The “rim-click”: what happened to the “cross-stick”? Did Nashville fall?

Drumming lexicon, jargon: rim click vs cross stick vs rim clock!

Tick-tock, rim-click, rim-clock.

When we click rims, we make a click. When we play lay our palm on the snare batter and make the sign of the cross with the stick, and create the sound of a deep woodblock, we make a sound that entitles us to enter sacred Nashville. Only thing is, what was that sound, or that technique, called again?

Where did things go wrong? Why has “rim-click” replaced “cross-stick”? I don’t blame Modern Drummer for attempting to tidy up the lexicon of drumming and, in most instances, doing a great job. But there are other issues for me, mainly phonetic in essence but which pertain to timbres. And I bring up the question of jargon because I know I’m speaking for drummers for whom “cross-stick” runs deep.

For those of you who aren’t aware, more than a decade ago, Modern Drummer made an attempt to create a drumming lexicon just as the magazine had done successfully for music notation. It was high time to standardize the latter and, well, the former, except that I harbored one tiny disagreement, which I shared with my boss, the late Bill Miller, who agreed but felt that the new terminology might stick. And it’s a credit to the stature of the magazine as the reigning authority when the entire community takes up MD protocols and begins curbing its tongue.

In a sense I agree with “rim-click” in the sense that it refers to a sound just as “rimshot” refers to a sound whereas cross-stick refers obliquely to the position of the stick vs the rim when making a woodblock-like tone.

Problem is, I grew up listening to Elvis—the pre-Hollywood Elvis—on a Seabreeze metal bodied monophonic record player. These were devices consisting of a large vinyl (or similar) disk scored with hundreds of tiny grooves. A tone arm fitted with a needle at the end floated above and kept the needle honest as it droned deep in each groove from start to finish of a side. Unlike compact disks, records could be played on both sides. These were primitive, often ill-sounding platters although to this day there are those who proclaim them as better in terms of tone and some sort of enhanced low-end, which although I admit in theory might be possible, feel that the proponents are mistaking grain and distortion (especially when there was signficant disk excursion!) for warm fuzziness. Vinyl albums were a royal pain and towards the end, if you were lucky to pull one out of the sleeve and play it through without skips and pops, you’d never hear the full story. Early CD’s, although tinnier in tone, were unbelievably detailed and as for “warmth” there was EQ.

So when Elvis hit the scene, I could hear the drums. I don’t think I heard DJ Fontana’s bass drum more than a handfull of times on my Seabreeze (nor was I able to hear the bass drum triplets on “Good Times Bad Times”; my parents were working class and told me they couldn’t afford to upgrade to fancy stereophonic gear).

Before Elvis, a lot of country music and rockabilly either lacked drumset or buried it in the mix. Billy Hailey and Eddie Cochrane (brilliant session player and fine solo artist) and Carl Perkins…a lot of them invoked a snappy drum mix that (through my Seabreeze) involved a lot of riding on the metal rims of snare drums, floor toms, and…well, I couldn’t really tell.

At some point, immediately preceding the coming of The Beatles I began playing drums and was faced with the task of replicating the sounds I heard on the early records. I began to hear intricacies that confounded my limited resources.

Let me explain that at the time only rich kids owned drumsets. You’d hear, “Oh, Jimmy J down the street owns a Ludwig gold-sparkle Hollywood kit, which his parents bought him, and he can’t even play. That sucks!”

The snare drum set vs the drumset

In lieu of being equipped with a proper set, as we then referred to a configuration of drums that included a snare, bass, toms, and cymbals, the poorer among us began our careers with something called a “snare drum kit”. Interestingly, the word drumkit (or drum kit), although common in England, didn’t hit America until the 1990s, and well into the 2000s in Newfoundland. Sorry, had to say it.

Okay, so here’s what a snare drum kit was all about. It comprised a flimsy snare drum stand with flush base, fragile basket arms, and a horizontal extension that’s lost to the modern world—the forerunner of the multi-clamp, to the horizontal tube extended just far enough to clear the diameter of the snare drum, and to which a vertical stem was attached. At the top, of this extension sat a 12” cymbal, not necessarily atop a tilter, which served as a ride, crash, and, of course, splash cymbal.

Here we get to the crux of the issue. I remember as if it was yesterday sitting at a party, a guy we’ll call Blake’s house (his parents were away and I saw beers circulating and possibly a “joint” or two) and my turn came to play the snare drum kit and impress a blond chick (another term rampant at the time) who I figured was “neat” (ditto) and worthy of additional adjectives, which I shall not repeat in mixed company. One of the tunes I played (the band consisted of two guitarists running through one Silvertone amplifier) was “Get Off My Cloud”, complete with the intro solo, which had to be repeated every 3 bars or so—because that’s what Charlie Watts did. But I was one step ahead of Charlie, I felt: I substituted 5-stroke rolls for all but the opening fill with its open, 16th notes on snare. Problem is, with this song and an entire book of rock, surf rock, and rockabilly, I’d have to cover the sounds of hi-hat, ride cymbal, crash, floor tom—you get the picture—on this restricting snare drum kit. Especially at this party. It was important for me to sound as big as a drumset, such was my bloated affection for this girl. Maybe it was the 5-stroke rolls, which raised a few eyebrows (not hers, she seemed, amazing to me, distracted and, curiouser, not really into music), but I knocked off my allotted tunes and got up for the next drummer, somebody’s little brother, to have a turn. My girl, the object of my affections, had vanished into thin air.

