Double Bass Legends: A Short History

(Left) Alex Van Halen will be forever remembered for the riotous double-bass intro to “Hot For Teacher”.

Enter The Headbangers

The hard rocking, glamorous metal bands of the ’80s often featured well-designed, flashy double-bass drum kits on stage, but certainly more bands had them than played them. And though hard rock music was not the only popular music, it was the style most likely, outside the waning camps of prog-rockers, to include double bass drumming. Drummers that took it beyond solos and big endings include the ever-present, ever-exciting Tommy Aldridge, Gregg Bissonette, Aynsley Dunbar, Tommy Lee, Lars Ulrich, and Alex Van Halen.

The well-coifed rock bands of the ’80s took the pendulum so far that a backlash was inevitable, and grunge was born. This next generation of rockers were influenced both by punk rock — clearly not a haven for double bass drumming — and the joy of Marshall stacks. But even during this era, hard rock mutated into a style that was very friendly to double bass drum users.

Whether speed metal, thrash metal, death metal, or black metal — it all was played hard and fast, loud and crunchy, by young men full of ideas. Band like Anthrax, Metallica, Megadeth, and others layered guitar riffs over double bass licks, but nobody on the speed metal scene would have as much influence as Dave Lombardo did with Slayer. Slayer re-wrote the book of dark rock that Black Sabbath penned so perfectly back in 1970. Sabbath played slow, sludgy tempos, and drummer Bill Ward hardly played many double bass beats in songs. But Slayer’s 1986 release Reign In Blood, which continues to be mentioned as a favorite and an influence by notable drummers, features both machine gun double bass and speedy tempos. Lombardo, with his fleet feet and his ridiculous endurance, emerged as the poster boy for a new direction in double bass drumming. Slayer was crowned the princes of this new style of hard metal: faster, darker, heavier.

The Next Generation

These new speed metal bands that sprang from the Black Sabbath/Metallica/Megadeth/Slayer lineage have saved the fate of double bass drumming in popular rock. Within only a few years, the classic double-thump rhythms Dave Lombardo played with Slayer have been jacked up to crazy speeds that the drummers of past generations couldn’t have even imagined 30 years before. And now those speeds sound quite normal to many young drummers. It’s like comparing skateboarding in 1970 to skateboarding in 2000: what was once considered impossible is now accepted as required.

Drummers like Joey Jordison, Derek Roddy, Gene Hoglan, Jason Bittner, Chris Adler and a whole crop of others have set new standards in speed and endurance, emulated by bedroom bashers all over the world. A new frontier in bass drumming is being blazed by drummers that treat their feet just like their hands and play more complicated, and often more interesting patterns (though Bellson and others did practice rudiments with their feet). These new drum set patterns, so far, are emerging mostly in drum clinics, though some have made it into actual musical applications.

Bozzio, Virgil Donati, Thomas Lang, Marco Minnemann, and a handful of others are becoming notorious for having feet that can keep up with their hands, and mixing combination strokes into dense drum set beats. Most of these players remain solo artists, whose fantastically complex technique is so extreme that it overcomes most types of performances.

Lang, for one, has put a name to what he and the others are doing. He calls it “multi-pedal orchestrations,” and it allows him to cover, by himself, percussion loops and other parts created by multiple players or computers in the studio.

Come to think of it, that’s how this all started: in the orchestra, around 1910, when the music directors cut personnel, and said, “You two remaining guys will just have to fiddle with the orchestrations and cover the parts. Try using one of those new-fangled bass drum pedals.”

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