Double Bass Legends: A Short History

Back around 1910, when the fledgling bass drum pedal was improved and popularized by the Ludwig family, some percussionists were cast out of a gig. Gigs back then were with orchestras large and small, accompanying staged entertainment. With the advent of Ludwig’s pedal, one drummer/percussionist could play simple bass drum parts with the pedal. It was, then as now, technology causing changes in the workplace. The growing “drum set contraption,” which would eventually become the modern drum set, was downsizing the pit band, and the common lineup of three percussionists became two, then one.

The new norm leaned towards a single-kick setup: one bass drum and one pedal. Unbelievably, there were crude double pedals available even back then. Alas, they were not remote pedals, and didn’t catch fire with players, even though they were made of wood. Bass drums of the day were huge, calfskin headed items, easily 30” in diameter and requiring much effort to maintain. One drum was certainly more practical than two, and the instrument became largely a mono-pedic pursuit. But today it is quite common for a drummer to use both feet to play the bass drum. What were some of the notable turns taken in this bipedal evolution?

(Left) Louis Bellson was one of the first drummers to add a second bass drum to his setup

Pioneers

It started with jazz legend Louie Bellson, a gifted musical school kid of 15 in 1939, who sketched out a double bass drum kit for an art class. The sketch earned him an “A” grade, and served as a vision of what he would become: The most famous, and arguably the first, double bass drummer. Gretsch made the first kit for Bellson, a bold and innovative move considering that other companies had rejected Bellson and his outlandish concept.

Over the years and through long affiliations with several drum manufacturers, Bellson’s double bass kits varied in configuration. His main ax has become a classic: two kicks, one tom, two floors. But that first Gretsch kit in 1946 consisted of two 20” x 20” bass drums, an 18” x 26” center tom (!), two 13” x 9” toms, two 11” x 7” toms, and 16” x 16” and 18” x 16” floor toms. By the way, Bellson did lots of cymbal stacking on his stands, too. Very Mike Portnoy, but just a little bit earlier.

Bellson did his first double bass gig in 1946, but when he got the gig with Benny Goodman, the famous bandleader didn’t like the double bass drum idea. But when Bellson joined Tommy Dorsey, an equally big top act, his new boss not only liked the double bass but also allowed Bellson to bui use a revolving drum riser.

Bellson played the double bass drums to good effect in his solos, in particular on “Skin Deep,” his own composition and showcase with the Duke Ellington Orchestra, but didn’t use double bass drumming very much as a timekeeping element in songs. This isn’t surprising, because the pulse of big band swing was not heavy-footed. Bass drums were used for accents, but also feathered lightly to add sonic support to the sound of the upright bass. Early recordings didn’t use bass drum at all, in fact, because the low frequencies of the drum would cause the recording needle to skip. The snare drum, ride cymbal, and hi-hat were still the main constituents of timekeeping.

Other swinging jazz drummers took Bellson’s lead and began using two bass drums, including Sam Woodyard (who followed Louie in the Ellington band), Rufus Jones, and Ed Shaughnessy, among others. But even as these pioneers mastered the double bass kit, paired kicks remained an oddity, awaiting a more open-minded era to break into popular use.

New York in the ’50s and early ’60s saw more and more small combos playing jazz, including the be-bop, which was the new thing. Be-bop further shrunk the trap set used by drummers and led to the popularity of smaller bass drums, such as the ubiquitous 20” x 14” and even the miniscule 18” x 14” sizes. This was done not only for musical reasons but also for a very practical one — small drums fit easily into taxi cabs that moved the busy New York players from gig to gig. A double bass kit was the last thing busy metropolitan drummers needed. Drummers all over the nation copied the New York cats; kits stayed small and bass drums stayed single.

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Rock Stakes A Claim

The ’60s were an incredibly fertile time for popular music, with much creative ground broken in many different styles, all at more or less the same stime. This exponential growth of creative freedom, along with the growth of the television and radio stations that spread it, made using two bass drums a logical bit of experimentation.

