Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Finding Your Own Sound With Any Instrument

Syncronicity was at work this week. A week ago I was talking with fellow drummer, Ari Moosavi about drummers having their own sound. Ari is a great drummer with a distinctive sound. His cymbals are some old, cheap Japanese ones. The sound is very dry, very distinctive. The cool thing about them is that they don't sound like a million other drummer's cymbals. And Ari can make some beautiful music with them. So if anything, they are very Ari sounding.

I've had this discussion with various other drummers over the years, and recently again on Facebook. Sometimes it's come to the point of arguing about which is more important to getting a drummer's sound: the gear, or the drummer. My personal feeling is that, all things equal, 90% of your sound comes from you. It comes from how you hit/strike/touch the instruments. It comes from the amount of pressure/force you play with. It comes from where you strike things. And it even comes from the notes/rhythms you choose.

I learned years ago, from working in drum shops and playing on hundreds of drum sets, that I can sound like me on any set of drums. This idea of the sound being the drummer was reinforced when I let my friend from Switzerland, Fredy Studer, use my drums for a gig 10 years ago. Even though they were my drums, tuned my way, he still sounded like himself, and not me.

Look at Bill Bruford, it didn't matter what snare drum he played—an old Olympic, a Ludwig, various TAMAs with various shell types—his snare drum always sounded like Bill Bruford, and he's the only one to sound that way. Neil Peart is another good example. I've listened to him since he joined RUSH, and no mater what drums he plays—Slingerland, TAMA, Ludwig, DW—he still sounds like Neil Peart.

My trusty drums & cymbals I've had for ages…

Now please understand that I'm not against having great drums, cymbals, etc. Quality instruments can often make the job easier and sound better. But, and this is the big thing, you can often get a very workable sound from just about any drum or cymbal. What I find interesting are drummers who constantly change their gear in the search for some mythological ideal sound. How can you find any instruments's potential in just a few days or weeks? Why not spend some actual time with it and learn what it can do, what sounds you can get out of it, and find a sound that is YOU. 

I really think it's important to stick with an instrument and work at finding and unlocking all the sound potential that you can from it. But that takes time. Other musicians tend to have one main horn or string instrument that they play for a lifetime. Or in the case of someone like Jeff Beck, he may have new guitars frequently, but he knows the guitar is only a tool, and the way he plays it is how he gets his sound.

Obviously, broken or inferior gear can be a hindrance. But you don't need a $10K Craviatto set of drums to be a great drummer. You can make great music playing a $500 Export/Swing Star/Stage Custom/etc. With the right heads and the right tuning, you can be in good shape. If the drums are round and have good bearing edges, you can get a good, usable sound. I’ve heard some of the best drummers in the world play various house & rental kits that weren’t the best drums, but they made them sing.

Here's a great story from Gerry Hemingway:

"You Be" was recorded in the fall of 1985 at the famous Ludwigsberg studio in Germany and is the third recording of BassDrumBone. Our producer Stephen Meyner had overlooked that I don't travel with a drum set so when we arrived I was faced with rummaging through the closets and basement of the studio trying scare up something resembling a trapset. In the end you would never know it, but if you had a look at what I taped together out of microphone stands and toilet paper rolls you would be amused. Another one of those "challenges" of being an improvisor. ~ Gerry Hemingway

I'm a big fan of Gerry's drumming and music. You Be is a great album. You would never know the problems with the drums, because Gerry is such an amazing drummer that he makes it happen. In fact, for most gigs and recordings, Gerry uses different drums, but he always sounds like Gerry Hemingway. I remember interviewing him for Modern Drummer and he was almost embarrassed to admit that his own drum set was a well worn Ludwig Club date kit he had since high school! Here we have one of the best drummers in the world and he doesn't worry about what gear he will be playing. He knows that he is the music.

Make magic happen with whatever instruments you have…

~ MB

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Be the person you’d hire if it were your gig or session.

Be the person you’d hire if it were your gig or session. That sounds simple, but it's not always that simple.
The big assumption here is that you've got your act together and are professional in every sense. Now put yourself in the place of the bandleader. The usual things you would look for in hiring someone would be things like: they get to the gig on time, they can play well, they can play the music style/s called for, they are easy to work with, they don't have any drug or alcohol problems, and possibly that they can read music. 
If it's an audition you are going to and there are songs to know, KNOW THEM! Don't just show up thinking you can fake your way through it. Auditions are tedious and draining. The last thing a band or band leader wants to put up with, is time wasters who really shouldn't be auditioning. Be courteous, be professional, and most importantly, be prepared.

