Drums in nature, in my backyard. Steve Jordan sees them in the Guggenheim. Imagination, and a return to nature, is what drum designers and drummers need.

Drums are attractive instruments—in a Dodge Dart sort of way—nose to the future, the fins pointing back to the classics. Sometimes I wonder if somebody pulled the string and turned the light out, extinguished the late 1950s/early 1960s spark as reflected in drum design and drum advertisements.

Meanwhile, the adventurous spirit is very much alive on the streets. Drum aficionados are like car buffs. Their creations are stitched together with modified clamps, secured to mighty racks that support to aerial cymbals a short person couldn’t reach unless standing atop the drum throne. Their drive to shine, proud of the masses, is the mother of invention and, frankly, it puts conservative drum designers and marketers to shame.

Maybe that’s why I get back to nature. You’ve read my seemingly frivolous articles describing how I’ll bring my Regal sticks out for a walk in the woods. The smog dissipates a little and I see a natural order that’s calming…and inspiring.

Drum company staff need to do the same: get back to nature for another look at what God intended.  And, as I’ve repeated over and over, drummers need to get their drums out from behind glass display cases and see how they fare in the environment from whence they originate.  There is something meaningful to me (maybe only to me, I realize. There are those who raise an eyebrow and question my sanity) about getting out to the bush, or the river’s edge, or hopefully the desert at some point, and hearing, feeling, and touching the real deal pulse. I’m not so sure about all this, mind you.

But I do know that the drumset is possibly the only instrument that can truly serve working man and hobbyist. I sell a few photographs here and there and I think of cameras the same way. The more they develop the more they enhance one basic premise: it’s still about the picture, the composition, the same things it was always about, just as drums are still about making music. It is true, more than ever, that anyone can be a photographer or a drummer. Takes only a moment or two, however, for the truth to out…visibly and audibly. Photos don’t lie and the pulse waits for no one.

Similarly with drum design, most of it is cosmetic. Nothing wrong with that. The gleam of a good Rogers red sparkle (as opposed to Ludwig red sparkle) was enough to inspire at least one child to take up the sticks lifelong. Then again, speaking red sparkle and blue crocodile, one man’s Trixon is another’s trash.

The other salient aspect is that, notwithstanding the pioneering spirit of the Goods, Ayottes, and Hagiwaras the world, in a very real sense drums have not changed substantially since Baby Dodds.

We’re both coming and going, you know? But you’d think that in the absence of rules, we’d have taken drums further. I mean, it’s not like adding a foot-long tube to a French horn—we’re talking a different instrument and possibly damning consequences.

Then again, the guy in The Roots really grooves on the Sousaphone. That’s an instrument designed one-part tone, one-part belly laughs.

I guess I was hoping, during my four decades playing drums, I’d see a few more fundamental changes to the drums. Yet the bass drum is still as round as the pedagogy is static. As is the RIMS mount, which is now de rigeur, meaning a protocol widely adopted—blindly, given some drums come fitted with variations of the system that pull on the tension rods and make a good drum sound choked.

Do drum designers, or, rather their marketing colleagues, really listen?

Which brings us back, somehow, to Jordan and his excellent video The Groove is Here (Hudson distrib.), I laughed aloud when the camera captured Steve facing Central Park, his back to the cylindrical, white Guggenheim museum, admitting that he sees drums everywhere he looks. Permit a little redneck sniping but I believe that primitive drums are a fair bit nobler than the interior of the Guggenheim—a cafeteria-like building housing a collection of disposable culture. Sometimes you can’t tell if an installation is up and running or dismantled and awaiting the movers.

Back in high school I’d sketch drums on my school books, both spiral bound note books and hard cover texts. I believe that those drawings, many inspired by a Creedence Clearwater album cover showing round-lugged drums, predisposed me to a long marriage to Camco and then DW.

Maybe had I pursued my drawing career concurrent with drumming, I’d have arrived at truly novel drum designs instead of the recycled notions we see today. I venture that aside from a Takashi Hagiwara, Bob Gatzen, Ray Ayotte, and John Good innovation, there’s nothing really new under the sun. I guess that’s why it’s back to nature for ideas.

Now I’m not sure I’d like to live like the hobo who builds lean-to’s and outright shacks on the bayou-like tract of land near where I live and bordering on the river. But imagine the sounds he hears at night! That’s, in a sense, why I trot drumsticks out into nature—looking for the root of the matter. I realize that in doing so I look pretty odd. Sometimes there’s a fine line between you-know-what and sanity. It’s not like I climb down the narrow paths to a couple of fave spots on the river, smoke a few blunts, and pull a sleeping bag over my head. My ears are at work, hearing the waves lapping and if I tap a stick on a shard of petrified wood vs a rock (this is getting weird) there’s some atonal magic afoot. There’s definitely something in Steve Jordan’s statement that he sees drums all around. And, no doubt, he hears them, witness the incredible timbres Jordan extracts from his own and others’ instruments in his role as producer and session drummer.

