horns.
See, everybody on stage should play in the groove — a fact that is too often lost on today’s guitarists and keyboardists. For instance, I played with a guitarist for years whose musicianship looked impeccable on paper. He studied with many renowned guitarists, had remarkable chops, an impressive grasp of theory and harmony, and would practice incessantly.
But he never practiced with a metronome. He didn’t think he needed to. As far as he was concerned, it wasn’t his job to keep time. That’s why he hired drummers and bassists, after all. So if you happened to be on drums or bass, gigging with him felt like a musical wrestling match where no one wins — especially the audience.
And that’s the real shame. After years of study and hundreds of hours of practice, as you polish your technique into a shining jewel, it’s easy to imagine that the audience comes to marvel at your awesome chops. That may be true for a fraction of diehard fans, but the rest of the audience just wants to dance, and they simply can’t unless everybody on stage grooves together.
So if you happen to play with musicians who believe it’s the rhythm section’s job to maintain the groove, just leave this column flopped open on their amps. Maybe they’ll read it after the outro.
A Kind Of Eulogy
I was a greenhorn back in 1987, when I marched into my first NAMM Show as the editor of Drums & Drumming (our former magazine, published by GPI Publications). I wasn't aware at that moment I'd entered a microcosmic universe with its own culture, etiquette, and hierarchy.
Groveling at the very bottom of the pecking order, I gazed up at the patriarchs of the modern drum industry with awe. Wise old greybeards like Vic Firth, Armand Zildjian, Fred Gretsch, Lennie Demuzio, Robert Zildjian, Jim Cof n, William Ludwig III, and Remo Belli seemed to float above the NAMM rabble, carried along by enormous reputations and often equally enormous personalities. You were either in their league or out. I was clearly out.
It didn't matter, though. I was too busy hustling my new magazine to worry about my place in the grand scheme. As I trolled the NAMM floor, I met dozens of newcomers like me, who were also finding their footing in the drum industry. Some fell out of the rotation after a few years, but many stuck around for decades, often hopping from one company to another.
As years passed, and some of the old guard began to slow down, many members of my freshman class began to assume leadership roles in the industry. Our friendships were renewed semiannually at trade shows and sustained through emails and phone calls, but otherwise, I have to admit, I didn't know much else about their personal lives.
Joe Hibbs was one of those guys. He was the artist rep at Tama when we first met, then disappeared for a couple years before cropping up again at Premier. He seemed to finally find a home when he went to work for Mapex, where his reputation as a world-class artist rep and drum expert took root and bloomed.
Then the unthinkable happened. Joe died at LAX last February at the age of 63, desperately trying to fly home to Nashville after being diagnosed with pneumonia in a Los Angeles emergency room. Of course, social media immediately lit up at the news. My mood took the opposite turn. Among my first thoughts was regret that I hadn't known Joe better, though, from what I hear, he kept his private and business lives at arm's length.
Yet everybody knew him. More importantly, everybody respected him. He knew drums and the drum industry like no one else. He helped a lot of people. Look, he was also no angel, and could be sardonic and irascible when he felt wronged. In other words, he was just like the rest of us: Another human being trying his best, sometimes succeeding, other times stumbling, always pushing forward.
You might not have felt it, but a tear split apart the fabric of our tiny, fragile universe when Joe died, reminding us of the inevitability of mortality and importance of the moment. I have no profound words to share. Just never take anything for granted. We're here for only a short time.
You are missed, Joe.
Don't Take The Bait
Mitch Mitchell immediately became my favorite drummer when I first heard Are You Experienced, the debut album by Jimi Hendrix Experience. In my opinion, his drumming on that album, as well as the next two releases — Axis: Bold As Love and Electric Ladyland — elevated rock drumming to an unexpected level of legitimacy on par with many of the jazz players of the day. On Experienced and Axis, in particular, Mitchell’s chops were phenomenally advanced, keeping pace with Hendrix’s revolutionary guitar style with roundhouse fills, unorthodox grooves, and blistering speed. But, to my ears, his drumming changed on Electric Ladyland. I wouldn’t say it became worse, but it felt different, more sluggish, less choppy. I’m sure at the time my 13-year-old brain reasoned that he was exploring other avenues.
I found Hendrix’s subsequent albums to be less compelling than the first three, and my attention turned to other artists. Yet, whenever somebody asked me to name my favorite drummer, to this very day I always cite Mitch Mitchell, whose playing had such a profound effect on my own at a pivotal time in my development.
