Double Bass Legends: A Short History

Rock Stakes A Claim

The ’60s were an incredibly fertile time for popular music, with much creative ground broken in many different styles, all at more or less the same stime. This exponential growth of creative freedom, along with the growth of the television and radio stations that spread it, made using two bass drums a logical bit of experimentation.

(Left) Ginger Baker added a new level of heaviness and ferocity to the double bass vocabulary

Ginger Baker of the band Cream was one of the first and most famous rock double dabblers. Notably, he actually used his two bass drums, in alternating left/right fashion, not just in solos but in beats of songs such as “White Room.” Some say he also played the two bass drums simultaneously to get more volume and power onstage, hoping to match the mountainous amps of bandmates Eric Clapton and Jack Bruce.

Drummers like Mitch Mitchell of Jimi Hendrix Experience experimented with two kick drums for a while. The Who’s Keith Moon, tipped off to the idea by Ginger Baker, ordered and then employed two Premier bass drums in his wild onstage delivery, including standing on them (they were reinforced with braces for this). Though Moon’s best double bass recordings came in the ’70s, he did popularize the use of large double bass kits.

On the East Coast, young Carmine Appice led the way to bona-fide, deliberately loud rock playing on a set of big-sized drums. Appice, with his early band Vanilla Fudge, went to two bass drums in time for the band’s 1969 performance of “Shotgun” on the Ed Sullivan Show, seen by millions of Americans. He has remained an ambassador of double bass drumming throughout his career including his work with Cactus; Beck, Bogert and Appice; Rod Stewart and a bunch of others.

(Left) Neil Peart was among a new generation of rock drummers to bring more sophisticated techniques to the double-bass vernacular

Speed Kings

As the ’70s began, drumming really broke loose with both feet. TV and radio exploded with big name acts whose drummers played double bass drum kits. These included Black Sabbath (Bill Ward), Black Oak Arkansas (the young and ferocious Tommy Aldridge’s debut: check out the intro to “Hot & Nasty”), Mountain (Corky Laing, most famous for the cowbell intro to “Mississippi Queen”), Rush (Neil Peart), Elvis Presley (Ron Tutt), and others. Outside the rock arena we found Ed Shaughnessy playing double bass on The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson, and several seminal fusion jazz bands including The Mahavishnu Orchestra with Billy Cobham on drums.

Cobham deserves special mention. At the height of the band’s popularity with Cobham on the drum throne, Mahavishnu Orchestra sold out large venues, and reached rock star status playing complicated jazz-rock at blistering volume and speed. Jeff Ocheltree, who was Cobham’s tech at the time, reports that the muscular Cobham’s aggressive footwork would regularly snap the spurs off of his clear acrylic Fibes drum set. Cobham, who played open-handed (a right-handed kit, but with hats and ride cymbal played left-handed), had a tremendous influence on drummers, in particular on future double bass icons such as Simon Phillips. Cobham kicked the bottom end hard, played blazing fast singles, and used his double bass to propel the band’s odd-meter forays. He played double kick patterns in his solos as well as in beats in songs. And his drum set looked cool.

(Left) Billy Cobham’s powerful double-bass excursions with Mahavishnu Orchestra raised the bar even higher.

Cobham recorded the song “Quadrant” for his first solo album Spectrum in 1974. Thanks to this tune, the frenetic double-bass drum shuffle was forever frozen in audio. The twin bass drums played a R-L pattern, but the rhythm swung with a galloping feel. This hypnotic and energetic beat would later be gloriously bookmarked by Simon Phillips on Jeff Beck’s “Space Boogie” from There And Back — played fast, and in seven — and by Alex Van Halen on Van Halen’s “Hot For Teacher” from the album 1984.

The success of Cobham and the Mahavishnu Orchestra, and the emergence of prog -rock bands like Yes, King Crimson, and Genesis, ushered in a period of creative drumming that highlighted some innovative double bass drummers. Narada Michael Walden (following Cobham in the Mahavishnu Orchestra), Chester Thompson (with Frank Zappa and Weather Report), and Steve Smith (with Jean-Luc Ponty), Barriemore Barlow (Jethro Tull), Mark Craney (Gino Vanelli), and Terry Bozzio (Frank Zappa) are just a few who used double kicks to propel ferocious, odd-meter grooves and mind-blowing solos.

(Left) Terry Bozzio applied a new level of melodic structure to the double-bass kit.

Bozzio’s progressive treatment of fills, showcased in his work with Frank Zappa and later with UK, the Brecker Brothers, and Jeff Beck, offered a new slant on double bass drum orchestration. Bozzio’s trademark hand and foot combinations within the measure became instantly popular among drummers. Bozzio, of course, has gone on to reinvent drum set artistry in general, playing rhythms and “melody” on his giant drum set (which includes four bass drums) and soloing over it — all at the same time. By the way, Louie Bellson had a kit with five bass drums in the ’60s.

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