And just the other day, I enjoyed footage of women in the Amazon or Africa or somewhere playing water as an instrument. You know, cupping their hands, and slapping and glancing the surface and below—truly catching the wave and creating symphonies.

Drum photography & conservatism

Drumming and photography, for this and other reasons, run similar paths, one of which is that they’re essentially conservative, inert, benign and require desperately someone to come along and do something—either in the basic structure of the tool or in the outcome.

I’ve done a few drum ads—speaking copy writing not graphics. If I had my way (Vince Gill line) there’d be a lot more nature as ad backdrops, although I have to applaud my friend Wayne Blanchard for his cool, pale Sabian series—so white you got snow blind if you stared too long. There we go, off the topic already. Point is, Sabian lost their best spokesperson when they lost Blanchard, if, indeed, a picture is worth a thousand words, which is another pet peeve regarding drum ads. I remember laboring two weeks over a 4-sentence ad debuting a drumset that won a MIPA award (excellence according to the music press vote taken Musikmesse). Had I written what I wanted to write, that kit would have won awards beyond the pale of the drum industry, which sets its sights in the silent movie era. The one exception, consistently, has been Paiste, the Swiss company, which pokes holes in the rest for the its ad and catalog copy, which is sometimes cheesy but more often poetically evocative and inspiring.

When I read Paiste copy, and when I look at the companies photos, which always seem to catch the light where I see cymbals in the light, I don’t want to gaze; I want to buy Paiste cymbals. Damn, I want to eat one. This was the company that brought out the Joe Morello Sound Set Seven, if I’ve gotten the product designation right, stunning the drum world accustomed to a big cymbal and a little cymbal. Similarly, a flat ride would not seem to be a big deal if you were born in 1990 but I was born in the 1950s and, brother, the flat ride, the Paiste Formula 602 Flat Ride, a bell-less cymbal (as Tootie Heath depicted it, borrowing from a colleague, a “cymbal without breasts”) was novel. Paiste ads, again, captured the subtle hammering and tight lathing that distinguished the 602 cymbal and the space in the middle, where there ought to have been a bump in the landscape was that much more conspicuous in its absence. Everybody I knew had to play one, ditto with the rippled-bottom Sound Edge hats.

Not that I’d take them down to the beach or anything.

My “return to nature” with drumsticks and other crazy stuff harkens to my strong belief that drum companies have got it so wrong there’s almost no going back. More on that in a moment but let’s just say that by dumbing-down ad copy they leave drummers and drum companies fair game for depictions we often often hear: drummers are bog-simple, primitive-man types who can’t read more than two sentences without losing focus. Or is it that drum companies don’t employ people who know how to string more than two sentences together. Holy China.

Ads and Cameras

I’ve written ads, as mentioned, and I’ve got to admit that ad copy is nothing without appropriate photography or otherwise artwork. I remember a guy….John Rafferty, I believe, who did graphics while I wrote ad copy for several Evans fold-out ads (snare drum heads, bass drum heads come to mind) and I thought John did a good job. Ditto with Pearl, DW and certain others. But just because Taye portrays their Studio Maple in the woods doesn’t win them points, especially when they lifted my text word for word from the catalog I wrote for them. Sour grapes. I apologize.

I think it’s cool when drum nerds get their say and their view included in drum ads. For the record, the aqua snare and sizzle cymbal was shot with a Nikon D700, still hands-down the best digital camera the world has ever seen—no bows to the subsequent D800, which, incidentally does not, notwithstanding the more obvious mathematical calculations, feature almost triple the mega-pixels. It doesn’t work that way, something I learned from Ken Rockwell. The drumming analogy would be the 22” ride cymbal that weighs, oh, 4 pounds or something like 1850 grams. It’s the mega-pixel myth in reverse; in the instance of rides, many allege that less is more. They scour the face of the earth for old light cymbals that are thin their edges wobble away like Jello. And what on freaking earth are they good for in a playing situation?

Nothin’, absolutely nothin’. Not speaking about definitively keep time. Mind you, as surf crash-rides they’re the ticket. But nobody who expounds the merits of surf, punk, or Grohl is into that sort of thing. They are elegant jazz buffs.

