Summer Reading: A real life story & young drummer’s guide to the road

Guide for drummers on the road: truth that reads like fiction

A young drummer’s first tour (Warning: this true story may prove disturbing, especially the bit about management toting hand guns)

How do you prepare for a budget tour? What do you bring on the road? Spare heads? Extra kick pedal? A new ride that’ll penetrate Kevlar?

What you really need is the patience of a saint.

Patience enables you to wait it out, tolerate present circumstances—find a middle ground when negotiating with a sketchy soundman regarding a dour PA system. When you’re patient and adapt, good things happen. You see beyond current dens of iniquity.

Maybe a couple of anecdotes will help you, entertain you even, though you will swear I’ve made up the following story. I mean, I realize it seems a little too out, a little too much of a stretch. But it’s true, every little bit culled from my diary entries circa 1979. I was 20 or so and new to the road.  The events described herein are vivid and, perhaps, not suitable reading for optimistic young musicians.

Go ahead, dismiss the lot as fiction. Fine and good. Print it out and take it too the beach. Guaranteed it’s perfect summer reading, meaning you won’t doze off and get a sunburn.

I’ve stalled this one way too long, edited it too many times, shelved it, concerned you might depict me as a spinner of yarns.

It’s no yarn; it’s the fabric of the musician’s life. When I say every word is true, allow me the disclaimer that I’ve disguised characters and flipped towns to protect the innocent, accord respect to the fallen—and to save myself from being skinned alive. The music industry is not all love, peace, and harmony; that much, I discovered, as you will see, in the 1970s.

Let my experiences serve you well, as outlandish as they seem.

All aboard!

The reason for leaving town was that my band had signed a 3-year contract with Hollywood management. Part of the deal was hitting the road and playing showcases in music industry cities—low-paying gigs for assembled record label A & R reps.

The fine print stated that we’d need to fill in the gaps between showcases with gigs such as the one laid out in sordid detail below. My only apology to you is in my modus, wherein I’ve combined three more or less back-to-back dates to maximize punch, not that punch was lacking on any one occasion.

I’ve chopped the really crazy stuff…except this one wee aside:

Our lead story is so incredible, I’d love to have related a few other road incidents but then you’d really think I was yanking your chain. You see, it was amazing what went down barely 2 months before the current tour. Oh, what the hell. It will serve to frame the current engagement. You’ll enjoy this.

The same band, before signing the management deal, and booked by somebody named Ross, journeyed to a hamlet on the Quebec side of the Ottawa River. Back then, this was the wild west. Bars remained open 2 hours later and the action was sizzling. Once the seat of a healthy trade in Dexedrine tablets, which could be had for $0.50 a piece, it had recently discovered cocaine. The same amount, and delivering arguably an identical payload, sold for 100 times the cost of the truckers’ pills, which disappeared overnight. Fortunes were made. Behavior was sweaty, gregarious, erratic, and sometimes violent.

A one nighter is this particular town resembles a movie that came later, The Blues Brothers without the chicken wire. No, this was more like Saturday Night Fever. White jackets and shoes were everywhere. In fact, later I’d record several albums with Canadian folk icon Ian Tamblyn, who penned a tune “White Belt, White Shoes” to describe street level action.

The club was a nice chunk of real estate, wisely apportioned to diversify clientele. The front part facing the street was a strip club, divided from the band hall by a cinder block wall (but accessible from two points, including the change room). Musicians bunked down the corridor from strippers and there was mutual respect. I remember one enlightening conversation with a young woman from the Islands, who admitted to me she was working under the table (don’t say it; I get it!)

Moving along, we’d just finished set number 1 on night 1 of a 3-day booking. Response was emphatically quiet. In fact, no one clapped. Somebody turned up the television during a pause between tunes. The band rallied, placing a sure bet, “Watching the River Run”, at the climax of a set of country rock originals.

The club manager summoned us to his office, took a seat behind his desk, leaving us standing so that we might see things his way. To his right, there was a depiction of the Virgin Mary and a crucifix. He reached the other way into the top drawer. I was startled to see a snub-nosed revolver sitting among spare rounds. Although I’d shot a bolt action 303 at my dad’s family’s tobacco farm, I’d never come this close to a bona fide handgun, a peacemaker; nor, from the look on their faces, had the other guys.

The manager broke the silence.