From there, it's all about context. Put yourself in the position of the bandleader and the type of music the band plays. If it's a jazz gig, the bandleader may be looking to hire someone who wears a suit and tie. If it's a metal band, they may be looking for someone who wears black or leather. If it's a classical gig, a tux/long dress may be in order. It may sound overly simple, but if you're auditioning for, or playing a jazz gig, you wouldn't want to show up looking like a goth, unless it's some sort of goth-jazz gig. In the same way, you wouldn't want to show up at a metal band audition looking like a science nerd. You might be the best player/singer in the world in that style, but if you don't look the part, you probably won't get the gig.
The same thing with your gear. If it's a wedding or social gig, it probably isn't a great idea to show up with a 20 piece double bass kit—save that for the metal or prog rock gig. If you can always be the appropriate person, with the appropriate look and gear for each gig, you will most likely get more work and build your reputation. And your reputation can go a long way in securing more gigs.
So remember, be the person you’d hire if it were your gig or session.

~ MB

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

8 Simple Things To Hinder Your career

Ah, being a musician is the life. You work hard at it, and the rewards can be many. But a simple misstep can throw it all away in an instant.  Here is a short list of things NOT to do:

  1. Don't break your word. A promise is a promise. I learned the hard way. I once begged off a gig I was committed to because I had received a "better offer." Well, things didn't work out quite the way I had hoped. The gig I left apparently didn't go so well without me and I lost a friend because of it. The "better" gig I took turned out to be rather lame and wasn't better at all. Lesson learned…
  2. Don't act like a star/diva/jerk/dick head. No matter what term you use, nobody likes to work with someone who thinks they are bigger and better than those around them. This goes for band mates, managers, promoters, and even fans. Treat all people you meet with decency—that will go a long way and be remembered.
  3. Don't think you are too big/good enough you don't need to work at it. Yes, you've been doing this for years, but like an athlete, you need to stay in shape, stay at the top of your game. Don't show up at rehearsal thinking you can just wing it, when everyone else has been working hard to get their parts down.
  4. Don't be lazy. OK, so only 5 people showed up to your gig. Don't be lazy and just go through the motions. Look at it as an opportunity to really do your best and wow those 5 people so much they become lifelong fans, who in turn tell everybody what an amazing show they missed. The next time you come back to the same venue/town, you should have a much bigger audience.
  5. Don't play all drunk/stoned/out of your head. I shouldn't have to mention this at all. You might think you are playing amazingly, while your bandmates are struggling to play along with you. I once had to fire a bass player in the middle of a gig because he was so drunk. We carried on without him…
  6. Don't be late. I repeat, don't be late! This should be a no brainer, but I'm always surprised by how many musicians pop in 5 minutes before the gig starts and have some sort of lame excuse. Plan accordingly for traffic, etc. and arrive EARLY. I like to get there early enough I can set up and then take a break, relax, and get my mind ready for the gig.
  7. Don't talk shit about other musicians/bands/managers/producers. I'm sure you wouldn't want people talking shit about you, so don't about others. Besides, you never know what sort of opportunities will come up in the future. You may need to work with someone you have said stuff about. Maybe someone you've said stuff about will be in a position to hire you, and then pass because of what you've said.
  8. Don't forget that it's about the music! Yes, there's fame & fortune, travel, media, etc, etc, etc. But don't EVER forget that it's about the music. If you ever lose sight of the music, then it's time to get out and get that day job…
Now go make some music…


Tuesday, August 19, 2014

8 Simple Things To Boost Your career

Sometimes being a musician is a singular, insulated type of life. You can spend all of your time practicing and working on your music, yet miss out on things that can help your career. Here is a short list of things to do:

  1. Go out and listen to live music! I know we can all be busy, but it's important to see and hear other musicians. It can be inspirational, giving us new ideas. It can be educational and teach us new things.
  2. Listen to music, especially types of music you aren't familiar with. If all you listen to is heavy metal, or be-bop, then you have a very narrow world view. Listen to other types of music, especially styles you may not like. As with going to hear live music, this can inspire us and give us new ideas to work with.
  3. Work on things out of your reach. If all you ever practice are things you know, you will never grow. As drummers, it's easy to just play the same old great feeling grooves. Find something you can't play and work on it.
  4. PLAY LIVE AS MUCH AS YOU CAN! Practice, practice, practice is great, but sometimes you just need to get out there and play, especially playing with others. Sitting in a practice room and working away is commendable, but it can also be stifling. So play whenever you can: 2 songs, a whole set, a whole concert. LIVE is what music is all about.
  5. THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS PERFECT. Let me repeat that: THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS PERFECT. If you wait until what you are working on is perfect, before you play it out, you will never play it out. Get it down and get it out there!
  6. Don't listen to destructive criticism. Today, with the internet, everyone is a critic. If someone does a write up/blog about your music and gives you unqualified shit, don't pay attention to it. Not everyone will get what you do or like it. Just keep moving forward.
  7. Be gracious about constructive criticism. Positive criticism can be helpful. It can often see things we can't. It can help us improve our technique, or music, our careers. The one rule about any criticism is to look at the context: does the critic know what they are talking about? Is it someone you respect? Are they just trying to slag you to make themselves look better? With any criticism, take what helps, then keep moving forward.
  8. Stick to your vision. You are the only one who can see the whole thing. Don't let others put you off your path. But also be willing to adjust and change things as you go along. Sometimes we hit dead ends and need to start over. Sometimes we just need to make a slight turn left or right. Stick to your vision.
~ MB

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Signal to Noise

If you have something in your heart to do, you should do it. - Terry Bozzio

I remember talking to Terry Bozzio years ago when I was considering going the solo percussion route. I was tired of dealing with bands, and also had this idea for something so different, so radical from anything I had done before. He was extremely encouraging. Buoyed by the support of Terry, and many other percussion friends, I did just that and haven't looked back.

