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Friday, 20 December 2013

Picks from Joel Rothmans’s Catalogue

Joel Rothman has been writing drum books longer than a lot of us have been playing. His Rock And Roll Bible appeared in the late 1960s, and soon became the standard. His philosophy is simple: if there's a need for it, he'll write. His catalogue currently lists more than 100 books.
I got hold of a number of his books and thought I'd share my observations with you. (Note that I've added three of these books to my practice schedule.)

Basic Rock Beats$10.95, 16 pages
Succinct preface. Fairly well structured and well paced, with 4-6 exercises per page. Progresses slowly to 8th and 16th variations. Deals with 8th note and 6/8 rides; the 16th note ride is barely mentioned on last page. Overall a good intro to the basics.
Value: Very Good

Easy Drum Solos for Jazz Coordination$14.95, 32 pages
There’s no preamble to explain how to use the book. More of an independence tutorial with snare shots against a swing ride. Bass drum is introduced on page 23. A pretty good intro to comping, but it's in tablature so not very good as reading practice. Not sure how the term 'solo' applies.
Value: Mixed

Mini-monster Book of Rock Drumming$19.95, 96 pages
Very comprehensive, from basic one-bar patterns to syncopated beats in odd times and some polyrhythms. Progression is suitably graduated and with no ‘filler’. A number of sections integrate common rudiments. Good for someone who just wants to grind through a lot of rhythmic ideas.
Value: Excellent

Easy Drum Solos to Develop Technique$14.95, 33 pages
After a page of warm-up motif exercises, the book switches to 4-bar mini solos in an 'AABA' pattern, which is a useful concept. Relies mainly on simple rudiments and sticking patterns. Not overly adventurous or challenging.
Value: Fair

Accents and Solos for Rock and Jazz$14.95, 32 pages
Basic stuff, only slightly more complete than Ted Reed’s "Progressive Steps to Syncopation". Preamble has some good ideas for embellishments. Otherwise nothing really new here.
Value: Fair

Rudiments Around the Drums$16.95, 47 pages
A more complete intro to the concept than most. Covers a useful subset of rudiments -- single strokes, double stokes, paradiddles. A very good study of getting around the set. Adds 40 rudiments at the end.
Value: Very Good

Sticking Patterns$16.95, 71 pages
My main problem with this one is the printing. The whole purpose is to communicate stickings, but the printing is somewhat hard to read. Lacks focus; seems to want to cover all the bases, but to what purpose? Patterns are grouped, often with no clear indication of how they relate.
Value: Fair

Reading, Rudiments and Rock Drumming$14.95, 76 pages
Seems too ambitious, with each lesson moving along a bit too quickly. Short on explanation, and some pages are just confusing. Many exercises introduce advanced concepts too soon.
Value: Good if a teacher is involved

Basic Drumming Made Easy$14.95, 80 pages
In trying to cover everything, this book falls short. Emphasizes reading over rhythm. Uses tablature without advantage.
Value: Very good, oddly.

Duet Yourself$16.95, 98 pages
An interesting concept: top line is for snare and bottom line for bass drum or anything else. Covers a lot of ground including odd time signatures, rudiments, rolls, and reading. Lots of warm-up exercises plus theory and a glossary. Not for the timid. Printing could be more user friendly.
Value: Excellent

Teaching Rhythm$16.95, 97 pages
Very good intro to the basics. Introduces odd time signatures early -- plus! Sufficiently gradual, with liberal use of common notations (e.g. ‘repeat bar’ sign). Stops at 16th note triplets. Very thorough without drifting off into the esoteric.
Value: Excellent

Rock Breaks Around the Drums$14.95, 32 pages
Great intro for the beginner. Each lesson begins with a statement of the motif, followed by three patterns on the basic 4-piece kit. Builds from a half bar to a full bar, from simple to quite complex; some exercises include rolls. Tablature takes a bit of concentration. Holds off on bass drum integration until page 26.
Value: Excellent

Hardest Drum Book Ever Written$14.95, 16 pages
Although subtitled '5-way coordination', this book might be more correctly called "progressive steps to open-handed playing". There is no fifth 'limb' presented, the extra voice being played by one hand on two instruments. Begins with a good explanation of the concept, then starts with simple exercises on hi-hat, snare and cymbal, adding the bass drum early. In all, a good study in funk style using open-handed techniques.
Value: Excellent

The Rock And Roll Bible$16.95, 80 pages
Pretty ambitious title, yet considering the book was originally written in 1968, it's still considered to be one of the best for the genre. Starts with an intensive bass drum workout, but it’s simple and manageable. The basic rhythms, starting on page 11, build gradually in complexity with liberal use of two-bar patterns. There are sections for snare development as well. Also includes a good section on 12/8 rhythms.
Value: Excellent

Stop by your local drum shop or Joel’s on-line store to discover more.


Wednesday, 4 December 2013

Tricky Things, Those Quarter Notes

Steve Gadd says that he concentrates mainly on the quarter notes, i.e. the pulse. You'd think by this stage of his career he'd have that down and wouldn't have to give it a second thought. But, he says, that's where the time is. And he's not the only top player who points to the pulse and says that it’s the single most important thing!

Putting the quarter notes in the right spot is called, simply, playing good time, and it’s every musician's first responsibly. But what about all those notes in between? They're important too, but consider this: If your quarter notes aren't where they're supposed to be, nothing else will be either. If you're not consistently hitting the beats with the rest of the band, then everything suffers: time, groove, career opportunities. The importance of 'playing good time' cannot be over stressed, and learning to play steady time is the quickest and shortest path to playing with the better players and landing the better gigs.

I knew a young drummer whose sensitivity to time was quite poor. I suggested he work out with a metronome, but he had a ready come-back: "When we get in the studio we'll use a click track". Actually, if you've never worked with a metronome, playing with a click track might be a challenge. But a bigger problem is that if you aren't able to play in time, you'll likely never get anywhere near a studio. Period.

There is no shortcut to improving your time. Regular practice with a metronome is a must. Also be conscious of other players' time. Stick with the good time keepers and avoid the bad ones. And listen. The easiest way to stay in time is to listen to and become part of the team. Singers and bass players are particularly good at staying in time. Singers are usually very aware of the time, and if it goes awry they are quick to pick up on it -- if only because “something isn’t right”. Bass players consider it their duty to lay down a solid foundation. In fact, many top drummers form tight professional and personal relationships with good bass players. Together, drums and bass can often work miracles.

So break out that metronome (or buy one) and make it a regular part of your practice routine. Be aware of the time … all the time. And especially be aware of your own time. The best description of good time is trying to put your quarter notes “in the bass player’s back pocket”. Of course it's easier said than done, but with practice and attentiveness, it will happen.

Here are a couple of very cool metronome apps for PC that you can download for free:
  • MetronomeExp32
  • Weird Metronome

Monday, 11 November 2013

Reading Is Really Handy

First off, let me say that reading music is optional -- for any musician, not just drummers. There are plenty of sectors in the music business where reading just isn't called for, and there are others where the inability to read is a deal breaker.

Unfortunately, for some reason reading has received a bit of a bad rap. I've met excellent musicians who can't read and some whose reading outshines their playing. I’ve also met plenty who absolutely refuse to read, and it’s a prejudice that I really don’t understand.

One belief is that reading -- or any kind of study -- will limit creativity. That is an amazingly misguided viewpoint. How can learning more about music and your instrument be a limitation? In truth, refusing to study cuts you off from creativity big time!

There's also the perception that reading is for specialized situations. Yes, symphonies, big bands and studio work call for good reading chops. But these are very small sectors, and not everyone wants to go there.

The main complaints seem to be that reading is (a) hard to learn, (b) hard to do and (c) limited in its usefulness.

Anyone who has learned how to read as an adult through an adult literacy program will tell you that it was doable once a suitable approach was presented. Like learning to read language, learning to read music is not that hard if presented in an appropriate manner. Simple rhythms can be equally simple when put on paper. And as you get better at reading, you can tackle more complex examples.