Just recently, while flipping through the television channels, I spotted a movie called Electric Church. It’s a documentary of Hendrix’s appearance at the Atlanta Pop Festival in 1970. Intrigued, I recorded it, and watched it later when I had a couple spare hours.
As much as it pains me to say, Mitch just didn’t sound very good. Sure, he was executing many of his signature licks, but too often didn’t come in on the 1 with the sort of crisp articulation that captured my ear those many decades before. His drumming was more ham-fisted than sharp. He even seemed to lose the beat in a couple places.
Okay. This was 1970, back when PA systems were much less reliable. Maybe Mitch couldn’t hear the band well. Or he didn’t get enough sleep on the plane. Or his slack performance was the result of any number of reasons why drummers simply have a bad night now and then.
Or, it also occurred to me, maybe the rumors I’d heard of his substance abuse problems were true. If so, he wasn’t alone. Back in the psychedelic haze of the late ’60s, one simply assumed rock musicians experimented with mind-altering substances. At the time it seemed daring and adventurous, and was often justified as a source of inspiration.
My generation contributed quite a few positive things to worldwide culture, the ecology and women’s movements among them. But I think we totally screwed up by glamorizing drug use — especially in regard to the harder stuff. I’ve seen too many great musicians burn out physically and creatively due to substance abuse.
To this day, I just shake my head whenever another young rock star dies of an overdose. Hendrix. Bonham. Weinhouse. Weiland. The full list is far too long to include here, but all are victims of a disease they couldn’t control. None of their deaths was heroic. I wrote in an earlier column about my own nicotine addiction, and how tough it was to kick the habit. Throughout the five years when I struggled to quit, only to fall back again, it occurred to me countless times that it all could have been avoided if I simply had never smoked my first cigarette. The same is true of all addictive drugs.
Consider this: Some people become full-blown junkies after taking only a single dose of heroin. Just one. Perhaps you don’t know yet if you’re one of those people. So keep it that way and live a long, happy life.
To Tell The Truth
Truth be told, I rarely spend time in online drumming message boards and chat rooms. Having edited this mag for the past 25 years, I’ve usually had my fill of drum gab by the end of a ten-plus-hour day. But that doesn’t mean I never check out message boards. Every once in a while I take a few minutes to dig deep and catch up on all the gossip. And when I do, predictably, I often perform a vanity search to see what folks had to say about DRUM!, and drumming magazines in general.
Of course, since these comments are on the web, I come across plenty of complaints. To be fair, some are fully warranted and provide great insight I can use to sharpen our editorial standards. Others are clearly people just blowing off steam, enjoying their 15 minutes.
That’s fine, although, admittedly, they do occasionally get under my skin, particularly when I read complaints about product tests. The most common grievance is that, in order to protect cash flow, drumming magazines wouldn’t dare criticize instruments made by the same companies that buy ads.
You might be surprised to learn that I think they’re right, but only to a degree. See, from the beginning, we’ve instructed our instrument reviewers to tell it like it is — for better or worse. So, for example, in this very issue you’ll read that our reviewer Brad Schlueter couldn’t get Yamaha’s DT70 acoustic drum trigger to stop misfiring on his snare, and how another reviewer, AJ Donahue, didn’t particularly care for Meinl’s Symmetry and Nuance ride cymbals, and why.
I never read such blunt critiques in other drumming magazines. Instead, I see either overwhelmingly favorable assessments, or utterly noncommittal reviews that simply run down a list of specs: the shells are made of this, the lugs are made of that, and the hoops are made of the other thing. I always interpret the latter approach to mean the reviewer wasn’t crazy about the gear. But drummers shouldn’t have to read between the lines like that.
It’s even worse online, as far as I’m concerned. Websites that claim to offer serious reviews often post gushingly glowing videos or rewrites of company press releases, with little to no effort to actually test the product. Neither qualifies as a review in my book. Before a gear test goes to press, we always ask the manufacturer to fact check it, which means they get the first chance to see criticism before you do. Every once in a while we get some pushback about negative statements, and admittedly that can be sticky. Indeed, we’ve had some companies pull advertising out of the magazine (most come back after a while). We’ve also had other companies continue to advertise, but never ask us to test their products again.
But they all know this: Our first and most important commitment is to our readers. If you don’t feel you can trust what you read in our magazine, you’ll be less likely to trust what you see in their ads.
You really are that important to us. Thanks for reading DRUM! Magazine.