It is a little known fact that the true drumming masters—Papa Jo, for example—played brushes with snares disengaged.
You’d be amazed how many name contemporary drummers I’ve surprised when I informed them about this. I’m not saying all the masters did their swishing snares-off but it was the basic tenet of brush technique.
I learned it first from a guy named Gary Bourgeois with whom I played standing, shoulder-to-shoulder, concert Rogers snare drum and concert Rogers bass drum (I’ve located the snare and I now own it) in the high school band, grade nine. Gary, last I heard, recorded one of those Lounge Lizards type albums for Peter Erskine.Gary, if you are listening (and with us, still), drop me a line: TbruceWittet@ gmail.com. I still think you over-charged me for that first drum kit I owned: remember the white Olympic bass drum, red Trixon tom and snare, and Coronet floor tom? Good news: that 16” A Zildjian crash, almost played-out when you sold it to me, has been on hundreds of recordings.
Gary was a superb drummer and it was good to know he became an engineer and got it right on tape.
Point is, Gary seemed astounded, back in the day, when I’d swish, drag, stir, and tap my wire brushes with snares engaged. “Bruce, that’s ridiculous,” Gary remarked. “The old guys never kept their snares on.” As an aside, Gary knew the Moeller stroke, don’t ask me how. And I’m not sure if it applies but he sort of translated it to the ride cymbal, employing an almost circular motion, striking the ride in various areas within a confined sweet spot. You’d have to ask Steve Smith about that business: he knows it cold.
Clarification re turning snares off: we’re not taking backbeat music
Understand that I’m not talking about the now common practice of playing a backbeat with brushes, rods, or other striking implements and snares off. That’s a beautiful, gaunt, hollow tone. I first did that on an album by George Stryker Lucky Break and I’d link you to sound samples but they’re like the noble Apollo, one moment moving past, next moment wisp of gas. Poetry yes. People still remark on that track, yesterday actually and thus I proudly inscribe here. But no, it’s not some rockabilly or dry as dirt nouveau film soundtrack I’m describing. Below, I’m talking about legit jazz brush playing, stirring the soup, and all that corny jargon.
Wire brushes > wire snares > why the doubling up?
Think a moment about the snares on a snare drum. They’re generally made from wire. These days it’s silly the gradations available: fine, medium, and so forth. Oddly enough, sometimes the $11.00 generic sets Wire.
That’s one reason why many of the revered jazz drummers of the past turned the snares off when playing brushes.
Among the most accomplished and artistic brush masters was Papa Jo Jones. True, Philly Joe Jones was an expert, as was Elvin Jones—hell, back then the name “Jones” said it all. And Buddy Rich. Although (slings and arrows time) I can’t listen to him for 10-minutes at a sitting playing sticks due to the astounding control of an ever-mounting spiral of fills and cymbal wash, on brushes I stand in wonder. He dug Philly Joe. And Philly Joe obviously dug Buddy Rich. And although Philly Joe may have written the book on brushes (published by Premier, in fact), Papa Jo was the acknowledged artist of the wire brush.
Notice there’s no mention of nylon brushes? Same applies, in my book, although until 5 years ago, I thought nylon brushes were effeminate (not there’s anything wrong…) and ineffectual. And bought up by people who can’t bear to see white coated heads go black. Or insist on dividers in their cymbal cases lest their bronze goes bump in the day (sorry, lost my mind; I’ve got it back now, honest).
The only guy who used nylon strands was one I’ve respected since I first heard him drop a stick to a drum in 1969. He was always insisting I try a proper set: a Trixon. Fortunate smiled on DM and he acquired a box full, new old-stock, from a little old lady in B.F. Kansas. And, typical of Dave’s generosity, he gave me two pairs of these gems, gray-handled Trixon 1959-60 nylon brushes. First time I tried them I missed a beat. What are these things? Second time I was sold. Except that since I can’t buy them, I’m making them last by restricting their use to really low volume gigs. Doesn’t mean I can play them squat relative to DM, Keltner, Smith, or, of course, Philly and Papa Jo ~.
Papa Jo, as he relates in his now scarce vinyl instructional album The Drums, came up midway through vaudeville and, accordingly, got gigs accompanying tap dancers. Papa Jo’s enthusiastic description of how he made the brushes work as a foil and complementary to Baby Laurence’s tap clicks and swishes is exciting and bears heavily on our topic. Baby Laurence would scatter salt on the wood floor to enhance the swish component of his dance; the click and slap of the heel/toe needed no such enhancement on a good hardwood floor, from which he could derive plentiful tones according to his angle, distance, velocity, and so on.
For Papa Jo, the artistry of brushes is in the replication of tap dancing. Thus, if he were to have engaged snares as a matter of course, he would have choked off many tones necessarily to complement the dance. All this is clear on The Drums—all of the clicks, thumps, and swishes. It is no surprise that he rarely, if ever, kept his snares on when applying wire brushes.
I like to think the primary reason for releasing snares when playing brushes was (sometimes still is) redundancy. If you’re laying wires to the batter head, do you really need wires pressing against the bottom? Two sets of wire strands is one too many.
Associated with this is the balance of tone. Without snares on, the drummer controls the ration of “tom” to snare.
This takes extremely refined technique. If you keep both sticks in the air, the tom tone will leap out, as opposed to keeping one brush constantly on the surface, pausing to hover millimeters above and allowing short, hollow bursts amid the wiry swish.
At Papa Jo’s finger tips were sizzling tones, swishing tones, tapping tones, and tom tom tones. He’d have been hard-pressed to toggle between snare and tom tones had he left snares-on.
Glenn Robb, introduced in these pages as one who carries his unique sound with him, explains, “When I’m playing snare with brushes, I prefer not to keep the snares on because I prefer the ‘tom’ sound. With the snares on, it’s just too crisp. With the snares off, it’s a more mellow sound. And you can get the wire, more crisp sound by the way you use the brushes.”
It takes a little getting used-to, meaning leaving your snares off. You slap a snare drum and it resounds with a dark tone. Doesn’t sound much like a snare drum! That’s where the masters have cultivated the art, tilled the soil. They keep one hand working the head, even if just tickling the scalp. This mutes out the “tom” frequencies and allows for a snap. Stated differently, the art of playing wire brushes on a snares-off snare drum is keeping the snare effect on even if the actual snares are turned off.
Try it yourself. I’m sure very few of you have done so. You’ll be in disbelief for a few moments; then you’ll suspend disbelief for another few. I think you’ll have to tape yourself to hear evidence that the snares do not have to be constantly engaged.
I wouldn’t necessarily carry this over to country music, especially train beats. I recall vividly trying to—actually playing with snares-off during run-throughs in a studio called The Bathouse with session guys, who all read the Nashville Number System. I lasted a good ten minutes.
The bass player leans over, “Could you play with snares on, please?”
And I did so. You don’t allude to Papa Jo during a train beat.