How To Play Fast: A Quest For Speed

Cars don’t drive fast enough. Supermarket express lines crawl at a snail’s pace. We wither while waiting for modems to download and fax machines to transmit. We seethe when a doctor is late or fast food is slow.

In a hurry? Join the club. Humans love it when things go fast. But whatever “it” may be – a telephone, clothes drier, or overnight package – we actually want it to go faster than it can. And then once it does, we want it to go even faster still. We’re just never satisfied with our present speed.

Drummers are worst of all. Which is curious, because an ability to play fast is hardly a prerequisite for a sustained career in the drumming biz. It’s just the opposite, in many cases. Ask any singer/songwriter worth his or her weight in gold records and you’ll learn that the only thing they expect from a drummer is a good, steady groove.

But guess what? We just don’t care what they think! To us, a drummer is so much more than a metronome that turns on or off on command. We know that an exceptional drummer will literally transcend the laws of physics to reveal that the impossible is conceivable.

You can smell the anticipation of it at any drum clinic. Watch audience members file their nails while the drummer holds down a deep backbeat. Ho hum. But be ready to take a step back as soon as the sticks start flying around the skins, pumping up and down, crisscrossing, blurring, splintering, ripping rudiments like a tiger claw through a zebra artery. We know what we like.

“No drummer has ever picked up a stick and said, ’I want to see how slow I can go.’” Words of wisdom from Boo McAfee, who, as cofounder of Nashville Percussion Institute has tutored his share of young, speed-starved drumming hotshots. Years of experience as both an educator and a drummer for Willie Nelson, Eddie Money, and the Bellamy Brothers led McAfee to a blinding epiphany: There’s money to be made in the drummer’s quest for speed.

We’re not talking about $30 for a half-hour lesson, either. We’re talking about the Drumometer, a fairly humble black box that measures the number of strokes a drummer can play within a 60-second time span. Sure, it’s little more than a dyslexic metronome, but if McAfee has his way, it will stand drumming culture on its head.

In 1975, a 19-year-old McAfee attended the summer NAMM music trade convention in Chicago. He recalls feeling transfixed during a clinic by local drumming legend Barrett Deems: “Barrett comes out and says, ’Hello folks. I’m the world’s fastest drummer.’ Off to my left I heard, ’Oh yeah? What machine did you use?’ I turned around to look and there was Buddy Rich with his medallion and turtleneck and cigarette. He was the coolest guy alive, and I couldn’t forget that question.”

In fact, McAfee pondered it for the better part of 25 years before teaming up with Craig Alan, an electrical engineer and weekend drumming warrior who helped bring Rich’s dream machine to life. Now McAfee plans to use the Drumometer to launch an extreme sports drumming movement called the WFD, an acronym for “World’s Fastest Drummer,” which he envisions will rival the X Games. And unlike other industry attempts to amplify the public’s interest in drumming, this one may actually have more than a snowball’s chance in hell.

As you read this, the Southern California retailer West L.A. Music is staging the very first WFD Extreme Sports Drumming event. Akin to pulling the proverbial sword from the stone, the month-long competition invites all comers to try his or her hand (or foot, or both) at breaking the current Guinness record holders – Johnny Rabb for hand speed and Tim Waterson for feet – both certified by McAfee’s magic box.

And for those who fail to break records? “Oh, I would definitely not enter it,” laughs Rod Morgenstein. Yes, you read it correctly. Rod Morgenstein – who redefined fusion drumming with the Dixie Dregs, and is known for dazzling crowds with his venomous velocity – even he is shy about testing the Drumometer in public.

“Everybody there would judge the person’s standing in the drumming community by the contest that’s going on,” he continues. “So if you can only play sixteenths at 200 beats per minute, everyone would say, ’He really sucks. I thought he was a good drummer.’”

In a way, that’s at least part of McAfee’s idea. If a mirror can shame you into losing weight, the Drumometer is a stark reminder to practice more. But not every fast drummer buys the idea that a life of solitary speed drilling is the key to forging fast limbs. As far as Dave Lombardo is concerned, drummers who start early enjoy a distinct advantage in that department. He should know. Throughout the ’80s Lombardo raised the stakes with the prototypical speed metal band Slayer.

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