Thursday, December 10, 2015

There's some very hip stuff in those old traditions

I've never been involved in any sort of military drumming ... just not my thing. But I've studied enough rudiments and drum theory to know what it's about. And while I may not want to play in this style, I get a real kick out of listening to it and especially from watching how it’s done. I think some of the greatest drum technicians and entertainers around are to be found in the military tradition.

Two main features of drum corps playing are incredible chops and an extreme team approach to the job at hand (all while maximizing showmanship). Note also that these bands play long orchestrations, and they do it flawlessly -- and from memory. Not a bad policy for any sort of activity.

Another feature of corps drumming is that each style of marching band has a tradition that ranges from fairly modern to downright ancient. Go see a military tattoo these days and you'll see rudimental bands playing tunes by Michael Jackson, Led Zeppelin or Daft Punk. Originally an attempt to attract a new audience by trying to appear more hip, this has evolved into a tradition of its own alongside the rudimental displays.

Many rudimental orchestras seem to concentrate on being nothing short of astounding. If you've not done so already, check out the Top Secret Drum Corps ( or the Blue Devils ( If you’re a fan of excellence in any form, you’re bound to love this stuff.

One of my favourites is Basel drumming (Basel Switzerland is home of Top Secret Drum Corps). At least 500 years old, this style is unlike anything you've heard before. While they play many of the standard rudiments, they frequently throw in things that seem to have come from another planet. And always while wearing a traditional Fasnacht Festival mask (

Last but certainly not least, these players have incredible technique, usually achieved through years of intensive study and training. And a lot of that training is on view any time on YouTube and elsewhere. I especially like Scott Johnson’s hand development clips (check out

So even if it's not your thing, spend some time checking out drums corps. At the very least, you'll be impressed.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Drum Making in the 21st Century

The modern drum set is approaching its 100th anniversary. When I say ‘modern’ I'm thinking of the full complement of drums ... the assemblage of cymbals, hardware and paraphernalia that didn't exist before, say, the 1930s. It's interesting that what must be the oldest instrument known to mankind has taken so long to perfect. And there's still room for improvement.

So the way I see it, there are no rules and no one way. Just look at the proliferation of snare drums, cymbals, bass pedals and custom drums on offer these days. And even though there appears to be enough variety to satisfy every drummer and every situation, the companies, big and small, just keep coming up with more.

Part of this is in response to the ever-changing nature of music. New music often requires new sounds, and players are always looking for new sounds. And then there are the old sounds, the ones that used to be in favour years ago. Note the number of new cymbal lines branded as "vintage".

These changes are driven partly by need, partly by fashion, and partly by technology. It's much easier today to create new products. For example, when cymbals were made totally by hand, a new model might take weeks or months to develop. Today automated cymbal factories can churn out prototypes in a matter of hours. True, it might take a while to get it just right, but the process is a lot less painful.

We're also seeing so-called custom drum brands popping up all over the globe. Anyone can purchase quality parts on-line and create drums in a workspace no bigger than a walk-in closet.

The result of all this is that we drummers can choose from an astounding array of options and at any price point. Anything goes. And in general, the quality of the products is as high as it's ever been. The only downside that I can see is that we can't "have it all". Where would we put it?

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Stay On Track With A Practice Matrix

It's a problem as old as human existence: How do we keep track of all the things we need to do and how do we make sure they get done without getting overwhelmed or confused or losing items through the cracks?

Entire industries have grown up around this problem, but so far I've yet to see a formalized system for easily setting and staying on a drum practice schedule. I've tried a number of methods, and whether it's for practicing my instrument or managing the rest of my somewhat chaotic life, it sometimes seems like a lost cause.

Lately I've turned to a system I used back in university to manage research papers, and which I've kept using whenever I need to manage a lot of disparate items: 3 x 5 cards. It really began just as a means to jot down practice ideas. Then the cards began to stack up. So I punched holes in them and put them on a ring. I could then page through the cards while working on the various ideas.

For example, here's my card layout for “4-Way Coordination: A Method Book for the Development of Complete Independence on the Drum Set” by Marvin Dahlgren and Elliot Fine.

Each time I practice a pair of exercises (there are 2 on each line), I put a tick on the card. In this case I want to work through the early material fairy quickly, so I'll do each exercise pair 10 times then move on to the next. There's room on the card for pages 5 and 6 for a total of 80 days of practice!

Here's another for ‘Basic Rock Beats’. The rows represent a bass drum pattern and the columns are ride patterns.

Let's say I practice each figure for five minutes a day and spend a half hour on a row or column. It will take 6 days to play every pattern on the card. If my goal is to play each one 10 times, that gives me 60 days worth of practicing on a single 3 x 5 card. On a card like this, I might work on a single column or a single row or once through the entire card until I've racked up my objective. 

I now keep a few blank cards with me at all times, and when I have a new idea I put it on a card.
Later I'll add the card to the stack. When I'm completely done working with a card, I pull it from the stack and file it.

As I worked with this simple method, a number of unexpected benefits emerged. First, there is no need to copy from one page to the next as when using a notebook.  I can also pick and choose cards according to mood. 

The great news is that I feel less pressured when working with the cards. I attribute this to the tight focus of what's on the card. Instead of a full page of 'expectations', I have just the one thing in front of me and that helps me to 'be in the moment' and to not feel intimidated by all the things I'm not working on. I can also see my progress more readily as I work on new things. Instead of the feeling of "When will I ever accomplish this", I get satisfaction from seeing those tick marks add up.

I'm calmer, more relaxed, and my practice sessions seem to go by rather quickly. Often I've turned over a card to find myself back at the beginning of the stack, yet feeling that I've spent hardly any time at it!

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Man Vs. Machine: Ever Closer

Musicians have argued for years whether accurate metre as played by a drum machine or with a click track could swing. I've always felt that a good machine-generated rhythm was pretty cool; I've programmed some rather funky stuff on a drum machine -- stuff that actually cooked. And what about sampled beats? They seem to be doing a good job in a lot of situations. Well, somebody finally decided to look into it, and it turns out people do prefer rhythms that breathe … human rhythms.

Here’s the story.

Researchers played music for groups of subjects and then asked them how much they ‘liked’ the rhythm. In one group, the drum part was played by a drummer; in another test group, the same rhythm was played by a drum machine. Although subjects could not quantify their answers, they somewhat preferred the 'real' drummer.

A lot of people will say, "Of course, what did you expect?" Thing is, the subjects liked the drum machine just fine, and their preference for ‘real’ drums was not that dramatic.

Another aspect of the study was to allow the music to 'breathe'. The researchers re-programmed their drum machine to throw in subtle time variations. The subjects weren't swayed much by this wrinkle, still preferring the live stuff. But they also preferred the breathing drum machine to the non-breathing variety.

So can we close the book on the man versus machine argument? Definitely not. There are music styles that can only be played by real musicians, and there are styles that really are best handled by a drum machine.

Now I will always opt for a real drummer, but I see no problem with a mechanized substitute if it makes sense. I'm pretty sure I'd not want to see a jazz band with a drum machine, but in other situations a machine might be just the thing. I guess as long as we do right by the music and the audience, it doesn’t matter what the solution is, just as long as it works.

For a summary of the experiment, visit:

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

"Stop Screwing Around"

Good advice at any time … and it's also the slogan of "pinchClips", a new gadget for keeping your cymbals in place.

It's surprising how often complicated problems have simple solutions. Take the ubiquitous cymbal stand wing nut. They're economical, very effective, and have been around since day one. But wing nuts have a dark side. Aside from always rolling under the bass drum when dropped, they are slow and finicky to work with. The commercial solutions that I've seen thus far have all been expensive and rather complicated. I think the pinchClip is going to change all that, and for about the same price as a wing nut.

Actually I'd been thinking about such a device myself, something in the way of a binder clip that fits on a cymbal stand. Well that's sort of what the pinchClip is, but it’s even simpler -- and very elegant. It looks a bit like a hair clip and fits over the threaded rod of a cymbal stand with a quick squeeze and release.

Here's how it works:

1. Remove wing nut
2. Squeeze pinchClip and put it on the stand
(Optional: Retrieve wing nut from under bass drum.)

And that’s it.

I gave the clips a pretty good workout and they stayed put (although I can’t vouch for how they’d stand up under very heavy playing). But that's not the real issue. With the pinchClips, tear-down of my cymbals now takes seconds, not minutes. (I actually timed it: 8 seconds.)

I only see two potential issues. If you like to crank down wing nuts as tight as possible, the pinchClip won't do that -- but that’s a good thing. Also, they can make a tiny clicking sound under some conditions. Not a real problem most of the time, but it might be an issue in, for example, a recording studio. I can't attest for how they'll behave under bezerk bashing and that's all I'll say about that.

I've switched over both my teaching and gigging sets to pinchClips because I've been wanting this sort of solution for a very long time. I’m also tired of searching for wing nuts in dark rooms.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

It's a Poor Workman Who Blames His Tools

Shortly after I bought a set of budget tabla, I came across an important bit of advice: Do not buy cheap tabla; it's too hard to get a sound and you will be quickly discouraged. OK, there are other reasons my tabla playing is seriously limited, but the sound quality of the cheap drums dampened my enthusiasm. Still, we ought not to blame our tools for a job poorly done.

Even marginal drums and cymbals can produce usable sounds. Of course drums are easier than cymbals as they can be retuned and you can try different heads and various damping approaches. With cymbals, you just have to go digging around. There are lots of sounds in there and while it may not be your ideal choice, there should be at least one that will be suitable.

On the other hand, quality tools are always a joy. When I was first acquiring professional grade drums, I thought in terms of a small business. For example, if I were starting a pizzeria, should I look around for a cheap beater of a pizza oven or should I invest in the best quality? If I want the best quality results, I need to start with quality ‘ingredients’. Many of my musical peers back in the day complained about their instruments and were apparently jealous of my 'good fortune'. But I noticed that they all drove fine cars, took frequent vacations, and other niceties. That was their priority. Mine was to improve the standard of my 'business' by investing in quality tools. The vacations could wait.

The investment paid off both practically and emotionally. My drums were easy to set up and easy to tune, and they stayed in place and in tune throughout the gig. They looked and sounded great and were easy to play, and that was a constant source of joy. There's nothing worse than trying to cope with poor sounding drums that require constant tweaking and adjusting. And if they're ugly as well? Let's not go there.

