This article appeared in Drumscene, The Drummer's Magazine - Volume 3/Issue 4 1998

Hello and welcome to my first Drumscene column! Rather than attempting to address areas of a technical nature (which are extensively covered by Darryn, Ric and Serge), I'd like to do a series on some of the more conceptual aspects of playing drums. The boundless pursuit of mastery of this instrument makes for a long, rewarding and sometimes unforgiving journey. Hopefully some of the ideas I present will stimulate thinking or in some way make that quest a little easier. If you'd like to contact me you can do so by emailing to

I'd like to thank Jim Piesse for his invaluable assistance.

Finding Your Voice

Approximately every decade there are perhaps two or three drummers who's styles define "contemporary"; their playing has a profound effect on the direction of modern drumming.

Let's for a moment observe the effect of Dave Weckl on contemporary drumming. From the mid eighties when he first burst onto the international stage, it seemed one couldn't travel anywhere in the world without encountering a substantial number of players upon whom the influence of Dave Weckl was evident. " Wecklisms" varied from the adoption of basic elements in set up and style to blatant copying in all aspects including facial expressions! (This was somewhat similar to the effect of Steve Gadd a little over a decade before). It was very common to see drummers using 8" and 10" mounted power toms (usually cherry wood), a brass piccolo, double pedals, a ride cymbal mounted high, a floor tom mounted to the left........etc. That's fine as long as it wears off! Their mistake was that they were merely copying a style without addressing its root sources. You can be sure that Dave Weckl is very well versed in the styles of Steve Gadd, David Garibaldi, Jack De Johnette, Buddy Rich, Harvey Mason, Stewart Copeland, Peter Erskine, Billy Cobham, Max Roach, Philly Joe Jones, and Elvin Jones etc! An understanding that goes beyond the players into the stylistic roots of the music.

In his most recent interview with Modern Drummer magazine, Steve Smith spoke at length about his extensive preparation for his reuniting with Journey; he did a systematic study and observation of the earliest Rock'n'Roll drummers; and this is Steve Smith; five time winner of The All Around Drummer category of the MD Readers Poll, member of the MD Honour Roll, and highly regarded master of Jazz, Rock and Fusion drumming.

Tony Williams stated the importance of an appreciation and understanding of the drum set tradition in his June 1984 interview with Modern Drummer where he stated clearly "When I was a kid, for about two years I played like Max Roach.......I would buy every record I could find with Max on it and then I would play exactly like him - exactly what was on the record, solos and everything. I also did that with drummers like Art Blakey, Philly Joe Jones, Jimmie Cobb, Roy Haynes, and all of the drummers I admired."

Indeed it was Tony's extremely thorough foundation in the jazz tradition that validated his personal statement...and what a statement. He was able to blend these influences, not to mention his love of the raw power of late sixties rock , into a "new" musical voice. And it is this quality, the ability to assimilate and expand what had come before, that is shared by all the innovators before and since.

If we follow the lineage of Jazz drummers from Baby Dodds, Sid Catlett and Chic Webb, through to Jack De Johnette, Bill Stewart and beyond, we can see a definite thread. No one drummer in history was totally original but each was able to progress by the blending of and extending on, what had come before.

So how do we stay "contemporary", pay homage to the rich tradition and develop our own voice? It requires a combination of LISTENING, STUDYING and PRACTISING

LISTEN to as much music and as many styles that you can. This is probably the most important thing to do. Try to get inside a style. Find out what's peculiar to that style; elements such as grooves, tuning, where to place the time etc. I find that students with a wider spectrum of taste tend to develop more of an individual style.

STUDYING and respecting what has come before, being open to a variety of influences, and remaining in touch with current trends and sounds tends to lead to the natural assimilation of all those influences into our own statement. These days it's becoming easier to "check out the roots". There are an increasing number of priceless sources on video, and in combination book/CD formats. See the list below.

The systematic repetition of the technical requirements (otherwise known as PRACTISING) results in the development of the areas that you like and therefore adds strength to our own statement. PRACTISE will also be a source for inspiration which, when combined with your other influences, creates an original style.

I find my favourite drummers all share thorough musical knowledge, wide musical taste and the facility to execute their ideas clearly.

In closing I would like to say that it's fine to have a drum idol. Most of us do. For me as a teenager, it was David Jones. Perhaps now, his influence would be quite hard to detect in my playing, however deep down there are many elements of David's playing that colour my whole approach. The trick is to try to diversify your listening and incorporate other things that turn you on musically. Listen to Dave Weckl, Paul Motian, Buddy Rich, Airto, David Garibaldi, Jimmy Cobb, Richie Haywood, John Robinson, Art Taylor, Elvin Jones, Virgil Donati...etc. They're considered great for good reason. Then, through practise and study you'll develop your own voice....and that's what it's all about!

Here is a list of some sources to check out the roots!


The Art of Bop Drumming - by John Riley (Manhattan Music)

Beyond Bop Drumming - by John Riley (Manhattan Music)

Art Blakeys Jazz Messages - by John Ramsey (Manhattan Music)

The Art of Modern Jazz Drumming - by Jack De Johnette & Charles Perry (D.C. Publication)

Brazilian Rhythms for Drumset - by Duduka Da Fonseca & Bob Wiener (Manhattan Music)

Afro-Cuban Rhythms for Drumset - by Frank Malabe & Bob Wiener (Manhattan Music)

Funkifying The Clave - by Robbie Ameen & Lincoln Goines (Manhattan Music)

Practical Applications using Afro - Carribbean Rhythms - by Chuck Silverman Vols 1-3 (CPP Belwin)

The Art of Reggae Drumming - by Desi Jones (Ceneterstream Publications)

Give The Drummer Some - Jim Payne (Manhattan Music)

Future Sounds - by David Garibaldi (Alfred publications)

New Orleans Jazz and Second Line Drumming - by Herlin Riley & Johnny Vidacovich (Manhattan Music)

New Orleans Drumming Second Line and Funk Rythms - by Roy Burns & Joey Farris (Rhythmis Publications)

Studio and Big Band Drumming - by Steve Houghton (C.L. Barnhouse Company)

Hitmen - by Sam Bradley (Sam Y. Bradley Publications)


