Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Playing Drums - A life changing experience.

Hi everyone,

Before I begin I just want to say that it is important to understand that we, as drummers, can learn from everyone who plays drums. Each person, regardless of their ability, talent, and technique has something unique to offer to the overall experience of playing drums.

"Good" or "Best", like "Beauty" is in the eyes of the beholder. For some people Travis Barker is the best drummer on this planet. For others like me, he's a good, talented drummer that has a long way to go in his career. One day, if he keeps at it, Travis may actually become a virtuoso.

World wide, when you look at the drummers in the world, the best of these players exhibit similar aspects of technical achievement.

Fame in music is a lot of luck. Being at the right place at the right time; being somewhat cute helps too. There are a lot of drummers out there that are famous that are also mediocre players.

This Blog, today, is about not forgetting the old time masters of Drumcraft.

There are plenty of really talented drummers today like Thomas Lange, Jo Jo Mayer, Max Weinberg, Steve Smith, Mike Portnoy, Steve Gadd,  Neil Peart (and many others) who are really excellent musicians and pushing the craft of drumming to new heights. One thing most, if not all had in common was that they looked up to the pioneers of the past like Buddy Rich, Louis Bellson Joe Morello, Gene Krupa, Lionel Hampton, Chick Webb and others.

With the exception of Chick Webb and Gene Krupa, I have seen each one of these masters play live. I've seen Buddy play about 7 times. The other folks 2 - 3 times.

I'll tell you a story about why you need to study these guys.

First of all I am an old guy; I've been playing for many years.

In the beginning, when I was a kid I had lots of misdirection during my formative years of playing because we didn't have the information that we have today.

I grew up in the 50's on the East Coast, a hop-skip-and-a-jump away from NYC but I did not have the brains (at least that's what I think now) to take advantage of the tremendous opportunities that existed there that I was too aloof to notice was happening there. Buddy Rich had a club there. Joe Morello, a great drummer who authored a great teaching book that I bought in the early 70's, had his drum studio where he gave lessons. You know what; I just found out about a year ago that his studio was about 2 miles from my freaking house. That's how cognitive I was. This was the late 60's early 70's. Most of that time period was a blur from the various Acid trips and way too much pot to even think about.

We didn't have the Internet, or DVD's or CD's or even cassette tapes, or instructional tapes.

I started beating on pots and pans when I was about two years old, but unlike Buddy's parents, who were entertainers and recognized that he had talent, my parents (being extremely dull and conservative) could not conceive that children could be good at anything, much less become famous playing drums. "Other" people did those things. In my family, people got jobs and existed doing mundane things year after year.

Many years after my father divorced my Mother and I was playing in a steady gig, aspiring to become famous, my stepmother asked "When are you going to get a real job?" At that time, in 1973, I was playing 6 nights a week making about $480 per week which was roughly 7 times the minimum wage at that time.

So, unfortunately, instead of inspiration and guidance I got hollered at a lot. My father never took me to see any of the really great drummers of the day in NYC when I was a small child. That could have been a life changing experience for me.

Also during those days the mindset when you were learning is that you had to spend a significant amount of time, like a rite of passage, on the practice pad. Anton Fig, Letterman's drummer relates a similar experience where he grew up in South Africa. My mother was poor, we lived in an apartment so there was only pads and pillows for me to practice on at home.

Buddy Rich and Gene Krupa were buzz words, they were drummers you heard about but were not on pop radio. WABC, (or W-A-Beatle-C as it was known during the early Beatle Days) in NYC, with good ole DJ "Cousin Brucie" didn't play too much of Buddy Rich in the 60's

Not having much exposure to the Masters I became influenced by the musicians of my day. Sandy Nelson, Ringo Starr, Ginger Baker, John Bonham, Carmine Appice, Keith Moon, Mitch Mitchell, Don Brewer, Ron Bushy, Bobby Colomby and many others.

To me, Buddy and Gene were "old fogeys" … what could they teach me?

I took drumming seriously and studied Music in school; I was an all around percussionist. I played tympani, xylophone, and other percussion gadgets. I majored in Music for the first year of college until I dropped out with dreams of being a Rock Star.

I moved to the mid west and was lucky enough to have played most of the 70's;House gigs, where you played 5 sets a night, 5 to 6 nights a week, year after year. Sprinkle some road gigs, studio sessions, warm ups, parties, concerts I figure I've been on stage more than 3,700 times in my lifetime.