Good sound leads to less frustration, less frustration makes me happier, and a happier me is a better me -- one who is more likely to play well and to get asked back.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Buying Vintage Drums

Have you ever heard a great drum sound on a classic recording and then become obsessed with that sound? Have you perhaps dreamed of owning a set of Gene Krupa Slingerlands, Buddy Rich Rogers, John Bonham Ludwigs, or Tony Williams Gretsch? To argue the issue of vintage vs. new might be an interesting exercise, but the bottom line is: Vintage drums are very cool and easy to love.

So if you've decided you just have to have some vintage drums, there are a few things you should know before shelling out a heap of money.

The vintage drum market is alive and well. In fact, it's perhaps too healthy, to the point that there are loads of fake vintage drums showing up on sites such as eBay, Craigslist and Kijiji. So it might be wise to stick with drums that you can actually see and touch.

Assuming the drums are genuine, give them a thorough visual inspection. How's the finish? Is it intact or will the drums need refinishing or recovering? Do the drums match? Are all the parts there? Are the parts genuine and original or have substitutions been made or parts improvised? How are the plated parts? Are they free from rust or is the plating worn away, pitted or peeling? Are there any extra holes? You can't expect a 50-60 year old set to look new, but they should at least look cared for, and anything substandard will affect the value and therefore the price.

You may want to evaluate the sound of the drums, but this is very subjective. More to the point is whether they can be easily tuned. That means you need to check the bearing edges for trueness and that they are free from cracks, dents and damage. Make sure the hoops are round and that there are no bends or other damage such as can happen when a drum is dropped (this applies to metal shells as well). Do modern heads sit on the shell and under the hoops properly? Can you tune the drums to where you want them or are there issues with the casings or tension rods?

Other areas require a more experienced eye, and still others look a lot worse than they are. Cracked or chipped pearl wraps can be fixed or replaced quite easily. Reinforcing rings and loose plies can be reglued. Water damage, on the other hand, can be a kiss of death.

As for price, there are some huge bargains available if you're willing to search them out. Otherwise, expect to pay what you'd pay for a new set of comparable quality (and perhaps significantly more).

And that’s about all you need to know. So get out there and start looking for that classic set you've been longing for all these years.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

All Things Being Equal

When it comes to the hiring process, friends tend to hire friends, so the saying goes. And when all things are not equal? Well, friends will still prefer to hire friends.

It's happened to me in both directions. I've lost out when a friend of the band members became available. I've also landed gigs because the guys preferred my company to that of the other contender.

This is not peculiar to the music business. During the recruiting process, all businesses are looking for someone with the necessary skills and talent. Once they have a short list of possibles, the next step is to see which candidate will be a good fit with the corporate culture and its values.

Bands too have a culture. Imagine being on a lengthy road trip with people you have nothing in common with, or people you don't like, or people who don't like you! A musical group can be a more stressful and demanding environment than an office. On the road, you're living together. Watch any ‘reality’ show to see what happens when disparate personalities are thrown that close together for any length of time.

I recently had the honour of seeing an impromptu reunion of my brother’s very successful teen rock band of the ‘60s. The three old-timers were thrilled to get together after so many years apart. They were equally thrilled to play. The guitar player summed it up simply: "We were friends". And they remain friends, even though they came through some very tough times as a band. Yes, there were heated debates and plenty of tantrums, but the bottom line is that they were a good mix of personalities, and as dedicated to each other as they were to the music and the job. It’s even possible that the rigours of the road helped make the friendships stronger. It certainly can go either way.

So keep in mind that, in addition to playing, a large part of your job is to get along with your band mates ... and they with you!

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

But I Want It To Just Happen

Some very frustrated words from a frustrated music student. We were doing a bit of jamming -- part of our first year Intro to Jazz program -- and this fellow wasn't getting anything going. The bass player and I had more experience and were able to make a pretty good showing. What this poor fellow didn't realize at the time was:

1. 'Just happen' comes later.
2. It takes conscious effort and even some planning to get things happening.
3. The bass player and I, not being especially seasoned players, were essentially faking it. 

So the message is, 'Fake it till you make it'.

Sharpen the saw ... a lot
You can only work with the tools you've got. My poor friend didn't have a lot of technical skill, and no improvising skills. So his goal of extemporaneous improvisation was unrealistic. 

Lighten up
One of the hardest things to do when learning is to ignore people who can already do it. Instead of focusing on what we're doing, we might be thinking about what we can't do. Although this can motivate, it can also be a recipe for frustration. Remember that the people we admire are usually exceptional, and usually they've had a lot more training, opportunities and experience.

Play as much as you can
The only way to get better at doing something is to do it. If you spend all your time practicing, you'll get better at practicing. So get out there and play some music with other people. The more the better. 

Be the worst player (sort of)
Very few people can drive themselves the way a team can. Working with other people will push you to go further. The best situation is to play with good players -- players who are better than you. They will both push you along and pull you up to greater heights. 

10,000 hours
Malcolm Gladwell says you have to spend 10,000 hours at something in order to master it. So let's say you practice 2 hours a day and play another 2 hours, six days a week. At that rate it will take you a little over eight years to get competent. Two points here: First, it will take a lot of work, so better start practicing. Second, it takes a long time. Even doubling the time spent (8 hours a day? Seriously?) You're still looking at 4 years ... 4 long, intense years. So slow down, take it easy, and don't be in a hurry to get there.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

My Visit To A Toy Factory

I have a wee dilemma. When I play with brushes (which is quite a lot these days) I occasionally want some real attack. So I was intrigued when I saw Headhunters' new line of strange drum brushes. To be honest, my first impression was that they were perhaps mainly a gimmick. So I contacted Dave Rundle at Headhunters to arrange a factory tour and to discuss these radical looking implements.

