Life of a Drummer – On the Road with Chubbs, Studio Time, and Grips

Bridlington Spa Theatre, east coast. It is Friday – early afternoon. The lighting and sound technicians are still setting up, so we have time to kill before unloading. The sun is shining and the smell of fish and chips lingers on the sea breeze. It must be time for a walk.

We spent a few hours wandering around Bridlington. We took a ride on a pirate ship which took us a short way along the coast, had some rather good fish and chips, and even crashed the van trying to park in a space not suited to such vehicles. These busy work days must be the cause of much of my stress.

It was, of course, Roy Chubby Brown’s fault. I found myself back on the road for two nights – the first in ‘Brid’, the second across at Middleton Arena, about twenty minutes north of Manchester. This time around, everything seemed more relaxed. I knew the band, I knew the crew, I knew the material, I knew the monitoring and sound set up, and I knew what was expected of me. The importance of experience in situations cannot be overstated. I believe simple lack of experience – lack of knowledge of what to do, lack of confidence in one’s ability to do it, lack of understanding of the situation etc. – is the primary source of all nerves. Still, saying that, our lovely singer Denise gets nervous to the state of nausea in the half an hour leading up to the show, and she has been a consummate performer for decades.

In Middleton, Roy lasted 40 seconds on stage before asking for the house lights to be turned on, and then walking off. He attracts a loyal following, some of whom make a point of getting as involved in the show as they can; shouting, chanting, and constantly interrupting. Enter Roy’s personal security detail. Upon leaving the arena, we had a good chuckle at one such heckler sitting outside the arena, surrounded by four of the security team. Needless to say, the show continued inside without his input.

Eclectic Band

A few weeks on, and the Eclectic Band were back in the studio. Castle Boulevard’s Curly Lead Studio was home to the recording of Carousel, and was again the host for the new material. As mentioned previously, this was the first time that I have worked with guitarist Steve McCabe. Indeed, the first time I have worked with a guitarist at all in this band. I felt it worked very well, and the new tunes are sounding rather spiffing. Mixing is under-way, and the results will be released as soon as they’re ready.

Courante, the main goal of that session, was completed in the fourth take. We did a few subsequent attempts, but all agreed they couldn’t match the flow of the fourth. Tom (Sharp, pianist) commented rather succinctly by saying that the fourth take was the first during which we had all started listening to each other. If the first two are a warm-up and the third was a little self-indulgent, the fourth, it seems, was where we became a band, rather than just a group of individual musicians playing at the same time.

I shan’t comment much further on these sessions; instead, I shall allow the results to speak for themselves once they’re released. As with the Chubby Brown show, however, I found this session to be more relaxed, more focussed, less hectic than with Carousel, even with the two new members attending.

Getting a Grip

It finally happened. I am once again a matched-grip player. I’ll give you all a minute to gather your breath. Following a particularly intensive drum lesson with Paul (Hose) I found myself aghast at the weaknesses of my left hand, despite the sheer amount of time and effort I had sunk into trying to improve and strengthen it. Following that session, I had to ask myself why I was persisting with it. I initially switched, around four years ago, for two reasons. Firstly, I wasn’t comfortable with my left hand, so thought perhaps a grip change would be productive. Secondly, my drumming idols, to a man, played with traditional grip.

Let’s look at (in my opinion) the best drummers of the past fifty years. In no particular order – Vinnie Colaiuta, Dave Weckl, Tony Williams, Buddy Rich, Steve Smith, Steve Gadd, Elvin Jones, Jack DeJohnette. To a man they all play(ed) trad. Surely, I thought, if it works for them, it can work for me. Now look at the current crop of top drummers, excluding those on this list – Thomas Lang, Mike Mangini, Virgil Donati, Mike Johnston, Damien Schmidt, Chris Coleman – there are many others doing great things today, but out of these six, five play matched. Thomas Lang and Mike Mangini seem equally formidable with both, though both claim to prefer matched, and Virgil remains predominantly a trad player, but I am not sure whether that man is truly human.

I began to wonder whether trad’s time is up. Vinnie and Weckl are both legends of another era, and even they have now started revisiting matched grip. Jack DeJohnette has been spotted playing matched much more often, and Tony Williams switched to matched in the later part of his life. One thing that I couldn’t escape from was my complete inability to justify it. Quite simply, why play trad?

Traditional grip developed in the era of open battlefield warfare, with armies of musketeers marching forward in a line and shooting at each other. In the days before modern communication, orders were transmitted on the battlefield using, among other things, drums. Regiments marched with a drummer who transmitted orders and kept them in step. In the latter stages of the American Civil War, these drums were massive rope-slung things that were just too big and cumbersome to hang in front of the drummer and still allow them to march over rough terrain. Instead, the drum was slung over their left shoulder, with the drum sitting at the drummer’s left hip, tilted forward. This position is very unwieldy when playing matched grip, so the stick was inverted in the drummer’s left hand to allow them to play comfortably and still have their elbow relaxed by their side.

It was a simple matter of progression for this to become the accepted way to play a drum when the new ‘traps kits developed at the turn of the century. Now, over a hundred years on, with modern, stationary, flat drum kits (flat with regard to drum positions relative to the drummer), I can simply see no reason to choose traditional grip. Yes, it can give you a different, asymmetrical feeling, which can be nice to play with sometimes, but from a pragmatic perspective (and contrary to what I have said before), matched grip simply makes more sense ergonomically. It is more powerful and less prone to injury.

We will see – I’ll revisit this next year and see if I’m still playing matched. For now, it is feeling pretty good.

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