(Left) Ginger Baker added a new level of heaviness and ferocity to the double bass vocabulary

Ginger Baker of the band Cream was one of the first and most famous rock double dabblers. Notably, he actually used his two bass drums, in alternating left/right fashion, not just in solos but in beats of songs such as “White Room.” Some say he also played the two bass drums simultaneously to get more volume and power onstage, hoping to match the mountainous amps of bandmates Eric Clapton and Jack Bruce.

Drummers like Mitch Mitchell of Jimi Hendrix Experience experimented with two kick drums for a while. The Who’s Keith Moon, tipped off to the idea by Ginger Baker, ordered and then employed two Premier bass drums in his wild onstage delivery, including standing on them (they were reinforced with braces for this). Though Moon’s best double bass recordings came in the ’70s, he did popularize the use of large double bass kits.

On the East Coast, young Carmine Appice led the way to bona-fide, deliberately loud rock playing on a set of big-sized drums. Appice, with his early band Vanilla Fudge, went to two bass drums in time for the band’s 1969 performance of “Shotgun” on the Ed Sullivan Show, seen by millions of Americans. He has remained an ambassador of double bass drumming throughout his career including his work with Cactus; Beck, Bogert and Appice; Rod Stewart and a bunch of others.

(Left) Neil Peart was among a new generation of rock drummers to bring more sophisticated techniques to the double-bass vernacular

Speed Kings

As the ’70s began, drumming really broke loose with both feet. TV and radio exploded with big name acts whose drummers played double bass drum kits. These included Black Sabbath (Bill Ward), Black Oak Arkansas (the young and ferocious Tommy Aldridge’s debut: check out the intro to “Hot & Nasty”), Mountain (Corky Laing, most famous for the cowbell intro to “Mississippi Queen”), Rush (Neil Peart), Elvis Presley (Ron Tutt), and others. Outside the rock arena we found Ed Shaughnessy playing double bass on The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson, and several seminal fusion jazz bands including The Mahavishnu Orchestra with Billy Cobham on drums.

Cobham deserves special mention. At the height of the band’s popularity with Cobham on the drum throne, Mahavishnu Orchestra sold out large venues, and reached rock star status playing complicated jazz-rock at blistering volume and speed. Jeff Ocheltree, who was Cobham’s tech at the time, reports that the muscular Cobham’s aggressive footwork would regularly snap the spurs off of his clear acrylic Fibes drum set. Cobham, who played open-handed (a right-handed kit, but with hats and ride cymbal played left-handed), had a tremendous influence on drummers, in particular on future double bass icons such as Simon Phillips. Cobham kicked the bottom end hard, played blazing fast singles, and used his double bass to propel the band’s odd-meter forays. He played double kick patterns in his solos as well as in beats in songs. And his drum set looked cool.

(Left) Billy Cobham’s powerful double-bass excursions with Mahavishnu Orchestra raised the bar even higher.

Cobham recorded the song “Quadrant” for his first solo album Spectrum in 1974. Thanks to this tune, the frenetic double-bass drum shuffle was forever frozen in audio. The twin bass drums played a R-L pattern, but the rhythm swung with a galloping feel. This hypnotic and energetic beat would later be gloriously bookmarked by Simon Phillips on Jeff Beck’s “Space Boogie” from There And Back — played fast, and in seven — and by Alex Van Halen on Van Halen’s “Hot For Teacher” from the album 1984.

The success of Cobham and the Mahavishnu Orchestra, and the emergence of prog -rock bands like Yes, King Crimson, and Genesis, ushered in a period of creative drumming that highlighted some innovative double bass drummers. Narada Michael Walden (following Cobham in the Mahavishnu Orchestra), Chester Thompson (with Frank Zappa and Weather Report), and Steve Smith (with Jean-Luc Ponty), Barriemore Barlow (Jethro Tull), Mark Craney (Gino Vanelli), and Terry Bozzio (Frank Zappa) are just a few who used double kicks to propel ferocious, odd-meter grooves and mind-blowing solos.

(Left) Terry Bozzio applied a new level of melodic structure to the double-bass kit.