Legends of Jazz Drumming Vols1-2 (DCI Video)

New Orleans Jazz Drumming - by Herlin Riley (DCI Video)

New Orleans Drumming - by Johnny Vidacovich (DCI Video)

Everything is Timekeeping - by Peter Erskine (DCI Video)

Timekeeping Two - by Peter Erskine (DCI Video)

The Living Art of Brushes - by Clayton Cameron (DCI Video)

This article appeared in Drumscene, The Drummer's Magazine - Volume 4/Issue 1 1998

Broadening Your Horizons

I started playing drums at age thirteen, having been attracted to music, like so many others from all over Australia, by a staple diet of Top Forty pop on Countdown! My parents were not particularly musical but my sister played guitar and therefore provided my introduction to the slightly less commercial music of Bob Dylan, Neil Young and the harder edged music of Led Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix etc. These were the sources of my natural musical "environment" - worlds away from Jazz, Afro-Cuban Music , Brazilian Music, Funk, World Music and various forms of Fusion - all styles that I enjoy both listening to and trying to play today!

Ironically, it was my need to further my drumming studies; to have a more complete command over the instrument, that led to broadening my musical taste.

Through reading drum catalogues and great publications such as Modern Drummer, I began to notice certain names popping up in interviews and advertisements. Names I had heard about but had not heard play, such as Buddy Rich and Gene Krupa; "new" names such as Steve Gadd, Harvey Mason, Billy Cobham, Jeff Porcaro, Simon Phillips not to mention Max Roach, Philly Joe Jones, Kenny Clarke Tony Williams, Elvin Jones and Art Blakey, all alongside those I knew, John Bonham, Ian Paice, Simon Kirke, Phill Collins and Keith Moon. This aroused my curiosity so for the next few years I gained some insight into the music of these great drummers. It became not only an invaluable lesson in drumming, but I fell in love with a rich variety of wonderful music.

I soon found, however, that to play these newer styles that I now enjoyed was another matter. I was not the son of musicians living in New York. I was not aware that I had access to the music of Count Basie, Duke Ellington etc let alone Miles Davis and John Coltrane! My musical taste to that point had been the product of my upbringing.

Moving ahead a few years. After high school I was accepted to study Jazz at the NSW Conservatorium of Music. There, I was required to play a style, indeed a tradition of which I had only an intellectual understanding. I realised that the ability to play a few pages from The Jim Chapin book (Advanced Techniques for the Modern Drummer), did not maketh the Jazz Drummer. Nor did copying the Buddy Rich four bar break from "Love for Sale".

So how do I attain this "higher understanding" of the music? The answer is the same way that I first got into my "natural musical environment";

LISTENING - Seeking out examples and totally immersing myself in the music. INTERACTING - Hanging out with musicians who were like-minded or better still, further down the track! PLAYING - Attempting to play this "new style" everyday taking into account tuning and touch etc. BEING OPEN - Not trying to judge the new style by any preconceptions.

This last point was a major consideration for me. Where Jazz was concerned, I needed to violate some of the "rules" that I had felt were important.The time itself is felt differently. The various limbs or sound sources are weighted differently. It appeared that in some cases the importance of clean execution was superseded by the spontaneity of an idea. So I had to come to terms with and accept these new standards as part of my ability to play the new style.

There is nothing stopping us broadening our musical horizons. In fact, it is much easier now to hear the great drummers from all over the world than even ten years ago. Videos, CDs, books and music-minus-one packages are all readily available, produced here in Australia and overseas. There are many retailers willing to import this material, not to mention easy access via the internet!

The authors of all the fantastic material published by Manhattan Music realise that this deeper study lies not just in a comprehension of the written music but through listening and each book therefore contains an invaluable discography and often an accompanying CD with recorded examples. Pursue the Jazz CDs that John Riley mentions, the Afro-Cuban music listed in Robby Ameen's book etc. Better still go to New York, Cuba or Brazil etc and see and hear first hand how the drummers play!

An added bonus of pursuing new musical inspiration, is that we see the roots of the music we loved in the first place. For instance, my deeper understanding of Jazz, Blues and Funk sheds light on the influences of Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin and Cream.

So in conclusion don't be afraid to explore music which at first seems difficult to comprehend. Try to see the beauty in all styles and learn about them as you did when you were first struck by music . Remember too, that there is nothing to stop us pursuing "less than mainstream" forms of music; we might just need to search a little harder!

This article appeared in Drumscene, The Drummer's Magazine - Volume 4/Issue 2 1998

Dynamic Shapes

Hello again and thanks for all the great feedback.

One of the things I love about hearing great drummers is the way they dynamically shape a song. We often hear it said of a good solo, that it should "tell a story" or that it should have "a beginning, a middle and an end"; so too, a song.

I remember when rehearsing with Dragon I asked Tod Hunter, the bass player , about playing with one of my early heroes, Doane Perry. He joked at how the first time they played, it struck him that Doane was the loudest drummer that he had heard......and then they hit the chorus! Naturally Doane stepped up the intensity!

Making a dynamic distinction between different sections of a tune and heading towards a high point, provides interest for the listener just as a good story teller will employ constant tension and release and build towards a climax.

I've recently had the pleasure of doing a season with Tom Burlinson's Big Band playing the fantastic music of Frank Sinatra. Many of the charts have this dynamic movement built in to the arrangement. In fact, the last chorus of a tune is referred to as "the shout chorus" where the whole ensemble plays together creating an exciting finale to the piece.

I like to draw an analogy between the stages of this gradual build to changing gears in a car. We start in first gear and once everything is moving along smoothly, we change up to second. So when playing a song or backing a soloist, our "first gear" is when we establish all the elements of the groove....the time, the dynamic and the "lope" or feel. In theory we shouldn't change up to second until each of these elements is in place, not just within our own playing but throughout the band. So it is a priority to provide the band with a foundation from which to play and this is often best achieved by playing the simplest possible feel such as the 2 and 4 or just a quarter note pulse - basically playing time in its simplest form. As Peter Erskine states in his second video, "the first time that you meet a piece of music, whether in a recording session situation or playing with a band for the first want to shake music's hand, look it right in the eye, and say, "how are you"? and then wait for a reply. I think if you add too much of yourself to it the first time through, you're really not getting a chance to hear what it is you've got to do".

