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.
Most of the time this column writes itself. I typically stew on a topic for a couple days and, once it reaches gestation, sit down and spill words onto the keyboard. Then there are other times, like yesterday, when it feels like I’m trying to arm-wrestle a grizzly bear just to plunk a period at the end of a sentence. See, this issue marks the official start of our 25th anniversary year, an achievement that makes the entire DRUM! team proud. Of course, it’s our right and obligation to trumpet such a milestone from the rooftops, but everything I tried to write on the subject yesterday just seemed so sanctimonious and self-serving I wound up playing “Wipe Out” on the delete button over and over. So I put it aside. Now I’m back. Allow me to say we’re honored to have served the drumming community for a quarter century, and amazed that we were 25 years younger when we dreamed up the crazy idea of publishing a drumming magazine. It’s been a great ride, punctuated by all sorts of accomplishments (and almost as many snafus). And while I’m glad to take some credit for helping usher this publication over the decades, at this very moment I only feel grateful for all the talented people — freelancers and staffers alike — who contributed to our longevity. Most of all, I need to give a shout out to my business partners, Phil and Connie Hood, who made sure the company was secure throughout the years. And while our early ad sales team of Leigh Taylor Hartley and Darryl Ecke helped lift DRUM! off the launching pad, the ad sales director who succeeded them, Eric Frank, has become the face of DRUM! Magazine among drum and percussion companies, and truly kept the boat afloat. I feel fortunate to have worked with such immensely talented graphic designers, who each left a mark on these pages, including our current art director Rich Leeds, who I’ve known for almost 30 years, starting when we were both mere tykes working at GPI Publications. We were equally lucky to enlist the artists who preceded him, including Cristina Strombotne, Mauricio Rams, Lalaine Gagni, Leslie Hampton, Rick Eberly, Clarence Yung, and our founding art director Kristine Ekstrand. I’m no less humbled to have the opportunity to work alongside some of the best staff writers and editors in the business, including Andrew Lentz, Dave Constantin, Sabrina Crawford, Scott Locklear, Don Zulaica, Elisa Welch, Andy Ziker, Billy Ramirez, and Jared Cobb. They all made sure DRUM! was a superior literary experience for our readers, and for me. Toss a long line of past and current freelance writers, photographers, illustrators, office staff, and interns into the mix and you’re looking at a veritable football field full of loyal and dedicated individuals who contributed greatly to our legacy. Of course, despite the best efforts of all these creative types, we never would have been able to continue publishing for the past 25 years without the support of our readers. Keep in mind that DRUM! never was subsidized by a larger publishing company, nor underwritten by a family inheritance. We’ve paid salaries and benefits, print bills and rent with the money we earned, one issue at a time. I’m proud of that. We couldn’t have done it without you. It’s just that simple. Thanks for your continued support.
Revolutions Aren’t Born In Boardrooms
Nobody saw it coming, not even the legions of baby boomer kids positioned squarely in the path of the oncoming cultural tsunami, watching as the very fabric of society began to tear asunder on Sunday, February 9, 1964, when The Beatles first appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show.
Elvis and Sinatra were a prelude to the grandiose influence that historic broadcast would have on American life. I remember, for ￼example, my entire third grade class discussing the performance the next morning, led by our 20-something teacher, no less, who seemed as awestruck as we were. She asked if any of us wanted to play an instrument like The Beatles. Nearly all hands shot up.
Now multiply that by all other classrooms in the country on that same morning, and you get a hint of how quickly things would change. Garage bands sprouted in every neighborhood of every town, as likeminded teenyboppers tried to emulate the surge of pop bands from England and the US that jumped on the bandwagon.
Bands weren’t the only ones cashing in, either. Once sleepy music stores were soon swamped with new customers demanding the latest gear. We’ve heard tales of the golden years on Music Row in New York City, when Manny’s and Sam Ash sold Stratocasters and Ludwig kits nearly as fast as delivery trucks could unload them.
The mid-’60s music explosion was so pervasive that it bolstered music commerce for decades. However, if you charted the progress of the musical instrument market from 1964 to today, you’d see a gradually descending line, punctuated by occasional peaks spurred by popular musical trends.