You get pretty good when all you have to do is show up, sit down and start playing night after night. Playing a house gig is just like doing an A-List concert. The roadies have already set your kit up (exactly like you like it; cause it was that way last night) the sound check is done and you're ready to Rock & Roll from the get go.

I was a BIG fish in a very small pond with lots of small town fame. Remember the hay day for musicians was the late 60's and early 70's before MADD, Zero Tolerance Police and DVD's. They were filled with people wearing Leisure Suit Larry outfits and these people went to clubs to party.

One day, in 1975, a friend comes up to me and says he has back stage passes to the Jazz Festival. Buddy Rich, Louis Bellson and others.

Ok, I'll check it out. It's free and I've got nothing better to do that day. I'm thinking … yawn … old fogeys trying to keep up with playing drums. I'm thinking my chops are pretty good; yep, been playin 6 nights a week for several years now, there's not much these guys are gonna show me.

When I was back stage walking around I wandered over to Buddy's kit. "What a piece of shit I thought to myself. Look at that hardware. "That's some bad hat Harry" hardware he's got going on there. Then I walked past him he was pretty short. I'm 6'2 and I'm here to tell you that if you are short you got one hell of an advantage playing drums. It's all about physics, pendulums etc. Watch a squirrel scratch itself sometimes. WFD with one arm; the WHOLE arm!

Buddy gets on his kit, starts complaining about the curvy sticks that they had found for him (Vic Firth where are you when we need you? Oh, your stick factory does not exist yet) and now I'm thinking what a fucking joke this guy is. What a freaking Prima Donna.

His band gets settled in and they start. Buddy starts playing this intricate pattern on the High Hat and then proceeds to play this incredibly loud (what sounded like a thunder clap) 11 stroke roll with one hand with a stick height compared to jumping off a cliff. Now bear in mind I am standing, along with other stage hands, about 10 feet away, slightly behind and to the left of him. He is on a riser and I can see everything.

I'm sure that you have seen the Tasmanian Devil's jaw drop to the floor. Well, all I can say is that within moments I was standing on my lower teeth.

My brain froze … WTF … who was this fucking alien that was impersonating a human being and what planet did he come from?

I may be dumb about some things … but it only took seconds for me to realize that this guy was on another plane of existence from me when it came to playing drums. I'm seeing it but I am having a lot of problems believing that it's humanly possible to play drums like this.

I watched in awe at his musicality, his power, his speed, his technique and his incredible intensity.

When he played his solo, he went all out, after all this was a big festival and lots of big name drummers were there and Buddy was going to let every one know that he's the BOSS!

Watching him play was like looking at Indy cars passing bye in a blur. Ten minutes into the solo I left to get a hot dog because I was so overwhelmed that I could not comprehend what was going on. I came back he was still playing and from that day on my perspective on the difference between good and great drummers was forever changed.

I simply could not wrap my brain around the fact that here's this little guy with these pencil thin sticks playing louder than I have ever heard anyone play, ever! With such precision and speed that it was impossible to distinguish what he was playing sometimes.

When I left the festival I immediately wanted to go to the club. I was inspired and at the same time I was completely deflated. Where I lived I was pretty far up the Totem Pole (remember Big Fish Small Pond?) I realized at when I saw Buddy that in the grand scheme of things I wasn't even on the same podium where his Totem Pole was.

I thought about quitting and starting a restaurant or something. When I got to the club I tried to play some of the stuff I had just heard. At least I was excited to try it. Plub, Plub, Pfft, Splat, Plssh … hmm lets try that again  … Plop, Plop, fizz, fizz Blop, pop, fizz … For some reason, nothing I was doing sounded like what I had just heard.

Now, I am no slouch. I am definitely not a Casper Milktoast. I was a gymnast in High School so I had lots of physical strength and I love the power aspect of drumming. When I was in my zone, so to speak, Bonham's got nothing on me regarding being heavy handed. I was so into being heavy, prior to learning good technique that I played with 3/4" dowel rods with rounded edges. The old 3S marching sticks were like twigs. I was competitive and I liked going fast.

I used to laugh at guys in the Music stores when they told me about a new heavy duty pedal. I can't tell you how many "heavy duty" pedals I destroyed.

