Steve Smith's Drum Talk:
Confessions of a U.S. Ethnic Drummer (part 3)

MD: Can you go through the decades and name the major "drum star" from each period?

SS: I guess the earliest drum star... I don't know if you could use the word "star" in the early days... there probably were not any what we call "drum stars."

But from the early days of the drumset the name that has really lived on is Baby Dodds. Because he's on so many of the earlier recordings with King Oliver, Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton, his name has really lived on. Baby Dodds was great player and he was involved with a lot of important work.

There was also a drummer named Tony Sbabaro, the drummer with the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, the group that did the first jazz record in 1917. So his name lives on because of that. There were some drummers from the early days that bridged some gaps, like Zutty Singleton. He played the early New Orleans style but he played the swing style too later on.

Then Chick Webb was the drum star of the early '30s while Gene Krupa was the drum star of the mid '30s, later '30s. In a way, drum star versus influential... there is a difference. Gene Krupa was influential and a star whereas Baby Dodds was influential though I wouldn't call him a star. Baby is probably more famous today than when he was alive.

Other influential drummers in the '30s were Jo Jones with the Basie band, the way he played time, the way he played the hi hat was very influential. And then another drummer that was a bridge between eras was Big Sid Catlett. He could play swing style but he also played bebop. He played on the original version of "Salt Peanuts" with Dizzy Gillespie. And he played with Louis Armstrong. So he could play with everybody.

MD: I've seen films of some of these guys and they're all entertainers on top of being such great players.

SS: Right, with the looks and the tricks. Very showy but still playing great music. Yeah, the "serious" jazz musician concept didn't really start until the '60s with Miles and Coltrane. All of the jazz musicians were also entertainers up to that point; Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie and all of the early cats. Then in the '40s the guy that changed the drumming concept was Kenny Clarke with the bebop concept. And then right on his heels was Roy Haynes and Max Roach, who were young but picked up on his innovations, particularly the syncopation between the snare drum and the bass drum and really focusing on the ride cymbal to keep time.

And then I think the influential drummers of the '50s in "popular" music would be the players involved in the rock 'n roll thing...I know who a lot of those drummers are now because I've done a lot of research but most of them never got any credit at the time because there was no Modern Drummer magazine and they didn't get their names on the album covers.

There were a lot of studio drummers that influenced the direction of rock drumming but didn't get any credit at the time. Now we know they were primarily jazz drummers who were doing studio work like Earl Palmer, who played on the Little Richard and Fats Domino records, or Connie Kay, who played on the original version of Big Joe Turner's "Shake Rattle 'n Roll." Here was the drummer with the Modern Jazz Quartet playing on a seminal rock 'n roll recording! Panama Francis played on a lot of rock 'n roll sessions. To me, one of the greatest tracks he ever played was Dion's hit tune called "The Wanderer," where he played this really great shuffle with the hi hat (with his foot) playing all the upbeats.

Panama is a guy who played with Lucky Millinder and Cab Calloway in the 30s and 40s playing on a classic rock 'n roll hit record. And then you have more well known guys like D.J. Fontana as a big influence in the '50s because he played on the classic Elvis records and toured with him. You also have to look at the other genres and talk about guys like Fred Below, who was the house drummer at Chess Records. He played on a lot of hits like "Johnny B. Goode" and on some of the Muddy Waters records. Buddy Harman was another influential drummer during the '50s because he was THE country drummer throughout the '50s.

MD: What about Art Blakey? A lot of drummers I've interviewed have said they were hugely influenced by him.

SS: To me he's associated with Kenny Clarke. He was probably about the same age as Kenny, he was older than Max and Roy so he came along a little earlier. He developed the bebop concept but he had a rawness that didn't come along again until Elvin. Art had a drive that few players had and I can see why people point to him. But many times the influences are who you are exposed to and I wasn't exposed to Art until later after I had already listened to a lot of Kenny Clarke, Max and Roy. I did get to see Blakey play live and I loved him and his band. Yeah, he definitely was a key player in the bebop movement.

