Zoro's 7 Secrets To Drumming Success
Music books come and go. Mostly they come. We barely have room in the offices for the avalanche of lesson packs, DVDs, workbooks, even cheesy thrillers with drum-playing protagonists. Let's make something perfectly clear: The Big Gig is not a method book. It's also not one of those behind-the-scenes tell-alls that belong on supermarket checkout aisles. And it's not a collection of half-baked ramblings and reminiscences.
"I think the book has a broad appeal because it's framed around the principles it takes to succeed at anything," Zoro says on the phone from his home in Nashville. Today is a rare day off from his teaching at Belmont University, so he's managed to squeeze in an hour to talk shop before he picks up his two kids from school and takes them to see a matinee of The Hunger Games. The movie is for the kids but Zoro wants to see his friend and former employer Lenny Kravitz in the role of Cinna.
"It's in the same way that Michael Phelps' book [No Limits] could appeal to people who aren't reading it to learn how to swim — they're reading it to learn how to achieve greatness at something," he says. "Drumming is not my main purpose. It's just the conduit."
Seldom photographed without a bolero or bowler hat and a nattily placed scarf, the self-styled Minister Of Groove can't not make an impact ("You don't get second chances to make a first impression," p 246). It's a look that brings to mind a pool-hall hustler who would sooner put a blade between your ribs than talk about playing behind the beat. So it's hard to reconcile that visual with the humble, upbeat, and chatty dude on the other end of the line. But as he makes abundantly clear in The Big Gig, being a good guy is part of the job description for first-call drummers — and the Z man has backed some of the biggest, including Kravitz, Earth Wind & Fire's Phillip Bailey, boy-band New Edition, and a gazillion one-hit wonders and one-offs in between (anybody remember Nu Breeze?).
Normally a font of positive mojo, at the moment Zoro's railing against the glut of music-business books out there — what he describes as brochures stretched to 60 pages. "I've got a whole closet full of books like that," he says. "There's no substance, nothing's thought out, they don't tell you anything. And it's like you charge $20 for that?!"
Zoro is still decompressing from the monumental task of finishing a book in his not-so-abundant spare time. Consisting of 15 years worth of observations painstakingly collected while navigating the music industry, The Big Gig is not a companion piece to the drummer's other books, The Commandments Of Early Rhythm & Blues Drumming and The Commandments Of R&B, the latter cowritten with swing drummer and DRUM! columnist Daniel Glass. "It's not like I'm making a living by writing the book; I'm making a living doing all my other [drum-related] things," he says. "Sometimes I'd wake up at 4:00 in the morning and I'd get these ideas and I'd go, 'Oh, man, I gotta get these ideas down right now or I'll lose them.' So I just grinded it, man."
Despite the author's earlier comments about broad appeal, The Big Gig specifically targets aspiring sidemen. All you future Josh Freeses, Kenny Aronoffs, and Tommy Igoes — the someday Max Weinbergs, ?uestloves, and Ed Shaughnessys. "You don't need to be a star if you enjoy what you do," he says. "I spent my life just playing behind people. I didn't have to be the front guy being worshipped by the crowd. I just enjoy playing a supportive role."
For a second we think the drummer-author has lost it. American society conditions us to be shot-callers, top dogs, and quarterbacks, not playing second banana. But for Zoro, those kinds of narcissistic trips are not the norm for the majority of working musicians, the very people he wants to reach. "Look at all the people that play instruments in the world," he says. "Most of them would love to play for somebody famous. They aspire to be in a band to play behind. That is really what they want to be — a sideman. A small proportion does want to be in a [more conventional] band, but the majority wants to play behind a great artist."
Without giving away all The Big Gig's best bits, we decided nothing less than a thorough vetting of Zoros's strategies contained in the book's 400-plus pages would satisfy our inner skeptic, so we took him to task on a handful of topics.
1. Skillz That Pay Bills
For every devil's-advocate "what if" we threw at him, Zoro had an easy rebuttal. What if, for example, a reader wasn't buying The Big Gig's emphasis on the importance of site reading? Pffft! Zoro isn't saying play Zappa's "black page" with no mistakes. "The bottom line is learning how to read at least rhythms. And understanding how to understand rhythms and subdivisions and patterns would then open up the whole world of knowledge to you that wasnít available and you didn't have access to before," he says. "There's no way that knowing how to read is going to make you a worse player. All it's going to do is make you understand music in a way that you wouldn't have previously understood it."
With all the apps, DVDs, and free YouTube lessons out there, there is almost no excuse for not being a so-called schooled drummer, Julliard tuition fees be damned. But the point of The Big Gig isn't any specific technique; it's about refining the ones that help you do your job. Take Zoro's heel-down approach, an increasing rarity in today's pop and rock drummers. "I don't bury it in the head for the most part, because then what happens is youíre dampening the sound and you're not getting a full, round, whole tone," he says. "And I'm into making the drums sound as big, round, fat, plush, and beautiful as possible — that's really about your tone and how you attack the drum. And it's also much easier when you're playing at low volumes to play with heel-down rather than lifting your whole leg up only to come down quietly. For me, it's not so much heel down versus heel-up, it's the sound that I get."