Monthly Archives: July 2017

Bass Drum Techniques

Today I want to briefly discuss bass drum techniques. I use the word “discuss” because I really want to know what your preference is. Above is an old iPhone video in which I’m playing the bass drum as I usually do. You can see three things. 1. I play heel up using the ball of my foot to propel the pedal. 2. I bury the beater. 3. I’m using a standard single pedal. I think it was a cheap Sound Percussion pedal. Now to be honest I didn’t know how I used my foot until I shot this video. I know that playing in socks helped me because it made it easier to slide on the pedal. I didn’t know how far down I positioned my foot but that may have helped too. I’m not sure if my approach is efficient or not. You can be the judge of that.

I pride myself on using a single pedal. Not that I have anything against double bass or double pedals. That is what works for me. I’m not blazing with my feet. Recently I read an article online that said “At first, it may seem like you are at a disadvantage when playing a single pedal. However, I don’t look at things that way at all. The simplicity of a single pedal setup can, in many ways, allow you to achieve usable results sooner. Better still, it’s all the more impressive to play amazing hand to feet combinations using just one foot.”

I don’t know about playing “amazing hand to feet combinations” but I can do doubles well. I have a heavy foot but I can also feather the bass drum if needed. Nowadays I use a Mapex 500 pedal and it has definitely improved my reaction time. I also use the DW Black Sheep beater developed by my good friend and co-author Rich Redmond. It’s important for us to remember that it is just as significant to develop our feet as it is our hands. After all playing the drums requires four limbs, not two. So what is your style and preference? Let me know in the comments below. Thanks in advance for commenting.


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RIP Spider Rondinelli

Spider Rondinelli, perhaps the most influential jazz drummer in Pittsburgh, passed away this week at the age of 82 (read obituary). I was fortunate enough to take some lessons with Mr. Rondinelli and on one occasion, Jeff Watts. That’s a double threat of jazz drummers from the Steel City. I remember being enamored by his flawless playing and how he danced around the kit. There are two of his distinct patterns that I still use today.

That said I must confess that I didn’t fully appreciate Mr. Rondinelli as a drummer or as a teacher until some years later. At the time I felt convicted. I should have practiced more and stayed under his tutelage longer. He taught me how to sit within the structure of the song, knowing when to keep time and when to break away.

It’s been years since I played any form of jazz so I imagine my chops are lacking. If I look back at the training with him I might be able to fake it. I imagine that Mr. Rondinelli would be disappointed but also pleased to reinvigorate my skill in that genre.

One thing for sure, his legacy of music will not be forgotten. If you have an opportunity to listen to “Jubilee” you will hear some of the most tasteful drumming that recalls the golden days of traditional jazz. Mr. Rondinelli’s use of the hi-hat particularly stands out.

In an article from a 2007 edition of The Post-Gazette Mr. Rondinelli reflected on his life as a top musician in his field. “Jazz is going to save the world,” he said. “Jazz music has given me security. I have done nothing else in my life. My father wanted me to be a tap dancer, but I preferred to play the music that made me want to dance.”

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Meet Alvin Law

There is an amazing video circulating across the web titled “We’re the Superhumans.”It includes 140 athletes, musicians and ordinary people with disabilities crammed into three minutes of television. The trailer opens up with some amazing big band drumming by Alvin Law.

According to his bio: “Alvin has appeared on countless telethons (well over 100 since 1976) and media features, and has been the subject of two award winning television documentaries. The first, His Best Foot Forward, was shown across Canada in 1978. The second, Broken Promises, focused on the plight of Canada’s Thalidomide victims and after its Canadian showing was seen on American Public Broadcasting’s Frontline. Re-named Extraordinary People, it was nominated for an Emmy Award. Alvin has appeared on CBC’s What On Earth and ABC’s Frontrunners. Their segment about Alvin won an Emmy Award.”

I find this man incredibly inspirational as he can do more with no hands than I can do with two. His drumming is amazing and it motivates me to practice more often.