Also in the jazz world in the '50s I'd have to say Philly Joe was one of the most influential jazz drummers -- a real amalgamation of Max and Kenny Clarke and Buddy Rich. He really put so much of it all together... the consummate modern bebop drummer. And then once we get into the ‘60s things start to get a even more dense because then you have Tony Williams and Elvin Jones but you also have Ringo and Charlie Watts and later on Ginger Baker, Mitch Mitchell and Bonham... all of these guys who are hugely influential in different ways.

And then you have all the largely unrecognized studio guys from the '60s like Hal Blaine and Gary Chester and in England Bobby Graham, Clem Cattini and Brian Bennett. And always throughout the '50s, '60s and '70s, Buddy Rich was a constant presence as an inspiration and drum star. When he started his big band in '67 he transcended all age and musical style categories and appealed to people simply because he was so excellent. He played Beatles tunes, boogaloo tunes, rock tunes, jazz tunes, suites, everything.

MD: He became a mainstream figure in popular American.

SS: Yeah, he appeared on Johnny Carson's show and everyone went to see him whether they were a rock drummer or jazz drummer... they went to see Buddy Rich, drum virtuoso and personality. And then in the '70s, when Billy Cobham hit with the Mahavishnu Orchestra he became the king of the hill in the early '70s -- just out of nowhere.

I saw that happen firsthand. What he did was a revelation to me and most of the drummers of my generation.

MD: And he also physically altered the kit.

SS: He introduced a large kit and the use of multi toms, the gong drum and double bass drums. Even though earlier Louie Bellson, Keith Moon, Carmine Appice and Ginger Baker and others used double bass drums, it wasn't until Billy Cobham used them that they became standard equipment for all drummers, jazz/fusion drummers or rock drummers. After Billy just about everyone wanted double bass drums and multi toms.

MD: He didn't get the double bass drum going until "Birds of Fire."

SS: Right, and then when he started touring with his own band many people saw him with that huge kit, and that really influenced a lot of people. Plus, he was the first virtuoso matched grip player. Before, matched grip used to get a bad rap. When Ringo or Dave Clark played matched grip, people really put them down. But Billy proved that you could play matched grip and be a virtuosic player. He innovated a lot of other things, like the upside-down China cymbal.

Now everyone thinks that's a standard way to play a China cymbal but in the early days of Mahavishnu he had the China cymbal like Mel Lewis would play it with the big band, and then eventually he turned it over and became known for that. Now everyone plays China cymbals upside down.

And then there were all the other great fusion drummers at the time like Lenny White, Alphonse Mouzon and Mike Clark, who were all essentially great jazz drummers but playing the music of the time. You had Steve Gadd shortly after, who again turned everyone around with his concept. I think after Gadd it was the Linn drum machine that became the new drum star of the ‘80s. After that, people were actually saying, "Yeah, I want to sound like a drum machine." And it has had a certain influence.

There are players like Dennis Chambers and Carter Beauford and guys that play some really funky and displaced hi hat things that were really, more or less, conceived on a drum machine. Certain writers and producers in the '80s would program drum parts that weren't even physically possible to play at that time, a drummer would've never thought of playing those things. But then after hearing the ideas and then sitting and working with them for a while you figure out how to play them, how to make that work. So the drum machine actually had an influence on the vocabulary, I think, because you get guys that can play like that.

MD: And isn't that what drum 'n bass is currently doing?

SS: Yeah, they're trying to play like machines, exactly. Guys like JoJo Mayer, Zach Danzinger and Johnny Rabb... there's a few of them who are really good at emulating machines, but they also bring something to it. They really bring some humanity to the whole thing.

MD: It was interesting to see in the DVD how you explained the evolution of the kit from playing wood blocks and cow bells to the cymbals and hi hat. And then you get a cat like Sonny Greer who had this amazing array of sound devices that he would hit, and Chick Webb too. Maybe that's coming from that pre-cymbal setup era.

SS: I think a lot of that had to do with visuals as well. I mean, they played great but some of it was for show. Sonny Greer had the tympani and chimes, as things went along he added more and more percussion, and it looked great.

MD: Maybe that's what Cobham was hip to... a fusion era version of Sonny Greer with Duke.