Once that's achieved we can then up the intensity - move up to second gear. We achieve this by maybe digging in a little deeper, possibly just playing the same groove but perhaps a little louder.

Third Gear; as we gradually move up the gears there are various ways to increase the intensity.

Different orchestration on the drum set such as opening the Hi-Hat or even moving from the Hi-Hat to the Ride Cymbal and then further to the Bell (in a Rock or Funk feel).

Playing more (carefully chosen!) notes that add to the pulse such as quarter notes on the Bass Drum or hitting the Floor Tom on 4.

Playing louder (but not over everybody else).

More of the same as we cruise along into fourth gear until we've created so much tension that we slip into fifth to drive it home! This is where we pull out all stops. It's the climax - the shout chorus - the high point! On the DCI video, "Legends of Jazz Drumming - Part One", Louise Bellson tells a wonderful anecdote about Davey Tough doing just this.

When I was learning the repertoire for Erana Clarke's Band Heaven , I would write myself charts. Stylistically the music could best be described as smooth LA Adult Oriented Rock (AOR). Such drummers as Jeff Porcaro, John Guerin, Carlos Vega, Harvey Mason, Ricky Lawson, John Robinson, Tris Imboden, Jim Keltner, Micky Curry, Mick Fleetwood, Russ Kunkel and Mike Baird had played on the originals and all exemplified this way of playing. Comparing the charts, I noticed certain similarities with regards to the dynamic shape of the music. Sure each drummer put their own feel into the grooves, but without exception the songs basically built from very little to a driving high point.

For some great examples of the masters shaping music, listen to the self titled CD by The Gadd Gang particularly track 3, "Way Back Home". With each chorus Steve Gadd subtly introduces a new sound into the already deep groove climaxing in a burning tenor saxophone solo by Ronnie Cuber. Check out the way Buddy Rich plays his arrangement of "Love For Sale" from "Big Swing Face"; always building from the start and climaxing in one of his classic four bar breaks that sets up the final shout chorus beautifully! Peco Sery on Joe Zawinal's "My People" and Ed Thigpen with The Oscar Peterson Trio on "My Fair Lady" are two other great examples of drummers who help determine the shape of the music by directing the intensity! Locally, Lyn Wallace the amazing Trad Jazz Drummer masterfully shapes the form of the music. I recently saw him play at the Thredbo Jazz festival with The Yarra Yarra Reunion Band and was totally floored by his control of the ensemble in this way.

Dynamically shaping the music is something we can consciously address regardless of the style. From Trad Jazz to Be-bop to classical music (check out Ravels Bolero) to Rock, Funk and Pop. Start thinking along these lines and notice the difference in the reaction of your listeners and the musicians with whom you are playing. Try it next time you play. What you actually play will vary from style to style, but the dynamic shape should basically be a long crescendo. You can be very analytical at first; make up rules for each "gear" such as "no Bass Drum in gear one", "introduce Rim in gear two", go to open Snare in gear Three", "Ride Cymbal at gear four" and "Bell at gear five". These decisions will become automatic once you gain a feel for directing the shape of the song. It may take a few runs to ensure you don't peak too soon or that you don't run out of song with two levels of intensity to go! With practise, you will soon instinctively know when to crank it up a notch. Have a great time.

I'd like to take this opportunity to express my deep sadness at the tragic loss of Carlos Vega. He was and will remain a major influence on me and many drummers around the world.

This article appeared in Drumscene, The Drummer's Magazine - Volume 4/Issue 3 1998

Verbal Shortcuts

As I look back over my previous Drumscene articles I notice something of a recurring theme. It appears that I have an uncontrollable desire to promote wider listening habits amongst drummers, to encourage an exploration of the root sources of their favourite music and to aspire to convey the importance of a sense of history in ones playing.

The notion that one must know and understand what has happened before can lead to confusion amongst younger players; on the one hand we're encouraged to strive for an individual voice on the instrument and paradoxically in the next breath we're being told to check out and copy Art Blakey, John Bonham or David Garibaldi etc. The answer to this dilemma lies in something I once heard Craig Scott, the great acoustic bass player say to a student; "You must know the rules before you can break have to learn to play inside before you can play outside". By this he meant that a totally individual approach is only valid if it has one foot planted in solid musical grounding. Any of the great innovators on our instrument will verify this fact. For example Buddy Rich, Max Roach, Elvin Jones, Roy Haynes, Tony Williams, Billy Cobham, Steve Gadd and Dave Weckl etc all speak with glowing admiration for all those who preceded them and elements of their playing reflect their influences while at the same time, they all project an individual voice.

The Benefit of Wide Listening

Many of the gigs I've done over the years have entailed "lugging" or "busking" a tune - this is simply playing a tune that you don't really know, with the desired intention of fooling the audience into thinking you've played it all your life. The success of my deception is often dependent upon a few directive words from someone in the band (such as a friendly bass player). There are the obvious expressions such as "it's a jazz thing in two and then it goes into four in the bridge" or "it's a latin thing" or "it's a 12/8 feel" etc. These for the most part are self explanatory however there are often occasions where by a more specific concept must be expressed just as quickly. This happened to me recently when I was filling in for another drummer with no rehearsal. I didn't recognise the name of a song and seeing my somewhat puzzled expression, the bass player leaned over and offered, "it's a Sample/Stuff thing" just as the band leader reached "four" in the count in. With those five words I was able to ascertain that the feel was reminiscent of Joe Sample and the band Stuff and I was therefore able to get through relatively convincingly......well nobody said anything so I guess it was OK. The point is that having listened to the music to which the bass player referred, I was able to play something that was musically acceptable. This all comes back to having a broad listening palette. There is of course no one single feel that is synonymous with Joe Sample's music or that of Stuff but the idea is to adopt elements of their approach. Now I remember an article in Modern Drummer where the writer took offence at being asked to play like Steve Gadd. On such occasions we must determine whether we're really being asked to play like Steve Gadd, or whether the implication of the name Steve Gadd should conjure a musical reference whereby it's an indication of the general way we should play; not specifically to do a Gadd impression.

