Jazz Professional               


What drummers need to know

Drummers' Dialogue
Talks drums
The main ingredient
What drummers need to know
Talking to Les Tomkins in 1982

Over the last few years, I havenít been doing so much recording, because Iíve gotten so much busier with the clinics. My time is sort of in three areas now, just due to there being no more hours in the day. My television job with the Doc Severinsen band on the Johnny Carson Show is five nights a week, when Iím available in town which is a good deal of the time. And on most weekends Iím out clinicking; sometimes, of course, I take a week or two off to do a clinic tour of the States. A lot of my time is put into my own big band not just in the working end, but in new music, rehearsals and things like that. To be quite honest, Iím really not interested in doing commercial recordings very much any more; Iím lucky enough now that I have other work that I like to do so I donít have to do it for bread and butter. Which I did in my younger years.

The merging of rock styles into drumming has enhanced it to a degree, but on the negative side we have a lot of drummers who feel that if they have just some basic rock techniques and no other skills that this is going to be enough to last them. I think theyíre in for a very rude surprise. I would say that, except at the very highest level of rock drumming, jazz drumming is generally a bit more difficult and a bit more sophisticated. Iím not trying to be critical; I speak from experience now as a teacher, and Iíve had a lot of very good rock drummers come to me, who are trying now to learn some other techniques, because they find theyíre at a very dead end. They want to do other work, with other music; among it will be a lot of jazz playing, and they have to get some new tools.

Itís the same with a jazz drummer today it would be silly just to close your eyes and not know how to play rock acceptably well, I would say. I donít mean you have to, but youíd be a better musician if you could and play Latin equally well. I suppose I look for the all-round picture, because thatís kind of what Iíve always done in my life; but I still think itís good for a guy to be able to play all of those three basic styles well. Then you bring a little more musicality to whatever music youíre in the context of.

One of the younger drummers I admire a great deal is Steve Gadd, out of New York City, because I think Steve shows his adaptability in being able to handle jazz playing equally as well as rock playing. If we had more young drummers coming up with the kind of musical flexibility that Steve has, it would be very good. Heís an excellent rock drummer, but can sit down and play good mainstream or progressive jazz also. I have not come across too many younger drummers who can do all of that, the way Steve can, that well I have to say that.

Another thing is that there are a lot of rock drummers who are playing very much into the drums. I have some of them sit in on my drums sometimes, and they can actually kill the entire snare-head in one or two tunes because of the incorrect way that they play. This is a big problem to people like me not as a drummer, as Iíve got a few extra drum-heads, but theyíre doing it very wrong, and the drum looks like a hammer has been taken and the hell beaten out of the head. I donít mean to say that itís only rock drummers that do it, but primarily it seems theyíre playing that way. I just donít think anyone has yet shown them that to get the biggest, strongest and best sound out of the drum you must play off the head not into it.

Since I am a clinician and sort of a part-time teacher, I spend a lot of time with some of those guys trying to teach them to play off the head. And a lot of them are not happy playing that way; they realise when theyíre killing a couple of drumheads a week that something isnít right. I mean, a guy like Buddy Rich or myself, who are playing equally loud, will have a shiny spot in the centre of the snare drum and no great big dig marks. Weíre playing very loud and very hard, and we change the head because that shiny spot tells you that the head is thinning out but thereís not a big bunch of huge dents and clunky marks into the head. So itís how you do it.

Some of the guys play well as far as their overall playing goes, but theyíre approaching striking the drum really bad. A lot of them pay the piper, because they get tired easily; they tell me: ďGee, I get so tiredĒ I say: ďThatís because youíre playing with so much more energy than you need to.Ē See, you need to save your energy for the times you really need it to the maximum. Itís just like in good athletics: you see some guy go over the high bar at a seven foot height, and sometimes he just looks like heís flying well, heís learned how to do it gracefully, and, in a way, thatís whyís he going over so high. Naturally, thereís good and bad to all sides of all styles.

Amplified drums? Itís funny for me to talk about that, because Iíve experimented with some electronic amplification just trying for new sounds and things like that. I donít use it all the time; maybe I do one or two tunes with my band on it, but itís strictly for a different tonal quality itís not to make the drums louder. I use a couple of effects with the pitch pedal, and itís kind of interesting; I play it with the hands, not the sticks. So itís not the kind of electronic sound that hits you between the eyes; itís kind of a mellow sound like youíre maybe playing on string drums, if thereís such a thing! I think sounds like that, if theyíre used in a good musical context, are worthwhile. But so far I havenít heard too many attempts at really amplifying the drums electronically that I thought were very musical. Itís like anything else if it doesnít create a musical effect thatís pleasing or interesting, then it doesnít have any validity whatsoever. Sometimes over-amplification will make a drummer not shade as muchóyou almost start to relate too much more to the electronic sound than you relate to the acoustic sound. With some players, this can cause their control of dynamics to suffer. Same thing if you kill the sound of the drums by putting a sofa and five armchairs in it, or something like that. Some drummers are ending up playing with their foot four times as harder than they have to, and thereís no sound coming out of the bass drum and they wonder why their legs get tired. Buddy and I have talked about that many times itís not letting the instrument do any of the work for you. So these are all things, of course, that people have to learn as they go along.

Although drumming has changed a great deal in a way, the basic requisites are always the same: trying to get a good quality sound. A maximum sound with a minimum of effort, really thatís what we all work for. Very often itís much more difficult to play effectively softly than it is to play effectively loudly; it calls for a lot of touch, a lot of skill. Thatís the type of thing Jo Jones showed everybody many years ago absolute control of the instrument itself.

Both Jo Jones and Sidney Catlett were masters of this; they could show you how you can get an exciting pulsation and not be playing the drums loud. It was a certain intensity, and a certain ďreal high-class touch,Ē as I used to call it theyíd be swinging like hell, without bombarding you with the drum set at that time.

In some ways, true dynamics of that kind is a lost art. You canít find too many younger drummers who can play with brushes today, for instance theyíre really at quite a loss. Yet, as they go along, a lot of times they find out theyíd like to learn eventually. Thatís why some of them come to coaches or teachers like myself. They say: ďHey, you know all that banging Iíve been doingóthereís more to it than that.Ē

†Copyright © 1982 Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved.