Addendum to Club Custom review: Explaining the straight-8ths shuffle & the buzz surrounding Ralph Angelillo

I gave a glowing review after extensively gigging the Yamaha Club Custom drums. Ralph Angelillo, head of the Montreal Drum Fest, kindly drove from his town to mine to catch me playing them at a club gig—how appropriate, Club Customs at a club gig. Just hit me. Now. Then again, I am a drummer.

I related that Ralph stayed over at my place. Before the soundcheck (and later on, too) Ralph pulled off some cool shuffles in my basement, easy like falling off a log. Except he didn’t throw out his back. But he got me all convoluted inside. Guy hasn’t played squat in decades and here he is, getting ready for a comeback, and buries me with his control at p to pp dynamic levels.

Ralph Angelillo 1965 at the drums

Ralph in 1965...or is it Perry Como?

Yes, Ralph is a drummer. I guess you don’t start up a major drum fest and get to celebrate your 20th anniversary (this year) if you’re an armchair enthusiast. Not that there’s anything wrong with ~

Similarly, Ron Spagnardi a dear, if distant friend, and one whom I worked for since Modern Drummer magazine’s inception, kept the Modern Drummer Festival Weekend on everybody’s lips. The late MD founder was an extremely deft drummer. I remember the late ed-in-chief recounting a jam he’d had on the weekend: Billy Ward, Bill Miller, and Ron Spagnardi, three great drummers facing off in Ron’s basement. The basement where he started MD the magazine.

Facebook. I’m told that it’s been humming with news of Ralph’s coming-out.  Many people thought that Ralph’s pastime aside from running the festival was photographing plants. Truth is, Ralph Angelillo, was a known touring drummer who hung up his drumsticks in the late sixties. In a few weeks he is returning to gig a couple of festivals to reclaim the throne of the band he left The Megatones, an instrumental group modeled after The Ventures.

There we were in my basement office/music room. Almost ready to drive off to the soundcheck. I ask Ralph to do his shuffle.  I had prior knowledge: I’d seen Ralph shyly toss off a few bars. And damn, I wanted to see him do it again. And tomorrow morning, too, after breakfast. So Ralph sits down, gets to his feet uttering his usual disclaimer, “Well, I’m rusty, Bruce…you play something instead.” I urge him in no uncertain terms and he goes to it, tanging quarter-notes on an extra-thin “Bill Stewart Zildjian cymbal” and the ride isn’t even thinking about swelling. Ralph’s left hand is doing all the shuffling. Fair enough, I’ve recorded a few of those on country sessions. But it’s the way Ralph is able to do it half as quiet as me and gets his left hand undulating without the accents doing more than poking their heads above the level. In other words, the accents aren’t proclaimed but whispered above the din. And his bass drum is—well, you don’t even think about it. Not because it’s doing nothing but because it’s there more to nudge the top-end along; thus it sort of rumbles, softly and insistently. It’s not a punchy four-on-the-floor that some blues bands urge you to do and you listen to after and sound like a dork.

And I remark to him, “Don’t stop, Ralph…keep going…it’s beautiful!”. I mean I was humbled. This was the beauty-in-simplicity we read about.  It’s confounding when that happens to you on your own turf! Again, there’s nothing there I can’t do. In theory. But then I sit down after Ralph and try and deliver the goods. But it’s like an old flatbed truck with bits of the load falling off the back as it hits bumps in the road.  And as I’m playing, I’m feeling like Joe Cocker dancing. Whereas the key is is straddling the line between swing and eighths, I’m stuck trying to keep my volume down.

Stanton Moore drummer in motion

Stanton in motion in Tbw HQ at same kit Ralph played

The published authority on this is Stanton Moore who devotes a whole chapter in his book and DVD series to playing a shuffling, “in the cracks” groove. He came to my place a year to the date and sat on the same kit as Ralph and his casual groove was disarming. You’re not just hearing beats you practice; you’re hearing the life. Stanton takes his cue, to vastly oversimplify, from the various New Orleans urban and folkloric styles and he marches in Lundi and Mardi Gras. The lope of the marching drummer, to whom drums and cymbals are strapped in place and wobbling, is one component. There are others.

In Ralph’s case, as an adolescent drummer in the 1960 was deeply touched by a couple o f black drummers who’d come up and played club dates in Montreal. He sat still in his seat, he tells me, transfixed by their touch—the way they chewed the snare batter—and floated the time while suggesting swing and squared eighths in their shuffle.

Red, yellow, black, tan: makes no difference man to man” (Ry Cooder, “Feelin Good”)

I don’t know whether it’s appropriate to finger “black drummers” when attributing sources to shuffles. Maybe the white man’s country intersected with the black man’s blues. At any rate, we hear intriguing shuffles from a guy called Frosty who played with Delbert Mclinton. Then there’s Jim Keltner. At the end of the day, it’s a feel that emerges from the intersection of ethnicity, history, and, who knows, cuisine…

All I know is that in my youth I happened upon bands playing this stuff and they were all African/Americans, although that term wasn’t yet coined to my knowledge. My point is that for whatever reasons that’s how the message was delivered to me.

I was obsessed with Billy Higgins, who recorded lilting swingy/shuffly grooves on many a jazz hit.A few months before he died, and could barely make it up the steps to the bandstand, I sat below his drum throne, bum to grass, and stared in wonder. His feet were constantly in light movement, not punching but pulsating, while his hands were scurrying across his heads, snare to toms and same on the cymbals. It was subtle but masterfully controlled drumming that went, for the most part, unnoticed, at least by drummers.