SS: Or Neil Peart with Rush. He's got a big Sonny Greer kind of setup too. John Bonham used to have a couple tympani on stage. And it's incorporated into the music but a lot of it, I think, is for show. But you know I'd like to clarify something here. The concept of running through the decades and naming different drum stars and influential drummers is interesting and fun, but it definitely downplays the contribution of so many other guys that have been influential on their own terms or because they influenced a more famous player, for instance Alan Dawson, or players time has forgotten such as Roy Porter or even Shelly Manne to a degree.

MD: That's the exact criticism that people have had about Ken Burns' "Jazz," that he chose to focus on "the great man syndrome" at the expense of many other key but lesser known players who helped shape the music along the way.

SS: Yeah, right. Like I mentioned... Steve Gadd was a big influence. But his concept is based on so many other people, like Vinnie Rigerio, Bernard Purdie, Dave Garibaldi, Elvin Jones and Buddy Rich. There are so many guys. It's a disservice to name just a few and leave out guys like...

MD: Sandy Nelson.

SS: I interviewed him! I have a video I can show you of Sandy that will blow your mind! He is a trip, man.

MD: Well, he was influential as an ambassador for drums in that pre-Beatles period...

SS: Oh yeah, '59 to '61... Let There Be Drums, Drums Are My Beat, Teen Beat. He was definitely a drum star. He holds a unique place in drum history. He really is the ONLY rock drum star that wasn't part of a band, he was a star on his own. He's the one and only. He had hit songs with drum solos in them that were like surf music and were based off of Cozy Cole and "Topsy, Part 2." Topsy was 1958, then a year later Sandy Nelson came out with "Let There Be Drums"... almost the same solo as Topsy but with a surf guitar as its foundation. I definitely wanted him included in the history of rock drumming project I'm working on with Hudson Music, I found him in the desert outside of Vegas. He's out in the middle of nowhere.

MD: He's a neighbor of Captain Beefheart?

SS: He's out there too? Well, Sandy's there. And he's not that old. He's only around 62, because he was a kid when his success happened. His hero was Earl Palmer. He talks all about it in the interview. He wanted to be a session drummer just like Earl Palmer. He loved everything Earl ever did because Earl was making those records in '49, '54, '55, '56 and Sandy was growing up listening to the Fats Domino and Little Richard records and living in L.A. and then eventually Earl moved to L.A. in the late '50s. Sandy got to meet him and that's what he wanted to do. But then he got into the solo artist thing and had some hits, so he went in that direction.

He had an inclination to have very creative ideas and then he hooked up with a producer, Richie Podolor, and he had his first hit in '59. Unfortunately in 1963 he had a motorcycle accident where he lost the lower part of his right leg. He still made about 20 albums after that and he plays the drums by putting his left foot on the bass drum pedal and doesn't play the hi hat. He wrestled with a lot of demons after that and dropped out of the scene. But he's still around and playing great, he has a fantastic feel.

MD: He's part of U.S. drum history.

SS: Yeah, he really is. And when you talk to drummers like Carmine Appice and drummers of the ‘60s, they all name Sandy as a big influence. When they were kids, he had hits on the radio and records in the stores with pictures of drums on the cover. So he's really the first rock drum star. He pre-dates Ringo by five years.

To take a detour from Sandy, I was just thinking about something that has influenced the younger generation that thankfully I didn't have to deal with which is punk. Shortly before the drum machine we had the punk influence. Basically in 1977 bands like the Ramones and the Sex Pistols embodied an aesthetic of "you don't have to be a good musician to succeed in music business," how it was actually "hip to suck," hip to not really know how to play well, as long as you played with a lot of attitude. I never had to deal with that when I grew up and I find that it confuses a lot of young people, the idea that if they study too much there's a negative side to that, some people look down on really knowing your instrument, really studying music and knowing what you're doing. There's a pretty strong voice that says that's not cool, that's not hip. This is a confusing element and it's affecting the quality of many of the young players. At the time that punk came out it was very much a sub-culture but at this point it's become a large part of the predominant culture, with the rise of Nirvana and Pearl Jam and bands like that that actually took that punk ideal and highly commercialized it.

