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Thursday, September 9, 2021

A Life of Drums

A Life of Drums

I’ve played drums and percussion for as long as I can remember. I’ve taken a stab at guitar and bass from time to time, but the drums are second nature to me. My first encounter was a gift of a set of bongo drums when I was about eight or nine. I was always into music, so it was only natural that I’d start banging away on the bongos (like a chimpan-zee, says Mark Knopfler in “Money for Nothing”) to my favorite tunes on the radio. I had a little plastic plug-in AM radio for during the day, and a little six-dollar transistor radio that I’d hide under the covers with and listen to all the hot songs of the day on KYA. And it just seemed like a natural thing to play to these on the drums.

Devara Williams and Hanka Kent were my fifth and sixth grade teachers at Thomas Edison grammar school in Daly City. Prior to these two teachers, all teachers’ first names were “Miss or Mrs.” I remember these first names because they were so unique, but the two of them were like night and day. Miss Williams was an absolute knockout of a blonde (an important factor in a teacher for any fifth-grade boy), who ultimately left teaching to marry a sailor, we heard. Miss Kent was a very proper Polish woman who spoke somewhat broken English but was an excellent teacher. Not the knockout that Miss Williams was, but a great teacher. I was in the school’s glee club, which meant I got to do something other than the regular mundane class work for a couple of afternoons a week. It was here where I first did any kind of performing on a stage, in the form of both singing (which I do very poorly) and playing bongo and conga drums, for the Spring and Christmas school presentations.


An interesting note here is that I’ve never had anything resembling stage fright, even at the age of eight, when about 20 of us would take the stage of the multi-purpose room and sing and play a few instruments for a group of gracious and understanding parents and siblings. For me, it’s always been easy to get up on a stage and play. Dancing in a group of 10 (or 100) people scares me to death (because I don’t know how to dance) but performing is a breeze. I really enjoy it, and I’m aware of how lucky I am in this regard. A good many actors and musicians absolutely dread live performances. Tales of people getting physically ill before going on stage are abundant. Not me, I love it.


At the age of twelve, I had the best Christmas ever. I’d gotten the usual bikes and toys over the years, but this would be the year that would top them all. We’d all opened our presents (all, meaning yours truly and the five younger sisters, and mom and dad), and then my dad handed me the key to the family car (a 1962 blue Plymouth Valiant station wagon, with a push button automatic trans). He said there might be something in the back of the car for me. The big box held a small but ultimately significant gift from my parents … my first drum set. The little set of Sears drums included a bass drum, snare, mounted tom, and a little cymbal on a straight stand that stuck up from the top of the bass. No throne, no ride, crash, hi-hat, no floor tom … we’re talking very basic. But man was I thrilled.


My little drum set lived in the downstairs makeshift room that my dad and grandfather had stapled together for me. We lived in a three-bedroom, 1200 sq. ft. house in the San Francisco suburb of Daly City, made famous by Pete Seeger’s rendition of Malvina Reynolds’ “Little Boxes”. When baby sister number 5 arrived, it was time to expand into the garage for the oldest son. But this provided a great little studio where I could bang away on the drums for hours on end. I’d put 45 RPM records (the ones with the big hole in the middle) on my little Decca “hi-fi,” and crank it up as loud as it would go and play to my favorite songs. Much to my father’s dismay, I never opted for any formal training. I’ve learned what flams and paradiddles are through process of osmosis over the years, but never actually learned rudiments or how to read music. My argument was that Buddy Rich didn’t either, so why should I. In retrospect, I wish I’d taken some lessons and learned the basics, and I highly recommend this for any aspiring Ringo’s out there.

Over the next couple years, I added a couple of cymbals, a hi-hat, and a floor tom to the set, so it sort of “looked” complete, although the quality was just not there. But it got me through a couple of years with my first band, The Underground Balloon Corps (my dad gets credit for the name), with Bill Wilmes on lead guitar and Russ Kerger on keys. Bill played a beautiful Gibson ES-335 guitar and Russ had a Wurlitzer electronic piano. I had my crappy little Sears drum set but made the best of it.


Upon joining the Psychedelic Web, I got to experience a real drum set. The band’s drummer had gone in the Army and left his set of Slingerland blue marine pearl drums behind. So, for the next year or so, I was able to play the Slingerlands, and got spoiled rotten. Bob Hess on keys, Tim Pappas on lead guitar, Marty Cloonan on bass, and “Big Al” Walden on vocals. This band rocked, and we played lots and lots of gigs through high school.


The Slingerlands would ultimately be returned to their rightful owner, and the Sears had just been beaten to death, so I had to find a way to buy some drums. My first “real” set was a red marble swirl set of Ludwigs. I bought them from the former drummer for Butch Wax and the Glass Packs, and they came with lots of extras … cowbells, cymbals, throne, percussion devices, etc. Very fun set. Not the newest or best in the Ludwig line (that would come later), but a quantum leap beyond what I was using.

The next set was a real nice set of Ludwigs, which I bought from Drum World in San Francisco. It was a new Ludwig Hollywood outfit, and was my first new set, and also the first with two mounted toms (high toms, we call them). Nice gold sparkle, Remo Weather Master heads, real cymbal stands, and some decent Zildjian cymbals. Good stuff. Amazingly, this was a set that I ended up playing solo for a few years, and I don’t believe it saw much work in a band. I bought it after my stint at San Diego State, and pretty much used them as a practice set, but no band work. Kind of a shame in retrospect, as they were beautiful looking and sounding drums.