I've actually been using Headhunters sticks since long before they became Headhunters (does the name Kirkwood ring a bell?) and although I'd visited the Headhunters shop a couple of years ago when they were just getting into 'exotics', I was still in for quite a treat and an education.

Dave is quite a gear head when it comes to discovering ways to hit things. If it can possibly be used to strike a drum, he's either tried it or is about to. The evidence is in the racks, boxes and baskets filled with prototypes, experiments and oddities. From out of Dave’s curiosity and creativity have come some products that should be in every percussionist's stick bag. The new products are so radical that the company is modifying its slogan. While the traditional sticks will still be known as “The stick with the groove”, Dave feels the new slogan is a better fit:  “Advancing Designs for Creative Drummers”.

Brushes, brushes and more brushes
I'm quite fond of my Headhunters Jazz Brushes, except for the lack of cymbal articulation, so I was curious about brushes with things attached. I was mainly interested in the Dream Catchers: non-retractable brushes with a loop of nylon rod transversing the wires. If you're looking for brushes with more oomph, these may be just the thing. I think the heavy duty model would be a must for country shuffles. There are three styles of Dream Catcher, all of them adjustable. Impressive, but not quite what I was looking for (tho' I do own a pair).

Next I tried the Saber Tooth. These have two adjustable rods extending to the sides of the wires, each with a small nylon ball near the tip. All I can say is you've got to try them. Never have brushes had so many sounds available and with pin-point articulation.

I finally settled on the Cyclops model, which has a single, adjustable rod with a ball end poised in the middle of the wire spread (without the ball it’s called a Rhino).  I took these out on a gig and was floored by what they can do.

Rather than try to describe Headhunters’ cross-over designs, here’s a video from Jeff Salem that does an excellent job of presenting them:

Cajon Creations
Many of the brush and multi-rod designs have been adapted to accommodate the needs of cajon players. One distinctive option is a sponge-rubber beater ball. These have been added to sticks, brushes, rods and cross-overs, and the variety of sounds available is astounding.  The sound possibilities are awesome plus they reduce wear and tear on the hands. If cajon is your thing, you've got to check out these products! Oh, and you can have jingles too. How about ‘the works’: bundled nylon rods with a sponge ball and jingles in the middle?

Mere words really are inadequate for describing the wealth of possibilities lurking in these creations and it would be easy to write a lengthy post on each one, but I think a better use of your time would be to get out there and try some of them. Life is too short to use a single tool for hitting things.

Headhunters brush Creations (L to R) Cyclops, Dreamcatcher, Rhino, Sabretooth.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Thoughts on Comping Part IV

How to Hear Figures

The whole point of playing an instrument is to make meaningful sounds in a musical context. Comping is the art of making sounds that compliment a soloist. We can take a cue from Be-bop and use a mnemonic device to help us hear common comping figures. The term 'be-bop' itself came from the vocalization of a rhythmic figure that dominated the music:
It's a good practice to hear sounds internally to better produce them on your instrument.  Once a figure is internalized, it's easier to play and will sound more musical when applied to the drums. The be-bop mnemonic technique can be applied to most figures. Here are the vocalizing sounds I like to use to help me hear figures and rhythms:
Short Tones:  bap, bup
Long Tones:  Doo, Bah, Dah
Medium Tones: buh
Silence:  umm, mmm

Try adding these mnemonics to the figures in the Ted Reed ‘Syncopation’ book as you play them (see Thoughts on Comping Part III). If you have any charts you’re working on, try the mnemonics there as well to add a more musical element to the figures. 

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Thoughts on Comping Part III

Comping Practice using Ted Reed’s “Progressive Steps to Syncopation for the Modern Drummer”

You can use the various syncopation exercises in Ted Reed’s landmark book * as a source for common comping figures, but you need to reinterpret them slightly to fit into a musical context. Rarely would you play a four-bar phrase of one syncopated pattern, let alone repeat it for eight bars or more, as exercise books often imply. Comping is often done over a single bar or perhaps two bars, and it should always fit into the musical phrasing.

Start with Syncopation Exercise #2 on page 34. (Exercise #1 shows variations on how the patterns might be written). Begin by playing a single bar of swing time on the cymbal, with hi-hat on 2 & 4, bass drum lightly playing quarter notes. Then play one bar of the first syncopation figure on the snare drum while playing time on the ride cymbal.

E.g.:     /  1 bar of time  /  1 bar of line 1  /   1 bar of time   /  1 bar of line 2  /  etc…

Play each figure only once and work your way down the page. Then go back to the top and do it again. Practice at various tempos, slow to fast, and listen to the phrases as you play them. Also reverse: 1 bar of line 1 followed by one bar of time.

When you become comfortable with this, move on to 4-bar phrases by playing 2 bars of time followed 2 bars of the syncopated figures.

