Nicko McBrain: Unleashing The Beast

nicko mcbrain

Speaking of swing, McBrain announced his arrival with a bang on 1983’s Piece Of Mind — Maiden’s fourth album and first to feature their quintessential ’80s lineup of McBrain, Dickinson, and Harris, as well as the harmonized axe attack of guitarists Dave Murray and Adrian Smith. A brilliant triplet fill launches the quintet into the record’s opening track, “Where Eagles Dare,” an overture of sorts showcasing McBrain’s skill set: syncopated ride patterns, snappy snare work, melodious tom fills, clasped hi-hat punctuations, a rapid-fire right foot ...

“Steve said, ‘I want you to do a big drum fill in the beginning of this song,’” McBrain recollects while describing his first writing sessions with Iron Maiden on the Channel Island of Jersey. “It worked out finally between the two of us, with that blap diddly boogady, blap diddly boogady, blap diddly boogady, boogady blap — which so fits, because [the song is] basically in that triplet format all the way through. After we’d finished the record and we started the British tour, Steve goes, ‘Right, we’re gonna open with ‘Where Eagles Dare.’’ And I says, ‘You’re having a laugh! I need to warm up before I play that track!’” [laughs]

Piece Of Mind remains one of the most lauded metal albums of all time, due in large part to McBrain’s contributions. “Flight Of Icarus” underscores his confident swagger and ability to groove the band at a slower tempo, as does “Revelations” — the latter also featuring Maiden’s trademark turn-on-a-dime transitions and tempo changes. “The Trooper,” a live staple and one of the band’s biggest hits, pairs McBrain and Harris in galloping lockstep — a groove the duo would hone down to a science. “We locked in straight away,” McBrain says of their chemistry. “It was beautiful. As a rhythm section, we are very tight. We have a sixth sense of things. I’m his yang and he’s my yin, if you like. I’m very proud to say I’ve played 30 years with one of the best bass players in the world.”

Stranger In A Strange Band

The modus operandi of Iron Maiden’s members is quite anomalistic compared with many of their metal brethren. Murray, Smith, and third guitarist Janick Gers (who joined the band when Smith departed in 1989, and remained upon his return a decade later) often favor clean guitar tones closer to those of David Gilmour than Dave Mustaine. Harris wrote his own book on technique for the metal bassist; his percussive attack is produced via fingers rather than plectrum. And with the exception of “Face In The Sand” from 2003’s Dance Of Death, McBrain has explicitly employed a single bass drum pedal (played barefoot, no less). You’d never guess it when listening to the skipping doubles that pepper “Caught Somewhere In Time” and “The Evil That Men Do,” or the incessant drubbing in the chorus of “The Wicker Man” — all parts that would give most drummers shin splints if attempted with one leg.

“I’m a lazy git,” McBrain jokes, deflecting praise. “[Playing one bass drum] is hard enough, why compound it with two of them? It’s twice the problems — that’s the way I see it. [laughs] No, it’s a preference thing, of course. And I’ve learned to play fast single pedal because of the way Steve and I work. People go, ‘Crying out loud, that sounds like two bass drums!’ But a lot’s to do with the actual bass line that I’m playing to and the sonic impression you get from it.”

Due to each player’s unique approach to his respective instrument, it’s difficult to classify Iron Maiden’s music — especially the forward-thinking middle-to-late ’80s catalog slated to be celebrated this summer. With its catchy, wide-open chorus, “Wasted Years” could almost be mistaken for pop, while “The Clairvoyant” features a near-disco chorus beat. The ever-changing patterns and time signatures in songs like “Sea Of Madness,” “Alexander The Great,” and “Seventh Son Of A Seventh Son” have McBrain covering rhythmic ground like a prog-rock octopus. And on the triumphant verses of “Can I Play With Madness,” he locks onto Murray and Smith’s sassy, syncopated rhythm guitars while holding down the fort with quarter-notes played on a freaking cowbell.

“People wouldn’t associate Iron Maiden as having a song with a cowbell in it, would they?” McBrain muses. “But it worked. And if you think about it, that guitar part is brass phrasing. It’s what a brass section in a big band would play — bah baddot, bah baddot! And the opening riff of ‘Infinite Dreams,’ that groove is funk. Dare I say Iron Maiden is funk, but it’s that percussive thing again. It’s been a percussive plan [all along]. That’s why I have such a big love affair with the heavy bell on a ride cymbal, you know? I love that bell, or playing just an inch off the cymbal into the body, right next to the bell, slapping the cymbal rather than using the ping of the stick.”

McBrain’s ride cymbal placement is yet another interesting character quirk, as it sits almost completely vertical, covering nearly half the circumference of his 13" and 14" rack toms. “That cymbal has to be like that,” he explains. “I prefer to play with a flat ride cymbal, actually, like Bonham used to use — nice low drum set, everything flat. That’s how I used to play. But as [the kit] grew, everything went up, and that cymbal had to come down to that acute angle.”

McBrain’s trusty Ludwig 402 Supra-Phonic snare (which has been a part of his setup since 1975 — seven years before he joined Iron Maiden) is also tilted toward him, getting at the real reason why he’s virtually invisible on stage: ergonomics. “I’ve always sat very low. That drum set — if Mike Portnoy put his snare drum up the way it normally goes, and he sat on his drum stool, you’d see him. People think, ‘Oh, it’s that massive big drum kit.’ It’s not. It’s a 24" bass drum. The tom toms are high, yeah, but I sit extremely low. My stool is the lowest you can get. [It’s unfortunate because] I love watching drummers, you know? It’s nice to see what they’re doing. You hear a drum fill and you say, ‘Well, I’d like to see how he did that.’ And also, 90 percent of the time we are the best-looking bloke in the band!” [laughs]

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