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Drummer Boy Monuments

Lately there has been a lot of news about the controversy over Confederate monuments. Some communities have removed or relocated them altogether and many others are in debate. As a Civil War historian and author of two NPS-sanctioned books that present Confederate history, Historic Churches of Fredericksburg and The Civil War in Spotsylvania County, I have very mixed feelings on the issue. There are many monuments around the world depicting the drummer boy. It seems to be a subject that turns up on battlefields, in cemeteries and even on the grounds of learning institutions. What is it about the drummer boy that makes him worthy of memorialization? Is it the courage or tragedy of the subject? Is it the service of youth? Whatever the intent it is shared around the world. Here are few historic drummer boy monuments:

  1. Monument to the King’s Liverpool Regiment, St John’s Gardens
  2. Clarence McKenzie, Drummer Boy, Green-Wood Cemetery, Brooklyn
  3. The Drummer Boy, Suffolk Coastal District, Melton Hill, Woodbridge
  4. “The Response,” On the grounds of St Thomas’s Church, Newcastle
  5. Ohio State Monument, Chickamauga-Chattanooga National Military Park
  6. The Drummer Boy – Bloomfield, Connecticut, United States
  7. The Drummer Boy of Bruc, Anoia in Catalonia, Spain
  8. Cornish Drummer sculpture on the piazza in Truro

For other posts on the subject of the drummer boy search (top left) for the term “Drummer Boy.”


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The Drowning

I’ve lived in Fredericksburg, Virginia for many years but I spent my formative years in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. It’s where I was born and raised and where I was introduced to music. My first garage band was called “White Lightning” and the few gigs we played are experiences that I still recall fondly. I am very lucky to remain in contact with the other members of the band. They all have gone on to record critically-acclaimed CDs and still play to audiences today. One spinoff group was called “The Drowning” and was founded by my friends (and former White Lightning members) Maroon David and Rich Petrucci. The only way I can describe them is a cross between The Cult and U2 with highly original and socially conscious songs that resonate with the listener.

One of my favorite opportunities to play the drums comes when I get to jam with The Drowning during trips to Pittsburgh. We usually play a cross between familiar cover tunes and a few of their originals that I have learned. (Plus I get to play a blue Ludwig Vistalite!) Maroon and Rich have been writing songs together for nearly 30 years and it shows in the influence of songwriting they produce. Songs like “23” and “Lightning for the Blind” personify their goal of inspiring critical thinking by the listener.

Playing live the band is hypnotic (Watch Here). Their two releases, Clear Native State and Every Hour Wounds, contain historical-themed songs influenced by David’s studies as a historian. Petrucci is a budding jazz guitarist who blends both tasteful and complex guitar parts that fit each and every song. Currently the band is on hiatus but I look forward to the next time I get to sit in with them. There’s something about playing good songs with good musicians that makes you appreciate your instrument.

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Social Media

I had the privilege of being interviewed by Joe Gansas on his exceptional internet radio show Around the Kit. One of the points we discussed was the double-edged sword of social media. On one hand, the Internet has given drummers a platform to promote their playing like never before. Drummers can use sites like YouTube to showcase their talents in order to get jobs or recording opportunities. Drummers can also use sites like Facebook to join communities and endorse themselves. At the same time it also provides a perfect environment for illusions, false identities and dishonesty.

The issue is that nothing is vetted. A video can appear to be seamless even though it took dozens of attempts to capture the song or solo correctly. A Facebook post can be inflated and misleading about a member’s capabilities and experiences. How does one really know? I believe that musicians should take advantage of social media to make connections and build an audience. I also think they should use technology to interact with people they wouldn’t normally reach through traditional means. That said audience members should not automatically assume the player is as exceptional as they appear or is an expert or authority on anything. That comes with trust and trust is earned.

I like to give people the benefit of the doubt but I have had instances when I was duped. As a writer I prefer to select my own interviewees because I only choose the ones I know are legit. If I have any question as to their sincerity I don’t approach them. Once I initiated a conversation with a drummer who made the impression that he was a successful touring musician. It turned out that he was a hack who hadn’t worked in years. I almost looked like a fool for not properly doing my research. Thankfully I got a heads up by someone who knew him. I also know of an instance when a friend got played on Facebook by a drummer who bragged about his recording background. Turns out he wasn’t nearly as skillful as he proposed. Here is my advice:

To the musician: Establish your presence. Be honest.
To the audience: Look. Listen. Authenticate.

If you are interested in real integrity visit the Around the Kit podcast. Joe has interviewed over 200 drummers. All of them have established themselves just by being themselves.