E.g.:     /  2 bars of time  / 2 bars of line 1  /  2 bars of time   /  2 bars of line 2  / etc…

Work on all the figures from the exercises on pages 34 through 45 and also play them with music.

Your next step would be to play the figures on the bass drum. Then move the figures around the drum set, and between your hands and feet.

* Any book that has comparable syncopation exercises will work just as well.

Progressive Steps to Syncopation for the Modern Drummer(C)  1937 Ted Reed
Alfred Publishing Co.
ISBN-10: 0882847953
ISBN-13: 978-0882847955

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Thoughts on Comping Part II

Playing around with 2 & 4

An easy way to ‘cruise’ while still lending support to the soloist is to play lightly on 2 and 4. A cross-stick on the snare can give a subtle push without getting in the way. More subtle still is to play on just 2 or just on 4. And if you want to kick things up a notch or two, play 2 and 4 full out and really get things rocking (just don’t keep it up for too long).

You can also ‘refer’ to 2 and 4 to create different effects. This is a method of comping that doesn’t require a lot of technique or analysis. For a more subtle and sophisticated approach, you can hint at 2 and 4 using the following ideas, (playing with a triplet feel, of course):
Or just play a single element each bar. Also try the figures on different drums and see what effect that has. Then mix and mingle. As long as it fits, go for it!

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Thoughts on Comping Part I

How to Avoid Scrambled Eggs

Too often advice about how to ‘comp’ on drums offers up patterns, patterns and more patterns. Rarely does the advice point to musical phrasing or how other musicians approach comping (e.g. piano or guitar). So let’s abandon the idea of tossing in a few memorized patterns on the snare drum with the hope that it will somehow fit the music. What you usually end up with is what I call scrambled eggs. (And to be honest, I’ve scrambled plenty of eggs in my time.)

Tunes are built on the concept of a phrase or statement, and musical statements typically are short: two bars. The reason for this is quite practical -- a singer or horn player can usually muster up enough lung power for about two bars. Song structures have evolved to take advantage of this two-bar ‘limit’ by adding another two bars (for taking a breath and perhaps a bit of meditation) following the musical statement or idea. So the four-bar phrase is your basic music building block.

Consider this well-known blues:
Every day, every day I have the blues [ 2,3,4 | 1,2,3,4 ]
Oh every day, every day I have the blues [ 2,3,4 | 1,2,3,4 ]
When you see me worryin' baby, yeah it's you I hate to lose [ 2,3,4 |  1,2,3,4 ]
Notice that it takes two bars to say or sing each line. The 12-bar blues structure adds another two bars -- represented by [ 2,3,4 | 1,2,3,4 ] -- to make each line a four-bar phrase. Three sets of 4 bars = 12 … very tidy.

So, how would a drummer ‘comp’ effectively to this sort of pattern?

K.I.S.S.One approach to comping (i.e. complementing) is to simply play time, perhaps adding some snare on 2 or 4 or both. You stay out of the way but add some impetus with a back-beat.

Doing Shots
Another technique is to interpret the rhythm of the phrases. Once you’ve learned the tune, see if you can play the phrases on the drums. Don’t try for a literal rendition. Just, play some of the major ‘shots’ -- the notes that stand out in each phrase --  being careful not to crowd the lead instrument.

Call & Response
An even more liberal technique of comping is to ‘play in the spaces’ … counterpunching, if you will. For example, after the phrase is sung or played, you have the better part of two bars -- the [ 2,3,4 | 1,2,3,4 ] -- where you might fit in something that complements (compliments?) the preceding line. This is neither as simple nor as difficult as it sounds. Your patterns can and should be drawn from the phrasing of the tune. Just be sure to pare it down so you don’t come across as too busy. And above all, listen to how your patterns sound within the music.

All Out
The most advanced method, and the one that some of the greatest players use, is to play alongside the soloist. These players create lines and patterns to the point that it can’t really be called comping any more. I like to compare it to traditional or Dixieland jazz when the band does ‘group improvisation’, with each lead instrument improvising at the same time. A great practitioner of this is Elvin Jones. Elvin doesn’t exactly comp the soloist; he seems to be playing his own complementary tune alongside.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

The Function of Fills

Ah yes, the drum fill. It's what makes music exciting. And it's what we all want to do … a lot. But there are right ways and wrong ways to do fills. There are even rules (unwritten and usually unspoken). So keep the following in mind while you're getting ready to blow everyone away with your stellar chops and creativity.

The main function of a drum fill is to escort the music from one bit to the next. This derives from the concept of a turn-around, where something interesting is added at the end of a phrase. For example, many drummers will play straight time for the first 6 or 7 bars of an 8-bar phrase, and then vary the pattern for the last bar or two to wrap things up. This provides a resolution to the current phrase and sets up the next one. A fill is just an extension of this technique.

Mark a section/Keep things on track
Fills often serve as punctuation and sign posts. A drummer who consistently puts something at the end of each phrase is signaling and illustrating the song structure and moving things along.

Set up
Another important function of the drum fill is to dramatize. One of the best at this was Buddy Rich. Listen to any Buddy Rich Big Band tune and you'll hear Buddy setting up and punctuating horn lines. That is, he'll deviate from the time to draw attention to the upcoming figure, then he'll nail the figure along with the horn players. Now he’s got your attention!