I remember doing a session where I played my parts and hung around to watch the other players do their bits. Graham Jesse was to play a Tenor Saxophone solo over one section of the tune. He took one look at the chart, the engineer rolled the tape and he played a fantastic contemporary fusion style solo over the changes after which the producer's voice came over the headphones to simply say, "less Brecker more Clemants" upon which they did a second take which was totally different and exactly what they needed. This was for me a great lesson in the importance of knowing as much as we can about the history of our instrument. In four words the producer was able to convey precisely that he wanted a Rock'n'Roll style solo more akin to Clarence Clemants than Michael Brecker and Graham was then able to draw from his musical knowledge. In drummer's terms an equivalent example might be the distinction between say Dennis Chambers and Russ Kunkel.

Now here's a little game you can play when you're next practising. Take a simple Rock beat such as eighth notes on the Hi- Hat, One and Three on the Bass Drum and Two and Four on the Snare, and play it in the style of each of the following players.

Mick Fleetwood

John Bonham

Steve Gadd

Jeff Porcaro

Harvey Mason

Ringo Starr

Simon Phillips

John Robinson

Lars Ulrich

Dave Weckl

David Garibaldi


There are many parameters that can change such us the over all dynamic, the dynamic balance between the sound sources, whether to rim shot the snare or hit in the middle, slightly opening the Hi-Hats, whether to lay back on the snare drum etc. For instance David Garibaldi might get a snappy rim shot back beat with a solid punchy Bass Drum and light shoulder tip accent pattern on a crisp closed Hi-Hat compared to say John Bonham's thunderous open Bass Drum, laid back Two and Four in the middle of a fat Snare Drum with slightly open, very evenly weighted Hi-Hat eighths.

And when you're not practising, listen to some different music and see if you can decipher what a bass player would mean if he or she said;

"It's a medium Basie groove"

"It's a Jaco/Teen Town thing on the hats"

"It's the Phill Spector wall of sound feel"

"Stir the soup"

"It's an up Oscar swing"

"It's a second line feel"

"Four on the floor"

"ECM/Metheny type feel"

"Bad Company quarter notes on the hat"

"Weckl Latin thing"

'till next time great listening. Cheers Gordo.

This article appeared in Drumscene, The Drummer's Magazine - Volume 4/Issue 4 1998

The Fifth Member of the Quartet

As a teacher, I often observe a student's first encounter with a concept, a technique or even a piece of equipment and realise just how much we take for granted as relatively more experienced players. It may be something as basic as what sticks to use, (I can still remember my excitement at getting my first pair), or discovering that the bottom head on the snare drum is very thin which allows the snares to vibrate which generates that sound that differentiates it from a tom; or it may be a conceptual thing such as playing in odd time signatures, (my introduction to odd time signatures was in my school band where we played "Take Five" which, at the time had a tendency to become "Take Six" every now and then), or layering odd groupings; or it may be a "feel" thing such as playing "on top", "right on" or "behind the beat". We often overlook the context of a new discovery in all the excitement of such revelations. One of the beauties of studying this art form is the process of continual reassessment of our musical knowledge which leads to a greater depth of comprehension of the things we learn as we grow as musicians. By that I mean that concepts and techniques that we learn during our first few years of study, are all subject to greater understanding with the benefit of experience. So I find it highly rewarding to reexamine my old study materials from time to time.

Such a reexamination was inspired recently when I was reading the very thoughtful words in Peter Erskine's new book, "The Drum Perspective". Peter discusses the concept of listening as if you were another musician playing along with your drumming, and any resultant conflict of interest. This reminded me of a concept I'd encountered a few years ago, when highly regarded player and educator from Boston, Bob Gullotti toured Australia with Jerry Bergonzi. Whilst here he conducted some clinic/workshops and private lessons. During the workshops he covered many technical areas of modern jazz drumming such as co-ordination, brushes, learning new patterns, Ride Cymbal technique, Brazilian rhythms etc. and touched on concepts such swinging in odd times, developing better concentration, applying ethnic principles and "the fifth member of the quartet". His explanation of this last concept was brief and somewhat perplexing; but I must admit, although the notion stayed with me, I didn't really think much about it until reading "The Drum Perspective" recently.

It all has to do with how we listen to music as we play, and how this should dictate what we do and don't play. "The fifth member of the quartet", Bob explained, "is the sound of the ensemble.....treat the band as one instrument!". Well this was a little far-out for me at the time but with the benefit of all the playing I've done since, I can see exactly what he meant. It was his way of stressing that we should listen to the broader musical picture when we play rather than concentrating on our own stuff. Listen musically rather than drumistically. As Peter Erskine states in "The Drum Perspective", "Just as an infant is mainly concerned by its immediate wants, needs and surroundings, immature or self-centred musicians will only hear what they did in terms of their own execution of the drumming act, ignoring it's impact on the rest of the ensemble." And Bob Moses states in his very interesting book "Drum Wisdom", "I always play from something. I never play from nothing". And on his aptly titled video, "Listen and Play", Airto Moreira talks about his time with the Miles Davis band of the early 1970's. He states, "that was the secret in the band: you listened and you played, and that's it! And everybody else listened to what you were playing and then they played and it was incredible."

The next time you're playing with a band, try to hear the music as a listener standing in front of the ensemble. This is the "fifth member". Tape the performance and then listen back later and see if you have a different perception when you're away from the stage. Try to imagine you are another player playing along to your drumming and make a mental note of what you do and don't like. Then put these observations to the test and apply the good points and edit out the band stuff when you play with others and see how they react. All of this is easily said and takes time to put into practise. But when you really listen to the whole ensemble and let that dictate to you what to play, the music will reach a higher level provided everybody in the band subscribes to the same way of thinking. Drummers are certainly not the only ones guilty of not listening to the whole band. I'm often shocked when I speak with other players after a gig and from their comments, I construe that theirs is a very narrow perception of what went on. Invariably these players are harder to play with. So to ensure that I'm not hard to play with, I try to listen to the whole band for my musical inspiration; "the fifth member of the quartet".