I’m in the studio all next week and, to be sure, I’m bringing along two bags of cymbals and granted there’ll be the odd 22” cymbal that’s way underweight. But this is the studio and I’m playing music that may require aberrant characteristics that a ribbon mic can “hear”. I’m not sitting home in my basement (ahem, which I’ve been known to do when I’m not working) measuring cymbal weights on drug dealer scales. I shouldn’t have said that and I apologize but let’s get a grip, folks. Again, enough whining and back to the point.

And back to Ken Rockwell. Now there is a drummer waiting to get out. Although he claims he eschews collecting gear in favor of making art, he maintains the Rockwell Retirement Ranch where people can send their old lenses and bodies. I wonder if somebody will send him a Nikkor SC 55mm f1.2 and he’ll give it a proper review. I love mine and I want his opinion. See, I know he’s going to say it’s a bit of a tease: it opens up to f1.2 but is soft and not really usable until you get to f1.4 or f2, even. I know this. But this lense, which I’ve owned since I was a kid, just like my A Zildjian 16” crash, now played out but great for recording, is the perfect instrument for me: I move, it follows me and renders what’s on my mind. That’s the difference between being “into drums” and “into gear”.

See that’s the thing. You Google my 55mm Nikkor lense and you arrive at all of these lonely heart photo sights in which guys ask each other, “Is this lense good?” First off, nothing in the world of craft and art is “good” in itself. This is the point Rockwell has made since day-one on his website and which I’m attempting to make as often as I can. In camera terms, I admit I’m simply a little less focused.

Rockwell is more to the point. I read him because he knows from experience and doesn’t lament stuff that doesn’t matter, dream of stuff he might own and stare at, or make up shit to talk about that has scant relevance to taking well-composed, balanced, properly lit photos.

The guy is the eminent authority on cameras, lenses, Hollywood motion picture lighting (he’s worked there), and a whole mess of other areas that he maybe shouldn’t expound about but makes for great reading because, (1) he’s sincere, (2) he knows his subject intimately, comprehensively, and is willing to admit mistakes, (3) his reviews are not reiterations of Nikon and Canon press releases and, thus, they’re, ahem, like my drum reviews. I buy gear based on his reviews with no reservations and hope you would do the same following one of my reviews. I know you do and I’m proud and pleased to help: case in point, Zildjian sold out of its proto 22” K Symphonic Traditional hand cymbals, which I reviewed as rides back when you didn’t even know about this site. (4) And Rockwell is a photographer who uses his instrument to make music, you know? He’s not a camera geek who thinks he’s ahead of the game if he buys a Nikon D800 on account of the few extra mega-pixels (but dubiously enhanced sensor, speaking low light capability; I believe the jury’s out on that one…but again, I defer to his expertise.

Drum reviews invariably suck

Before we leave photography, as it were, I want to draw another comparison from this murk. When I read a review I want to feel that the reviewer has road tested the item. And I can tell without having to read between the lines if this is so. You can tell when you’re reading a drum review (cymbal review, LP Jam Block review, bizarre tuning meter review, etc).

Thanks to Rockwell, I was able to get the ups on a lense my collaborator Wayne Eagles, and ultimately the great, late Darrel Eagles, loaned to me for experimentation with my Nikon D700 body: a Nikon 70-210mm f4 – f 5.6 lense. I don’t know much about auto-focus lenses although I know that Nikon leads the way in speed and accuracy. If I hadn’t borrowed this lense, however, meaning if I were faced with forking out do-re-me for it, I’d want to know more than bare specs. Rockwell, in his review, is so spot-on it’s frightening. You can tell he’s not a camera nerd by one simple observation (there are many others): he concludes that this lense is a little “pale”. This means that it will not saturate photos, all in camera settings left neutral, with any yellow/red color cast. Now this is the mark of a photographer, not a collector of cameras and lenses (I believe I ought to defer to the American “lens” but, in this single instance of usage I defer to the British “lense”). First time I brought this lense out, to a gig of course, I shot it from the drum throne and outside in break. Drove home, downloaded the pics, and, damn, if the lense wasn’t exactly as Rockwell stated: quick in auto-focus and rather pale, featuring a slight favoritism for the blue/green end of the spectrum.

You’ll see that when I include photos shot with this lense, and if Wayne allows me to keep it a little longer, I’ll sometimes go over the top with Photoshop, perhaps over-saturating to compensate. Strange because whereas Rockwell prefers the warmer colors, I’m infatuated with the gaunt, cooler ones.