And how about limited use? OK, you might never be in a situation that requires reading, but that's not the point. Written music was invented not to put obstacles in our path but to allow us to retain and share musical ideas. If I have a good idea for a blog topic, I write it down. What if I have an idea for a lick or a rhythm? Well I can write that down too, and then it’s not lost to the ether.

To me, the best reasons for learning to read are so you can take it with you and so you can unlock anything that's written down. A teacher can pack more info onto a single written page than you could ever memorize by the end of a lesson. And if you forget what the lesson was about, there it is, on the page. You can also pick up just about any drum book or magazine and work out the ideas found there.

There is a trend with most popular instruments to use a system called tablature. Some guitarists find tablature more approachable than musical notation. Not surprising -- they have a lot of notes and fingers to manage. Drum tablature is also available, but if you look carefully you'll find that it isn't much different from standard music notation. If you're going to put in the effort to learn a system, why not just go to the source. I find tablature useful and sometimes use it as a type of shorthand. I find this easy to do because I already know how to read. Tablature is just reading in a slightly different form.

So if you've been putting off learning to read, perhaps it's time to have another look at it. You may be surprised at how easy it is to grasp the basics.

Thursday, 31 October 2013

Be-Bop Had the Right Idea

When Charlie Parker was asked to 'sing' a tune, he often didn't. Whether he was trying to sing the melody or not, what he usually did was sing mainly the phrasing, emphasizing the rhythm.

Bebop is a very rhythm-oriented music. In fact, the very name comes from a prominent lick: two eighths followed by a rest … be-BOP.

Now, if we transport our thinking some 7000 miles to the east, we arrive at India, where rhythm is king and written music is a rarity. Their Carnatic music tradition is based on spoken rhythmic patterns passed down from teacher to pupil, from one generation to the next. To master the rhythms, the student must memorize them. It's not sufficient to merely play the rhythms. Knowing -- memorizing -- the verbal patterns is required.

In western music we don't pay much attention to vocalizing rhythms or to memorizing. Maybe we should. Charlie Parker thought in terms of rhythm to the point that he quite readily verbalized a tune's rhythm, often only alluding to its melody. It's a good habit to get into. If we can speak the rhythm of a tune, then we will truly know the rhythmic spirit of the tune.

As drummers, rhythm is pretty much all we have to work with. We're rhythmic animals, so we should be putting all our effort into mastering and interpreting the rhythmic backbone of the tunes we play.

A technique I sometimes use is to transcribe a tune, copying down only the rhythm. Then I have the rhythmic flow in front of me (without all those up and down notes) and I can concentrate on the lines and phrasing. This is especially useful for tunes that use tricky rhythm structures. (It wasn't until I did a rhythmic transcription that I had any idea how to handle Sonny Rollins's “Oleo”) It also helps when the tune’s overall structure is unusual, such as a 44-bar AABA.

Wednesday, 16 October 2013

When Teachers Don't Teach

When I was a teenager, there was another fellow in our town who'd started playing drums around the same time I did. He worked hard, took a lot of lessons, and quite often his progress was compared to my own.

Some years later, this same guy came to me for lessons. Now, he had actually been playing longer than I had and he'd even had more training, so his coming to me was both ironic and confusing. What I soon found out was that, while he could do wonders on a snare drum and could transmogrify anything in a drum book into sound, he could not play drums confidently in a musical context.

I've seen this phenomenon a number of times, and I'm always perturbed by it. Now, rather than berate the teachers for a job not well done, I'd like to lay the blame where it belongs: The System.

Drums have a long tradition, and drum instruction no doubt has just as long a history. Trouble is, once a tradition is set down, it often doesn’t get updated. There are different reasons for this lack. Sometimes the devotees believe the material couldn’t possibly need any updating. Sometimes the adherents don't see an alternative. Some purists insist that if their teacher used it, then it's the one true way. And sometimes the topic just never gets raised.

In truth, things change. And technology changes. Now, the term technology merely refers to the way things are done (e.g. the "Moeller method" and double bass pedals are technology). And as technology changes, so does our knowledge. Even more significant is that our beliefs change as well. For a long time it was believed that no human could run a mile in just four minutes. And then someone did it. Before long, everyone was breaking the 4-minute mile barrier because people no longer believed it was not possible.

Some of the mind-boggling speeds we see from contemporary drummers is another example. Once one person clocks 1000 strokes a minute, then everyone confidently shoots for the same target. And some just whiz right past it.

Now, back to the traditions of drum instruction. Teaching drums from a basic exercise book has some benefits. Learning the basics of music is always good. Learning to read is also good, as is plenty of snare drum practice with various stickings. But none of these will get you closer to playing drums. So a modern method ought to focus on the entire drum set and also the entire student.

The first thing I show my students is a rudimentary polka. It's really just a warm up exercise using all four limbs, but in a pinch, it could get them through a polka without too much trouble. Of course I assign reading and sticking patterns too, but they are always within a musical context, not relegated to some sterile exercise on a page and divorced from any true musical goal.

And so it was with a bit of my philosophy under his belt that this student took a dance band gig. After his first night, he reported back to me by exclaiming, "Hey, this stuff's useful!"

And so it should be.

Now, if you find 15-stroke rolls and triple ratamaques useful, by all means go with it. What I'd rather show my students is how to use G. L. Stone's “Stick Control” to discover jazz and funk rhythms.

Thursday, 19 September 2013

When in doubt, listen

Here’s a very common question: If you could give just one tip for playing musically, what would it be?

It's unlikely that anyone would ask this sort of question of a piano player or saxophonist, and yet it seems OK -- almost required -- to ask it of drummers. My first inclination would be to ask, "What song are you playing?" Certainly it would be easier to provide some guidance if I knew something about the musical context. But I have a simpler, more direct answer.

If I were to offer up one 'secret' tip about playing musically, it would be this: Listen. By the time you get on the bandstand, it's too late to start thinking about how to play musically. It really is something you should be thinking about all the time. And you need to listen all the time too. Listen to the greats -- the masters. Don't just listen to the drum part. The best drummers tend to play with the best musicians, and those drummers are thinking about the music, not about how cool that last lick was or the next one will be.

Seek out your favourite drummers, and then listen -- deeply -- to the rest of the band. Study how the tunes work and how the drummer fits into the whole thing. And listen to the drummer just as intently. What is the drummer doing to make the music better? How do the drums and bass work together? How does the drummer relate to the ‘comping’ instruments?

When I'm faced with an unfamiliar tune, I'm never at a loss for what to play. It's not because I have a huge war chest of beats and patterns -- I don't. Nor do I feel the need of one. Everything I really need is contained right in the tune, and it's just a matter of hearing it and then following along. Of course I want to bring my own interpretation to it, but the fundamental rhythm is already there, as are the phrasing and dynamics.

So the next time you approach a tune, listen to the bass line. Listen to the rhythm that the ensemble is playing. Then all you have to do is come up with something that fits. Later you can dress it up, but begin by fitting in and letting your playing contribute to and reflect what's going on in the music.

Monday, 9 September 2013

“Learn the rules so you know how to break them properly” Dalai Lama

I knew some young musicians who refused to be influenced by other people's music and musical opinions. They were so dedicated to this course that they stopped listening to recordings, stopped going to see other bands, and refused to take lessons or study music. Their plan worked: They remained uninfluenced by any music that had gone before. They also remained un-enriched, uneducated, unrepentant and, ultimately, unoriginal.

After a couple of years of isolated practice, they developed a banal style that hinted at musical trends that had long since died out or been abandoned. True, they had avoided outside influences, but they had also avoided knowledge, history, the example of great players, the technical advantages taught by teachers, and more. They also missed out on the mistakes and blind alleys of the past and ended up needlessly stumbling through them on their own.

Imagine how different this group's end result might have been had they been aware of what had already been tried? If they’d become technically accomplished on their instruments? If they’d listened to both past and present music to broaden their scope?
We all want to be unique, to develop our own style. But what's the point if that style is based on ignorance and lack of competence. It's fine to go against the current, but how can you possibly do that if you don't know which way the current is flowing. As the Dalai Lama points out, you can't very well bend or break the rules if you don't know what the rules are. Nor can you develop an original style when you don't know what styles are already out there.