I gain a lot of insight listening to and talking about music with other too with other instrumentalists where I also get a completely different perspective; and as 99.9% of the gigs I do are with other instrumentalists rather than drummers, it makes sense to discover what it is that they're looking for and that is often very different from the stuff that impresses other drummers. This is not to say that there is not occasion to inject your own ideas, and personality into the music but that the music should dictate what to play. Playing lots of notes aggressively at Forte is fine if that's what the music calls for. Steve Gadd, Dave Weckl, Vinnie Colaiuta, Peter Erskine, Steve Smith, Tony Williams and Buddy Rich each have such strong musical personalities but all serve the music first. Their personalities will inevitably be apparent and distinctive and this is the mark of true greatness.

To conclude, I'd like to share something I once read in an old Modern drummer "Drivers Seat" column by the great Louie Bellson. Louie had asked four great band leaders to give a short statement that would be helpful to a drummer; Count Basie's answer - "LISTEN". That pretty much says it all. Cheers!

This article appeared in Drumscene, The Drummer's Magazine - Number 18

Honesty Promotes Improvement

One of the things I've been thinking about lately is our need as responsible growing musicians, to be honest with ourselves. I've witnessed many drummers who criticise a particular form of music or another drummer and I've come to the conclusion that their criticism is often borne of a need to justify their own position. It's fine to be critical as long as you really believe what you claim but I suspect that for the most part, their objection is an impulsive validation of "their" point of view motivated by an instinctive reflex to avoid the embarrassment of having their own limitations exposed. That is, that they nay be defending their own inadequacies.

At one of Dave Weckl's early workshops he stressed the importance of "practising things you can't play as opposed to those things that you can play". Many drummers tend to use up valuable practice time playing their favourite licks and grooves, the rationale being that nobody likes to sound bad and by attempting something new, we put ourselves in unfamiliar territory so we automatically play the things that make us sound good; the things that we can already play. Both the "inefficient practicers" and the "critical drummers" mentioned above share the same defence. They each avoid appearing inadequate by taking an easy way out. Just as the inefficient practicer goes over old ground rather than confronting his/her inabilities, it is easier to be critical of something a little unfamiliar (often the very thing from which we stand to learn the most), than to open oneself up to appearing incompetent. We must be honest with ourselves in order to progress.

I notice with many of my students a tendency to over-simplify their musical appreciation by dividing their tastes pretty much into one of two camps....they generally decide that music is either played "technically or musically".... "chops or groove". Now I don't wish to debate the relative merits of either camp in this particular column...I'll save that for another issue but I want to explore the motivation behind this "absolute" conclusion.

An older musician friend once told me a great story about a drummer that he and his colleagues had nicknamed "Sorry". Buddy Rich had just completed an astounding tour of Australia in which he had made such a huge impact with his driving, swinging feel and unmatched soloing ability, that he left behind a trail of enthusiastic, worshipping admirers in each city he visited. Upon seeing this particular drummer after the tour, my friend rhetorically asked, "Wasn't Buddy incredible?" to which the drummer raised his open hands, shrugged and simply replied, "Sorry"; he'd refused to acknowledge Buddy's indisputable mastery earning himself the caustic monicker, ŒSorry' in the process! But what was his real motivation behind the comment? I suspect that it was an attempt to make himself feel better by diminishing that which made him feel uncomfortable, a perception supported by my friend and his colleagues, who had to play with this drummer from time to time. Had old ŒSorry' been more honest with himself, he might have learned something from one of the world's greatest musicians!

Conversely I've known highly technically accomplished drummers to question the validity of simpler players and accuse them of being boring in order to vindicate their self indulgence. Or they might refuse to accept "uncreative" or "commercial" gigs, claiming that the music would be uninspiring or beneath them when in fact they are apprehensive about the possibility of exposing their own inabilities. Were they to honestly acknowledge the beauty often found in simpler music, or to confront their playing weaknesses, they could in fact discover new ways to play their licks in order to achieve more impact and substantially improve their musicianship. For example there are many musical qualities that are improved much faster in real gig situations than in a practice room such as depth of feel and time; both often overlooked virtues of some of the world's most technically proficient musicians such as Steve Gadd, and Vinnie Colauita. Honesty promotes improvement!

In one of my many deep conversations about life, the universe and drumming with Andy Gander, we happened upon the notion that "one's ability to be impressed, is akin to ones potential to impress". Think about that one for a sec'....... I've observed people conceal their natural response to music through sheer vanity. To express appreciation and take genuine pleasure in the achievements of another, is not a weakness, it is in fact a generous gesture displaying confidence; another strength of all great musicians. It is only through an honest expression of our feelings, which requires humility and confidence, that we can acknowledge our limitations and therefore take the necessary steps to overcome them.

So when I'm tempted to criticise, I try to stop and ask myself, "is this what I really believe or am I simply finding an easy way out?" If it's the latter, I'll then see what I can learn from experience.

This article appeared in Drumscene, The Drummer's Magazine - Number 19

A Physical Impression

Efficient movement around the drum set is one facet of playing that has always fascinated me. The grace, balance and flow of the greats such as Buddy Rich, the Jones brothers, Philly Joe, Papa Jo, Elvin, and David, (that was of course a little joke), Steve Gadd, Jimmy Cobb, Vinnie Colaiuta and Dave Weckl was not only visually pleasing but it was reflected in the music. I found the best way to achieve such qualities was through physical imitation.

As a result of one of my party tricks I opened a vast avenue of musical growth; I used to enjoy doing impressions of drummers and one that was a particular favourite was Vinnie Colaiuta. I found that by physically imitating Vinnie's awesome performance on the "Zildjian Day in New York" video, and actually applying my impression to the kit, I was suddenly drawing a better sound from the drums, and I had more stamina. I've since learnt that what I had picked up from Vinnie and others such as Doanne Perry, was one facet of the Moeller Technique; the snappy gooseneck shape of the wrists that when whipped would generate incredible power with very little effort.

The great jazz bass player, Dave Pudney grew up with James Morrison and once told me that James had learnt to play the trumpet by looking at pictures of Dizzy Gillespie playing, and imitating the sound that he thought Dizzy was making. There was probably a little more to it than that but I could relate to what he meant. By adopting some of the physical attributes of our heroes, we can generate elements of the spirit of their music. And in this video age we are blessed with an infinite supply of material from which to draw, that was simply unavailable even fifteen years ago.