At the end of the day, Rockwell and I make identical points with regard to gear and how a camera—like drum or a cymbal—is an instrument and not an end in itself.

Drums sit well against the trunk of a tree—from whence they come. Drummers ought to get out more—and get those finely shaped, pitch-paired sticks out from behind the glass and into the real world; maybe get a little soil on their shoes. Back in the day, drummers used to bury their cymbals in the ground, literally dig ‘em six feet under, this in a wistful attempt at hastening what nature and thousands of stick blows will do in time. At least they soiled themselves and got in touch, got a grasp.

A camera, a bog, a couple of sticks and a modicum of imagination

My man Tommy K is inspiring, not only on account of his quitting alcohol for 35 years without a single relapse but for his gear mods. I mean, it’s not the sort of novel designing I’m advocating but at least he’s messing with the status quo. Sometimes I feel he’s doing the drum design equivalent of grafting an elephant ear to a camel’s ass but, hey, maybe that’s novel. Maybe beasts ought to hear the south side when they’re heading north.

The lead photo is a Premier-badged (but not a Premier drum, in fact) snare drum that Tommy K cobbled together, attaching old Premier one-bolt lugs to a 1970s Pearl fiberglass shell, the latter which Tommy feels is as close to Godliness as shells get. If the 16×16” chrome wrapped Pearl fiberglass tom he brought over is typical, then I’d have to agree with him. Similarly his custom fiberglass snare drum is full in tone, long in sustain, and just a little too bold for its own good, which is why I brought it outdoors for a breather…see how it fared in a real live room. The drum nerd in me gazes at the aqua/turquoise satin flame but the drummer in me wins each time out. I’ll strike the drum out in nature and note how the obnoxious overtones disperse—or not. Same with the companion you see in the e photo, the lovely, vintage 12” K Zildjian heavy cymbal, which I acquired with rivet holes already drilled. The metal stamp, as opposed to modern silk-screened badge indicates Constantinople as the place of manufacture, meaning that the cymbal predates the more common Istanbul-made Ks and accordingly stamped—all of which are now collectable given the Turkish factory closed down sometime in the vicinity of 1975 to 1977, depending on who’s doing the talking. I used to use that as my sizzle cymbal on jingles and a couple of albums. Although it looks ridiculously tiny compared to factory sizzle cymbals, the mic doesn’t know or care.

Inspired by nature, blinded by science

Sometimes when I used to record folk albums, especially out in country studios, I’d feel a little odd and excessively urban. As I remarked in a Modern Drummer article on getting the right drum sounds in the studio, published in the mid-1980s, I described one folk session (ie folk music, the style, was the order of the day for me; hopefully all music is made by folks), wherein the drums were situated in a booth distant from the control room without any sightlines. But the view to the outside, well, a patch of lawn and some firewood and a forest. And I’m doing a run through of this tune, the lyrics which, to the best of my memory, dealt with some kind of quick-flowing river in the Canadian north. Funny, although I’ve traveled the world I’ve never seen my own north country. At any rate, I’m playing along, no click, and, as it turns out, the drum booth features a picture window. And this bird,this enormous blue bird, appears. It perches for a few minutes on a branch of the evergreen tree that’s so close to the booth that the branches sometimes scrape against the window and leave a deposit of sap. That bird sits there, as birds do, and stares at me. Well, it’s actually difficult to make that determination. Birds’ eyes do not face forward. They’re sort of like the side signal lights on my VW Beetle that alert parallel vehicles of imminent danger. The point is that the birds, when their beaks point directly at you, and it seems as if they’re staring, they might as well have the last laugh and be eyeballing the left and right sides, ignoring you completely—the opposite of “undivided attention”. On that day, I felt inspired; I felt as if there was a reason that the bird alighted on the branch right outside the glass pane. I’m not sure if a skunk had come up and sat on the ledge outside the booth what the significance would have been. But the bird was the embodiment of nature of the sort described in the lyrics. That bird literally steered my playing. I’ve forgotten exactly how but I do know that I was more gentle and less apt to haul off and smack crash cymbals.

Yes, that is another reason drummers ought to get out more.

Why? Well, I’ve tried to articulate some relationships but, at the end of the day, I’m simply blogging you mercilessly.

Why the importance of nature and to what end my Freudian back-to-nature exhibitions? Paul Brady knows the answer and revealed it in a song, incidentally, featuring Jeff Porcaro on drums. I’d just met Jeff around that time. I remember asking him about his tasteful part, toms all over the place, dark tones predominating. He told me the timbres sat well with the answer to our question, which Paul Brady expressed during the chorus:

Answer is, nobody knows”.