Friday, January 24, 2014

Your First Drum Set

Truth is, your first drum set probably won't be your last. And, unfortunately, it may not even be suitable. A musical instrument is a very personal item, and the chance of latching on to the ideal kit on the first go is somewhat remote.

On the plus side, drums from a decent maker these days will be good instruments, and whether new or used, upscale or entry level, they will deliver good performance and hold their value fairly well compared to ‘cheap’ sets.

So the first question is, should you buy new or used?

It's a personal choice really. Some people simply want something that's new. New instruments have the latest features and quality enhancements. They always carry a warranty, and may even come with a guarantee from the seller. The stores I frequent all have a 'satisfaction guarantee' that gives me up to 30 days to return an item if it's not suitable. Buying new also means you get exactly what you want. So, new is good. And if you can’t find the brand and/or configuration you want in the used market, new might be your only option.

Used drums, on the other hand, can be a great bargain, and they let you instantly 'trade up' in quality. A drum set sheds about half its value once it leaves the shop, and if the original buyer loses interest and decides to sell, that’s good news for the bargain hunter. On the down side, you won't know how the drums have been treated. Some drummers are quite abusive (although I'm sure they would call it something like 'spirited'). Drums are very rugged, but they have limits. Cymbals, even moreso. Still, you’ll get more for your money and also lessen the financial blow with used stuff.

What about budget? One savvy musician gave this advice: “Save up a lot of money and buy the best equipment you can find. Then save up a lot of money and buy the best equipment you can find. Then save up a lot of money ….” (I believe it was John Entwhistle.)

The message here is to buy the highest quality instruments you can afford at the time, and then start saving for your next upgrade. Keep in mind that a bargain isn't a bargain if the item is hard to tune, hard to play, falls apart, or you just don’t like it -- so quality is a prime issue. And while you're enjoying your quality set, you should be already thinking about enhancements and/or improvements.

As your playing develops, it’s likely that your tastes will change. So will your needs and your style of playing. That may force a decision: try to adapt your current set or look for something else. My choice is always to get more stuff. Nothing wrong with having two (or more) contrasting setups, if the budget and floor space permit. 

As for choosing cymbals, well that’s an entirely different topic.-rb

Monday, January 13, 2014

Why Jazz Matters

Have you listened to any jazz today? I’m sure you have. If you keep your ears open, you'll quickly discover that jazz and its influence are everywhere. In the elevator, at the grocery store, sitting at Starbucks, or watching TV, you'll hear plenty of jazz and jazz-derived music. There are even some forms of music that, although nothing like jazz, owe their very existence to jazz.

Now, we often think of jazz as that 'ding-dinga-ding' stuff, but jazz has a very complex history that draws from many sources. And it has influenced much of what we take for granted in music today. The popular story is that jazz began when sidemen, tired of playing it straight all night, would get out their instruments after the guests and dancers had gone home, and just play. The emphasis was on freedom, improvisation, breaking the rules, and just generally having fun with it. There were no masters and few, if any, rules.

Jazz drew from many traditions that were popular in America in the early 20th century: blues, ragtime, gospel, military, and various Latin idioms. This fusion of styles has been hailed as America's great contribution to music, and yet jazz often doesn't get the respect or recognition it deserves. (One of the saddest examples of this was when a US president, while hosting a gathering of European composers at the White House, lamented the lack of significant American composers -- despite Duke Ellington being among the guests.)

From the Beatles to Bernstein to Bootsy, jazz has had an impact on almost all forms of contemporary music. Over the years it has served as a conduit, borrowing from various sources, repackaging it, and sharing it with the world at large. It is this ability -- perhaps the need -- to emulate, integrate and evolve that has made jazz such an important music form.

Jazz is the original 'bad boy' of music. The style was born out of an emotional and spiritual need to break out of established norms, to investigate new ground, and to challenge both authority and the technical limits of the instruments and the players.

Over the years, jazz evolved into something of an elitist art form, and while the form is open to all players, it seems to attract the “crème de la crème” of improvising musicians. This tradition of pushing boundaries, dispensing with rules, and pursuing technical and musical excellence has been adopted by players of other forms. Would we have seen such bands as Cream in the '60s, Genesis in the '70s and a host of others if the course had not been laid out so well by the jazz pioneers of the ‘30s, ‘40s and ‘50s? Listen to country swing, prog rock, MOR, uptown country -- almost anything these days -- and you’ll hear jazz’s influence.

You'll also discover that many top drummers regardless of preferred musical genre seek out a jazz teacher. Neil Peart and Freddie Gruber, Danny Gottlieb and Joe Morello ... it's a very long list. And most contemporary music schools base their programs on jazz.
-rb