From the time I began playing drums I followed a path that many of us pursue; when I heard a great drummer play, something touched me which had a dramatic emotional effect that I felt compelled to imitate. This I believe is one of the best ways to learn. (See my column "Finding Your Voice" in Issue thirteen of Drum Scene). Like many of us, my first real drum hero was the late, great John Bonham. I learnt a great deal about playing the drums by simply playing along with Led Zeppelin records or playing the grooves and fills whilst imagining the songs in my 20,000 screaming fans all crammed into my bedroom of course. As a beginner, with my limited ability on the drums, I was overwhelmed with the relative complexity of Bonham's grooves and fills and so attaining that kind of facility became my preoccupation. And so through imitating the beats and fills I was inadvertently unlocking a series of keys to drumming. But it wasn't until I saw the movie, "The Song Remains The Same" with real live footage of Bonham in action, that I feel I really understood that it was more about the "how" than the "what" and whilst I learnt a lot by copying his grooves and fills, it was seeing the way he actually struck the drums that allowed me to get closer to that feeling which is what had hit me in the first place!

When I finally was able to see David Garibaldi play at the Ultimate Drummers Day a few years ago, his whole two sound level concept fell into place. And then practising his material from "Future Sounds" with a visual image of him playing, gave me much better results. This is true too of seeing Steve Gadd in his "Up Close" video performing some of his famous thirty second note, parradiddle/double stroke combinations. The way he physically addressed the drums was far more fundamental to the feel than a mere intellectual comprehension of what he was playing. Of huge visual impact was the drumming of Omar Hakim who's rubbery quality was expressed through the music. The next time you see Billy Cobham play, check out the way he moves his shoulders and see what effect it has on his funky feel.

To experiment with physical impressions try this exercise. Play a continuous groove in four measure segments, each being your impression of a different drummer. Don't alter the actual notes you play, just the way you play them. Observe how each four bars feels different from the others and which characteristics you like.

There are many clues to sound, nuance and feeling in observing the physical approach of the masters and these can be easily missed if we don't experiment with them. By imitating the greats we can tap into a vast world of experiences way beyond our own; we are able to better approximate the feeling which is what draws us in to begin with and we can arrive at a highly developed methodology, skipping many of the steps that it took the masters in the first place by simply copying their physical attributes or approach. And if you get really good you can entertain other musicians at parties with your wacky drummer impressions. Have fun, see you next time!

This article appeared in Drumscene, The Drummer's Magazine - Number 20

The State Of The Art

We're fast approaching the year 2000 and there will no doubt be much reflection upon what has been a most extraordinary century in all facets of life such as the arts, politics culture, computing, information technology, science, sport, and music. Advances in these fields have led to extreme diversity in our options for entertainment. Over the last ten to fifteen years we've witnessed fewer and fewer opportunities to play music and as corporate thinking becomes more prevalent, the use of music is often relegated to providing a backdrop for some other activity! It is not my intention to bring you down by lamenting this fact, but to draw your attention to my belief that there will always be an audience to see music played well and this is why, more than ever, musicians have to be artists!

Drummers have historically proven to be great artists. This century we have seen a host of great drummer/bandleaders whose personalities have shaped the music, from as far back as Chick Webb through to Gene Krupa, Buddy Rich, Mel Lewis, Elvin Jones, Tony Williams, Billy Cobham and many more. These musicians have not only been the great drumming pioneers, they have all gone on to lead bands and define the destiny of music in the twentieth century. They were not content to merely conform to the accepted musical ideals but led the way to new innovative approaches which gradually became accepted as mainstream. They created an audience for a music that previously didn't exist. Music must continue to evolve to keep audiences interested.

Good drummers, I believe, hear the band as a whole entity and are therefore in a great position to determine the direction of the music; that is to say that drummers often make good band leaders, as evidenced by the list of names above.

As band leaders we can make an artistic statement by saying something musically: either something new or something that has been said before but expressed in a new way, or combining different genres to form a new hybrid music. By stamping the music with our individual personalities and continually improving the execution, we'll keep the listeners interested. And there is plenty of room for further development. We may often be overwhelmed by the contemporary greats such as Dave Weckl, Vinnie Colaiuta, Steve Gadd, Dennis Chambers, Chad Wackerman, Simon Phillips, Steve Smith, Gary Novak etc or alternatively we can be inspired by their willingness to move forward as individuals. It's our choice. That they are still improving after so many years at the top is testimony to their greatness, and also evidence that there is still room to move. It's our job to find that room!

On the other hand, if we keep trying to second-guess the audience or pander to every corporate whim, we'll end up with an uninteresting, bland musical form which is in turn taken for granted by the listeners. In a world driven by corporate Œeconomic rationalism' it can be difficult to justify something so apparently intangible as the pleasure derived from hearing a sweet groove or a dynamic drum solo and yet, as I write, I'm listening to Dave Weckl's new CD "Synergy," Chad Wackerman's latest "Scream," and Simon Phillip's new live disc "Out Of The Blue," and it seems to me that drumming is simply getting better and better in the most thorough and subtle of ways. In each recording the music is extremely happening on so many levels: great feeling grooves, perfect execution, awesome soloing, flowing musical interaction, exciting energy, tight ensemble sections, all from an inventive compositional platform. This is the state of the art at the end of the century.

It is the responsibility of each of us to creatively determine the direction of music through our playing and presentation of our art form.

If I were to think of one drummer in the current generation who embodied this positive drive and enthusiasm and whose efforts reaped rewards and respect it would be Dave Weckl. By the time you read this, the Dave Weckl Band will have completed their second national tour and I wouldn't be going out on a limb to say that they will have left a series of stunned audiences in their wake. Dave has been and continues to be a huge inspiration through his great playing, from Chick Corea bands to the Dave Grusin Big Band projects, and now leading his own band. His educational products are of exceptionally high quality and as a clinician he is always informative and generous. He has developed a reputation and commands respect from fellow musicians and enthusiastic fans. There is a lot to be learned from Dave Weckl, who has kept us entertained and interested for nearly twenty years!