There's a wonderful saying that you might have heard: Good musicians borrow; great musicians steal. The more material you ‘lift’ from other sources, the more you make it your own. In time it will all meld together to become ‘you’. In this case, more really is better. And you’ll also have a better idea of what rules you can break, and how to break them.

Thursday, 29 August 2013

What do you call a person who hangs around with musicians?

It's a very old and rather tired joke, but it wasn't all that long ago that music contracts specified "4 musicians and a drummer". It's not really a case of drummers not getting the same amount of respect as other musicians. It's simply that many non-drummers don't realise that playing drums well requires every bit as much training and knowledge as any other instrument.

There's a lovely video on Youtube in which Travis Barker is warming up before a gig. In case you didn't know, Travis is highly trained, highly skilled and highly disciplined. The fellow there with him -- also a band member -- remarks in a disbelieving tone, "You mean you actually practice your instrument?" Oh my.

There are a lot of drummers who are not interested in studying or practicing ... or even in improving. But that's not peculiar to drummers. A lot of musicians don't seem to put in much effort after learning those first few chords and songs. There have even been music movements that eschewed any sort of education or training. It's a personal choice, but consider the long-term consequences of that choice.

The less you know about your instrument and about music, the less valuable you are as a player. That means the better gigs will always go to someone else. There's also a limitation on opportunities. Perhaps you enjoy teaching. Well you won't attract many students if you can't read and don't know the basics, or if you don't understand how to get from one level of playing to the next.

I certainly want more opportunities rather than fewer. But for me the real bottom line is how I feel about my playing and the quality of the work that I do. I don't like half efforts, and I tend to put a lot of energy and care into everything I do. Drums are no different. And if I want to do a high quality job -- for me if not for any other reason -- then I owe it to myself to continually hone my craft.

And the best part? It feels great to cover new ground and develop new competency. And the positive feedback is pretty good too.

Tuesday, 20 August 2013

Beware of a Perplexing Legacy

I thought in honour of Ginger Baker's 74th birthday (Aug. 19) I'd post a short review of an excellent documentary on the cream of 60s drummers.

Take the power of John Bonham, the orchestral sense of Keith Moon, the "This is how I hear it" creativity of Max Roach, the attitude of a junk yard dog, and stick it all inside a massive ego and -- beware -- you have Ginger Baker.

Of course I'm referring to the image one gets of this iconic drummer as revealed in the documentary "Beware of Mr. Baker" by independent filmmaker Jay Bulger, which won the Grand Jury prize for best documentary at the South by Southwest film festival in 2012.

The film presents a quick review of Baker's career, and retraces much of his musical path both before and after Cream. Some scenes use cartoonish-yet-tasteful illustrations to set the mood. There are plenty of the requisite clips of past performances and interviews with associates and admirers. I believe it was 'the Fonz' who said "Live hard, live fast, you leave a good looking corpse". Not so Mr. Baker, who has certainly lived hard and fast. Years of smoking and substance abuse have left Ginger looking only slightly less like a corpse than Keith Richards. In one scene, he's shown on oxygen.

One has to ask whether Baker was always as acerbic as we see in the film, and whether he abused those around him the way he abuses the film's maker. Bulger keeps coming back to Ginger's upbringing and the loss of his father (a casualty of WWII) at a young age. It seems Peter Edward Baker had to learn to use his fists early on, and that appears to have stuck with him. Eric Clapton summed Baker up rather interestingly. He felt it would be too dangerous to be around him, but would 'always be there for him' -- a substantial tribute.

If you've not made up your mind about Ginger Baker -- the drummer or the person -- this film might help. Suffice it to say, he had a mighty impact on drums, drumming and the rock milieu. He was not the first to use a 14-piece drum set, not the first to use double bass drums, and certainly not the first to carry a jazz influence onto the stage. But his influence on drummers of the time and since is unmistakable and wide-spread.

What I found most interesting is that, despite all his bluster, Ginger Baker doesn't appear to be egotistical about his playing. Perhaps that's an important part of the formula that made him a mega-super-star.

Beware of Mr. Baker
Writer/Director:  Jay Bulger
Producer: Andrew S. Karsch, Fisher Stevens

Tuesday, 6 August 2013

Are we boring you?

The singer said it well, and for all to hear: "You can always tell when the drummer's bored."

He's right. It's easy to tell when a drummer is bored. It's when he/she throws in all kinds of stuff that isn't relevant to the music. It's a different sort of thing from merely being too busy or not being faithful to the style. You can overplay and yet still be working hard to make good music. The bored drummer, on the other hand, tries to generate some excitement when it's completely uncalled for. You can often tell from the drummer's facial expression. It's one of attention seeking, looking to the band or audience as if to say, "Did you notice me?"

Is there a cure? There is, and it's surprisingly simple. Just remember why you're there: to combine your efforts with those of the rest of the band to produce quality music. You are there to serve the music, no more, no less.

Not appropriate for the style?
One reaction to an unfamiliar and possibly uncomfortable situation is to disallow all knowledge and interest in the subject. So you play what you feel like playing rather than what's right for the music. Say you're a thrash metal player and you've landed a fill-in gig with a blues band. I'm sure you've played plenty of blues before, and you've likely heard enough authentic blues to be able to mimic the style if you give yourself permission to do so.

I find that the core rhythm can always be found in the music. While I may not know a tune or even the genre, the rhythm always forms the foundation of the tune and all I have to do is listen for it. If you find that you’re not clicking with the genre, a bit of homework and listening will pay off.

You’re distractible?Ah yes, the ADD problem. The interesting thing about people with ADD is that they typically put a lot of effort into overcoming the difficulties that accompany the condition. The frustrating part of ADD is not the inability to pay attention but the inability to control it, to make it do what you want. People with ADD can attend just fine, right up until the moment their thoughts shift to something else with no warning and no rationale.

One trick to living with this peculiarity is to keep progressing. Always look for the new and novel, which all music contains if you take the time to look for it. It's important to be as stress-free as possible on the gig. This is critical for someone with a wandering mind. It's also a good idea to have reminders available, so charts and notes might be a worthwhile  addition to your setup. If you happen to be the distractible type, use whatever coping tools that will help you keep on track. (By the way, ADD and just not paying attention are not the same thing.)

You’re truly bored?One of the main reasons drummers overplay is because they're bored with the music. In my experience, boredom comes from within. If you crave excitement, that's a choice. You can also choose to crave a challenge. There are potential challenges in every musical situation. Can you play it more authentically? More empathically? Can you hold the time rock steady? Can you pay fills only at the end of complete phrases? Can you play fills that are shockingly simple? Can you follow the dynamics of the tune throughout the volume spectrum? I find I'm never bored when my objective is to do a better job and to always improve what I'm doing.

And if you're simply bored, either get un-bored or step aside and let someone else have a go.

Monday, 22 July 2013

A Simple Fix

Drummers are fortunate these days. There are so many makes and models of drums available that there's something for everyone. But the real good news is that drum quality is at an all-time high. Many brands offer a bewildering away of choices, often starting at entry-level prices (and then heading off into the stratosphere). And some of these lower priced drums are diamonds in the rough.

The main differences between modestly priced drums from good makers and their more expensive siblings are the quality of the raw materials and the attention given to the drum during assembly. An easy way to keep costs down is to skimp a bit on parts and labour. What this means is that less expensive drums can often be improved considerably with very little cost and effort.

I recently bought a used snare drum produced by one of my favourite makers. These drums are solid, but are the company's second lowest tier. Looking closely at the drum, what I saw was a high quality, well-finished shell, decent enough hardware, budget snare wires, medium quality heads, and a snare retainer that's probably going to fall apart before long.