During a Jam session with Frank Zappa several years prior to this festival, he said that I had the fastest right foot he'd ever heard along with Elephant Ears (meaning I listened well). My hands were fast too, but not nearly as adept at playing the stuff that Buddy did. When I tried to duplicate it my hands were like glue.

At that time I could easily copy Baker, Bonham, Moon and others but this guy was on a whole different level. What he played what he was playing it was so weird because he made it sound very simple to play. Yeah it was simple that is until you tried to play it.

Something I discovered after lots of analysis on Buddy's playing he was an expert at playing simple patterns in a wonderful story like way; very fast.

So, I made a decision. I took my double bass kit off the stage, vacuumed the chips and sawdust off the carpet; wiped the drums down, cleaned the cymbals and put one 24" bass drum, one snare, one mounted tom, one floor tom, a ride, two crashes, a high hat and a splash and said when I can make this small set sound like what he did I'll start to add more drums.

I started practicing between 9 and 11 hours a day along with playing at night and several years later I could play a reasonable amount of what Buddy played that day. Even though my technique had improved, he had many more years and quite a bit more genius in how he approached the musicality of the craft. I started realizing that it was not how fast you can play, its what you play with the dynamics and how you embellish the song that's important.

But, I have digressed from my original concept.

When I listen to the many younger players like Benny Greb, or Travis Barker I am impressed with their talent. Most of the time, they have good taste and musicality when it comes to what they are playing during a song.

But, playing solos, is a whole different story. Their solos are like marshmallows! Lots of poofy fluffy stuff; not a whole lot of substance. Bonham; had substance. These guys have lots of stick twirling; disjointed licks thrown together, short lived bursts of speed where they stop and wave their hands wildly (and the crowd roars … people will clap for anything … I know from experience!) with not that much technical expertise.

It's like a different breed of drummer that exists today from years ago. It pervades the mind set of "drum thinking" today. Drum solos are filled with grooves and beats. How fucking uninspiring. I guess when your arsenal of licks is severely limited, the fall back is to play some groves to take up time.

Two years ago, I went to a Guitar Center Drum Off and watched these kids playing. All of them were like Travis Barker clones. Not much individuality. The judges were young too. This one guy gets up, he's about 35, he's older than the rest. He plays around the area in various Jazz bands and also in the colleges. He plays probably the best solo I heard of all the contestants that night and gets to move on to the next round. The judges critique was that he didn't play any grooves so he should consider doing that. Maybe its because I grew up in the 60's but this guy played enough stuff that would indicate that he could play just about any kind of groove.

I didn't go to the other preliminary rounds but I did make it back for the finals.

These were the top six from three weeks. Well, there were some other good players there. The guy I'm rooting for plays a good solo and gets a good overall response. Then this young kid gets up, with the spiky hair, tattoos and chains (he's clearly a favorite in the local area and friends with the judges) and says "I'm rudiment MAN! Oh fuck, I thought, what is this nonsense? He twirls his sticks, plays a few sloppy para-diddles and some poorly constructed flams and then proceeds to do a Travis Barker imitation. The crowd is hyped on this guy. The people working at the Guitar center putting this event on are taking pictures and wind up giving this guy almost 10 minutes of play time. No one but me noticed.

Not surprising, he won. As far as I know he fizzled in the next round, but it goes to show you that in the beginning stages of the Drum Off its a popularity contest and not about true drumming.

I'll devote an entire blog on what I think should happen with that. I wish I could have competed, but health problems prevent me from doing much anymore. I'm good for about 20 minutes before I start to fizzle. Getting old sucks, don't let anyone tell you differently.

All right, getting back...

Here's an example of a drummer that is pretty decent and very popular. He's certainly above mediocre. He has good musicality when he plays songs and has some decent technique. I also realize that this video example is not indicative as to his full potential. I have seen him do some drum corps rudiments with back sticking and such a long time ago. He's pretty good. This video that I am using for this illustration is what I see as very common place with respect to the solos of many modern drummers today.

Travis Barker:

Ok I am 58, I have congestive heart failure, Pulmonary Fibrosis and I have not played on a set of drums in years, yet today, without even trying hard or breaking a sweat, I could play everything that that Travis played on that video.

The question is why would I want to and the answer is that I wouldn't. I'd rather play stuff that resembles what is in the rest of these examples.

Please take a look at these videos.

I have compiled a small list of examples. There's a lot here to illustrate take your time and watch these when you have the time.