I know I’d done the right things, though. I’d employed the side of the cymbal holder as a “hi-hat”, the rim of the snare as a ride cymbal, the batter with snares-off as a tom (a magic trick!). For a country tune, maybe the one Ringo sang, “Act Naturally”, I’d rest my palm on the snare drum and lay the butt or bead end of the drumstick on the rim cross ways. We called this a cross stick.

Name the technique by the sound it makes? Tick tock, rim-clock…

And there it is: my objection to “rim-click”. The other objection is the heritage of the cross-stick. It is almost enshrined in Nashville.

During the late 1970s I began to do freelance country sessions in my region. Back then, there were proper, free-standing studios mixed with the sort of project studios we see today. At any rate, producers would, fortunately for me, hire freelance session guys. This was, I reckoned, what I was going to do in life (hindsight is 50/50).

I learned not to mess with the cross-stick. The “clocking” tone, somewhat akin to that of a large wood block, was as critical to a lot of country as Bonham’s snare rimshot was to what was becoming known as power rock or metal.

I learned how to locate the sweet spot on the rim and the optimum spot for my palm to rest, neither muting the batter too much or allowing to much ring, and then guard the zone as if a life depended on it. For the producers of the day, some of them who have gone on to win awards and gold albums (in Canada = sales over 5,000…just kidding!), the cross-stick, as it then was known, it was a sacred thing. It was the clavé of country music (minus the cascara).

In those days of close-miking, which has fallen back into favor, any variation of the stick against the rim—heaven forbid you sneeze or get an itch—registered on tape and, even if you played the take in-time, would cause the groove to sound suspicious.

This woodblock-timbre defined country drumming and while no producer ever called me to task on mine, I realized as take grew into take not to allow the cross-stick pitch to vary.

The late Carlos Vega, best known as a session drummer in the fusion genre, and for his amazing work with James Taylor, surprised me when he appeared on a number of Vince Gill albums. Although arguably his his Cuban heritage distanced him from Nashville country, he obviously did his homework and sounded great on Vince Gill albums. Stellar track, “Whenever You Come Around”. Okay, two stellar tracks, “What the Cowgirls Do”. Carlos did what JR did and all the good ones: he paid close attention to the consistency of his cross-stick/rim-click (beginning to like “rim-click”…) tone. When you’re up there in pitch, the tiniest shifts of stick vs rim project and make your groove appear tentative.

The block tone with bead or butt?

Most drummers turn the stick around when executing a cross-stick, aka rim-click such that the butt end of the stick strikes the rim at 2:00. I prefer the bead at 2:00pm but I’ve got my snare drum cranked higher than most (unless it’s a session when the song needs the other thing) and I find I need to advance my palm and maybe the benign end of my stick away from center and closer to the strike point; not always, though. Sweet spots vary.

Dave Mattacks places butt-forward but his placement of the butt relative to the rim results in the most unique cross-stick/rim-click sound in the business. Now here is an example when the phonetics of rim-click don’t work. I’ve always marveled that DM’s was more like a lower temple block. This provides a contrast with the sound of his fingers, the middle two of which tap the batter head, execute trills, combine with closed hi-hat work and result in valid 5-stroke rolls. You can hear this best on two Mattacks sessions, specifically the track “The Long and Winding Road” off the McCartney film soundtrack and “The Shouting Stage”, the title track of a Joan Armatrading album. DM’s grace and ghost strokes are so clean it’s sick, especially given they’re done at whisper-quiet (pp) levels.

Dave advises when soundchecking in the studio the following: Don’t overdo your snare backbeat volume or the engineer will dip the faders so the meter doesn’t go into the red. Once that happens, the chances of subtle figures emerging at quiet volumes is minimal. That goes far in explaining the tone of his cross-stick: it doesn’t take your ear off and engineers may be apt to keep the board levels up.

You can “tune” a cross-stick or rim-click by shifting the position of the stick vs rim. Depending on batter head tension, rim (die cast, stamped, wood, etc) you find you can work in an interval up to a fifth.

Some of the more marginal tones, however, might set off alarms in purist producers. Speaking in those terms, for some reason I love Milton Sledge’s cross-stick/rim-click tone. I can’t figure it out but it works so nicely in its surroundings. Now you take Merle Haggard’s drummer on the album containing “If I Could Only Fly”, man, it’s not the norm but, combined with his signature touch and relative timbres he brings to play, is among the most tasteful among any drummer who comes to mind. Seriously you must check him out.

Cheating with an LP block to get the clock

Often I use a yellow LP Jam Block for my cross-stick/rim-click tones, while more country-oriented drummers often use a blue, if I recall correctly, LP Jam Block, a larger unit that yields a deeper tone, which is so perfect it might be sampled. In fact, although I have minimal experience with triggering samples (even with my Aphex Impulse trigger-to-MIDI/spike-trigger-to-analog it was a royal pain in the rectum), I’m aware that triggering was de rigeur in LA and Nashville for at least a decade.