The first thing I did with the drum was remove the heads and snares. A quick check of the bearing edges and snare beds showed that they were well done. No need for attention there. Next I got out my socket wrench and tightened all of the components attached to the shell. If the tension casings aren't snug enough -- and they weren't -- the drum won't stay in tune. (In fact, the reason the drum was for sale was because the original owner complained it wouldn’t stay in tune.)

I like to lightly sand the bearing edges with very fine sandpaper -- just a few swipes with 600 grit to polish them. This makes it easier for the heads to seat themselves. And now let's reassemble. (Eventually I'll replace that retainer at a cost of about $10.)

I gave all of the tension bolts a wee drop of general-purpose oil. Never use grease here as it can promote loosening. I opted to keep the snare head, and replaced the batter head with a top quality one. When tightening the tension bolts, I keep them as even as possible,  counting turns ... half-turns, actually.

I set aside the snares to use on another drum and installed a better set. While doing this, I had a look at how the snares are attached. It's surprising how much difference a change of string can make here, and it’s a good idea to experiment with different strings and straps. I discarded the original plastic straps and used the fine string that came with the new snare wires. When installing the snares, I positioned them so the end plates are at the same distance from the edge of the shell on both sides while under tension.

And that's all there is to it. This is a small bit of maintenance that you can do with any drum, and it's pretty much guaranteed that your drums will sound and feel better, and that they’ll stay in tune longer.

Wednesday, 10 July 2013

Who's endorsing who?

We've all asked the question at least once: How do I get a drum/cymbal/donut company to endorse me?

The simple answer is, be really famous or work with somebody really famous.

But the endorser/endorsee relationship is not a simple one. Nobody gets free drums and other stuff just for being an awesome player. The relationship is a two-way street. We often think of the company endorsing the player, but it's really the other way around. It's the player who endorses the equipment. And that means that the player's recommendation must carry some clout, and that the player or the player's band has a following worth reaching out to.

Would Ringo be a featured artist for Ludwig drums if he hadn't been a member of the Beatles? Likely not. Not to take anything away from Mr. Starkey’s contribution to music, it was the notoriety of the band that made Ringo one of the most influential drummers of all time. (In fact, Ringo's endorsement resulted in a bit of a production crisis in the '60s.)

All companies are on the lookout for artists who will do a good job of representing them. That person must meet all the criteria of an employee: talented, knowledgeable, committed, and an ability to connect with existing and potential customers. The endorser is, in effect, a 'stealth sales rep'.

The best endorsers are those who have a 'platform', which simply means listeners -- people who follow both the music and the artist. The endorser should also be reliable, faithful, and low maintenance. Is he/she inclined to switch brands often? Not show up? Expect more than their position warrants?  Can the player be trusted to give the brand suitable exposure?

Steve Gadd is about as high profile as you can get. He's also a great endorser. That's because he's professional in every way, and he's dedicated to sharing his knowledge with other drummers. The gigs he plays ensure that his chosen brands are seen by countless fans around the globe. Now, do the companies pay him to play their products? Possibly, although that's not as common as it once was. What they will do is ensure that he has what he needs. For example, on a European tour Gadd doesn't take any drums. Drums simply show up at the gig courtesy of local brand reps. That's a nice perk for both the artist and the local rep, who gets to hang out with one of the greats.

So the basic question is this: Would you hire you as a company rep?

Endorsing vs. sponsoring
An endorser is someone who recommends something. If I’m endorsing a product, I’m simply saying that this is the product that I prefer and recommend. A sponsor is someone who provides something of value, money or products or both. So you might argue that a true endorsement should not be tainted by financial considerations.

Monday, 1 July 2013

Zoro's Four T's

Well I finally finished Zoro the Drummer's "The Big Gig" and just had to share some of his wisdom with you. Picking items to focus on was a challenge, as the book is dense-packed with valuable tips and insights. So if you haven't yet checked out this invaluable book, I encourage you to do so ASAP.

In a drum world filled with over-worked platitudes and questionable advice, it's refreshing to find solid material reduced to its essentials. Zoro's recommendation to any musician -- and drummers in particular -- is to focus on four key areas of our playing. Of course there's always more we can work on, but these core skills should be where we all begin.

1. Time

“ … all the chops in the world are useless if you can’t keep them within the framework of solid time.” - Zoro

I don't think I've ever heard a musician claim that someone's sense of time was 'too good'. (Let me qualify that -- a bass player I know sat in with Buddy Rich on short notice. All he could say afterwards was that Buddy's time was “disturbingly” accurate.) Read any interview with a top drummer and the issue of keeping good time will invariably crop up. I'd even go as far as to say that time trumps all else. I've seen some marginal drummers firmly ensconced in the drum chair because of their sense of time. And there are at least as many examples of drummers with lots of skill who don't get asked back because their time just doesn't work.

2. Technique

“Great musicianship is achieved by employing a combination of techniques to serve the music with the greatest possible depth of expression” - Zoro

Bottom line: You need technique. That's what gives you the ability to make meaningful noises on your instrument. You don't need a lot of technique, but you do need enough. Kirk Covington, for example,  claims that he only knows single strokes and double strokes -- a perfect example of quality over quantity.

In essence, technique is what stands between you and the sounds you want to create. Still, while you may be able to get by with a modest amount of technique, if you want to move forward musically   and professionally, you need to work on technique.

3. Touch

“Touch is what makes each musician an individual.” - Zoro

Touch is just a fancy term for how loud and/or sensitively you play. The right volume is the right volume, and your volume should always be appropriate to the music. Then, within the volume 'envelope' you need to have dynamics. Your volume should increase or decrease as the music dictates. This requires control and technique, which beget touch. Touch also allows you to articulate and 'voice' your playing, such as when you play a figure that includes accents or ghost notes.

Also be aware of your different limbs. There too you need to strive for balance so one instrument doesn’t overpower another.

4. Taste

“To me, the hardest thing about being a musician is knowing which musical choice to make at any given moment” - Zoro

Here's where it gets personal. It's also a case of the subjective vs. the objective. You may have had a situation where you were playing the ‘correct’ thing, but it didn't work or someone in the band was unhappy about it. Remember that you're not trying to play by the book or the theorists. This is music, and in order to play musically you must work with the feel and the style. I went from rock to jazz, back to rock, then country, and back to jazz. Each time, I had to make an adjustment to the feel (and the touch) in order to fit in. A shuffle may very well be a shuffle, but how it's played in one genre may be completely different from how it's played in another.

There's also the issue of busy-ness. Every style has different tolerances for how busy you may play. And there are different tolerances from one band to the next. What got a thumbs-up from one band might get you fired by another.

So let the music, its history and the band members be your guide to what constitutes 'taste', and then bring your own creativity to it.

The Big Gig: Big-Picture Thinking for Success
Alfred Music Publishing
ISBN-10: 0739082434 | ISBN-13: 978-0739082430
Also available as an ebook.

Friday, 21 June 2013

Are we having fun yet?

At one point I was practicing compulsively, and it was getting to me. It was becoming an unwelcome grind. So I decided that I wouldn't practice at all unless I really felt like it. It surprised me when that lasted only a few days, because I realised that I liked practicing. So I practiced ... a bit. My practice schedule soon got longer and longer, but never to the point it had been at before. I still enjoy practicing, but if it feels at all like a chore I'll just fool around for a while or get off the drums completely and go do something else. 

That suggests to me that having fun is a factor that can enhance both my dedication and my productivity. Hmmm … so what else does ‘fun’ affect?

I've always believed that I learn better if I'm enjoying something. Education theory has finally caught up with that notion and now declares that learning should be fun! It seems that being anxious, fearful, irritated, bored, resentful, etc. is not conducive to learning. I know that my students do much better, learn more, and put a lot more effort into their work when they enjoy it. And I'm a pretty demanding teacher.

Your level of enjoyment also affects your playing. If I'm not in a good headspace, things can get pretty dicey. I've missed more than a few cues because my mind was somewhere else. Even if you're not preoccupied, your playing will not be as good if you're not grooving on the moment. Even your creativity suffers, so you owe it to yourself enjoy the moment the best you can.