“From now on you play funky”.

He might have added “or else” but I don’t remember it as necessary. Obviously, his new regulations had teeth.

Understand that “funky” in the mid to late 1970s had nothing to do with Tower of Power or James Brown or even Sly Stone. Funky meant 4-on-the-floor bass drum. This was not my strong suit and my heart sank at the mention. Through the walls, the 120 bpm thumping lent validity to the request.

Great idea, sir. We’ll head up to our rooms and get our songs funky for the next set!” Floyd, our lead guitarist (back then, bands listed both lead and rhythm guitarists), echoed our sentiments. At that precise moment, he became leader of the band, none too soon.

We spent the break applying fours and march tempo to our repertoire. I found it ridiculous, however necessary, but kept quiet. Besides, I had to admit that one or two originals benefited from disco. And certainly I learned not to disparage musical styles, or drummers, who seemed at odds with my current musical agenda. I found it really difficult to play 4-on-the-floor for two reasons: first, when I’d played in jazz ensembles, the rule was to avoid bass drum fours, even when feathered, in favor of “dropping bombs”—the post swing ethic. Second, the rhythms sections on disco tunes, such as “Nights on Broadway” and “Voulez-vous Couchez Avec Moi?” were killing. They weren’t all plodding bass drum; they were expertly crafted, syncopated, and laden with intricacy, not to mention the stamina it took to record 6 minute tracks without glitching or slowing down.

If you take anything from this footnote, let it be the essential contradiction inherent in: What is a musician?

We fancy ourselves as artists. We are subject, so it goes, to artistic/musical dictates. In reality, we are service industry, sometimes in a relationship common law describes as indentured servitude. In situations such as the one I’ve described, and the one I’m finally getting to below, if we keep our mouth shut, roll with the punches, and obey, we survive. What’s more, there’s enlightenment to be had—my respect for the nuances of disco, as represented in Lady Marmalade, was a real door-opener and changed my drumming from ornamental to foundational.

On to our headline story. The end of a long drive, the start of a load-in:

We arrived in greater Toronto in a windowless white Ford Econoline, one hour late. An accident on the freeway had taken its toll. Finally we came to the freeway exit but it was no swift passage to center town at the tale end of rush hour.

Finding the club was a no brainer provided you understood that a simple street grid can be fraught with confusion. In this respect, Toronto is snakes & ladders to the uninitiated. Fortunately, I knew the lay of the land and was driving. My turn had come and it was a great to come out from the back, where I had wedged myself between an Ampeg and a Hi Watt.

In the end, I got the Econoline van into the alley but just couldn’t navigate pas the final jag in the narrow passageway, despite eager assistance from employees from a Korean restaurant on smoke break.

I did the right thing. Backed out of the alley, drove up to the main drag, made an illegal left and drove up over the sidewalk and turned off the engine.

Musicians may smile at this next one. Had I parked at a side street meter and let it run out, I would have earned a $35 ticket (a bargain, it seems today). But in the absence of a suitable spot, I drove up onto the sidewalk and put the engine into park. Although the act elicited a few snarls, most of the pedestrians viewed us as a necessary evil, somewhat like winter NAMM convention goers negotiating the backstreets of mainland China booths. And police foot patrols must have assumed we’d obtained a permit. When an hour later I shifted the van into a proper parking space, there was no ticket pinned to the windshield.

We began loading through the front door. With the exception of our rhythm guitarist (a common description, meaning the lesser capable soloist of two guitarists), who had vanished, and the bass player, who road shotgun for possible thieves, we wedged through a double doorway flanked by posters of legendary artists mixed with local faves.

I like to haul my own drums, goodness knows why, and began depositing them in the front room in a heap, ready to trot them to the far end stage. A bouncer approached: “Take those away. You don’t need them. All the bands use the house kit.”

The Bouncer, the Soundman, the House Drums

A night manager appeared, gaunt as Boo Radley in To Kill a Mockingbird, and made introductions. No hands were exchanged, no California hug. The bouncer, name of Ike, was a long term employee whose duties included sound, lights, and, later, dissemination of prohibited substances. The nickname “Ike”, of course, was a nod to Dwight Eisenhower, who exuded calmness and provided stability in America’s darker hours.

