The main ingredient
What drummers need to know
Talking to Frank King in 1967
You started on piano and switched to drums when your father brought home a kit. Did you find the piano study helpful in learning drums?
Playing and studying the piano was a definite aid to me in playing drums—even in the early stages of learning; at nine to twelve years, I used to make–up little arrangements (mostly on the Blues) and I think the exposure to a melodic and harmonic instrument was a good influence in approaching the drum kit. Of course, when later studying tympani and vibes and the other percussion family it was most helpful. I like composition and I have had three little works recorded. I hope to do more studying and work at it in the future.
Do you split up your practice periods to cover all the study required on the many percussion instruments that you play?
I used to split my practice schedule to cover drums, mallet instruments (vibes, bells, xylo) and tympani. But for about five years now, I have returned to full drumming practice only—with some time for harmony and composition. I find that the art of drumming is so close to my heart, and the challenge of greater improvement so stimulating, that I decided on that direction in practice after achieving a moderate degree of skill as a general percussionist. Practically speaking, my work has always consisted of 95–100 per cent of drumming jobs, and it seemed rather pointless to spend the required practice time on keeping ‘chops’ on vibes, bells, etc.
For the relatively small share of work I did in that area of percussion. It was all so very worthwhile, however, since I can always go on a percussion job at a minute’s notice and do a pretty good job with the many years of good hard work as a background. Besides, the study of all those other instruments only helps your drumming all the more.
Do you play both orthodox and matched (tymp–grip) holds, as the situation demands, or do you favour one of the grips?
I play both grips quite a bit and have (for about ten years) endorsed the matched grip as a most functional drumming approach. My belief in it came about from studying and practising many hours on tympani and vibes, etc. It struck me as double work for the left hand to be skilled in two positions, and seemed so logical to have one basic grip for the whole percussion family. There are some subtle advantages to the traditional left–hand grip which I feel the advanced drummer only can most appreciate–but not enough to override the generally more natural approach of matched–grip playing. One of my best students (who works at the Metropolitan Opera at times) has an excellent matched–grip snare–drum technique, with good dynamics and a fine sound, and is one of the best matched–grip players I know. Since he works at all percussion instruments, he particularly appreciates that approach.
Would you agree that the matched grip is the most logical for kit playing, the orthodox grip being a throw–back to the military marching style? When sitting at a kit it is unnecessary to tilt the drum from left to right.
The traditional left–hand grip is without doubt a throw–back to marching drums. As the best example, look at primitive tribes all over the world who play matched grip on any horizontal plane drum. The flat snare drum is a popular position with so many drummers that, regardless of grip styles, it obviously feels good and comfortable. For any drummer (like myself), however, who has spent many years in developing a good traditional left hand (particularly the fine points of finger control) it is silly to throw speed and smoothness—just to change one’s appearance and be ‘with–it’. I constantly tell my students that it’s not how you do it, it’s how it sounds that matters in music. This was an axiom of Morris Goldenberg, a great percussionist and invaluable teacher to me.
For session work, what would you consider an ideal set of cymbals to cover all musical eventualities? What does your cymbal set–up consist of?
For big–band playing (like the albums I did with Count Basie) I favour a 22–inch ride cymbal (with six rivets), two l8–inch crash cymbals, high and lower pitched 13–inch hi–hats with a quite heavy bottom cymbal for strong ‘chick’ sound with the foot. I’m always trying out a little change or addition in cymbals or drum sizes–just for fun, and because you’re always learning.
In combo work I usually use a 20–inch sizzle cymbal on the right, and an l8–inch medium on the left, for lighter ride work and crash work. In small group playing, cymbal colour work is more likely to stand out; therefore at least two ride cymbals of different sounds are good to my ear.
In big–band playing, good positioning of two good crash cymbals on either side of the main ride cymbal is very important for strong, fast ensemble playing. Naturally, there are personal choices, and many fine drummers use their own variations with success On the Johnny Carson Tonight show I use a scaled–down version of my big band set–up—since cymbals tend to ‘spread’ somewhat in TV studios. A 20–inch sizzle for ride work—and two 16–inch crash cymbals of different pitches do the job very well—with the same type 13–inch hi hats.
Do you use plastic heads all round? What is your opinion of nylon tipped sticks?
I use all plastic heads, and consider today’s plastic head sound as remarkably fine—if the drummer tunes his drums evenly. I lean towards an all–wood stick, unless the nylon tip type is made very well in the tip with no ‘false’ feeling that many models give. I like a stick to have a ‘solid’ feel–good density of grain.
Have you found the ideal snare drum?
The ideal snare drum for me is a wood–shell standard size 5–inch by 14–inch. I have two in white pearl with extended snares (out past the edge of the snare head) built on a special snare frame, and they are absolutely fantastic! They actually have run the gamut of a concert type recording date in the morning to a jazz band (like Basie) recording at night. That type of sensitivity and power is most unusual.
I’ve seen a picture of you with a two bass drum set–up. What are your thoughts on this? Is it a must for the future?
I have been using two bass drums since 1948, when influenced by my dear friend Louie Bellson, who taught me many invaluable things when we used to practice together very often. For some time now, however, I have been using a somewhat original variation of two bass drum playing that parallels my interest in ‘oddmeter’ playing. I have invented a tambourine type of bass drum beater which I use on a smaller bass drum on the left side. In the pictures here you see the big band set with a 22–inch bass drum on the right and an l8–inch bass drum on the left.