Music has and always will affect people emotionally and therein lies our opportunity to do what we love. It's very easy in music to lose sight of why we do what we do. Try to retain the spark that first attracted you to the drums. If you play with enthusiasm it communicates to people and that's the only thing which will keep music (a)live through the next century. From time to time we have to make music that is merely providing a service. That's fine, as long as we balance it with a forum that promotes creativity. Strive to be an artist and keep this wonderful form of expression developing as we move beyond 2000!

This article appeared in Drumscene, The Drummer's Magazine - Number 21

A Drumming Constitution

Last year I was playing at a Drum Concert Weekend and amongst the other clinicians was the exciting Dom Famularo. One of the great things about doing such clinics is the opportunity to not only play with some of the international stars but to hang out and enjoy their company. A night out with Dom Famularo is a guaranteed night of fun, laughter, good food, drum talk and, best of all, great first-hand Steve Gadd stories!!

Having done a few clinics with Dom, I've been able to get to know him a little and can only admire the way he leads such a full and productive life. Dom spends his time stimulating drummers of all ages through his constant and hectic touring schedule for Sabian and Vic Firth; he travels the world playing drums, educating by sharing his historical and thorough knowledge of drums and drumming, and entertaining through his humorous and inspiring anecdotes....... oh yeah, and having great nights out full of fun, laughter, good food and Steve Gadd stories. When he's at home he teaches, practises and spends time with his family; a very full schedule, inspiring thousands of drummers all over the world.

In a quieter moment, I asked Dom about how he manages his time so efficiently and productively. In his reply, he mentioned a book by Stephen R. Covey, "The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People". Having since read the book, I can recommend it as a guide to living a more effective life.

Although I won't attempt to condense the essence of the book here, I noted how many of the principles and concepts proposed by the author can be readily applied to playing the drums.

One concept in particular caught my attention. In the book, Covey advocates living a principle-centred life. He cites many examples of people centred on things other than principles, such as relationships, religion, work and money. He then goes on to explain the down side of these centres and the virtue of being principle-centred.

Just as Australia has a constitution, a set of guidelines or rules as to how it will operate as a country, we can decide to have our own constitution based on our individual principles. By observing these guidelines every day we are following a principle-centred existence and this is one of the main concepts in the book. Covey then goes on to suggest that we actually take the time to write out a personal mandate or mission statement, using our principles as the foundation. Now it's up to the individual to decide whether and how to embrace this thinking in terms of a personal strategy however, as I mentioned before, I felt this concept could prove useful when applied to playing drums.

One of the issues with which I feel we all battle at some stage is being consistent in our approach to playing. Drummers are often distracted by any number of external factors. For example, if another drummer walks in while we're playing, it can often affect our performance. We may try to gear our playing to impress that drummer, whether it's by playing fewer notes more tastefully, or faster-more complicated patterns, or playing louder, more jazzy, more rocky, or whatever. It may be someone in the band that we are subconsciously trying to impress. The point is that we're altering our playing as a result of an external influence.

However, if we apply Covey's theory and have a predetermined set of guidelines, our own personal drumming constitution, it gives us a constant to which we can continually look to observe and comply. If we stringently conform to these "rules", then external factors such as the opinions of others should have no effect on our playing.

All this takes practice and judgment. You can't expect to one day, suddenly, be true to yourself to the exclusion of pleasing all others - we need the feedback of others to help determine our principles in order to generate our constitution in the first place! It's a matter of gradually adjusting and finding that place that pleases you and those with and for whom you play. Eventually, you find what it is that you want to say as a musician and then generate your guidelines from that.

We all do this instinctively to some extent. A good example of such a musician is Steve Gadd. I believe that the main principle underlying his philosophy is to make the music feel as good as it possibly can at all times - whatever it takes! And the result, I'm sure you'll agree, is spectacularly effective!

Here in Sydney we're very lucky to have Kere Buchanan who demonstrates a strong identity regardless of the diversity of the musical situation, and despite who happens to be in the room. He plays with a real conceptual consistency and identity.

So if you, as I do from time to time, struggle with finding the correct thing to play, or you find that you're easily affected by external factors, take a moment to write down exactly what you want to achieve when playing the drums. Keep your guidelines close by when you play and try to stay true to them as best you can. You may need to hone them from time to time but you'll be developing a sharper, clearer identity on the drums. Good luck.

This article appeared in Drumscene, The Drummer's Magazine - Number 22

Playing Safe

We all like to be seen to be in control or perhaps it's more correct to say we don't like to be seen to be out of control. For this reason one can fall into the trap of always playing safe.

One of the best ways to improve is to make mistakes - lots of 'em! I mean, I do it all the time! This notion was recently brought to my attention by a fine Sydney drummer and teacher named Tony Keep. Tony stated emphatically that the first thing he stresses to his students is that "it's OK to make mistakes." Strangely enough, not long after I was speaking with Tony I read the chapter, "The Teacher/Student Relationship" in Peter Erskines' wonderful book, "The Drum Perspective," where he tells the following anecdote about his first lesson with one of his teachers, Professor George Gaber:

"As I prepared to play something for him on the practice pad, he admonished me not to play anything "right".....I tried to play something, and, again, he said "Don't play anything right; I want to hear mistakes."........The point, and this was Lesson Number One for a young drummer, was that it is OK to make mistakes."

Well I'd like to qualify that just a little. There are mistakes and then there are that I mean that there is a difference between not preparing for a gig and consequently messing up an arrangement, versus coming a little unstuck when you're going for an interesting phrase. I might also add that you can carry this thinking to varying degrees depending on the situation. Of course, in a practice session we have the freedom to experiment and take real chances, safe in the knowledge that the worst thing that can happen is that we have to try again! I've heard Dave Weckl regularly advocate the need to practise things that we don't know rather than those things with which we are already familiar. We have a better sense of inner wellbeing when we sound our best, so often we prefer to play exercises and patterns which are easiest for us to execute rather than to struggle with some difficult co-ordination or a complicated, Bass Drum pattern. In actual fact, we achieve most in a practice session when we choose not to play it safe by trying new things!

A performance is a different story but I feel there's a lot to be learnt by not playing it safe in a live situation too. It may take some trial-and-error to discover exactly where the happy medium between excitement and control lies for you. For instance, I've listened to recordings of myself where the playing is exciting yet too frantic, and those where I believe I've executed my ideas well, but the feel is flat or lacklustre. By approaching gigs with varying degrees of "safety", we can gradually ascertain a level at which we meet all our personal criteria for a good performance.

