It was the ambitious fourth album by the English band Yes — a group of slightly nerdy, absurdly skilled art-rockers — that first turned the ears of the world toward the rhythmic individualism of Bill Bruford. The record was called Fragile, and rarely have the drums on a recording made such an immediate impression on generations of first-time listeners. The music was equally impressive, both in scope and execution — the tense, prog-funk grooving of “Roundabout,” the dizzying intro to “Heart Of The Sunrise,” and that incredible snare sound that could only be described as a sort of dry, punchy bonk
All would be canonized as prime examples of what had then become known as “progressive rock,” a term loosely applied to a highly diverse set of bands aspiring to move beyond the structures and conventions of the standard blues-rooted rock that had dominated the airwaves since the early ’60s. Yes was the first of these acts to achieve true mainstream appeal, although Bruford would only stick around a little longer before making the first in a series of career moves that by anyone’s terms would be considered adventurous, if perhaps a little risky. He had it figured out, though. His restlessness and pioneering instincts gave us a body of work astounding in its variety of achievements (and collaborators).
To examine Bruford’s contribution to drumming by simply compiling a list of “Brufordisms” is to diminish his legacy. Like the greatest of composers, the merits of this legacy are most apparent when his work is viewed holistically, rather than as separate achievements. After all, these techniques and innovations were not consciously devised independently of one another. They evolved as a style over time, forging one of rock’s truly unmistakable musical voices, which has modeled artistic integrity of the highest degree for the past 40 years and reflects the true personality of its owner. His prose, in fact, reads much like his drumming: meticulously crafted, yet never sounding belabored; complex, yet totally reasonable. To state it plainly, Bruford has been very successful in striking the perfect balance between brainy and badass.
1. THE GROOVES
From his legendary up-tempo lope with Yes, to his more fusion-influenced patterns of the late ’70s (see Exs. 2a, 2b, 2c), hard grooving is one of Bruford’s undeniable strengths as a rock drummer. Even the most straightforward of his earlier rock-era grooves seem to have a little extra springiness to them. Aside from the man’s inimitable feel, a few small embellishments help to create this effect. The most characteristic (and ordinary) of these is a simple sixteenth-note in the bass drum just before the snare whacks a backbeat (Ex. 1a). This little gesture can be heard frequently throughout Bruford’s entire catalog, right up to the recent “From The Source, We Tumble Headlong,” from In Two Minds, his collaboration with keyboardist Michiel Borstlap. As unremarkable as it may seem, it’s a trademark of his feel. The addition of a subtly ghosted breakbeat pattern adds even more texture and spring, as seen in “Yours Is No Disgrace” (Ex. 1b, from The Yes Album by Yes) and “Siberian Khatru” [(Ex. 1c, from Fragile by Yes). The classic “Roundabout” has a similar feel with a slightly different construction (Ex. 1d).
2. THE SNARE (CLOSE TO THE RIM)
The sound of Bruford’s drums are as much a part of the records he has recorded as the music, and the most unique and noticeable voice in this kit is the sound of the snare drum. It is one of legendary distinction, sought after by many, but never quite replicated. In fact, “Bill’s Bonk” seems to be less the result of any particular piece of magical gear than the manner in which he played those items (various Ludwig Supra-Phonics and Supersensitives — no surprises there). According to Bruford, the task of contending with his colleagues’ amps in the days before drum mikes resulted in him firing his rimshots at around the halfway point between the center of the head (tuned “fairly tight”) and the rim to produce more ring. Bruford is a lifelong believer in the au naturel school of mixing: drumheads are not to be dampened or muted because the overtones will properly absorb into the mix with the other instruments, creating a livelier and more organic-sounding record. In his words: “Crap idea, if you think about it. I just let my drums ring, and those harmonics are part of the music, as any idiot now knows.” A comprehensive inventory of Bruford’s gear by era can be found at billbruford.com/equipment.