I call the small bass drum with special beater the Jingle Drum, since my original idea was to devise a sound for the left foot that would be more primitive than the hi–hat for solo playing and which would have a different colour.
The Jingle Beater will be in production in a few months, and is meeting with much enthusiasm at clinics, concerts, etc. It is especially effective in odd–meter solo playing, where I use the Jingle Drum in place of the hi–hat in 3/4, 5/4, 7/4, etc., and it sounds like someone with a giant tambourine (like the Brazilians use at carnival time) accompanying the drum set.
In small group playing, I use the Jingle Beater on a special 12–inch by 16–inch midget bass drum that works beautifully with a standard 14–inch by 18–inch bass drum on the right. This two–different–feet–sound business has been inspiring me for some time. And I’m always trying to develop more interesting patterns between hands and feet. It’s a great challenge, and endless in possibilities.
As a drum teacher, how do you set about improving the sight reading of your students? Do you use the counting system or the reading by recognition method? Is there a book that really teaches reading? I haven’t found one!
I use both systems (counting and reading by recognition) in teaching sight reading. One of the best books to date—since it is well–graded and very contemporary in eighth–note reading (the foundation of jazz band notation)—is “Modern 414 Reading,” by Louis Bellson and Gil Breines. I teach it in two forms: first, with two hands in traditional concert snare drum style and, second, with the right hand playing the ride cymbal beat, and the left hand playing the figures. It has worked wonderfully well with my students, all of whom are most enthusiastic about the results.
I used to spend much time in writing this type of reading exercises by hand, so it is good to bypass that work! Another good book along the same lines is the orange cover Ralph Pace book, “Variations”, that has been out for some time. It has a good eighth–note section to play in the two ways described above.
I missed you on my last visit to New York, but colleagues who went along to the TV show you were on said you played great. How much reading do you do on a show?
On the Johnny Carson show, we read as many as 12 to 15 new pieces of music each day—and have one hour of rehearsal to cover it. On record dates the average is four to six arrangements to be recorded in three hours. On some movie music, TV film, or commercial jingle–type dates, we sometimes read 30 to 40 pieces of new music in a day’s work.
One must be a fast, accurate and consistent reader for freelance recording, television, movie and jingle work: there simply isn’t the time to learn by ear. You use your ear to learn the nuances and fine points that aren’t on the music, and the colorations and fill–ins that are expected by the second or third playing.
Is there any way to improve one’s sense of time? A lot of drummers have a tendency to race or drag the beat—not always entirely their fault, since not all bass players are blameless in this respect.
In my opinion, a good, honest appraisal of a student’s time–keeping faults by a teacher who knows can be of great help. That is why I have always taught 50 per cent of the lesson on the drum kit—with good recordings and arrangements for same (sometimes the original drum parts to an album I’ve recorded), so that the student does not become (in my pal Buddy Rich’s words) a good pad drummer only. Many students do not sound anywhere as good on the drum kit as on a pad—and must be heard in a real playing context on the set) to be judged and helped properly.
Drum tuning: how do you set about this? What mufflers (dampers) do you use? Do you alter the tuning for different occasions?
I tune my drums for a full, round, sound, and use no mufflers, except one 2–inch strip on the big bass drum beating head to give a more blending sound in big band rhythm section playing. I use at least three tom-toms, two different small size, two different floor size (if the space is available) and tune them about a fourth apart from each other. I like that difference in pitches to aid in more melodic playing. My two different size bass drums are a fourth apart, also. The small bass drum (with the jingle beater) is played open—no muffler strip.
At 38, looking back on your varied career, what are the highlights? What are your future plans?
Some highlights of the past years—a tour of Europe in 1950 with the Benny Goodman Sextet (unfortunately there was no visit to England at that time); working with Duke Ellington (for Louis Bellson’s vacation and marriage) in 1952; playing an avante garde work, “Fusion,” by Ted Macero, with the New York Philharmonic and Leonard Bernstein in 1958; recording for albums with the Count Basie Orchestra in 1966 and 1967; working on the “Afro–American Sketches” album by Oliver Nelson in 1962—a very challenging and inspiring recording with good 5/4 and 6/4 rhythms; starting clinic work about two years ago, which is a most satisfying combination of playing and teaching and helping the other fellow to achieve his goals; having my own compositions recorded, and come off reasonably well—which is a ‘kick all its own; seeing my students out in the working world of music, doing well and being well-prepared.
My future plans are to keep trying to play better, to be a good clinician and be grateful as always for the wonderful world of music and my friends in it.
Finally, what should be the first objective of the drummer just starting out? I mean the youngster who is right at the beginning?
The most important objective of the young drummer should be love for music and drumming with fervour. Never be complacent or smug, or too easily satisfied. Always work hard to improve—but be sure you know what needs improving. Listen how almost every good player has something worthwhile to be appreciated. Listen to all kinds of music—classical, jazz, folk, primitive people’s recordings—and let it all enrich your musical vocabulary. Don’t simply envy the superior player: try to be like him. If you do not have love and dedication and humility about music, forget about achieving great things. As in all of life, one must give to get.
Copyright © 1967 Frank King. All Rights Reserved.