Of course, the results varied—from stiff to clinical. Occasionally, I thought I spotted a really nice triggered bit or two, such as, perhaps, on a Lyle Lovett album. At this level of the recording art, hell, it doesn’t matter much if you trigger a sample or drop a dog bone on a paint can. The sounds off the floor and the mixes are what ought to be the gold standard.

Another relevant name-dropping anecdote, you gotta love-it

It’s funny: I took a flight from Toronto Island to Ottawa one day, courtesy of my friend Greg Torrington, then a Warner A & R guy, now a satellite radio music programmer. He gave me his plane ticket because he wanted to drive home to Ottawa in his newly-renovated sports car, long story. We were a team behind LA singer/songwriter John Cody, who has just released an album, another long story but I was heartbroken I didn’t get to redo “Oh, oh, oh”, not that the drummer didn’t play well. The album’s been released on a limited basis and it’s great—but the story isn’t over yet. If you look up this tune, you’ll love the drummer’s feel; but imagine the kick never hitting 1 but, instead, the “and” of 2 and then 4, Cuban-style; with a triangle-like 16th-note pattern on bell of hat, or, well, on a triangle with the balance done on cajon. How did we get off track like this? Right, I was taking a plane and sat with Lyle Lovett. I intended asking him all these questions about his pristine recordings (“the lights of LA county are like diamonds in the sky”, a little tongue in cheek, or “If I had a pony, I’d put him on my boat….”) I mean, I asked him but can’t remember a word. I was glazed by the tone of his response, which reminded me of Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz,

Bruce, are we in Quebec…?”

I guess a lot of what I’m saying, and what I’ve tried to say, in print and here is not really stuff one can talk about. It’s the heart of the dark art of making music with others and somehow combining approaches and tones in a meaningful whole. Kenny Malone is/was so good at that; studying him from I distance I learned tons about tone, right down to experimenting with various grades of paper from thin on up to parchment, in the studio as a means of muffing the snare. Watch for an upcoming article on oddball and more regular means of muffling in Modern Drummer.

But we do talk about it; we need, as humans and as drummers (some say a lesser form of ~ ?, to identify and categorize. We need to write on a musical score if the concert percussionist ought to go to suspended cymbal, orchestral piatti, or the snare drummer to … rim-click!

If I’m playing rockabilly it’s not that the cross-stick tone is a constant; if fact, it’s not as common, to my knowledge, in this style. But if I’m using the block tone, the Jam Block puts the desired sound in a natural playing position and leaves my other hand to “ride the rim”.

Again that rim riding lends a little authenticity to the Sun Records era mix, which was characterized by a slapping bass (or a drummer riding some inert, clackety surface).

Incidentally, when riding the rim, you don’t want to get too busy. You don’t want to play the shuffling pattern Ringo does so expertly on “Act Naturally” (on hi-hat). The reason is that you may be emulating an upright bassist (“like a child, we can’t stand it,” The Roots) who can’t physically slap 16th-notes from strings the length of booster cables.

Brush with Bayers and the Mainline solution

Years ago I rented Eddie Bayers a case of snare drums for a session and got to watch him at work. I ended up talking to his dad about his airforce days, which happened to coincide with my own father’s for the first few hours but still got to see son Eddie at work. It was my impression that he was more “rocking” than some of the other country drummers but, make no mistake, once he set stick crossways to the snare drum, ain’t nothing was going to shake its position.

Fifteen years later, I appeared on a country album, sharing drum chores with Eddie. They spelled my last name wrong (as reported elsewhere in these pages: can you tell I’m proud?). Point is, by that point, I’d learned to keep my cross-stick tone consistent.

You know it, on the final mixes I honestly can’t tell my cross-stick from Eddie’s. I remember using what’s become a standard for me: a 5B or sometimes 5A Mainline synthetic stick, sadly no longer manufactured. This delivers the cross-stick from heaven…provided you keep it clocking away at the same point of the rim.

The only possible drag about this happy tale is that the whole album might be Eddie Bayers and they might have erased my part and overdubbed it. I pray not. At any rate, I advise hedging your bets by making consistent your rimshots, rim-clicks and, you know…what do you want to call them.

If it’s not to late, might a suggest a slight alteration to the Modern Drummer lexicon?

Conclusion and phonetic suggestion re rim-click vs cross-stick

Rimshot refers to the backbeat tone achieved by striking rim and head simultaneously; and alternately to the vaudevillian tone of a short rim/head exclamation—or, even, the tone of a stick laid firmly on the head and struck by another stick. Shot works, same with pop.

Rim-click could be the tone of the wooden stick riding on the metal (or wood) rim the same way it rides a cymbal. Or the same way the Cuban drummer rides shell of timbale or of floor tom to obtain a cascara.

And what would the former cross-stick be identified as henceforth given the deck shuffling I’ve suggested?

A rim-clock. Think it’ll fly?

When monkeys fly from New Jersey, home of Modern Drummer magazine, and onward to Nashville.