Bozzio’s progressive treatment of fills, showcased in his work with Frank Zappa and later with UK, the Brecker Brothers, and Jeff Beck, offered a new slant on double bass drum orchestration. Bozzio’s trademark hand and foot combinations within the measure became instantly popular among drummers. Bozzio, of course, has gone on to reinvent drum set artistry in general, playing rhythms and “melody” on his giant drum set (which includes four bass drums) and soloing over it — all at the same time. By the way, Louie Bellson had a kit with five bass drums in the ’60s.

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(Left) Alex Van Halen will be forever remembered for the riotous double-bass intro to “Hot For Teacher”.

Enter The Headbangers

The hard rocking, glamorous metal bands of the ’80s often featured well-designed, flashy double-bass drum kits on stage, but certainly more bands had them than played them. And though hard rock music was not the only popular music, it was the style most likely, outside the waning camps of prog-rockers, to include double bass drumming. Drummers that took it beyond solos and big endings include the ever-present, ever-exciting Tommy Aldridge, Gregg Bissonette, Aynsley Dunbar, Tommy Lee, Lars Ulrich, and Alex Van Halen.

The well-coifed rock bands of the ’80s took the pendulum so far that a backlash was inevitable, and grunge was born. This next generation of rockers were influenced both by punk rock — clearly not a haven for double bass drumming — and the joy of Marshall stacks. But even during this era, hard rock mutated into a style that was very friendly to double bass drum users.

Whether speed metal, thrash metal, death metal, or black metal — it all was played hard and fast, loud and crunchy, by young men full of ideas. Band like Anthrax, Metallica, Megadeth, and others layered guitar riffs over double bass licks, but nobody on the speed metal scene would have as much influence as Dave Lombardo did with Slayer. Slayer re-wrote the book of dark rock that Black Sabbath penned so perfectly back in 1970. Sabbath played slow, sludgy tempos, and drummer Bill Ward hardly played many double bass beats in songs. But Slayer’s 1986 release Reign In Blood, which continues to be mentioned as a favorite and an influence by notable drummers, features both machine gun double bass and speedy tempos. Lombardo, with his fleet feet and his ridiculous endurance, emerged as the poster boy for a new direction in double bass drumming. Slayer was crowned the princes of this new style of hard metal: faster, darker, heavier.

The Next Generation

These new speed metal bands that sprang from the Black Sabbath/Metallica/Megadeth/Slayer lineage have saved the fate of double bass drumming in popular rock. Within only a few years, the classic double-thump rhythms Dave Lombardo played with Slayer have been jacked up to crazy speeds that the drummers of past generations couldn’t have even imagined 30 years before. And now those speeds sound quite normal to many young drummers. It’s like comparing skateboarding in 1970 to skateboarding in 2000: what was once considered impossible is now accepted as required.

Drummers like Joey Jordison, Derek Roddy, Gene Hoglan, Jason Bittner, Chris Adler and a whole crop of others have set new standards in speed and endurance, emulated by bedroom bashers all over the world. A new frontier in bass drumming is being blazed by drummers that treat their feet just like their hands and play more complicated, and often more interesting patterns (though Bellson and others did practice rudiments with their feet). These new drum set patterns, so far, are emerging mostly in drum clinics, though some have made it into actual musical applications.

Bozzio, Virgil Donati, Thomas Lang, Marco Minnemann, and a handful of others are becoming notorious for having feet that can keep up with their hands, and mixing combination strokes into dense drum set beats. Most of these players remain solo artists, whose fantastically complex technique is so extreme that it overcomes most types of performances.

Lang, for one, has put a name to what he and the others are doing. He calls it “multi-pedal orchestrations,” and it allows him to cover, by himself, percussion loops and other parts created by multiple players or computers in the studio.

Come to think of it, that’s how this all started: in the orchestra, around 1910, when the music directors cut personnel, and said, “You two remaining guys will just have to fiddle with the orchestrations and cover the parts. Try using one of those new-fangled bass drum pedals.”