MD: That whole aesthetic has been absorbed into the mainstream and it's almost a mistrust of virtuosity, some kind of suspicion about craft.

SS: Yes.

MD: It's almost like anti-virtuosity.

SS: It is.

MD: And from that aesthetic sprang that whole stigma about fusion music as being somehow evil.

SS: Yeah, right, that plays in there also.

MD: The antithesis of punk... the highly crafted, ornate Romantic Warrior type fusion.

SS: Exactly. At this point I think the punk ideal has been commercialized and it has lost it's original energy and it's all industry driven now. Instead of punk being a rebellion, it's a commercial category. Punk isn't confusing to me, I don't take it at all seriously. It was always for kids that didn't want to do any work and still participate in the music business without being musicians. The punk idea is so silly I was never influenced by it.

MD: Because of when and how you came up.

SS: Yeah, it had come much later after I had already developed a pretty strong aesthetic and concept.

MD: The whole point and aspiration of every musician who came up in your era was to get better on their instrument.

SS: It was. And it really transcended to all styles too, whether you were a blues player, rock player or jazz player, everyone was striving for excellence. And the punk concept is a reaction against that. I think it was born more out of a backlash against the music industry and less upon individual musicians. A lot of it had to do with how the industry was promoting certain types of music. It seemed like the backlash was against that. But it definitely caused confusion to the present day where it can seem as though all you need is the baddest attitude and the hippest tattoos and you can be a success in the music business. And that may be true, but that doesn't really relate at all to being a being a good musician.

There is confusion about that because the media has to deal with the punk musicians success. They have to justify it somehow and say they are actually "good," which is an oxymoron, a "good punk musician" back in the late '70s that would have sounded ridiculous -- the kiss of death to a punk.

So the drum industry puts these drummers in ads and the young readers think they are good because they saw them in the magazine. They do interviews and they take themselves very seriously and the interviewer has to say all these great things about them so again the young drummer thinks, "Oh, this guy is great."

But the problem is the young drummer reading the interview doesn't know the difference, he hasn't been exposed to enough good music and good drumming and he doesn't know the punk drummer really does suck, but he is successful none-the-less. That's why I say there is confusion for the young players. Thankfully I didn't have to deal with that.

In my younger years the guys that were drum heroes were actually great drummers, it was before punk, before drummers were famous and glamorized just because they are in a famous band, before people confused fame with talent and ability, before everyone had publicists willing to say anything to keep their jobs and before an overblown music industry that is willing to say anything in it's advertising just to sell more products.

MD: Well, that punk attitude certainly did take hold but then I felt like the pendulum was swinging back a little bit in the '90s with bands like Primus and Phish, where they were trying to do something adventurous instrumentally. And I think that may have spurred more people on to wanting to play better on their instruments.

SS: Let's hope so.

[A break here and we watch a video clip of Sandy Nelson at his home and "cave."]

MD: What were some of the other things that you talked about with the master class you just did at The Collective? Was it mainly about technique or was it about life experience or what?

SS: I started off by putting out the concept of being a U.S. ethnic drummer instead of being a "rock" drummer or a "jazz" drummer or some other sub-category of U.S. Music. I went through that to give the students a point of reference of how I think about the drumset and the music I play. Then I went through the rhythmic common denominator of all U.S. Music...the swing pulse, the U.S. Beat.

I played my exercises with the bass drum and hi hat playing the 3/2 2/3 rhythms. Then we got into some of the technical ideas.

One thing I got into pretty deep, which I didn't get into at all on the DVD, is how people playing rhythm evolved out of nature -- the natural phenomenon of rhythm. I'll probably write about it in depth in the book that I'll work on over the next year.

Here is the idea: First of all, let's look at why do we have 12 pitches, 12 tones to work with in music? The reason that we have them is that they exist in nature. If you got back to Pythagoras and how he discovered (as far as the Western world is concerned) the overtone series or what is know as harmonics, he discovered that if you divided a string by 2/3rds you get the fifth (or the dominant). If you divide that dominate by 2/3rds you get another fifth, and so o; what we now call the cycle of fifths. You go through the cycle of fifths until you come all the way around again to where you started, let's say you started at C, you end up at B# and you've played 12 notes. In those days the B# was a different note than C, but after the scale was tempered they became the same note.