I kept these Ludwigs for several years but ended up selling them for the same reason(s) I’ve sold many sets over the years … too loud to play in an apartment, take up too much room, or I needed the money for something else (like a car payment or rent). So, I sold the Hollywood set, and my “drumming” for the next few years would be limited to a pair of Regal Tip 5B’s and a hard rubber practice pad. I had a few opportunities to “sit in” with friends and bands and took every opportunity to play on anything set up in a music store, but my next drum set would be over a decade away. It was also during this period (my “Chico” days) when I got my first taste of electronic drums. Our local music store had a set of Simmons set up, and it totally opened up a new horizon for me.


Enter the age of electronics, and my first set of Rolands … a TD-7 kit that consisted of a bunch of rubber pads for drum and cymbal triggering, foot controllers for the hi-hat and kick, and a portable rack to mount them on. I had finally reached nirvana … they were a ball to play, had hundreds of sounds, and I could put headphones on and not disturb anyone around me. Life was beautiful for the drummer, once again. I used the Rolands for a couple of years, playing in both work bands and outside bands. They got the job done but lacked the depth of a real drum set in a larger room or outside venue.

Then came my first set of Premiers, a five-piece Cabria set from Starving Musician in Mountain View. I’d always had a soft spot in my heart for Premiers, since Keith Moon played them, and I idolized him for years. I’d been a staunch Beach Boys fan, well into the “British Invasion” era, but everything changed the first time I saw Keith perform on the old Shindig show. Drumming would never be the same for me. I instantly went from a “keep the beat” drummer to wanting to play “lead drums.” Unfortunately, this is generally not what your band mates want you to do, and I’m sure it was less than ideal for several of the bands I played in. Oh well.


I was playing in several bands and really enjoying the Premiers, but I missed the flexibility, ease of transporting, and ability to play with headphones that the Rolands offered. This was all solved when they released the Roland TD-10 V-Drums. Very different technology and electronics, and it was a real drum set in every way. The mesh heads were a major improvement over the old hard rubber ones, although the cymbals were still a generation behind. The TD-10’s were awesome, and I pretty much played them every day. They got me through several years of bands, lots of live gigs, and thousands of hours of enjoyment.


But … I was making a few bucks at this time and ran across a deal I couldn’t pass up. Some poor soul who needed the money, was selling a pristine condition set of Premier Signia Marquis drums, complete with a Gibraltar rack, cymbals, accessories, etc. Top of the line set, flawless condition, mine. The drums were awesome, although the 8-ply maple shells made them a bear to move around and set up and tear down. I added a bunch of Zildjian A-Custom cymbals, replaced the rack with a bigger one, bought mics and a mixer so I could run them through the P.A., and they totally rocked. Both the Premiers and the Rolands moved with us to Bend, OR, and both got lots of use in my little makeshift “studio” in the garage. Big house, no neighbors next door for the first 18 months, and I totally took advantage of it. I played them every day and made LOTS of noise.


But a new acoustic set caught my attention, and I ended up selling both the Rolands and the Premiers. A note here; Yes, I buy and sell a lot of drums and accessories, but I’ve never lost any money on any of my music equipment. I research the best prices, and when it comes time to sell them, I get all my money back (or more) and have had the use of top equipment for a couple of years in the process. No regrets. The new set was made by Tama, a brand I’d always drooled over, and one that many of my favorite drummers played. I couldn’t (and can’t) afford DW’s, so Tama is a good alternative. The set I bought was a Superstar Hyperdrive XL Custom, six piece (two high toms, two floor toms), in a beautiful dark red finish with black nickel-plated hardware. Gorgeous drums, easy to transport, killer sound.


But once again, my environment dictated what was practical, over what I liked. We moved back to San Jose into a tiny apartment, and the Tama’s had a REAL big loud sound. So once again, I sold them and went back to an improved version of the Roland V-Drums, this time a “V-Session” kit. Same number of drums, but they now had V-Cymbals, which are a tremendous improvement over the rubber pads. And they’re red with a red rack, which is better than the white drums and black rack of the first set. I’ve played these in a couple of bands, lots of live settings, and continue to play them every day. Nothing wrong with them, they’re in perfect condition, and will likely meet the needs of the most demanding of drummers.


But as I write this, they’re on Craigslist and are about to be replaced by yet another electronic set, the new Yamaha DTExtreme III Special. New electronic technology, new pads, an awesome rack to mount them on, and they play like a dream. And an interesting thought comes with this set … something I’ve never thought or said before. This could be my last drum set. It seems to finally have everything that I’m looking for in an instrument. Beautiful, thoroughly modern, flexible, top of the line components, upgradeable electronics, durable, etc. It could be the set that outlives its owner (which hopefully is still a long way away!).


I love playing drums. I do it for myself primarily, although I love live performing and take any opportunity to play with a band. But I’m quite content putting on headphones and attempting to play to my favorite songs, much as I did when I was twelve, on the Sears set. And what do I play to? Everything. It’s relaxing to play to basic rock and roll songs, but much more challenging and rewarding when I can pull off a close copy of something that Neil Peart or Bill Bruford does. So, I “push myself” by playing to Rush, Yes, King Crimson or Genesis, and relax with some Pink Floyd or Alanis Morissette. I’ve played with a six-piece set, varying numbers of cymbals, and dual bass pedals for the past 25 years, so it’s always a workout. I’d argue that the cardio benefits are right up there with some of the more strenuous exercise programs. You’re working all your muscles, all at the same time. But it’s always fun, sometimes leaving you elated, other times frustrated, but I love it and will play if my arms and legs hold out.


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