For the life of me, squint as I did, I couldn’t see any sort of drums. But with the big guy pointing adamantly to a dusky area at the back of the hall, I took him at his word. I asked him if we could raise the multitude of ceiling lights, which twinkled like a night sky—on a moonless night.

The answer was no. The house would remain as is. But the stage boasted a dimmer, thank you very much.

Ike and I had engaged in meaningful conversation, our first exchange. Now was the time to make a pitch, once again, to use my own drums. I’d disassemble the house kit and ensure no harm would come to them in storage:

“Listen, Ike,” I said while raising a 13×9 fiber case into view. That size was currency in Ike’s day. He’d consider exempting me from house rules. “I’m really quick at setting up. How about we use my own drums. They’d work great in this room”.

It was a good try but flawed from the outset. First off, I’d heard wrong. His name wasn’t Ike. It was Spike. And his refusal was final. When he crossed his thick arms, bare to the shoulders, I spotted more drawings than a cave wall in National Geographic. The ones on his forearms, matching depictions of ancient, sharpened stakes, were artsy and obviously the work of a master, as opposed to the surrounding rudimentary depictions of tools of his trade. Spike read like an open book with chapters on tenures exceeding the 2-years-less-a-day threshold. The crowning icon, situated at his left temple, was another namesake item chiselled, it seemed, with a roofing nail.

The man looked the business. The man wanted me to play house drums. No arguments from me; I would play house drums. Henceforth, I was behind Spike every step of the way—the optimum vantage point given his multiple citations for crimes against the person.

The front of house PA warmed up with “Iron Man”. The high-end was searing. Nobody rushed to yank down faders or tweak EQ. They liked it like that.

The air was acidic, equal parts spent beer, in and out, combined with auto fumes and fragrances less obvious. Spike was doing his bit, smoking rollies.

Our second guitarist hadn’t vanished. He was right there at the bar and pals with the night manager, who’d served him the first of several pre-soundcheck beers. The bass player finished his watch and completed the load-in, single-handedly hoisting one of those 4-driver Ampex fridges the length of the venue.

Each step of the way the walls were shiny and charcoal, plain except for a coat of arms near the entrance and a sizeable mural near the stage. It colorfully depicted the final stages of a street altercation. Several combatants stood in an circle looking down. They are all white except for the one on the ground, who wasn’t getting any assistance.

I found the dimmer switch side stage and swivelled it until tungsten bulbs Bathed the stage in a yellow color cast. It didn’t exactly set off the once glossy black wrapped drums but it was welcome. The drums were the product of a once proud American drum manufacturer. Factory rivets secured each vertical seam.

The heads were ship shape but wouldn’t have been my first choice. They were first generation Evans hydraulics, the ones with the flesh hoops, and were red tinted clear. Providing the tension rods weren’t stripped (they weren’t) and Spike was in agreement (I took his nod as a thumbs-up), I’d relax them from marching tension. They are cranked so high that a firm blow with a 5B elicited a boink you’d hear on a Walt Disney cartoon.

It was going to be a royal pain getting my sound. And at this point, I discovered that my sound was always going to be a compromise. I’d always have to juggle available heads, sticks, tensions, mics, and so forth. It wasn’t exactly a rosy picture of the future but it clarified that I’d have to manipulate scarce resources and play accordingly if I was to survive.

Don’t sweat the house kit!

Remember when you were kids in grade school and pasted sand, gravel, drinking straws, and crap onto some board and call it art? Or later visited the Guggenheim and the same efforts acquired meaning?

House kits provide that opportunity. When you were kids you’d create art by pasting found objects, sand, and crap to some board and it’d acquire meaning. If you didn’t, visit the Gugenheim. They are tools, instruments, means to an end. Just because they’re withered and beaten doesn’t mean you are. Make adjustment, go for comfort, and explore new sounds. By all means, substitute your own snare drum, pedal, and cymbals. If the second rack tom is not to your liking, you can always remove it. In these instances, the height of the snare stand, hi-hat, ride cymbal, and toms takes precedence. You’ll get through the night and learn stuff.

If the tension rods are frozen and fixed, go with it. Listen to Ringo on latter day Beatles albums: the drums were covered with tea towels. What is that? The man created art despite some genius covering up his batter heads with some bright idea. And you worry you’ve got to deal with red Evans hydraulics? Maybe people will copy you decades hence.