The Western world developed harmony so eventually the scale was tempered so we could play chords and play in all the keys on one instrument without retuning between songs, in nature as you continue up the scale the notes are sharper and sharper. The twelve tone tempered scale is a man made creation based on the fundamentals present in nature. So the reason we have 12 tones is because they exist in nature, they were "polished" by man, but they are not an arbitrary creation.

The reason that we have rhythm is based on the same phenomenon -- rhythm exists in nature as a result of the overtone series. What is a pitch but a vibration that occurs at a certain speed? A440 means a sound pulsing at 440 beats per second. If I could play 440 beats on the snare drum in a second, it would sound like the pitch A440. If you slowed that down, you will start to hear the pulses present in the overtone series. That's rhythm.

Rhythm is the same as pitch... but slowed down. If you speed the pulses up fast enough you get radio waves and even faster they become light. As you slow the pulses down, you hear them as pitches (well, the pitches us humans can hear) and as you slow them down more they become rhythm. You can slow them down even more but you can't keep track of them unless you have a watch or a calendar.

With the overtone series first you hear the fundamental, next you hear the octave, then the fifth above that, then the fourth above that, then a major third and a minor third above that. When you slow them down to a point where you hear them as rhythm, the fundamental is beat one and the octave is twice as fast. So you have "one" and then the octave being twice as fast is "two over one" which is basically "one" and "two." The fifth vibrates one third faster than the fundamental, which is "three over two," then the fourth above that is another octave, which is four times faster than the fundamental, it's the rhythm four over three. And the major third is five over four and so on.

That's why we have what we call quarter notes, triplets, 8th notes, 5's, 6's, 7's, etc. again they are present in nature. But they are not tempered, that is why African drumming sounds so loose and funky to us. But our Western ears are now becoming used to the sound of "Tempered Rhythm" which is what quantizing and having "perfect" time is all about, tempered rhythm.

In the master class we talked about this phenomenon, that rhythm is essentially and naturally polyrhythmic because it occurs that way in nature. The whole concept of linear drumming is an intellectual fabrication. It doesn't exist in nature. Polyrhythmic pulse exists in nature. Or polyrhythm is vibrations slowed down to the point where they appear as rhythm and since harmonics are multi-layered, they sound polyrhythmic. So it's a natural principal that rhythm and pulse is polyrhythmic... that's why African music developed the polyrhythmic base that it did, it was just a response to nature. It wasn't a fabrication... "Ok, we're gonna play three over two here." It's just the way pulse is. It's the way vibration and frequencies work.

When we look at all the music that was derived from the African diaspora, it's essentially all polyrhythmic. The foundationary rhythms are based on the most basic polyrhythm that exists in nature, three over two... the polyrhythm of the perfect fifth. So it all makes sense. And we U.S. Americans have our interpretation of that, which is the swing rhythm. The Afro-Cubans have their interpretation, which is clave, just as the Brazilians have their interpretation of it and the Africans themselves have their own interpretation of the same phenomenon.

We talked about that idea. I do demonstrations of that on the DVD but I don't get into the theory behind it. Paul, Rob (the DVD producers) and I thought that was a little too much, but I may pursue that in the book. Efrain Toro is the person who has deciphered this mystery for me. I had already derived that the nature of U.S. pulse was polyrhythmic, the 3 over 2 polyrhythm, but Efrain was the one that put the harmonic series into the equation.

Howard Levy had deduced that as well, independently, and he talked to me about it a few years ago, but at the time I didn't "get" it. Since then I did some more research into the actual mathematical equations of the perfect fifth, perfect fourth, major third and minor third, etc. I could see that they are mathematically the same as what we learn rhythmically when we study music. It's about whole notes, half notes, triplets, quarter notes, fives, sixes, sevens, eighth notes, and so on. It's just another way of going up the rhythmic scale.

But the interesting thing to me is that it all happens harmonically, not linearly. It all happens at the same time so all the rhythms vibrate simultaneously and work together. That's why jazz works, and that's why the early rock and roll rhythms worked. You had somebody playing the three and then the two on top of that. Straight eighths over swing is just two over three, it works because it occurs in nature.