My wife, a social worker, always tells her clients to ‘reframe’ … take the idea or issue that's bothering you and turn it around. Look for a positive viewpoint of that same issue and let that define your attitude. When I took a job with a country band years ago, I thought that I'd drifted irrevocably away from my dream. I was lucky in that the musicians were great players and great people, but I still had to reorient my thinking. And it wasn't long before I found that I was playing in the best country band around, thanks in part to my ability to adjust and reframe. Had I sat there and moped about not playing jazz as I'd hoped to do, chances are I'd have found myself out of work on top of being miserable.

So rejig your mindset if necessary and get out there and have some fun. You'll be much better off in so many ways.

Friday, 14 June 2013

Cheap Tricks

The 30-minute Rule 

Just about anything can be mastered in a half-hour -- i.e. 30 minutes of solid, concentrated practice. Here’s how.

Take something you want to accomplish, and practice it non-stop for a full 5 minutes. Don't skimp. If it seems too hard or falls apart, don’t worry; just keep at it until the bitter end. Then move on to something else. The next day, put in another 5 minutes on that pattern. After just three 5-minute sessions, you’ll have a pretty good handle on it. After six sessions, you’ll probably have it. Of course more is even better, but at minimum, practice something new at least six times using this method.


Count to Five

I find that if I practice routine stickings (singles, doubles, etc.) and count in 4/4, I inevitably fall into a rhythm. Normally this is a good thing, but to develop even articulation, four-to-the-bar can work against you. So sometimes I count in 5. And not even 5/4 -- just five with no groupings (i.e. no 3 + 2 and no 2 + 3). This helps prevent me from introducing any rhythm or dynamics and to play the strokes more evenly. Interestingly, it also helps me keep in time. (And it certainly can’t hurt to spend some time counting in fives.)


One Thing at a Time 

Simplify, modify and generally do whatever it takes to help you understand a figure. I was working on some advanced funk studies (though I don't seem to have a funky molecule in me) and in order to hear the rhythms, sometimes I started by playing the snare part with one hand and the bass drum pattern with the other. So no cymbal, no hi-hat and no actual bass drum -- just the basic rhythm plus the side-to-side feel of the right/left/right motion. Once I began to hear the rhythm, I then moved it to the set and added the other parts. Sometimes it’s easier to begin with a rhythm and apply the sticking later rather than approaching it the other way around.


Play the Rhythm

Always try to hear the rhythm. I practice many things very slowly (40 bpm and sometimes even less) but at very slow tempos the rhythm isn't always evident. In a case like this, I'll play the figure at a more normal speed until I can hear and feel it. Then, when I slow it down, I'm better able to hear and understand the figure despite the dirge-like tempo.


Dazed and Confusing 

Sticking patterns are a mixed blessing. Sometimes they revolutionize your playing; other times they just complicate and confuse. For example, playing multiple strokes with each hand (e.g. RRRR LLLL etc.) has limited use and limited benefit. More complex exercises may be good for warm-ups, but they too are limited in what they can do for you. But I have discovered one exception (this one comes from Joe Morello). I call it the 'Dazed & Confused' technique.

At the close of this Led Zeppelin song in 6/8 time, the band finishes with a staccato statement in the form:  1-and 2-and 3 / 1-and 2-and 3 / 1-and 2-and 3 etc. It turns out that this is a wonderful sticking exercise that has a lot of benefits, and if you're curious about the Moeller technique, here's a good way to work on it.

Play the 5-stroke figure with one hand. Strike on the down stroke, bounce on the next three strokes, and lift on the last stroke. 

So:  Strike, tap, tap, tap, lift  /  Strike, tap, tap, tap, lift

This gives you a wrist stroke on the down beat, three controlled bounces, and a 'pick up' stroke to get ready for the next sequence. Done correctly, you'll find yourself carefully working those bounced strokes for feel and consistency. Try this exercise slowly with each hand singly, as alternating strokes, and with both hands together. 

How to Listen and Analyze

When you encounter a new tune that grabs your attention, find your place in it by first figuring out the tempo and finding ‘1’. Then start counting to find the time signature. Finally, count bars to determine the structure and to locate the beginning. (Melodic instrument players follow this procedure, also deciphering the key once they’ve found ‘1’). 

Once More, Without Feeling

Similar to the ‘One thing at a time’ approach, this one removes all semblance of nuance from a figure. To master a new figure AND make it swing is sometimes a tall order. So, play it as mechanically as possible so you can concentrate on the sticking and co-ordination. Once it begins to feel comfortable, then go ahead and play it ‘with feeling’. 

Creating Visual Clues to Simplify Setup 

Here’s a simple trick that makes drum setup just a bit easier.

When putting top heads on drums, I always align the drumhead logo with a useful reference point on the drum. For floor toms, I place the logo over the drum’s logo. This way I know where the ‘front’ of the drum is without having to look. The drumhead logo marks it for me, making it easy to place the floor tom(s) without having to look.

For mounted toms, I place the logo above the mounting attachment. A quick glance at the drum tells me instantly where to find the mount, making it a snap to orient.

For the snare drum I put the logo over the snare release. That way I always know where the release is, which makes for easier setup and fool-proof playing. 

Lighten Up 

Many drummers hold their sticks too tightly. There is a long-running debate about whether to use wrists or fingers. Fingers win, hands down (sorry for the obvious pun). My favourite example is the king of heavy hitters, John Bonham. Despite his reputation for ‘bringing the thunder’, Bonham plays in a wonderfully loose and relaxed manner. Another great example is Buddy Rich, who sometimes looked as relaxed as you can get, despite the ferocity of his playing.

Sometimes you need to work with solid wrist strokes, but most top players go for as relaxed a grip as possible.

Wednesday, 5 June 2013

It Works for Me

A trap many of us fall into is the assumption that what's true in one instance or situation will be true everywhere else as well. A large part of our existence is spent simply trying to sort out life’s stuff -- separating the good from the useless -- and in a field as complicated and subjective as drumming, sorting things out can be a full time job.

There are more superb drummers in the world today than I would have ever thought possible. And it's so easy to watch these people in action via the internet. At one time you had to go to a club or concert to see how they did it. Now you just have to 'google' it. And that makes it easy to compare ‘the way it is’ with how it really is. I especially love watching ‘educational’ drum videos on YouTube and the like, and I get a big kick out of drummers who flatly declare, "This is how it's done; this is the way." Oh, really?

Take the right hand grip -- the hand that the majority of drummers use for the cymbal. I don't think I've ever seen such a wide variety of approaches to the grip and to striking a cymbal as there are today. Traditionalist drum teachers must be horrified to see the way some people approach the ride cymbal.

What I glean from all of this is that there is no single right way. There are many, many ways. Some work well and some don't work very well at all (your teacher can help you avoid the poor choices). There is also a lot of latitude for how you adopt and adapt the best practices.

So when someone says, “This is how it's done", take the information as a suggestion. Try it on for size, if it makes sense. It may be what you were looking for. I think a better approach would be, “This is how I do it, and it works for me.” Perhaps it will work for you too. If not, don't sweat it; there are lots more opinions and options available.

Wednesday, 29 May 2013

Flat-foot or Toe?

There has been a lot of discussion and even heated debate over the years on the topic of which is better, flat foot on the bass drum pedal or toe only. The argument is similar to the traditional grip versus matched grip situation, and neither side is offering to make a change. So what is the correct answer?

The majority of today's drummers would likely argue that toe is the only way to go, and they would have a pretty good case. You can do virtually anything with toe technique that you can do with flat foot. Can the reverse also be said? At first glance, flat foot appears to have some limitations, but the question I would ask is, are those differences relevant or even real?

First, let's eliminate any double-pedal action from the discussion so we can keep the focus on one foot, one pedal. What do we really need this pedal/foot team to do? Quarter notes on the beat? Neither technique has an advantage at most tempos. Extreme quiet? Flat-foot may have a slight advantage there, depending on whose foot we’re talking about. What about volume? Toe technique seems like a clear winner as it has the power of the whole leg behind it. How about endurance? Hard to say. Endurance is mostly about strength training, with technique serving more of a supporting role.