Fill up space
Space is a great thing, but sometimes it helps to plug some of the holes. Listen to the Jimmie Hendrix Experience. Mitch Mitchell was a very busy drummer, and with Jimmie's spare style and only Noel Redding’s bass in his corner, Mitch almost needed to fill things out, which he did.

One of my favourites is Peggy Lee’s performance of “Fever” with Stan Levy on drums. Stan’s punctuation between and within phrases is about as dramatic as it gets.

Show off
Hey, we all do it. And it’s not necessarily a bad thing. All musicians show off. It’s part of the game and it can be an important addition to your entertainment factor. So go ahead and drop in an attention-getting fill once in a while. Some drummers have embraced showing off as part of their personal style, and that's OK when it suits the music.

Should enhance, not detract
It's not a good idea to add fills too often. In the early days of rock, many young drummers (and some seasoned ones as well) would add a fill every two bars! This busy style is now mostly a relic of the ‘60s, but it still appears to be a rite of passage in the early stages of the drum learning curve. The musical context will determine whether your can be free-wheeling with fills or if you should play it straight. And always watch your time (a lot of drummers speed up when playing a fill).

Friday, May 15, 2015

Sitting In

It was pretty much the shock of my professional life. We had a months-long house gig, and my drums were centre stage all the time. One evening I showed up, relaxed a bit from the drive in to the city, and got caught up with my band mates. Then it was time go on. I stepped onto the stage, sat behind my drums and promptly said, "What the ...?" Someone had been playing my drums. And not just playing them. The creep had not only moved everything, he had retuned my drums completely ...  even removed the front bass drum head which, I later noticed, had been put back on crooked.

This was the guest drummer from hell. Their band had auditioned in the afternoon, and rather than respecting our instruments, they'd just mashed things up the way they wanted. So what is the correct protocol for sitting in on someone else’s gear? That depends on the situation and extent of involvement, ranging from one or two numbers to filling in for the night. Let’s look at a few typical scenarios.

Impromptu Guest
If you've been invited on-stage for a few songs because you are something of a celebrity and/or a friend of the band, my recommendation is to change nothing. Play a couple of numbers and then bow out gracefully.

Open Stage/Jam 
Typically the drum set belongs to someone else who is generously providing it. Respect that. I only move things that I simply cannot work with or something I know will be a health hazard. For example, I sometimes sit in with certain house band. Their drummer has a cowbell mounted right where I'm inclined to thrust my right hand. So to avoid injury, I move it. Otherwise, I try to leave things alone.

Guest Set
In a situation with multiple bands sharing the same equipment, you're still expected to do your best work and you can't do that if you're uncomfortable. But you don't want to disrupt things too much. Do your best to get the drums useable as quickly as you can. I'd take along a stool and bass pedal, as these are what cause the most problems. If there's a special prop you need (e.g. a gong perhaps) take it and a stand with you.

At the other extreme is when you're filling in for the night on a provided set. Consider carrying a survival kit consisting of: stool, bass pedal, cymbals, snare drum, and of course sticks etc. Many drummers take their snares and cymbals home, so it's good policy to take your own. Better to not adjust the tuning, and if you can't abide the snare, just use your own.

House (Backline) Kit
As with the showcase, you're expected to do your best work and since the drums are there for your convenience, do whatever you need to do to get them where you want. In this case I'd definitely take along my survival kit. Cymbals and pedals are rarely up to snuff on a house kit.

The ideal situation is the drummer with great equipment -- well set up and well-maintained -- who says, "Go ahead … adjust whatever you need to." Even so, I'd make the bare minimum of changes. And I don’t put things back. The set’s owner can do a better job more quickly than I can.

And if you’re auditioning on someone else’s set, remember the Golden Rule.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Hierarchy of Rhythmic Needs

When I sit down to play, I have five goals in mind -- not for what I want out of the music but for what the music wants out of me. Although it's usually a subconscious process, I tend to work on the following elements pretty much in this order. With any luck, I'll deliver on all five counts before the end of even the most arcane tune.

Time is #1
I'm not alone when I say that the time is the most important thing. Playing in time is our number one job. It's also the skill that separates the drum set ‘generals’ from the rank and file. Nail down the time and keep it steady and you'll always be welcome on the bandstand.

Steely Dan are notorious for going through a lot of drummers. Their monumental album “Gaucho” features 4 different drummers, and there's certainly not a slouch in the bunch. So what gives? Why request Jeff Porcaro on one tune and then switch to Bernard Purdy on the next and Steve Gadd on another? One word: Feel. Every drummer -- every musician -- feels the groove in their own personal way. Some drummers play 'high on the time', some are laid back, and some play right in the middle. BTW, these are all qualities that can be learned.

Once you have the time and feel established, you want to match your energy to the group’s energy. Keep in mind that volume and energy, though related, are not the same thing. It's possible to play very quietly and still convey a lot of energy, just as it's possible to play really loud yet without any energy.

Here's an interesting thing: You can satisfy the first three items while playing just quarter notes. As long as it's in time and with the right feel and energy, it will work just fine, though it might sound a wee bit spare. So you also want to match the style of the music. If it's your 'native' genre, you'll already be well versed in the time feel and rhythmic patterns that are appropriate. A good general is willing to study other music styles -- as many of them as possible -- to be ready for any challenge that comes along.

