Everyone has known for a long time that Mike Mangini is a monster. His mathematically precise, physically punishing, chops-fueled drumming has blown minds for decades as he accompanied such artists as Steve Vai, Extreme, Mike Keneally, and James LaBrie.
A multiple Grammy nominee, Mangini remains one of the most popular drum clinicians on the international circuit, has won numerous awards, published popular method books, been christened the world’s fastest drummer in five categories, and toured 40 countries. He’s a self-made brand, and yet, somehow, hasn’t enjoyed the same stature as some of his peers who are now considered legends – even some not nearly as monstrous as he.
That’s about to change, though. Mangini has captured the full-time drum throne with the progressive metal band Dream Theater – an honor that, among prog drummers, is a bit like unwrapping Willy Wonka’s Golden Ticket. He competed against a scary list of contenders – including Marco Minnemann, Thomas Lang, Aquiles Priester, Derek Roddy, and Peter Wildoer – to win one of the most closely watched drum thrones in recent memory.
UNDER SCRUITINY. It’s huge news, for sure, and yet his new gig is just the latest installment in a series of news flashes that dominated the rock press. Details of last year’s departure of original Dream Theater drummer Mike Portnoy remain the subject of speculation, months after both parties parted ways. At various times in the storyline it sounded as if Portnoy had left the band – at other times it seemed as if the opposite was true.
The messy incident orbited around Portnoy’s decision last year to record with Avenged Sevenfold, following the drug-related 2009 death of the band’s founding drummer Jimmy “The Rev” Sullivan. Therefore, it wasn’t altogether surprising when Portnoy announced that he would tour with the band after wrapping up the recording – Avenged Sevenfold’s 2010 smash hit Nightmare.
Videos appeared on YouTube of Portnoy onstage with Avenged, slamming hard, literally spitting attitude in perfect time to the music. He nailed the gig, of course, but his spotlight was too glaring for the band. In memory of their deceased band mate, the remaining band members decided against enlisting another rock star as a permanent fixture, and gave Portnoy his walking papers last December. A relative unknown, Arin Ilejay was hired as his temporary replacement.
The page turned swiftly. Portnoy – an ardent blogger – even alluded on his website to approaching his former Dream Theater band mates for a possible reconciliation. His attempt was apparently rebuffed.
That was that. As a result, in an odd way, the story just started over for Mike Mangini.
THE BIG CHALLENGE. Talk about filling big shoes. Replacing Mike Portnoy in Dream Theater is a thankless job for even the most seasoned veteran. The band’s former drummer seemed omnipresent as its chief spokesman and lyricist, and with a live persona that dominated every stage. Plus Portnoy had chops. He oozed them. He wasn’t just any ex-drummer.
But Mangini was made for this gig. His level of technique and musicianship is the perfect match for the band’s dense, brainy compositions. And if any single attribute pushed him to the top, it was his superhuman command of speed. He’s fast. Faster than you think.
In 2007, we asked him to explain his approach to developing such dexterity. “The most important aspect to playing fast is to understand what speed is and how the human body relates to it,” he explains. “Speed is a rate. Speed isn't a musical thing, but can be used musically. Speed contests or devices cannot be stupid, but people who disregard those things can be very stupid. So, understanding that speed is also a derivative makes it easy to determine that the most important aspect of playing fast is adjusting which muscle groups move at increased tempos in time and over a period of time. The bottom line is focused practice. If we pay attention to what muscles are doing what as we increase tempo, then our bodies tell us what we need to achieve more speed and control. Sometimes we must flex one muscle group in order to strengthen it. Later, we can relax a bit more as we earn stamina and control.”
A NATURAL DRUMMER. Born April 18, 1963, Mike Mangini started playing the drums when he was four years old, and began taking lessons at the age of five. Four years later he was practicing between six and ten hours a day. “During the important early years of my learning to play drums, I used paradiddles and single strokes – grouped as three to a drum – as the stickings that I would repeat for two to five hours straight, three to five days per week,” Mangini says. “To keep busy, I would use the entire kit [to play rudiments], making sure I paired one thing with every other thing on the kit. As far as tools go, [practicing on] a pillow came in very handy too.”