What about syncopation, intricate patterns and the like? Actually, both techniques seem about equal here. Raw speed? Again, more about conditioning. How about doubles? Here too, no clear advantage either way. Ok, how about triples? These are pretty hard to pull off no matter what and, oddly, they can be done flat foot with about the same facility as toe technique.

One area where flat foot seems to pull ahead is resonance. It seems to be somewhat easier to strike the drum and let the beater rebound using flat foot. This produces the most resonance from a bass drum, and it's a technique and sound that many jazz players prefer. And therein lies the problem. Most of today's players open up the front of the drum and add a lot of damping. Resonance simply isn't wanted in many music styles. But if your goal is rich, resonant bass drum sounds, you may want to explore flat foot playing.

So what is the conclusion? There is no clear winner and that means no loser either. The best approach is to try both. If you play a lot of quiet music, you may find that flat foot is more accommodating. If you're in a thrash metal band, you probably won't survive unless you go toe-to-toe (sorry for that one) with the speed and volume. The main thing is to determine which one feels right to you. I tend to play flat foot most of the time. I find it easier to play doubles and shuffle beats that way. I use toe when volume is an issue. An important factor for me is that I feel more stable and in control when I have one foot solidly planted. I'm sure a lot of drummers only feel solid when up on both toes. Whatever works! My advice is to learn to be comfortable with both.

A word about ‘heel-toe’
These days the heel-toe technique is something of a fossil that even old timers are losing interest in. Never applied to the bass drum, heel-toe was for decades the technique of choice for the hi-hat. Then someone decided to play quarters and eights on the hi-hat … virtually impossible with heel-toe. Heel-toe can also generate a fair amount of extraneous noise when the heel stomps down on the footboard. And so heel-toe hi-hat play has mostly gone the way of the lo-boy. 

Wednesday, 22 May 2013

Completely self taught … plays by ear

How often have you heard these claims? Too often, I think. However, I contend that nobody is completely self taught. As for playing by ear, I should hope so!

Of course you might think that playing by ear is as silly a statement as 'painting by eye'. And perhaps it is. But at the same time it's true. The artist paints by seeing both what's on the canvas and what's in the mind's eye. In the case of music, all good musicians play by ear -- listening to the sounds on stage and in their heads, and trying to bring the two together.   

As for 'self taught', don't get me started ... oops, too late. People learn by attending to ‘data’ and then assimilating it. Once acquired, the data can be used in a variety of situations. And where does this data come from? Everywhere. One way to streamline the process is to hire someone who's already done a lot of assimilating and get them to show you the way, i.e. a teacher.

But whether you take formal lessons or not, you are still studying. Every time you listen to music, watch another drummer play, or talk shop with a drummer or musician friend, you are taking a lesson of sorts. The only difference is that the lessons come at unexpected times and in an un-planned order.

When I was an aspiring young drummer, I spent more time at jazz clubs than I ever did with my teacher. At clubs, I could hear what it sounded like, and I could see how it was done. I built most of my drumming 'chops' that way. I'm also something of a visual learner, so going to see an ace drummer in action was, for me, the equivalent of attending a scholarly lecture. It was also cheaper, a lot more fun, and I never once fell asleep (I can’t say the same about some of the lectures I’ve attended). Plus I sometimes got to hang out with the ‘prof’ after class.

So the next time someone says, "I'm completely self taught; I play by ear", I just might respond with, "Ya, me too! And I took lessons."

Friday, 3 May 2013


I heard a story about a promising young sax player who came to the attention of a patriarch in the local jazz scene. The patriarch ask the fellow if he'd like to come by the house and join in with a group of major players who got together to jam several times a month. The kid said flatly, "I only play for money."

Hmmm …

When I was starting out, money was in short supply, so getting paid to play was a high priority. But whether I had regular work or was completely destitute, I took advantage of every opportunity to play and to learn, especially if it meant a chance to play with ‘A team’ musicians. 

Playing with people who are markedly better than you is like playing on a very high quality instrument on your best day. Playing with good musicians makes you play better and it makes you a better player. And the better player you are, the more valuable you are. And it’s free!

There's also the incalculable value of making a connection with well-connected pros. If you impress them with your playing, you will be remembered, talked about, invited back, and likely recommended for gigs. That's exactly what happened to me: I showed up, word got around, and I was off and running.

Not every playing opportunity has something positive to offer, but when you're just starting out and someone you would normally pay to go see offers to spend time with you, the correct response is "When? Where?" not "What's it pay?"

Tuesday, 16 April 2013

Why Traditional Grip

When I began playing drums as a youngster, the only role models I was aware of all played matched grip. I don't recall if I considered or even knew about the traditional grip at the time, so I played matched grip. When I began to take lessons, my first teacher made no effort to convert me. A wise move, I think.

Not too many years later, I switched over to traditional grip. I don't know if it was because of a teacher, the example of my peers, or the drummers I was worshipping at the time, and I played traditional grip throughout my professional career. Only once did anyone suggest I switch to matched grip, and that was my timpani instructor. Then (as you may know) I was forced to leave music because of hearing damage.

Quite a few years passed before I felt I could pick up the sticks again. And because it had been so long since I'd played, I opted for matched grip rather than going through the trying process of reacquiring traditional grip. And that seemed to be OK . . .  that is until I began to get a bit more serious about it.

One of my objections to matched grip is the way it almost forces you to address the drums. And while it worked well for rock, I found it limiting for jazz and lighter styles. But what really did it for me was the physical feel of it. What I wanted was for my left hand to feel and work the same way as my right hand, and that was not happening with matched grip. When I was just bashing about, no problem. But when I wanted subtlety and consistent articulation, matched grip wasn’t working for me --  it felt too unnatural. And so one day I arbitrarily decided to go back to traditional grip. I have to say that it was basically a good decision. Because my left grip is now completely different, I'm not put off by how it feels when compared to my right hand.

Mel Lewis claimed that he could tell just by listening whether a drummer was playing matched grip or traditional grip. I think there may be some truth to that, as I know that my approach to the drums and even to tone has changed along with the grip.

If anyone were to asked me why I switched back to traditional grip, about all I can say is, "It felt good". And that is probably reason enough to choose one technique over another. So pick the one that works for you, the one that feels right.

Interestingly, I switched to matched grip for playing with brushes. I couldn’t get the impact and sound I was after using traditional grip and so, after experimenting for a bit, I decided to switch permanently. It also helps keep my left hand in shape for when I want to play matched grip with sticks. Totally a win-win!

Sunday, 31 March 2013

Taming the Shuffle

The shuffle is one of the more intriguing rhythms found in contemporary music. And, despite its apparent simplicity, it can be tricky to play. Plus there are many distinct genres of shuffle, and lots of ways to interpret them.

I’ve played in situations where a lot of the tunes were shuffles, so I've had a lot of practice at it. I've also received some verbal abuse -- and even a symbolic foot up the rear -- when I didn't get it right.

There's no special trick or mystery to playing a shuffle. The sticking is simple enough, although putting together some interesting patterns will take a bit of work. But in the final analysis, it's the feel that matters, and that's where the fun begins.

As with swing, a shuffle is usually based on a triplet feel. To get the gist of it, play the following pattern, focusing on your dominant hand while counting triplets throughout:

      RLR  RLR  RLR  RLR  (Reverse for left-handed sticking)
Once you have the sticking and feel established, put some emphasis on the basic beats, so:  ONE-trip-let / TWO-trip-let / THREE-trip-let / FOUR-trip-let. Keep the beats as even as possible. And don't slip into accenting 1 & 3 or 2 & 4. Now, move your leading hand to a cymbal or hi-hat. That’s the feel you’re looking for. Add some bass drum and a back beat on the snare when you’re ready -- always counting in triplets -- until the feel is mastered. The back beat should really 'pop'.

