Monday, July 22, 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, July 10, 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, July 1, 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.