(In later blogs I will dissect a few of these vids and talk about some cool stuff like ergonomics!)

Most of the video examples are from Buddy Rich.

Today, people try to classify Buddy Rich simply as a Jazz drummer. This would be untrue. He was a drummer's drummer. The style of music he played is at the top of the food chain as far as difficulty goes. The best Rock Drummers struggle to even try to play the songs his band played  and sadly 90% can't even come close; the best fusion high energy drummers have a better chance, but most are still not up to the level that Buddy played.

Since fateful day in 1975 I have spent thousands of hours studying Buddy and other great players. Other players that I also really enjoy and respect are Steve Smith (Journey), Steve Gadd, Dave Weckl and Billy Cobham to name just a few.  They are some of the best and most talented drummers today. Steve Smith is one of the few rock drummers that has transcended into the upper echelon and can actually do a good job on the Jazz scene.

So, if you think that old fogeys have nothing to show you look at these vids if you haven't seen them before.

Buddy Rich 1970 West Side Story SOLO
Buddy is 53 years old in this video.

Here's the encore Mercy, Mercy after that incredible solo. Listen to the musicality of how he completely sets the tone for this song.

Two O'clock Jump
If you have a sound processing program like Audacity where you can slow the tempo of songs and retain the pitch you can hear the incredible precision and small details in this next solo.
Two O'clock Jump

A faster version of Two O'clock Jump 2:24 seconds into this video
Faster Version of Two O'clock Jump

SOLO Channel One Suite; 1978 Jazz Festival at the Haag.
A brilliant solo.
Buddy is 61 years old in this video.
Buddy Rich Solo - Channel One Suite 1978; Haag

Birdland, 1978 Jazz Festival at the Haag.

SOLO West Side Story mid 60's
Notice that he starts playing this song with matched grip. I have another great video of him doing a solo with matched grip. It's on the machine that is broken at the moment.

This is the most ambitious solo I have heard him play both in length, speed and stamina.
The fact that he plays these solos with heavy cumbersome Jackets and ties is even more amazing.
This video also has some great overhead shots.
At 8:00 into this video you can see an example of the raw and explosive power this guy had.
Most people have a hard time playing the 16th notes at that tempo quietly on just one drum. He's playing these notes at a blistering pace and SMASHING, not just hitting, a cymbal on each down beat. The Arnold Schwarzenegger of drums.

SOLO West Side Story with Frank Sinatra
Here is a version of West Side Story, one of his last performances shortly before he died. I think he's close to 70 years old here. Yeah that's right 70 freaking years old!

The ending of this solo is similar to the previous one, but the duration is much shorter in time. At any rate, here's a 70 year old that's kicking ass and taking names! Many young drummers today would have a hard time keeping up with this one.
Buddy Rich - West Side Story; approx 70 years old.

SOLO Buddy Rich Time Being part II
Another example of raw power and musicality.
Very few people on the planet had the ability to drive a band like he did.

buddy rich parky 73
Great cymbal work at 5:50

Now for a change up.
Neil Peart (Buddy Rich Memorial Concert) … I was actually impressed this time around. The first memorial concert I saw him play on years before this performance he was like a fish out of water. It's nice to see that he improved immensely. This solo is pretty good he's not playing anything overtly difficult, some nice combinations. Notice that when he goes back into the song, the transition from the solo back to the song is almost awkward and then he's almost not there anymore. This is where you can really see how much weaker virtually every other drummer is compared to Buddy while the band is playing. Not nearly as much drive.

Neil Peart Interview

The title of this says it all
buddy rich holy shit

And finally here's a video that has some of the same sounding licks that the Travis Barker video I started with has.

My final thoughts:

If you are going to idolize anyone, and I am not suggesting you do, because each of you that is playing or learning how to play can contribute to the drumming community and you can be just as good if you want to be as any of these famous people. You might have trouble catching up to Buddy, he started playing when he was 18 months old and did it most of his life. He had more experience by the age of 10 than most people get in a lifetime.

Study and learn from the best, incorporate what you see and hear into what you are playing and then use your own style and imagination to travel down the road.

My suggestion is to spend a lot of time, months or years studying this guy. Find a spot in a solo you like and try to play it. Each new level of technical ability you master makes you a better player.

If you could sit down and play every single thing this man played with the precision and musicality that Buddy had, I'd be asking for your autograph!

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