To chart his progress, the young drummer would play along with one his biggest drumming heroes. “I wanted to keep up with Buddy Rich in order to play along with the records,” he remembers. “Therefore, his influence drove me to chip away at his riffs one day at a time.” By high school, he was performing in school bands and participating in the prestigious All-County, All-State, and All-Eastern United States ensembles.
After graduating from Waltham Senior High School in 1981, Mangini put aside his music studies to pursue a computer science major at Bentley College in Boston. After graduating, he spent a few years programming software for the Patriot Missile program, believe it or not.
But Mangini continued to play drums, and in 1987 began working with The Rick Berlin Band in Boston, alongside bassist Philip Bynoe (who would later go on to accompany Mangini in sessions for Journey’s former lead singer Steve Perry and in the Steve Vai band). He also began to teach drums privately in the city.
(Left) Mike Mangini (second from left) with Extreme in 1995
In 1991, Mangini elevated his profile by scoring a gig with the thrash metal outfit Annihilator, and played drums on several tracks for the band’s album, Set The World On Fire. In 1994 he was asked to join Extreme, replacing original drummer Paul Geary, who recorded the pop-metal band’s first three albums, including the breakthrough sophomore album, Pormografitti.
“The transition hasn't really been much for them or for me, because it has been a long time coming,” Mangini told the celebritycafe.com at the time. “I’ve enjoyed their music for a long while. Although I'm a different drummer than Paul, I still play the same main parts; I just add things and accent things, and change fills here and there.”
Although Extreme dissolved in 1996, Mangini continued a long working relationship with the band’s guitar slinger, Nuno Bettencourt. Later that same year Manigini won the audition with yet another guitar virtuoso, Steve Vai, and continued in his band until 2000.
Even though the drummer subsequently worked with such acts as Tribe Of Judah, Dale Bozzio, Sal DiFusco, Bill Lonero and Chris Emerson – Mangini seemed to hunker down in Boston, where he accepted a full-time teaching position at the Berklee College Of Music. Today he’s a prominent faculty member in the school’s percussion department.
TEACHER & STUDENT. He can’t help it. Mangini is a consummate student. He has been fine-tuning his drumming since the age of ten, when he studied with his first teacher, Walter Tokarczyk of the public school system in Waltham, Massachusetts.
“Currently, I am reading The All-American Drummer by Charles Wilcoxon that we use at Berklee, as well as combining a five-time signature exercise,” he says. “I have chosen these two things because choosing more would not allow me to progress at anything.
“I practice 15 minutes one day, 30 minutes another in one week at best. I simply have not practiced for two days in a row in any week since 2002 except in clinic-day warm-up sessions. Therefore, I pick patterns to play that require my attention for what I think will be a year before I really see the results I want. I know all too well that we all must earn it. I do not escape this aspect of nature. Given the little time I actually can give to it, I know my muscle memory will need constant exposure to the same patterns for a long time.”
In fact, Mangini often found it difficult to practice for long periods of time because of an injury he sustained as a teenager. “My right leg has been terrible, terrible since I was a teenager and injured it in sports,” he told the 2drummers blog last year. “I can play ultra fast stuff, but not slightly slower stuff well; it is tense and messy … until now. I only now got it fixed with surgery. I am now playing things I never could touch before. I feel so much better because I knew something was wrong with me and it is now repaired.”
SHINING STAR. Suddenly, Mike Mangini has been thrust into the bright spotlight that has long eluded him. With his new high-profile gig in Dream Theater and outrageous skills, Mangini is positioned to influence new generations of drummers to reach for the sky. “Understand [speed] for what it is,” he advises. “Better yet, choosing to be faster because of a musical expression gives purpose to the speed practicing. This type of goal-setting promotes lots of good things, especially a respect for those who have worked harder than ourselves at something, and acting well towards others by sharing the information, not being wrathful, angry, or vain.”