OK, that's how you play the majority of shuffles. Again like swing, the placement of the 'skip' beat (the ‘let’) can dramatically affect things. Moving the skip beat closer to or further from the beats will take you from a “stickshift shuffle" to a loping country blues shuffle. That said, a shuffle never opens up to the point of resembling eighth notes as swing sometimes does (although listen to Elvis’s version Jail House Rock -- and for fun, compare that to the Blues Brothers version). The key is to listen: The music will tell you whether to relax or tighten it up.

Some shuffle tunes you may know:

Michelle (Lennon & McCartney). A lovely slow, ’loping’ style shuffle. No one’s in a hurry here.

California Girls (The Beach Boys), Stagger Lee (unknown). Medium tempo in the traditional style.

Flip, Flop Fly (Big Joe Turner), Tutti Frutti (Little Richard). Rockin’ boogie-woogie style with lots of forward impetus.

Can’t Buy Me Love
(The Beatles). An implied ‘two-beat’ feel commonly used at fast tempos, yet it still is played as triplets.

Bad, Bad Leroy Brown (Jim Croce). Here the skip beat has been moved very close to the next beat. It’s very near a dotted eight and sixteenth. Notice also the intense forward motion that this style -- the stickshift shuffle -- creates.

Bo Diddly (Ronnie Hawkins). This is as close to eighths as it gets, but if you tried to play eighths here, it would sound wrong and it would lose that solid, comfortable feel.

For a more intensive study of the shuffle, listen to traditional blues and country & western music, where you’ll find lots of shuffles to choose from.

Tuesday, 12 March 2013

Book Review: The Big Gig

These days most drummers know who Zoro the Drummer is. If not, the preliminaries of his book, The Big Gig, will give you an idea of the circles he moves in. Inside the front of the book there are fully seven pages of supportive quotes from people as diverse as Quincy Jones and Sinbad.

As it is a book written by a drummer one would assume for other drummers, you might expect it to be rather drumistic. It is not. It’s a how-to manual for ‘making it’ as a freelance musician. And it's not really that either. It's a prescription, a philosophy and a summary of the habits and attitudes that allowed Zoro to live his dream. No secret: He's a very talented and accomplished guy. But it doesn’t take a lot of talent to assume command of your life and craft it into something rewarding, and perhaps even enviable. In The Big Gig, Zoro tells all.

There's not much here that's actually new. The message is mostly about goal setting and self marketing, with a review of time management principles and an overview of this complex industry. What is different is the passion that Zoro brings to this simple message. I particularly like his personal mission statement. While it may seem overly detailed at first glance, it may just illustrate why so many mission statements fail to deliver: long on rhetoric but short on specifics and deliverables. Zoro's mission statement tells us exactly what he stands for -- what he values. He includes an exercise to help you write your own mission statement and poses a number of poignant questions including, 'What are your key values' and 'What do you want your life to stand for'. What a great place to start!

The text is sprinkled with lots of well-chosen motivational quotes. (There are also a lot of references to God and religion, which may not be to everyone's taste, but I applaud Zoro's choice to 'sell' his readers on the value of spirituality.) Once the basics are out of the way, Zoro then gives a good accounting of how to survive and even thrive in this very tough business. Again, he gives details and realistic goals and lots of strategies for coping.

In all, it's an excellent collection of practical wisdom and lots of workable advice. (I especially like his ‘point system’ for assessing your progress.) This is one book that really should be on every musician's reading list, not just drummers.

The Big Gig: Big-Picture Thinking for SuccessAlfred Music Publishing
ISBN-10: 0739082434 | ISBN-13: 978-0739082430
Also available as an ebook.

Thursday, 28 February 2013

Faster, faster

There haven’t been many times when I wished I could play faster. On those few occasions when speed was necessary, it was usually a tempo issue: playing straight jazz swing with brushes at 360 bpi, for example. But lately, hand (and foot) speed seems to have taken centre stage in the drum world. I’m afraid I'm a bit jaded and tend to think that raw speed is impressive only to other drummers -- usually the most you’ll get from other musicians for that blazing flourish is polite amusement -- but I have nothing against improving overall ability in terms of a useful amount of speed. So here’s a simple method that should give you fairly quick results for developing good hand speed.

Set your metronome at a modest speed, say 120 bpi. Set a timer for 5 minutes. Then play 1/8th notes with one hand exclusively for a full 5 minutes. Then repeat with the other hand for five minutes. The bottom line is that you can’t play alternating strokes any faster than you can move your slower hand. This exercise focuses your full effort and attention on one hand at a time. Concentrating on one hand at a manageable tempo lets you see more clearly how that hand is working, how the stick feels, how the bounce feels, how your fingers and wrist react, and more. This helps you define your technique and develop better control.

Wrap it up with 5 minutes of alternating 16th notes at the same tempo. (Add another 5 minutes leading with your other hand if you wish.) Do this every day for a full week.

Now the fun part. Begin week 2 by moving your metronome up one notch, and repeat the process for another week. Each week thereafter, move the metronome up one slot, remembering to stay relaxed as you practice. At some point, one of your hands (or perhaps both) will say “Too fast!” Not to worry: that’s exactly what we’re looking for. You’ve finally found a speed that doesn’t come so easily.

The solution? Keep at it.

Do the exercise for as long as it takes to feel reasonably competent with all three parts. It may take a week, it may take two weeks, it may take more. Give your hands -- and your brain -- the time they need to nearly master that tempo. Notice that I said ‘nearly’. If you find that at the end of the week you can get to 4 minutes with all three exercises without too much distress, then it’s time to bump it up again. This way you’re challenging yourself to always push your personal speed limit.

Should you reach the top rung of your metronome and hunger for still more speed, go back to 120 bpm and replace the eighth notes with triplets and the sixteenths with sixteenth-note with triplets and repeat the entire process.

(Note: You can also do the routine with your feet or with brushes or with any manner of stickings.)


I don’t believe that forcing your hands to go too fast for too long is a good idea. ‘No pain no gain’ is not a good or even a safe philosophy. It’s too easy to ignore serious pain and end up with physical problems that can put you on the sidelines. However, if you find that 5 minutes isn’t challenging enough, it’s OK to increase the time, provided you don’t push your hands beyond ‘moderate discomfort’. Billy Cobham had a clever practice technique when he was younger. He would go to the bar where he was playing and he’d bet some of the afternoon crowd that he could keep up a roll for a half hour! The payoff, I believe, was a well-deserved glass of beer. There’s no reason you can’t practice more. Just be sure to add the extra time gradually -- 5 minutes the first week, 10 minutes the second week, etc. -- until you reach your goal.

Tuesday, 19 February 2013

The Truth About Cymbals

Drums are drums. They're loud. They’re exciting. They have body, depth, personality. But cymbals seem to have all this and something more. Soul, perhaps? There are drummers who will switch drums whenever the mood strikes. But these same drummers are often as likely to keep the same cymbals through many changes of drum setup or brand.

Unlike a drum, a cymbal is a fixed entity. Drums can be tuned and retuned; heads can be changed and tweaked. With a cymbal, it is what it is, and either it works or it doesn't. So choosing a cymbal is usually more difficult than choosing a drum.

Tony Williams loved K Zildjian cymbals. His only complaint was that he had to go through 50 or 60 of them to find one that worked. I've gone through more than a dozen in one sitting, only to find that the 'right' cymbal didn’t work for me in the end. It now seems to have become a lifelong mission to find that elusive sound. And to be honest, I’m somewhat enjoying the ordeal.

So here is what I think I’ve learned so far about living with cymbals:

Choosing & Buying 

Before you go laying down hard-earned dollars for cymbals, have a good look at your wants and especially your needs. Maybe you have hand-hammered tastes but a sheet metal budget. Or you love the quick response of very thin crash cymbals but play in a death metal band. The cymbals you choose should match all aspects of your situation, not just your wants.

Fortunately the range of cymbals and price points these days is very broad, so you have an excellent chance of finding a great cymbal at a price you can live with. With options such as B8 bronze and sheet bronze, there are plenty of good entry-level choices available. And at the upper end, well there doesn't seem to be an end. Suffice it to say, if the budget allows, you might go for something rare and exotic such as one-off artisan cymbals or a coveted vintage cymbal. 