MD: And you build up vertically from that... like Dixieland or Ornette's harmolodic theory.

SS: You'll have to figure that one out. But I think it's interesting to point these ideas out because it helps one's point of reference as to what's important to focus on. And so it takes polyrhythm out of the concept of the intellect and puts it into nature.

MD: It's not a fabrication, it's an organic connection.

SS: Yeah, the idea that rhythm is not flat, that rhythm is multi-dimensional, multi-layered. Because it's especially mysterious and problematic to players that are younger and have grown up with the click track as the measure of time, it seems like they learn patterns and then they play the patterns in time to the metronome, which is not the concept I'm talking about... the concept being that you develop a pulse that's based off of polyrhythm and like I point out in the DVD, time is simply keeping the pulse steady. As U.S. drummers the polyrhythmic pulse I'm talking about is the swing pulse, all of our music is based on that. You have to have a good feeling swing pulse in order to have a good feeling foundation to the music. And then, OK, great, you want to keep that perfectly in time, OK, we'll do that. But that's different than just working on time, just trying to keep patterns even. That concept won't have the depth, the feel that you would get if you approached it from pulse.

MD: Like Rashied Ali or Milford Graves, whose concept of playing is based more on pulse rather than on metronomic time value.

SS: ...Just an energy that's flowing forward.

MD: There's a surging pulse to their playing that defies the concept of bar lines or metronomic time values.

SS: Yeah, and that reminds me of something. I did a record that hasn't come out's called Yo Miles! with Henry Kaiser and Wadada Leo Smith. We did a studio record...actually it's two double CDs. Henry Kaiser needs to get a record deal for it. We did it over a year ago and he still hasn't gotten a record deal for it.

We did some live gigs and we spent five days in the studio. Greg Osby plays alto on it, the guitar players are Henry Kaiser and Mike Keneally, Michael Manring is on bass and Zakir Hussain played tablas on it. Karl Perazza is on percussion, John Tchacai on Tenor and Tom Coster on keys. It's really great, in fact it's killing! Wadada is coming out of the free jazz thing, as is John Tchachai. And one of the pieces we do is completely free, so I was playing what I thought was working and they came over and said that it wasn't working and gave me some direction. But the direction was... and somehow I really got it... they said, "It just needs to feel like water flowing in a river down the side of a mountain. Just keep the momentum happening so it feels like it's flowing and moving forward. Just keep that underneath and we're gonna play on top."

They didn't want any time, they just wanted a certain kind of activity that felt like forward motion to them, like this stream coming down a mountain. And I was able to come up with something that felt like that. I applied a bit of drum technique to it, splashing the hi hat, playing some fast rhythms on the cymbal and keeping the left hand moving on the snare drum... trying to get to what they were talking about. We ended up recording it and it came out really nice. But it was interesting how they described it to me.

Actually in January I played a duo gig with Wadada, just trumpet and drums. It was very unique and musical, he has the most interesting charts, they look like art, you could hang them on the wall! But they are more like "maps" that you follow where he has sketched out the geography of a piece of music -- very interesting.

MD: That description is very much like what Milford Graves talks about the concept of his playing. And when you talk to Rashied, he'll tell you, "I got all my shit from Philly Joe." He felt that Philly was free within the bar lines, coming up with creative ways of dealing with time erratically, cutting up the beat. And Rashied took that idea and ran with it...took the bar lines away and got deeper into time displacement until the water was streaming down the mountain, you dig? The pulse flowed from the beginning to the end of the song, and he credits Philly for opening him up to come up with that concept.

SS: Yeah Bill -- this is all very interesting -- we're getting into some deep shit here!!!

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Click the links, below, to read "Drum Talk" articles written by Steve Smith:

Drummer Magazine, 2007 (PDF)
Modern Drummer (three parts)
Choosing the Right Equipment
The Art of Practice (an excerpt)
Interview with Rhythm Magazine
Drums du jour: Dealing with Rental Drums
Vital Reading: My Favorite Music Books
Learning from Mentors
My Setup and Equipment: The Early Years
My Setup and Equipment: My Setup Today