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Go-To Snare

Snare drums are the cornerstone of any drum set. You can swap them in and out for a totally different sound and feel. Often drummers collect multiple snare drums to use in the studio and on stage. I have several snares including a ddrum brass signature snare from Carmine Appice and a Ludwig maple snare from Questlove. The snare that I seem to come back to is the matching snare that came with my kit. It is a PDP 13″ x 5″ maple snare. I use a clear REMO Ambassador on the bottom and a coated Emperor on top. I also use a Drumtac to take a slight ring out of it. The drum has a great attack with and without the snares on but also reacts to a softer touch. Sticks and brushes respond well. Over the years I have used many snares. Some were Pearl. Some were Ludwig. Some were large. Some were small. Some were wood. Some were metal. None of them have performed as well as this PDP. Granted I’m not recording or gigging at this time but the sound I am getting in my practice room is exceptional. What is your go-to snare? Send me a comment on why it’s your favorite. Also send a photo and we’ll add it to this post.

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RIP John Blackwell

I was very sorry to hear that John Blackwell passed away yesterday. John had found out that he had two brain tumors last year. After the diagnosis, he focused on his fight to survive, losing the use of an arm when doctors removed part of his brain while removing the tumors. Unfortunately John was unable to recover.

John was best known as the incredibly energetic drummer for Prince’s New Power Generation, a position he held for 12 years. He graduated from Berklee College of Music before being recruited by Prince in 2000. In addition to the NPG John also performed with Patti LaBelle, Justin Timberlake and Cameo.

Beyond being a Prince fan, I was drawn to John’s playing by his instructional videos online. His solo video Technique, Heroes & Influences is full of pointers and techniques to improve your groove in a variety of genres. John’s appearance on Drumeo titled Drumming Discipline & Improvisation was also a great example of “what to play” and “when to play it.”

John had many fans and admirers including top-name professional drummers such as Gregg Bissonette, Dennis Chambers, Antonio Sánchez, Billy Cobham and Chad Smith. All of them have cited John as one of the best sideman in the business.

It is unfortunate that we tend to take people for granted until they are gone. I was convinced that John was on his way to recovery and had not thought about him for a long time. His death came as a complete shock to me.

A GoFundMe page was set up to help cover his medical bills and it reached more than $78,000 in donations as of Tuesday. I am not sure what the status of that page is in light of John’s passing but it is wonderful to see the affection he received. I know I prayed for John on more than one occasion and I continue to pray for his family.

As a drummer we have a plethora of recordings and performances that will keep John’s legacy as a musician alive. In addition to the links above here is a concert performance showing the energy that John had night after night while on tour with Prince:

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Diva Drums

As one who considers himself an “authority on nothing” I sometimes surprise myself while discovering some unknown tidbit from the annals of history. Often it is a far too neglected factoid that has slipped through the cracks. Once revealed it can change the outlook on an event or individual. This is one such instance…

I’m a big fan of 80’s music. That includes new wave and pop. One local radio station here in Fredericksburg specializes in that genre. Yesterday I was chilling in my pool listening to the radio when a catchy song titled Right on Track came on. The band that produced that tune was (or perhaps “is” if they are still together) The Breakfast Club. At the end of the song the DJ made a passing comment that Madonna had previously been the drummer for the band. Hearing that remark I took a double take. What? I asked myself. I was aware that Madonna had worked with some of the best drummers in the business to include Tony Thompson (in the studio) and Jonathan Moffett (on tour) but I was not aware that she had sat behind the kit.

This prompted me to get out of the pool and in front of my laptop. I did some research and was able to find a few facts on the subject. In the late ’70s, Madonna met and dated musician/singer Dan Gilroy and his guitarist brother Ed, and the trio formed a band called The Breakfast Club. Gilroy taught her to play guitar, drums and keyboard. A woman named Angie Schmidt played bass, and Madonna played the drums in the band until she reportedly expressed her desire to be the lead vocalist. When they started getting gigs at legendary rock club CBGB’s, she would beg to get up and sing one song. I was able to find a rare 1979 recording of the band on YouTube and a photograph of the band (above). Drums are a major part of Madonna’s music from the sharp groove of Material Girl to the driving dance beat of Vogue. One can only wonder if her background as a drummer, albeit brief, influenced her sound years later.

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