Let's assume you don't know quite where to start. I recommend you start with a short list of your favourite drummers. Then go to their personal or band website and find out what cymbals they use. Next, drop by the cymbal maker's website. (These are almost always worth a visit regardless.) You'll usually find artist profiles along with their cymbal setups. In addition to info on cymbals, there may be audio samples of the cymbals you're interested in. Some sites have a 'set builder' feature that lets you choose and hear a selection of cymbals.  

Then head for the drum shop or, more likely, several. Don't be afraid to ask for help. Let them know that you're looking for a particular cymbal or style, and then try, try, try. And be prepared to walk away empty handed. You'll be glad that you took your time when you're able to add cymbals that truly reflect your personal sound.

Give it a proper test  

While a cymbal might sound great in the shop, the only way to tell if it's a keeper is to try it with your kit, preferably under actual playing conditions. If possible, take your current cymbal set up with you so you can work toward a fit. Some music shops have generous exchange/return policies, and that’s a great asset when it comes to cymbals. You don’t want to be stuck with a clunker.


Let 'em breathe. To me there's nothing as disheartening as seeing a cymbal that cracked because it was clamped down too tightly. Cymbals need to move … so let them. They'll sound better and last longer. Also, don’t forget to replace felts and protective sleeves when necessary.


It's important to remember that a cymbal is a musical instrument, and a rather expensive one. Playing with energy and applying some muscle is fine, but there is a point beyond which cymbals were never meant to be pushed.

There's no trick to playing a cymbal properly: Just hit it firmly with a sideways stroke. Your objective is to get the metal to vibrate. Crashing straight down on it or driving a stick straight into it will shorten a cymbal’s lifespan in a hurry. Pay attention to the sound you're making rather than the physical impact of your playing.

If you get off on a lot of cymbal crashes and accents, invest in a few suitable instruments. Hearing the same single cymbal crashing over and over can wear out your welcome with the band and the audience. It’s also easier on your cymbals to spread the load over a few of them rather than overworking just 1 or 2. 

Storage & Transporting 

Hopefully your cymbals won't see any actual storage time, but they will always benefit from being kept in a proper cymbal carrier between uses. It's also a good idea to put something protective between the cymbals. The main environmental concern is heat, so be sure to keep cymbals away from extreme heat sources. Cold shouldn't bother them, but here too, extremes should be avoided. And always let them come to room temperature before putting them to work.


Lots of opinions here. The main question is, what are you trying to accomplish? If all you care about is shine, then clean and polish often. If you want to renew a cymbal's bright tone, then some judicious cleaning is in order. If you like the mellowness and dark patina of an older cymbal, then you might want to forgo cleaning altogether or clean only lightly with soap and water. There are many ways to clean cymbals and each has its pros and cons. I use a cymbal maker’s product (or a gentle household cleanser on tough cases) and avoid ‘chemical strippers’ such as Brasso. If you choose to use a power buffer, be prepared for a change in tone. And don’t go at it too hard; the heat build-up from buffing can kill a cymbal real fast.


Is there really that much difference between a new cymbal and an older classic? Yes and no. There's more variation between same-type cymbals made before about 1985. That's when cymbal makers began to switch over to mechanized processes. Does that make a difference? Not overly. The metal is the same, the design principles and craftsmanship are essentially the same.

Then what is the deal with vintage instruments? Supply and demand, a bit of mystique, exclusivity -- those are the soft factors. Over time, a cymbal will tarnish and attract dirt. These affect the sound as much as or more than simple age and ‘playing in’. Still, age and playing both affect the nature of the metal, and that is what vintage cymbal fans are looking for. It's a bit like vintage wines, but if you don't like well-aged wine, it really doesn't matter how special it is. And old or new, the right cymbal is the right cymbal.

(Here's an interesting point. If you clean a vintage cymbal right down to the original metal, it will sound pretty much like a new cymbal. Hmm.)


So choose cymbals that suit your music and your style of playing. Listen to the sounds your cymbals make. Treat them as you would any expensive musical instrument. And keep trying. Cymbals makers are always coming up with new sounds and refining the old ones, so there's always something interesting to hear at your local drum shop. Never stop searching for that 'special' sound. 

Friday, 8 February 2013

Sometimes You Just Gotta Play

I remember two gigs from my early days that had me a bit freaked out. The first was with a dance band. It was in my home town, I was just a kid, and I was as nervous as heck. The other was my first gig in the big city. I almost didn't take that one. I was asked to sub for someone whose name had been tossed around admiringly by our little tribe of drummers, so I was duly intimidated. I wanted to ‘think about it’. The fellow answered, ‘Don’t think; just do it.’ And so I did. Both jobs went very well and I believe I handled myself admirably.

The thing is, in both cases my first thought was to say ‘No’. I didn't think I was ready. Thankfully, I was able to set aside my nerves and my lack of confidence and say ‘Yes’. (William Shatner would be proud. He advises that you say yes to every opportunity that comes your way. Seems to have worked out OK for him.)

I studied at a drum school that had a peculiar rule: No one was allowed to take a playing job unless it was approved by the school's principal. That struck me as rather odd. I don't know the motive behind the rule (perhaps it was to protect us from the dark side of the local music scene) but whatever the case, it was wrong-headed. Instead of being concerned about us playing, the school should have been concerned about us NOT playing.

There's a club in the town where I live that has regular open stage events. Anyone is welcome. I go to have a bit of fun and to support the club and the players, but mostly I go to see the new-comers, some of whom are getting on stage for the first time. The more seasoned players are generally supportive, and they give everyone a chance. It's a wonderful opportunity of the type that's not easy to find. So check around and see if there are any ‘jam nights’ that will let you on-stage.

If you're having trouble finding opportunities to play, why not create your own? Network with friends and other musicians. Visit music stores and get some names of people who want to play, or put up a poster. Then find a place, line up some tunes, and go for it. If it doesn't gel, nothing's lost. Just make a few calls and find out who else is game for your next session.

Cuz' you gotta play, right?

Friday, 18 January 2013

Just do it

It's so easy to get caught up in all the bits and pieces of everyday life, and sometimes things that at one time seemed important were shoved aside. Then you remember, "Gee I really did want to learn to play in 19/8", or something of that nature.

So let's take 19/8 as an example. Is the missing skill because of no opportunities to play in that time signature? Is it a lack of understanding? Perhaps you don't feel it internally, naturally, and so are hesitant to give it a try.

Here's a simple and painfully obvious solution: Just do it. Take that thing you wanted to work on but never got around to and spend just 5 minutes working on it. Now, that amount of practice won't make you gig-worthy, but you'll be a lot closer than you'd be if you hadn't spent those few minutes. No amount of thinking or wishing will get the job done.

I find that I can get a handle on a lot of things just by doing them, and by that I mean sitting down at the set or pad and doing a mini workout. So I might spend 5 minutes playing a very straight 19/8 pattern. Or 5 minutes of a particular tom pattern. Doesn't matter what it is. Nor do I have to commit a half hour or an hour every day for the next week or month. The mere act of doing makes a difference.

I also find this approach less stressful than trying to master something. It's possible to ‘over learn’ things and that can actually work against you.

So next time you find yourself wishing you could play something you’ve not gotten around to, stop wishing and start doing.

Tuesday, 8 January 2013

Drum Dictionary Launch

I think the classic line is that writing is “never finished, merely abandoned”. And so I've reached the stage with my drum terms dictionary when I must put aside my editor's pencil and launch my offspring into the world.
In the end, I collected nearly 550 terms. I had no idea it would come to that, even with only a few token rudiments. I've done enough explaining in the intro so I'll let you get that part of the story from there. (I want to add some navigation controls but my html skills are a bit rusty.)
I haven't decided whether I'll offer a printed version, although I've had a number of requests for a book version.
In the meantime, enjoy. I hope it brings you as much enlightenment as it brought me by doing the research.