I take a Rhythm Section Workshop in the Jazz Course at the Conservatorium here in Sydney and I've noticed a fear amongst the students, of being seen to be "not cutting it". The class situation is unfortunately very artificial where students are required to comment and critique each other's performance. This puts a lot of pressure on those performing and often leads to a very significant adverse change in their approach . When we add external pressure to comply to others' expectations, we're splitting our attention in too many directions - thus diminishing the impact of our playing. The most successful performances in the Rhythm Section Workshop are achieved by those who take the bull by the horns and "go for it!" There is an edge in a performance whereby the participants are taking chances; it's a certain intangible excitement. The trick is knowing just how far to go and that comes from an intimate knowledge of your limitations, which is best achieved by practising regularly.

Whenever I hear Virgil Donati play, it sounds to me like he's pushing his own boundaries. This adds an exciting edge to the sheer magnitude of what he plays. In the 1960s it became an accepted standard to stretch beyond one's limit, as evidenced by the playing of Elvin Jones and Tony Williams. In fact, Miles Davis' classic recordings, "My Funny Valentine" and "Four and More" are historically revered for their excitement and energy and this is widely attributed to Tony's stretching the limits.

There are times when it's perfectly appropriate to play well within the limits of your technique and style, however when the music calls for something extra, you can create a little magic by "letting go". Allow yourself the luxury of breaking some "rules" and exploring new musical horizons. With a systematic approach to practice and a trial-and-error approach to performance, you will find that happy medium between excitement and control. Good luck going for it!

This article appeared in Drumscene, The Drummer's Magazine - Number 23

Unfamiliar Not Difficult

If we, as a beginner drummer, were to stand at the bottom of the "drumming mountain", looking up at all the things we're told to study to become a great player, (the Rudiments, co-ordination, bass drum control, time, different styles, phrasing, musical application, feel, song structure, taste.........and the list goes on!), we probably would never begin. We need to dispel any fears in our minds before we start. And as most people who take up the drums do so simply because it looks and sounds like fun, it's only later on when we study the complexities of drumming, and become familiar with just how far the greats have taken the instrument, that we begin to put up these mental blocks.

I recently read Kenny Werner's wonderful book, "Effortless Mastery" which is something of a guide to musicians and artists wanting to remove their own barriers to creativity in both life and their chosen artistic pursuit. It is particularly enjoyable as Kenny is himself an incredible musician, and so writes with insight and language with which we (the typical readers of Drum Scene) would all be familiar.

Kenny raises the issue of mental blocks within his chapter on practising. He makes the point that we should not perceive anything to be hard as doing so creates unwanted barriers that not only prevent execution of the "difficult" part itself, but limit our resources by commandeering too much attention. I remember George Golla, the famous Jazz Guitarist, commenting on his daughter's ability when learning the clarinet, to reach certain high notes, which he had always considered difficult. He cited the fact that "She doesn't know it's supposed to be hard" as reason for her apparent exceptional ability. Ever since, when practising or teaching something new, I try to avoid conveying the notion that it may be difficult, replacing it with the belief that I just have not yet practised it enough! Kenny Werner puts it this way: "It is good to view things as familiar or unfamiliar, rather than difficult or easy. If you give yourself the message, ŒThis is difficult,' the piece may discourage you and it may still be difficult even after you've learned it. However if you believe that all music is easy, then you'll assume that you are unfamiliar with the piece because Œit hasn't become easy yet.'"

This argument is also presented within another text with which many readers of Drum Scene would be familiar. In the introductory paragraph to his classic Jazz Independence book, "Advanced Techniques for the Modern Drummer", Jim Chapin opens by demonstrating that the concepts of independence presented in his book should not be perceived as difficult. He explains that in other cultures, even children are able to learn more difficult polyrhythms, indicating that the attitude when learning is what makes the difference. He states, "In the East Indian Islands, such as Java and Bali, some children being trained in their native dances are able to execute counter rhythms, such as five against four almost as soon as they can walk."

So perhaps his geography is a little out of date, but he makes the point that if we think of something as difficult, we're putting up a barrier to learning. However, as Kenny Werner also points out, it's simply a case of the material having not been "practiced [sic] to the proper level of ease."

Jim Chapin appears to concur with this belief in the introduction to his sequel study, "Advanced Techniques for the Modern Drummer - Volume 2". He suggests that many of the exercises and patterns contained within the book are, as he puts it, "not in my repertoire" conceding that they might be perceived as difficult but he then goes on to assert that with practice, he could overcome any co-ordination problem. He states, "I can play many of the exercises in this book, but there are many written here, and more suggested, that are presently "not in my repertoire" (though I feel I could master any given one by concentrated study)." Therein lies the lesson to be learned.

I have had a particular Drum book by Terry Silverlight called "The Featured Drummer" for many years. It's one of those that sits at the back of my library and makes an appearance every few years whereby I'll have a little stab at the odd exercise. I just can't seem to "get through" this book. The problem has been that I put up a mental barrier before I've even opened the book. I have instilled in my mind the notion that this book is very difficult and therefore I will have trouble executing the ideas. It is this thinking that prevents me going through the book and drawing something new, then moving on! It is purely a mental block! In Terry Bozzio's amazing series of instructional videos, "Melodic Drumming and the Ostinato", he emphasises the need when tackling a typical co-ordination task, to take "baby steps". If we employ this approach, it diminishes the possibility that the exercise will overwhelm us before we start. If I could take this approach with "The Featured Drummer" I'd probably derive more benefit from it!

I have, in the past, tended to practise a broad range of drumming ideas in any given practice session and whilst this is a good approach to raise one's general technique level, I feel that there comes a time when a more focussed deeper examination of a single concept is more beneficial; (provided of course, that you eventually move on to other areas to round out your studies). I like to keep this in mind when I look at all the drum books on my shelf that I am yet to complete. So rather than discouragement, I feel excitement at the prospect of spending a solid month or two on a single idea presented in any given text.

So think of any new challenge as unfamiliar not difficult and I'm sure you will notice a huge improvement in the pace at which you develop!