Instead of drawing forth some deep, pitch bending tone of doom from the floor tom, smack it with a rimshot. You’ll get ideas that you never dreamed were possible.

On that one gig, I acquired notions of timbre and projection that serve me to this day. I’d spent time with the Al Green album Belle, produced by Al and Willie Mitchell in Memphis, and surprisingly took that as a benchmark. I mean, there was no way I was going to the desired ringing Steve Jordan snare rimshot and live toms (Steve was a recent discovery and played fusion/groove back in the day). But I could maybe dig deeper into Belle territory. The option stared me in the face.

There’s always a catch or two. In this instance, I’d have to adjust the weight and articulation of my tom fills. Since a quarter note on the first tom came out more like an 8th note in terms of sustain, it made sense to rely on rhythm and placement, keeping it simple, rather than timbre and cleverness. If I couldn’t get a big sound, I could at least sound as if I meant strongly what I played.

Funny, when I substituted my own treasured snare drum for the house snare, it immediately appeared to me as strident, unmusical, and wrong. Not that I immediately reached back to reinstate the house drum; but I found myself detuning my batter head considerably to the point where there’d be no clanging rimshots tonight. The drum was now, as we used to say, in the bag.

Speaking of bag, I’d read that either Jim Keltner or Russ Kunkel carried a trick bag containing little pieces of foam, leather, cotton, and found objects, which they used to treat drums during recordings. I’d taken immediately to the notion. On this night, I folded a strip of glove leather and placed it against the rim of my snare drum, north side. The muffling seemed natural and organic. It seemed to match the folksy, grassroots tone of the house drumset. Something cool was happening and I could feel it.

What to expect: heads, rims, shell integrity, snare drum, cymbals, throne. You manage to substitute your own this and that. There’s no escaping, however, the first generation, flexible hoop Evans Hydraulics in clear red tuned high.

Miking is always minimal for drums

There is a configuration I’ve mentioned previously in these pages, one that is out there today and still perplexes me. It is the “club 3-mic job” wherein one mic goes to the bass drum, one to the snare, and the other—to the hi-hat. The hi-hat. Not overhead but the hi-hat, as if the bleed from the snare drum mic were not sufficient to catch enough hi-hat!

The shrill Black Sabbath PA faders said it all. High frequencies ruled. They would today (and still do in some venues) but for the advent of sub woofers.

This allotment of scarce resources, as I see it, stems from the early 1970s when the recording milieu shifted from 2, 4, and 8-track to multi-track. I guess engineers marvelled that they could finally raise the true time keeper of the drumset to its proper level, meaning the hi-hat. The fact that the snare drum backbeat was the key to rock music took second place and most radio hits of the day featured prominent hats. Listen to “My Song” or “Hotel California” or (the original version of) “Signs”.  Producers and engineers would spend a full day getting a snare drum sound only to bury it in the mix.

And, of course, since most sound techs in out of the way clubs ceased listening to new music by the dawn of the 1980s, they were immune to trends that pushed the snare drum to the fore. The Power Station is a good example, not totally right but a far sight better than hearing closed hats drive a band!

This was my first time out of the gate and I challenged the miking scheme but heard again from Spike, “that’s the way we do it there.” He turned to the 8-channel console, each with 3-band EQ, and confirmed his levels, as if I’d have shifted them behind his back.

“Cool,” I responded. “Cool” was vocabulary back then, became no-no in the 1980s, then reappeared in the New Millennium.

If I had to submit to this today, I’d respond by playing the hi-hat quietly, lightly, even when leaving the two cymbals in the semi-open position and riding, thus allowing the snare and bass drums to stand proud. Hindsight is 20/20, however.

By the end of the night, I learned that “you’re too loud” had more to do with the relative balance of my kit as I played it live-off-the-floor. This means it behoved me to bring up the snare drum acoustically. And maybe lay off the ride cymbal, a real failing at the time. If I couldn’t perceive my ride making a dent in the band mix following a bout on hats, I’d strike the ride increasingly harder. The ride cymbal is not friendly to sound engineers reared on a hi-hat predominate mix.

One blessing in this instance is that I’d acquired a 17” medium-heavy Zildjian ride. If I laid into it a little too much, it wouldn’t generate the thunderous wash one would expect from a 22”.