And so it is, we are often bombarded by others telling us what to do: "You should get a real job," or, "You can make more money in a cover/tribute band." Now mind you, I'm not saying don't get a real job (whatever that is), or don't play in a cover band, as these might be your aspirations. Each of us is different. Each of us has different ideas about music and our own personal musical goals. What I am saying is that while other people will be quick to tell you what you should do, you need to listen to yourself. What are your true desires and yearnings? 

If you do not express your own original ideas, if you do not listen to your own being, you will have betrayed yourself. - Rollo May

Don't let your signal be clouded up by the noise of others. If you have a dream, be true to it. Work towards it, and don't let others deter you from it. Keep your signal noise free!

The true artist is a man who believes absolutely in himself, because he is absolutely himself. - Oscar Wilde
What are your true dreams and aspirations?

~ MB

Sunday, July 20, 2014

The Nature of Improvisation

Creativity - Part 4

Improvisation is always a roll of the dice. On one hand, you can have all the best ideas but be paired up with the wrong partners. On the other hand, you can be with ideal people and have no ideas. But if you're aware, and in the moment, there is a chance for a spark to arise and things to take off.

"I learned at a very young age that music teaches you about life. When you're in the midst of improvisation, there is no yesterday and no tomorrow — there is just the moment that you are in. In that beautiful moment, you experience your true insignificance to the rest of the universe. It is then, and only then, that you can experience your true significance."
Charlie Haden

Another aspect is how you approach improvisation. You can play it safe and fall back on a set of well worn cliches (and we all have our cliches we like to play), or you can take things out and walk the edge, putting yourself in danger. One of my favorite quotes is from the great Germanic poet, Rainer Maria Rilke: “No great art has ever been made without the artist having known danger.” This has become my motto and it is this sense of danger that fuels great improvisation. When improvising, there's always the question in your mind, "What if nothing happens?" This is the danger. But even better, what if magic happens? More often than not, magic does happen, because the musicians involved are willing to trust both themselves and their fellow musicians. They are willing to walk out to the edge and trust that something magical can happen in the face of danger. 

My good friend and master Swiss drummer/improvisor, Fredy Studer, is fond of saying that drummers need to have “big ears.” I would say that al musicians in an improvised setting certainly need “big ears.” For improvisation to be cohesive (and interesting), it needs to be about listening to what is happening, as much as it is about the actual playing. I always listen and often try to provide counter point to what the other musicians are doing: staccato bursts of rhythm against long held notes, or metallic soundscapes providing a backdrop for the others to ride on top of. Or I'll find some sort of sound/tonality that matches what is going on and try to blend with the other instruments. And sometimes I'll just sit out, letting the music breathe and the others have the space. 

Suffice to say, in improvisation, not everything is magical. But if you leave your ego home, and work to play as part of a unit, magic can appear, gifting us with music that at times sounds thoroughly rehearsed, even though it is composed in the moment. 

~ MB

Saturday, July 12, 2014

The Nature of Creativity

Creativity - Part 3

The essence of music tells us that we are the true instruments. It does not matter what
equipment we have. It can be rooms full of expensive percussion, or a simple hand drum.
The music comes from inside ourselves and will find a way to express itself on whatever
instruments we have at our disposal. Many of us get stuck on the idea that “If only I had
that new drum/ cymbal/ drum kit, then I could really playl” If you follow this line of
thinking, then you could always be saying that, as there are continually new products to
entice us. This becomes an endless loop of wanting/getting/wanting again. 

It’s important to
realise that wherever we are now, we have enough equipment to do something, to create
something from our hearts. Yes, our vision may include something we don’t have, but it is
important to go on anyway. We may find that we don’t need what we thought we needed, or that the
process of creating and working will lead us to what we need. Often what we see as
limitations, bring out the best in us as we strive to overcome them and be as creative as

Drum & Man

A good example is Swiss drummer Fritz Hauser. He recorded a complete 20 minute
work on his CD, Die Trommel (The Drum) [hat Art], with just a snare drum. Through the
use of different rooms, sticks, and techniques he wanted to discover and exploit all the
different sounds he could get from this one drum.

Later, he created a one man show, Trommel mit Mann/ drum with man, played completely on one drum.

Sometimes in our quest to have everything, we really play nothing and say little. Concentrate on what you have, what sits before you, not what you wish you had…

~ MB