By Brian L. Shetler Published December 1, 2009
Ron E. Beck lifts his 5B’s. Before his throne is his performance kit that he uses at the blues and jazz festivals -- a champagne sparkle 5-piece DW Drums kit with DW hardware with a single Tama Iron Cobra kick pedal and his cymbals, a 20" ride, 18" crash and a 14" splash, all of the A and K Zildjian variety. “I like to record with my vintage Gretsch kit," he says, "but for live performances, the DW kit projects more.”
But this day he isn’t performing. Instead, he is one-on-one with a new student of his Ron E. Beck Drum Institute, operating in humble settings – a studio at the Practice Place, 1707 Fourth Street, San Jose, California. On the wall of his studio is a tambourine with his motto, “The dream is yours to realize.”
Beck has spent the last forty years realizing his dreams in bands such as Tower of Power, or other R&B, blues and jazz with whom he has shared his time and space: Bell and James, Bobby Womack, Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis, Jr., 5th Dimension, Danny Hull Quintet (Spang-a-Lang), Sista Monica, Chris Cain, Steve Cropper, Herbie Hancock, Carlos Santana.
“With practice and proper technique, you can make it happen,” he tells a young student. “Too many people try practicing without coaching on technique. I tried it. That’s the hard way. I worked hard to develop a clear style which was comfortable. I got good enough to make money, but I plateaued. I couldn’t get past it. I found I needed more than just drive and a natural talent to move on as a professional. Five years into my professional playing career, I went back to re-learn the rudiments. Once I did that, I was then able to listen and learn what was happening around me. I could still feel it, but now I could see it too without even having a kit in front of me. That makes a huge difference – it is so much easier to pick up things and learn things when you jam with others or just listen to others with some context.”
With his Drum Institute, he seeks to pass on some of those techniques to talented, young drummers before they get discouraged and give up on their dreams in the rough and tumble world of professional drumming. His own technique has been honed in the school of hard knocks, with practical lessons that set him comfortably in front of critical professional musicians and international crowds while traveling the world with various bands. He continues to play blues and jazz festivals and has a lot of stories of being a working professional to pass on while working with students on their rudiments.
“I remember one event in particular when I got to jam with some of the legends of Motown in Acapulco. We were all hired privately to play at a worldwide corporate junket for top-performing employees of a global company. Jamming with those guys --that was huge for me as a young musician – having the opportunity to sit with them, learn from them, and jam with them. Once you know your rudiments, then you can see better what they are doing even without sticks in your hands trying to mimic them.”
His desire to teach music is not just motivated by a good heart or an altruistic ideal of giving back to the community; although, for years he has participated in his church bands even while performing professionally. He simply can’t stay away from teaching. It’s in his blood.
“I came from a musical family. My Mother, Jeanne Rogers, was a classically trained pianist and jazz singer who continues to play piano every week at her church in Omaha, Nebraska. She is also a retired educator with a Master’s Degree in Education and Administration. Her parents had moved to Omaha from Houston in the 1940s. Born in Omaha in 1951 as a twin to a 16-year old single mother, he was the oldest of five children – all musicians in their own right. The family lived with his maternal grandparents. His mother continued her schooling, became a music teacher and eventually became a principal of a public school. As he was growing up, she had her own bands practicing at home while she worked on her teaching career.
“Our house was like an incubator project for the local Omaha music scene. My mother had a band, and my brother and I had various bands. Everyone was coming by to practice at our house.” He first tried the guitar, but he realized as he moved into his teens that wasn’t working for him. He picked up the drums as a 14-year old. He used to race home from school to practice. “I couldn’t throw or catch a softball too well. I could play a little basketball, but drums became my love.”
By the time he was 17, he was playing professionally in Omaha. “I was accepted to a college program with tuition covered, but professional music was calling. I had a taste of professional playing, and I was impatient to get more into it as is typical of young people.”
Funk and soul bands with horn sections were starting to take off in big cities in the early 70’s, and he got an invitation from a band called Blue Magic in the San Francisco Bay area to join its rhythm section. He took a chance, moved to San Jose, California, and began rehearsing and recording with the band in its studio. They were in studio for more than a year putting together an album that never got released and the band never took off. In the meantime, he made connections. He left that band for a club band-John Turk & 3rd Street Annexx--that packed people in at the The Fox in MacArthur Broadway Shopping Center in Oakland.
While keeping the Fox packed was a good experience and paid the bills, he was looking for more. He had married his high school sweetheart (still together after almost forty years) and already had two of his three daughters by then. That was part of the motivation for him to go straight into working rather than remaining a student with the tuition break. He got his chance and auditioned in front of Tower of Power's David Garibaldi for his chair in 1975, one of several breaks Garibaldi took from the band over the years. (Garibaldi has kept the band traveling with him now in one of his longest-running continuous stints with the TOP family.
“I’ll always remember the day of that audition. David was leaving the band for a temporary break, and the group was auditioning people all week. David came up to me while I was warming up and said, ‘You can cut it.’ That really encouraged me. But then the adrenaline was flowing. I started the practice session with the band hitting the drums hard. And then Chester Thompson [the Tower of Power keyboardist] stopped and said, ‘Hold it. Cool down. You don’t have to play that hard. This is a practice session.’ That just relaxed me. The adrenaline was flowing, but I got it under control. I knew I did a good job for the rest of the session. We played it like I was already in. I was confident I had done well, but those were the toughest two weeks before I heard I got the spot. It was fortunate. I needed it. I went from playing the Brass Rail for side gigs to Tower of Power.”
Shortly afterwards, TOP switched to a new label, and he got to sign his first contract. He contributed as a drummer, vocalist, and producer on their next album and toured. He started earning in a different order of magnitude, and he invested in a house in San Jose where he still lives. “I only regret that I didn’t use a little more of that money to buy a bigger house at that time. Values here in Silicon Valley have multiplied since then. Back then you could buy a house in the area for $70,000 that would be worth millions now. But I was too scared. I knew music, but the money side of things was unfamiliar. Having the house so young -- it was already more than I could imagine.” More practical lessons on the side.
In his teaching Ron takes a holistic approach, one that is as much mental as physical."In my teaching, I emphasize the drummer's function in the band," he says. "For example, keeping accurate time , controlling dynamics, locking with the bass player, choppin' it up with the guitarist, dancing with the keyboardist, and kickin' the horns in the butt as well listening and complimenting the vocalist. I try to teach them to play from the bottom up. Sometimes they are only listening to the top and focusing on their hands. I want them to learn to coordinate their whole body."
Young students frequently want to learn today's rock tunes, and lack patience for playing older material whose value may not be visible to a beginner. "If you are into metal or hard rock, that's great and that's what I'll teach," says Beck. "But I also want you to know that if you learn to understand different styles you may get a lot more chances to play. Weddings, casuals, blues, polka, whatever. Swing is a difficult concept for some kids today but I introduce them some of the old Sixties jazz and show them how hip-hop beats derived from that. It's all about making them a well-rounded drummer. I was just at the Guitar Center drum-off and one of the kids was a metal drummer, really good, very accurate, but he didn't win and he asked what he needed to do to get better. I told him 'You can't stay in that one part of the music. Learn some jazz or blues or just listen to some of the old guys, and continue to listen to new guys but incorporate it all into your unique style."
Though teaching consumes most of his time, Beck still finds space for recording and playing out when the right gig is available. “It’s important for teachers to stay active as performers, to stay with it, and not dry up with theory and lessons alone.” Besides, he just loves the drums.