Finally we get to the part most of us are really interested in: When do I get have some fun and show off my skills? Well, I hope the fun will be there all of the time. As for showcasing those chops, as long as it's in service to the music, go for it. Just remember that your chops include musical chops and also a sense of taste.

And that's about it. Play good solid time, match your energy and feel to the music, learn a few suitable rhythms, and when all of that is taken care of, start bringing your personal flair to the game.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Product Review: Drum Clips

I like a fairly open sound from my drums, but invariably there always seems to be just a little too much ring or an odd harmonic I want to get rid of. So my choices in damping techniques have always been minimalistic. I wish I could get more of the Rogers clip-on dampers I picked up years ago. Similar products on offer today seem to be too ambitious -- and a poor fit with my frugal lifestyle. So when I saw The Drum Clip, I was curious to see if this little item would do the job.

The Clips are simple bits of molded semi-soft plastic, and easily clip onto a drum rim. A pad rests on the drumhead and is not adjustable. There are two sizes -- small and very small -- and each Clip comes with two stick-on pads, one felt and one foam, for three levels of damping.

I normally put a half piece of Moon Gel on my smallest tom. I swapped that out for the smaller Drum Clip and was reasonably pleased. The Clip didn't rest on the head that well, so I also tried it with the supplied damping pads. (The Clips relaxed a bit over time and made better head contact for a good result.)
I have this monster of a floor tom (14 x 14 fiberglass) and getting it under control has always been a challenge. I had a vintage Rogers damper and two moon gels on it, and it was still pretty raucous. I played around with the Drum Clips and found that the larger Clip with foam did the trick on its own.

I wanted to try the Clips because the Moon Gels were somewhat problematic. If I left them on the drums, they'd end up mashed up (or melted) in the bottom of the case or missing altogether. If I took them off and pocketed them, I'd invariably forget them next gig. The Drum Clips hold on solidly and stay where I put them. I did wonder whether they'd work with the "S-hoops" I had on my toms, but they seem almost designed for these hoops.

Drum Clips are priced at a very reasonable $6.95 and $8.95, but are often discounted. I bought mine from the creator, Keith Jones, and paid about $50 including shipping for six Clips. There is also a bass drum Clip that looks interesting.  A new product is a modified version that will accept accessories such as microphone Clips.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

HLAG Not Just For Girls

Hit Like A Girl was founded in 2011 by a few savvy industry pros who felt that female drummers deserved more attention from the manufacturers and perhaps from the musical community in general. The annual event -- now in its forth year -- is a 'drum-off' contest for drummers of the female persuasion, and all styles, ages and levels of ability are welcome. Hats off to TRX cymbals, DRUM! Magazine and Tom Tom magazine for finding a need and filling it.

Online info on the event's history is sparse, but what is available attests to the quality, importance and positive impact of this initiative. For example, prior to this year's contest, HLAG has had over 700 participants hailing from 42 countries. And when the current contest was launched at NAMM 2015, more than 50 women from 14 countries registered within days.

HLAG is for amateur female drummers and percussionists only. The definition of amateur is fairly generous: anyone who makes less that $30,000 (or equivalent) annually can enter. There are two broad categories -- under 18 and over 18. Winners will receive not merely drumming notoriety; there are valuable prizes to be won.

Judging is by a host of industry professionals, but there will also be fan voting during the final three weeks and, yes, guys can vote too.

This is an incredible opportunity for the participants, but contest or no contest, we drum fans will be treated to a wonderful variety of talent and style. (I spent almost an entire, very entertaining, morning watch the videos.)

Drop by the website to find out more or just to see what the girls are up to. And don't forget to vote for your favourites.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

How To "Voice" A Drum

Sounds exotic, but voicing is just a style of tuning a drum. Whenever we tune a drum, we try to get even tension at every tuning lug. Voicing -- a.k.a. ‘tap tuning’ -- goes a step further by micro-adjusting the tension.

Begin with an evenly tensioned drum tuned to your desired pitch. Then put the drum on a soft surface -- I'm assuming a double-headed drum here. (Your drum stool might be ideal for this, and if you loosen the seat mounting screw, it will serve as a swivel table). Putting the drum on a soft surface eliminates the bottom head from the process and brings out the overtones in the accessible head. For a single-headed drum, put it on a carpet.

Now the interesting bit. Place a fingertip lightly on the centre of the drum head and tap the head about 1 inch from one of the tension rods. You'll get something of a 'ping' sound. Then -- keeping that finger in the middle of the head -- tap the tension rod's neighbour. Is it the same pitch? If so you can move on. Otherwise tension the rods until both spots ring the same pitch. Continue around the drum, back and forth between lugs, until all the lugs are voiced correctly. You can then flip the drum over and repeat on the other head.

The voicing process is not always necessary, but for a temperamental drum it can be just the thing to tame the sound. The technique will work on any drum, and it’s easy to do and easy to replicate.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

On A Roll

How many types of drum roll are there? Most people would say 2 or 3, and for practical purposes this will work. But there are several distinct types of roll, all of which can be useful.

Single Stroke
This is not just a type of roll. Often it's the core of everything we do. Simple ‘RLRLRLRL’ can go a long way, but to technically be classed as a roll it's best played quickly on a single drum and drawn out for a bit.