Whenever the line tracked upward — as a U2 or Red Hot Chili Peppers spawned wannabes — drum set sales would peak for a number of years, and settle back down. Then video games and other options started grabbing a big share of adolescent time. Later, file sharing and streaming content drove a nail into the heart of the recording industry. Young consumers saw fewer reasons to spend decades learning an instrument to get a $100 gig, when they could invent Instagram, then jump out of an airplane, or something like that. So here we are. Even though the economy has sputtered to life in recent years following the Great Recession, the music products industry still faces challenges. Unlike those heady days on Music Row, percussion industry leaders are now worried about supply outstripping demand, and some have joined forces to develop ways to stimulate interest in drumming.
They send teachers to elementary schools to give workshops, hand out goodie bags at Warped Tour stops, and sponsor similarly well-intentioned promotions. I’m sure such efforts help create new drummers. But it’s pocket change compared to seeing Ringo for the first time in 1964, when the entire world suddenly wanted to be in a band.
We need a cultural revolution all right, but it’s going to happen on its own timetable. Maybe tomorrow. Maybe 20 years from now. One thing is sure — it will be born on the streets and not around a conference table.
Do Whatever It Takes
To those on the outside, drummers can appear to be classic underachievers who just want to bang on a drum all day. We’re only ever seen onstage — smiling, thrashing, sweating, spinning sticks. Casual observers don’t realize those peak moments are just tiny fractions of the time we spend working on our art.
Whether hobbyists or professionals, drummers spend a lifetime practicing, investing in equipment and education, studying in school and with private teachers, learning new styles and material, cultivating professional networks, and traveling long distances to advance our careers and skills.
We also must survive. For weekend warriors that means holding down full-time jobs to subsidize the occasional gig. To pros, though, it often requires big sacrifices. That’s easier said than done. Few drummers actually make a comfortable living by only playing drums. Most piece together a monthly paycheck from a number of sources, commonly by teaching lessons or working in drum shops on the side. If you surveyed every professional drummer, you’d discover many who’ve had to take temporary or part-time jobs at times to stay afloat.
I certainly have. Before cashing in my chips to go into music journalism, I spent time working in retail, shipping and receiving, furniture refinishing, janitorial work, construction, dishwashing, deliveries — the list goes on. I took jobs in which I had no emotional investment, so that if I was offered a plum tour, I didn’t mind quitting on a moment’s notice, even if I burned a bridge on my way out the door.
It was like living two very different lives at once. During the day I was an unskilled laborer, nearly invisible to the rest of the world. At night, I was on stage in front of a packed venue, watching from the drum riser while the audience went wild. Every once in a while, those two worlds would intersect, and the results could be surreal.
For instance, there was a period in the mid-’80s when my band, The Naughty Sweeties, was between record deals. Our mangers feverishly negotiated with labels while my bandmates and I were in a strange limbo. We worked on new material and developed demos, but weren’t playing many gigs, since we expected to go into the studio at any moment. Our cash flow finally dwindled down to almost nothing, so we all got day jobs.
I found a job in a warehouse in North Hollywood. For eight hours a day, a Filipino guy named Saul and I sat at a workbench facing a bare brick wall as we stuffed handfuls of cotton into decorative pillowcases shaped like geese and bunnies. It was kind of humiliating.
We blasted the radio over speakers that ringed the warehouse throughout the day, and every so often a local station would play one of my band’s songs. It’s hard to describe the dissonance I felt at those moments. Most people driving down the L.A. freeways blasting their car radios would never have pictured the drummer they were hearing stuck in a sweaty warehouse stuffing pillows for minimum wage.
But I did what I had to do and, in retrospect, am glad that I was willing to take a bullet for the band. Within a couple months, the Sweeties got a decent record deal, cut a new album, and began gigging in earnest, as if nothing had happened. So don’t feel mortified if you have to do a day job once in a while. Be proud you’re willing to do whatever it takes. You’re just acting like a responsible adult, and I salute you for it.