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 http://savoyking.com).

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: https://www.facebook.com/UDRUM (udrum.com).