Billy was quieter than anybody in his approach. In his system of relative dynamics he didn’t overpower with his bass drum but, rather, seemed to blend it with his snare drum…today a rare feat given the separation between drums in the typical stage mix. There were others but I’m suddenly getting a flashback. And it’s relevant.

Let he who is without guilt: A true story I’d rather forget but ends well…

Ten or twelve years ago I subbed a 3-nighter (now unknown) with a legendary and prickly Toronto outfit, The Cameo Blues Band. The venue was a prominent blues club in my hometown Ottawa. It’s a noisy bar that,when it foresakes its mandate books noisy bands who sound noisier thanks to a ill-conceived PA and glue-sniffing techs.

So my point is we’re not talking intimate acoustic blues like, way back in the day and I was still in high school, catching T Bone Walker a couple of blocks west at Le Hibou.

Although this was not a pitter-pattering intimate gig, still the drummer must exhibit dynamics and sensitivity.

One of the Cameo guys, maybe the guitarist (certainly not the organist) was all over me mercilessly, especially the first two nights: “No it’s not the time I’m talking about; the time is fine. It’s the feel. And what’s with the snare rimshot (on 2 and 4). Back off—get the snare more level; I don’t want a freaking shot every backbeat …that ain’t shuffling…”

I was just opening my mouth to ask if he’d heard Steve Jordan but kept it zipped, realizing Jordan was not the benchmark. And that I clearly wasn’t up to scratch.

I pride myself in sleazing into any musical situation; I’d been “living” at a downtown studio a stone’s throw away and did it all. By now, I was beginning to fear that my failure at fitting-in was about to get me sacked. My hope was that they’d wait ’til the end of the night! And blessedly not announce it to the audience.

Well, I lasted the first night and after the gig did some listening and practicing on pillows. The absence of rebound is an important consideration when you’re playing softly. In fact, often your efforts are spent preventing that 5B from rebound so that you can maintain it just above the head.

Control, obviously, is important. So is concept. I guess that’s what saved me: realizing that I ought to blend better and shuffle more evenly. The last night, same guitarist/leader comes up to me, “Man, you did beautiful. You took a while but I knew you’d be okay in the end.”

I guess when I finally and truly relaxed, my volume dropped substantially. And, to be honest, I learned something about grandstanding. I learned not to slam each backbeat, at least in situations in which I’m sitting in with masters of a genre who expect me to be a drummer, not a vaudeville act.

Hey Mr Tambourine Man

Back to the Billy Higgins conversation (without anecdote off my chest), when we retired to the trailer, he had me visualizing a gospel choir waving tambourines in sync.

Try as you might to equalize the forward and backward stroke while playing tambourine (or maraca) there will always be a disparity. It’s hard to square-off eighth-notes given the way you play the instrument and the fact that jingles sometimes have a mind of their own. And that’s what makes the instrument delightful and essentially human: that lilt, that swing. Billy exhibited this on recordings, such as ECM releases with Charles Lloyd, where the drums are recorded meticulously down to every little overtone. Higgins figures highly with Ornette Coleman, Harold Land, and many others. Listen again and you’ll see what I mean about his ride beat. It alludes simultaneously to swing and to square eighths.

Grab a tambourine and try and play as straight-eight an ostinato as possible. Switch over to ride cymbal and do your jazz ride. Alternate using the same hand; repeat as necessary.

You’ll see what I mean.

Listen to Albert “Tootie” Heath, if even on the last Heath brothers’ album.

For more contemporary listening and studying, Stanton Moore’s the authority and directs whole chunks of his excellent book and CD package to playing-in-the-cracks.

And two of my favorites. Check out Jim Keltner render “Caledonia” on that live (in the studio) album he cut with Roy Clark and Gatemouth Brown. Search it on youtube. The beginning of that track says it all. Silence, a couple of chords here and there and a guffaw, then the ride cymbal and snare warming up, more silence, then the count. That opening portion is a treasure. Catch the ride beat. If that is not obvious enough, you need to hear Keltner on “I Don’t Want Much”, just one of the killing tracks off an album Jim produced for singers Bobby King and Terry Evans.

Suggestions for playing shuffles more appropriately

Keep it down and try to suggest 2 and 4 without erecting a billboard. Mix it up when you practice. Forget about unison for a while and try shuffling with your left hand and stating simple quarters with your right. Alternate between heavy and light sticks; brushes and thicker rods; street sticks and pencils. None of this is for volume; you gotta do the job irrespective of the implement. Don’t protest you can’t play quietly with heavy sticks because you can … but you aren’t. Varying the tools ensures you’re becoming aware of the various fine muscle groups.

You’ve got it, you just don’t know it. Try this:

What I’ve discovered, aside from the need to practice at whisper jet volumes, is that there’s a whole world of tonality out there lurking beneath mf. You gain new drums and cymbals. And the necessary lilt.

At home, not on the gig, try the following:

Practice to click at 108bpm and tape on a Zoom or likewise handheld recorder. Right hand tangs on quarter-notes, left hand is on snare batter playing 8th-notes, accenting at first on 2 and 4. And then comes the fun part: shifting the accents while retaining forward motion, trying to maintain even dynamics and feel. Your Zoom will tell the tale if you don’t. If you come out of the 8th-notes to strongly to slap a backbeat you’re failing at farm league level. Get it smooth and fairly level before considering those accents.

Funny thing is that when you begin this left hand shuffle, you’ll be “in the cracks” even when you don’t want to be, simply because your left hand is not used to that level of activity…and responsibility. It is the weak hand for right-handed drummers.

Even if you’re not trying to, you’ll be shuffling in-the-cracks with your left hand attempting to reconcile competing demands: swing, straight eighths—and getting a break as fatigue and trauma begin to win over.