My 17” ride didn’t sound right as rain but it corrected my natural imbalance and it certainly projected.  During the 1970s many drummers stuck it out with medium-thin rides, which bothered me. I remember remarking to Dave Mattacks, when we first met (I was on assignment with Modern Drummer magazine), that in a rock context thin rides sounded like Lawrence Welk cocktail jazz—as if the drummer were striking with a swizzle stick (those little red, blue, or green plastic sticks protruding out of mixed drinks, for which nobody has found any good use).

What to Do

The band started on time. Most of you know about this. Whenever you hear that “the first set gets going at 9:30pm”, it really means the band starts at 10:15pm “when we get a few more people”.

The numbers swelled and were in the low 20s when we came down hard with one of our country rock originals, no longer rendered in disco style. There was utterly no applause, nothing. In fact, the guys in sleeveless leather vests seated at the round table closest to the stage didn’t even look up. They were preoccupied with some sort of board game and were manipulating tiny objects across a block of hardwood.

Gradually the joint filled up. Gradually our volume followed suit. That’s when the unmiked drummer has a choice. He can whack away at, in this instance, his toms and cymbals, or he can set back and conserve energy. It has taken me a good many years to realize that the latter amounts to the same thing but it easier on the body. Furthermore, learning not to blow your stack fosters good technique. In those days, I’d gig and try to rise above the band din, get cramps and conclude my grip as all wrong. Fact is, my grip began those evenings in good shape but became a fist as I struggled to beat the band.

Volume Strategies

First thing to do is crank up the bottom head of your snare drum. Even if that drum is miked, it needs extra bite to cut through. Raise the batter head above medium, such that you can depress your finger less than a quarter-inch into the surface. Finally, you should strike a rimshot—strike metal rim and batter head almost simultaneously. The resounding gunshot will do two things, allow you to project in a frequency rarely taken up by others and afford you a contemporary backbeat tone. Unless it’s a quiet club and you’re playing roots blues, a loose snare drum batter head is ineffectual, silly, and betrays amateurism (I’m playing devil’s advocate to make a point; obviously there are exceptions to every rule).

The rimshot ethic applies to toms as well. I’m not suggesting you play rimshots on toms when executing each fill, although God knows it worked for Carmine Appice and Ginger Baker back in the day. Rather, I’m suggesting that you apply this test when tuning toms: tune them high enough that they’re struck in rimshot fashion, the resulting sound is convincing. It it’s pudding and pillowlike, the toms may exhibit great tone and timbre but they won’t project unmiked.

If the engineer or manager tells you not to tune the house drums (“we like them that way; they sound best the way we have them”) don’t tune them. At least, don’t monkey with them while management is watching. Plan your moves with a drum key; wait for distractions. It gets tricky if they’re old Sonors with those rod detensioning mechanisms, same with Ayottes. The latter drove me nuts one night and I cursed my good friend Ray’s surname black and blue on account of those Allen key secured lugs: I had 5 minutes (as drummer for the opening/support act) in which to jump onto a house throne, adjust snare drum height and cymbal angles—and deal with a totally flappy first tom head. It had detuned beyond hope. No matter how I slapped it, it responded with nothing. Locating the offending tension rod, the one that had loosened, was no solace. I almost broke my finger trying to tighten something that was locked into place with an Allen screw. Fortunately, I realized that one of 6 lugs on that tom was workable. I tensioned it disproportionately and arrived at a passable tom sound. So much for tuning via tapping around the circumference of the drum!

My adaptations continued that night and by set 4 I was enjoying myself, as were a motley crew consisting of passers by, bikers, night shift workers, and regulars. We didn’t have to play disco, nor did we have to rewrite our songs. We played tough enough and prevailed.

I could deliver part II but it seems my point has been made, namely to inform you of possibilities while entertaining. Hopefully I’ve scored points on both fronts.

Write and let me know. Write Dr Boo. Speak! And, for that matter, thanks again to all of you for casting your vote my way. It matters.

I’d like to hear if any of this has tickled your fancy or maybe even assisted you. The events occurred long ago and far away. But from what I’ve seen out there, not much has changed.

A final note to those who fret details such as house PA systems, house drums, house engineers, and house flies. Take it from a worrier: save your fretting for when it matters. Learn to let go when nothing hinges on the gig. It may save your career… and your life.

T Bruce Wittet Copyright 2011, international