Thaddeus Dixon: All About The Drums
Thaddeus Dixon: All About The Drums
From Motown to our town comes hungry drummer-producer Thaddeus Dixon, a versatile multitalent carving out a singular niche across a wide horizon of pop, R&B, jazz, and rock styles. The Michigan State U grad and former UC Berkeley faculty member has toured and recorded with artists such as Meghan Trainor, Roy Hargrove, Wynton Marsalis, Talib Kweli, Ginuwine, and Cody Simpson, and appeared on MTV's Making His Band, The Today Show, Good Morning America, and The Ellen DeGeneres Show. And then there was that White House gig — the man gets around, and to hear him tell it, he's just getting started.
Though Dixon does not come from a musical family, he can boast a very supportive clan. "My great-grandmother would take me to church with her as a little baby," he says, "and she noticed I was attracted to the music at the services. When I was two, she went to a garage sale and brought back a pair of bongos, and I tore them to shreds."
When his parents got him a toy drum set, he quickly tore that to shreds, too, so they bought him a semipro drum set, which he, yes, tore to everlovin' shreds. "They were like, okay, we may need to invest in this," he says with a laugh. At age nine, he got a Pearl Masters Custom set, "a pretty nice kit at an early age," he says.
Dixon's training in music and drums got a foothold in his middle school's music program, where he had a good teacher who recognized the kid's natural musicality. The experience prepped Dixon for Detroit's Performing Arts High School, a program that included instruction in dance, music, and drama. While his focus was on drum set, he received valuable training on a plethora of concert instruments including marimba, xylophone, and snare as well as jazz vibrophone.
He'd been digging a varied bunch of drummers on his own, many of whom inspired not just though their technical prowess but by their musical attitudes. "Dave Weckl was a friend of the family," he says, "and he was into music, and he shared that. I looked up to him, because he was a little older than me, and because he was into music, that's what I took a liking to, and that was a great start."
Weckl is, says Dixon, "a drummer's drummer. He is musical in that everything he plays just fits perfectly, like his syncopation, and how he places notes within the meter. And then, he was playing traditional grip, too, and the sound that Weckl gets out of playing traditional grip was another thing that was amazing."
Dixon gives props to the drum teachers who had an impact on his playing technique and, just as importantly, to his sense of musicality. He studied with Detroit drummer Dan Maslanka for a number of years.
"He gave me my first introduction into the art and discipline of playing drums, and how to read music and the basic fundamentals," he says. "And watching and hearing Dana Davis, a gospel legend on drums, taught me how to apply my basic fundamentals into a more developed state, as well as to improvise and implement fills into gospel music."
Along with Lenny White's athletic work with Chick Corea's electric bands, Dixon revered Tony Williams. "Tony Williams had a different sound in jazz, a different swing," he says. "His touch and complicated rhythms felt so right."
According to Dixon, there never was a precise moment when he knew he wanted to be a professional musician. "It chose me," he says, laughing. "I always had a love for basketball, but as I started getting older, I didn't grow tall, so it wasn't a reality for me to pursue it."
The defining moment could've been around the time that Dixon, at age 20 and fresh out of Michigan State University, started getting drumming jobs in bars and clubs that included a gig with Detroit's legendary soul-pop crew the Spinners. "I was very young, and it was my first big-act touring gig," he says. "I was the youngest one with them, but I had fun. It was a good introduction to touring and the business."
Currently taking a short breather from his touring duties with Meghan Trainor, Dixon is focusing his attention on production for the pop star's next album. He's practicing his drums, too, of course, but it's nothing too rigorous, mainly to stay loose and to push his playing into uncharted realms.
"I definitely reach plateaus," he says, "and sometimes the way to get out of it is to practice; other times the way is to not play at all for a little bit. And when you come back, you fall in love with it again. It's like a girl you love and you haven't seen her in a long time, and you're like, oohh — you get that feeling of why you love the drums."
Onstage and in the studio, Dixon plays his trusty stock Tama kits with minor variations for the sound and style required. His tour work recently found him switching to a Starclassic Hyper Drive kit. For his pop/R&B gigs, Dixon augments the kit with a small array of Yamaha DTX sample pads, employing the electronic gear in novel ways, such as having the pads give him samples of the snare and the kick or the snaps and claps from Trainor's record, which he then imports into the DTX brain and assigns to different pads. Hearing himself properly onstage is crucial to Dixon, who likes a little bit of everything in his stage monitors "because I want to feel like I'm playing music." He wears in-ear monitors to dial-in the perfect mix. "I place the in-ears in just a little bit. I have the click track in there where I can hear it a tad over the drums, and I definitely have the bass in my in-ears. I also have a sub so that I can feel the lows, because you're only going to get so much bass tone out of your in-ears."
While Dixon is mostly known as a drummer, his production skills have started to blossom. He's helmed three records for Trainor, and is currently working on a fourth that will be heard in the Charlie Brown Peanuts movie that's coming out in November.
It's all part of the plan for Dixon, who sets his goals high and has a heady list of successes to show for it. He's justifiably proud — and a bit humbled — about all he's achieved. "Working with Meg is awesome, as was playing with Cody Simpson at the White House," he says, smiling. "And I got to play with Roy Hargrove, and record with him, and that was even better because, you know, that lasts forever."
It's that "lasting forever" part that keeps Dixon focused and flying. He still has a lot more to do, and, he says, a lot more to learn. "I don't think I've played my best drums yet, and I don't think I've produced my best song yet. I feel like as long as I have that attitude, then I'll continue to get better, to stretch, to try for new things — and to just grow."
Clear away the crowd noise and electronic hand claps that share this drum/dance break from Meghan Trainor's 2015 iHeart Music Awards performance on YouTube, and you uncover a gem. Thaddeus Dixon solos over horn figures (marked in the notation as accents) like a seasoned big band drummer. In beat 3 of measures one, three, four, and six, Dixon uses a thematic device, a repeated rhythmic figure, to help ground the listener, and then lets loose in the remaining three bars.
Band Meghan Trainor
Current Release Title
Birthplace Detroit, MI
Influences Dave Weckl, Tony Williams, Gerald Heyward, Dan Maslanka
Drums Tama Starclassic
Sticks Vic Firth
Pedals Tama Iron Cobra electronics Yamaha DTX Multi 12