Saturday, February 20, 2010


I've been playing drums now for 39 years. It's always been my great stress equalizer, and sometimes I can even relax by just visualizing myself playing drums, either alone or with a band. John Mayer has his visualizations and relaxation methods, and I have mine.

I got my first drum set, egged on not only by the love of rock and roll that I had as an elementary school child in the 60's but oddly enough by "TV" bands such as The Partridge Family. In my fifth grade year, my fever for wanting a drum set had become so fever pitched that only a drum set for Christmas was going to do the trick. Although I knew that the top brands back then were Ludwig, Rogers, Gretsch and Slingerland, I also knew that I'd likely be getting a beginners set like the cool Apollo blue or red sparkle beginner kits that were for sale at H & H or Parker Music stores at the malls. Instead, I got a very old 1950's era Ludwig set and was very happy with it.

I began drum lessons shortly after that, but those concentrated on skills such as stick holding, how to hit the drum and snare drum playing. In school, I started in the orchestra and marching bands in 6th grade, furthering my skills on snare drum and other percussion instruments. I did have a few lessons from my drum teacher on how to play drum kit, but I largely learned to play the drum set myself, as have many others.


I encourage anyone interested in learning to play the drums to invest in a couple of up- front lessons just to learn to hold the sticks and hit the drum properly. There are lots of great DVD's and books out there that can teach and guide you in the basics, and I urge you to study as much and as different of a material as you can. But there is no substitute for learning the basics of snare drum playing as that will later apply to the entire drum set.

You will need to learn how to begin your quest for "four way independence" with practice doing different things with each limb on the drum kit. Once you master the basic 4/4 rock beat of boom chick boom chick with the bass drum on 1 and 3 and the snare on 2 and 4, with either cymbal or high hat on 1,2,3 & 4, then you are ready to start learning to play the drums using the El Fisho patented method.

Lessons also provide the basic music theory foundation you need to begin your musical journey. Just like you wouldn't take a long road trip on the back roads without taking a map or a gps, you can't play music unless you understand the language. And learning the basic theory you need to play drums is minor compared to the amount of theory you need to learn to play a tuned instrument.

I would urge everyone who is taking beginning drum lessons to also take some beginning piano lessons at the same time, or perhaps just before you begin taking drum lessons. The piano is, after all, a percussive instrument itself, as the hammers strike the strings in a "real" piano, and even in digital keyboards and pianos, you are still using a percussive finger movement to make the music upon the keyboard.

Three months of weekly piano lessons before learning the first thing about drums will speed the study of drums exponentially. You can learn the basics of music theory, which make a bit more sense first applied to the piano anyway, and then by the time your drum teacher begins explaining rhythm, rudiments, time signatures and the like, you're already up to speed and ready to learn the physical movements and practice routines that will give you a smooth and steady drumming style.

I myself took lessons throughout my high school years, and then took another hunk of lessons in my twenties from my original teacher, the late Joe Raynor. I am no Buddy Rich, but the lessons helped me be the best drummer I could be. I realize in this day and economy many might not be able to afford extensive lessons, but the message is take as many as you can afford. Get a teacher you work well with. Have him recommend materials to study after you leave him.

There are classic drum rudiment exercise books out there that bear use in working through and practicing. Even if you, like me, often play a more simple style like Al Jackson or Charlie Watts, a nice John Bonham-esque triplet flourish around the kit at the end of a saucy blues tune often turns a head or two and is fun to do. It's nice to have a few arrows in the quiver, even if you're not playing a particularly flashy style of music.

You have to learn the rudiments to learn how to do most of these signature flashy licks. You have to take some lessons to learn the rudiments and how to practice them. Take lessons for as long as you can.


In spite of private lessons and being in school band for seven years, I learned to play the drum kit largely by playing along with records. Many folks both famous and everyday who play drums also learned this way, in addition to lessons. For many like me, taking lessons sped up my ability to learn, and playing with records taught me skills I wasn't learning in lessons and taught me about keeping time and finishing the song.

My first records involved easier drumming, and as my abilities and tastes expanded, I was able to play more complex drum parts. Since I was taking drum lessons pretty much throughout the entirety of my junior high and high school days, I had lots of opportunities to ask my instructors how to do a riff or lick or rhythm that was perplexing me.

I started by playing along with various Elvis and Beatles albums. One of my drummer friends lived about a half a block away. The late David Jost. In seventh grade, we began gathering at his home in a large game room, with both of our drum sets on a weekend night. His older brother had a huge record collection, and a very serious stereo rig in the game room.

His brother, who DJ'd at a local radio station had some gear that allowed more than one pair of headphones to be hooked up to very small amplifiers so that each headphone could have an independent volume control. He also had a room mike hooked up to a 4 channel mixer that fed a signal mixed with the record we were playing and the room mike, so we could hear ourselves drumming as well as the song we were playing along with.

This early skill in double drumming later came to be very handy in my twenties and thirties, as I sometimes played in double drum set configurations in bands I played with. Shortly after beginning our playing along with records sessions, we would be joined by other beginning musicians, learning bass and guitar, who also wanted to play along with records with other folks and learn how to play with other musicians.

It soon developed that we began playing cover music and ultimately, music that various members of these early jam sessions would write.

But more importantly, it taught us to listen to each other and I think gave us some pretty good timing. Pretty soon after working through "Meet the Beatles" and "Abbey Road" and various Al Green and CCR tunes, we had worked our way up to playing along well with "Sticky Fingers" and then onto various Cream and Hendrix tunes. Soon thereafter came more technical horn rock bands like Chicago, ELP or Blood, Sweat and Tears and then ultimately we moved onto progressive jazz artists like Billy Cobham, Lenny White and Alphonse Mouzon.


The timing thing is the biggest thing I learned from playing drums along with records.
The biggest compliment I have ever received came from noted Houston blues guitarist Dogman Miller, who once characterized me as Houston's "Al Jackson" of the drums. The late Al Jackson, of course, played drums for Booker T. and The M.G.'s, Al Green, and numerous Stax Recording artists. amongst many others like B.B. King, and his sound and timing are legendary in modern blues and r&b drumming circles.

I credit that comment to the fact that I had spent hours listening to and playing along with Al Green Records in my youth before that ultimate drummers compliment was made to me on a hot, sweaty night in August of 1988 onstage at the Last Concert Cafe on Nance Street in the warehouse district in the east part of downtown Houston.

I remember the unique rhythms that different bands have, and how it felt the first time I noticed the difference between the flow of Al Green or The Beatles or The Rolling Stones or Hendrix in their music. It was like an epiphany of understanding how the jigsaw puzzle pieces of "time", as the the time signature and flow of the music, all fit together and ended up back on the "one"

David's brother had stacks and stacks of local and national music magazines and newspapers to go along with his hundreds of albums. During our youth, we and other like minded friends spent a great deal of time becoming rock music historians and learning as much about the many bands we were listening to from the written word as we did from the music.

We were all gonna be rock and roll stars.

The point is, I still enjoy playing drums along with music through headphones almost 40 years later. Except now I often do it on a Roland electronic drum kit running into Garageband (and formerly, into multi track cassette and memory card home recorders), playing along with my own songs that I've written or those that I've done with other folks like Billy Ray and Ricky Ray.

Okay, so maybe this is not the guide of the century to learning to play drums, but it's how I and countless others learned as well. In future installments, I'll talk about buying your drums and finding other musicians to play with and playing in bands. I'll talk about other drum topics too, from choosing a set of cymbals to transporting your gear to the Zen of Drumming.

And there is a Zen of Drumming.

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