Double Stroke
A.k.a. the long roll or ‘mama dada’ roll, this one calls for two distinct strokes from each stick. It’s also the basis of a host of short rolls. It sounds simple enough, but a good long roll is not that easy to find, though there's not much call for it in popular music.

French Roll
Whether of French origin or not, this one simply adds another stroke to the long roll, i.e.: Rrr Lll Rrr Lll. Playing three clear stroke with each hand takes some practice and, like the long roll, it’s not seen much outside of drum clinics and show-off moments.

Buzz Roll
There's some confusion over this one. The buzz roll is played by deftly pressing the tip of the stick into the head slightly and producing a smooth, clear, controlled buzz sound. So bzzz/bzzz/bzzz/buzz. There should be no gaps between the strokes, resulting in a continuous, even roll. Also called a press roll and, wrongly, a closed roll.

Scratch Roll
At best it's an interesting accent; at worst it's an unpleasant noise. In this case the sticks are forced into the head to produce an abrupt ‘bzzzt’. Depending on the context, it can be an indication of creativity or a sign of bad technique, and no way to do a buzz roll.

Whipped Cream Roll
My personal favourite (for the obvious gustatory reason) this is a standard buzz roll, but instead of moving the sticks up and down, you execute a circular motion as if whipping cream in a bowl. When well done, it produces a wonderfully clean and elegant roll. And it looks pretty cool.

Chatter Strokes
This is a specialized type of buzz, usually played with a single stick on the snare. The idea is to play a buzz, but with very distinct notes, perhaps 4 or 5. Very popular in New Orleans ‘second line’ drumming and blast beats.

These basic rolls require a lot of practice to master, and it will be time well spent. Well-executed rolls can really spice up your playing.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Game Changers: "Little Giant" - Chick Webb (1905 - 1939)

I thought it might be fun, from time to time, to profile some of the great drummers, the true originals. It's a long list so I'll keep it brief.

Although barely more than four feet tall (a result of spinal tuberculosis as a child), William Henry “Chick” Webb was one of the most powerful and influential drummers of his era -- the ‘John Bonham of Swing’ if you will.

Chick Webb originally took up drums with the idea that it might improve his flexibility. He played his first professional gig at age 11, and by age 17 was a full-time pro. Webb eventually formed his own band under his own name, which went on to become one the top bands of the swing era. The orchestra handily defeated all comers at the famous Savoy Ballroom “Battle of the Big Bands”, including the Duke Ellington and Count Basie bands.

Check Webb

Buddy Rich, Gene Krupa and Louie Bellson all pointed to Webb as a major influence. Rich in particular studied Webb’s technique closely. But Webb's influence reached far beyond mere drumming. He was a consummate showman, and one of the first drummers to use a drum riser which, along with his fiery solos, raised the public's awareness of the star power of drummers. He continually added components to his drum set, making him a pioneer in extended sets. He was also a master of dynamics, polyrhythms and 'power fills'. As a band leader, he aggressively pursued gigs through the Depression to ensure his band members had work.

There are, unfortunately, few recordings of Webb's playing and music, but the recordings that do exist show him at his finest. Check out:

  • “A Tisket A Tasket”, with Ella Fitzgerald, a member of Webb’s band from 1935 until Webb’s death in to 1939.
  • “Stompin' at the Savoy”, a collection of 4 CDs.
  • A video documentary of  Webb, titled ”The Savoy King”, is also available (see

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

I Meet Up with a Drum Buillder

What happens when two veteran drum geeks get together over coffee? Well, any idea of an organized interview goes out the window and instead they end up discussing the finer points of shell thickness and bearing edge design.

I recently sat down with Paul Dickinson, proprietor and chief drum builder at Udrum (the Underground Drum company), in Burlington Ontario. Paul has been building custom drums for a little over 20 years, and there's not much that he hasn't seen or tried when it comes to drum technology.

Paul's goal as a custom drum builder is simply to create "the last drums you'll ever buy". An admirable mission (and, given most drummers' propensity for collecting, probably not attainable). But if you're in the market for an instrument that fits you like tailor-made clothes, custom drums like Paul’s makes may be the answer.

I thought my own drum vision would be impossible to realize: this finish, those sizes, re-rings or no ... it's a fairly long and precise list. Paul's response was, "Looks good,"  as in  ’no problem’.

What sets a custom drum apart from the mainstream is that it can be tailored to your wants and needs from the ground up. My dilemma is whether to buy a vintage kit and spent  a couple of hundred dollars bringing it up to date, or for a few dollars more have drums built that would give me exactly what I was looking for. One of Paul's strengths is that, along with building drums, he's a player and a drum tech,  and he's been repairing and restoring drums for many years. So he knows what the vintage drums are all about. He also works with some of the major drum companies, and is familiar with how they do things these days. And so he can replicate just about any sound and configuration you’re looking for, including vintage types.

Like the majority of drum builders, Paul uses off-the-shelf parts, including the shells.  Some of the major companies do the same. And Paul isn’t limited to one source. If it exists, there's a good chance he can get it. But if all that choice is to much to cope with, Paul has a short list of quality components that meet his exacting needs.

I've seen and played Paul’s drums and they are magnificent -- among the best I've heard. As for the price, expect it to be below what you'd pay for other top-of-the-line sets. And for the record, Paul’s bearing edges are works of art.

You can find out more at the Udrum Facebook page: (