I was an air drummer before I was a drummer.
One of the reasons I play open-handed is due to where my record player was located when I was a kid. I’d be air drumming along and pounding on my bed to all my favorite records when I was 8 years old.
The location of the record player meant my left hand was going to become my ride hand, and my right hand was at the top right corner of my bed, which is where the snare was. I didn’t have a drum kit at the time, but I was giving myself drum lessons!
I wanted to be in the school band, but they wouldn’t have me. Everywhere I turned, people had never seen an open-handed player. It wasn’t even called ‘open-handed’ at the time; it was so rare that I don’t think there was terminology for it. But a few drummers, like Billy Cobham, were doing it – and guys like that gave me inspiration to stick to my guns.
Teachers and other drummers were always trying to get me to conform to the fact that I needed to cross over. They told me what I was doing was wrong.
I was like, “But I’m hitting all the same beats I’d be hitting if I crossed over. This is just the way I like to do it.”
They told me what I was doing was wrong.
Being an open-handed drummer became very important later on as I started getting into bands and playing live. An open-handed approach can give you a lot of power. You aren’t constrained by having this bar – your right arm – across your left arm. You’re able to really smash on your drums without constraint.
But everyone around me told me otherwise. So I just tuned out all the negativity. This became my approach:
I’m going to close my eyes, open my hands with my middle fingers toward everybody telling me I’m wrong or bad, and all you folks can go screw yourselves. I’m going to become the most phenomenal drummer I can be. All you boneheads from my school, you’re never going to amount to anything. I will destroy you!
I was a massive non-conformist. If you know what I look like now, I’m a big, tall, long-haired, sunglass-wearing metal guy. I looked like that when I was 14 years old. I was a complete outcast, a total pariah for the way I looked, let alone my drumming style. But I was being true to myself.
At that time, there was a drummer I really respected in LA. His name was Brian O’Brian – the man so nice they named him twice – and he played with a huge local band called A La Carte. They used to headline over Van Halen back in the day.
I invited Brian over to my house, and I was stoked when he said yes. It was the closest thing to a drum lesson I’d ever received. This man I respected took one look at my kit and said, “Dude, I love this setup of yours! You have a mountain of cymbals over here, a mountain of drums over here…keep at it.”
He was the first person in a long time who accepted my approach, and this was so inspiring to me. Evolution occurs when somebody decides to break out of the pack and try some odd thing. I’ve always utilized this approach. If you like how something sounds, mount that thing and make it yours.
I liked the way a boat propeller sounded, so I put it on my kit. And I hit a cannon shell from Vietnam and thought, hey, this has a great tone! I hadn’t seen anyone with a double ride setup, so I was like, ya got two hands. Try two rides! Play both rides at the same time! The way Terry Bozzio would do crashes with the double bass, I’d do stuff like that on my rides.
I wasn’t thinking about what other people were going to take from this. This worked for me and for my music. A double ride sure sounds neat on these songs, I said to myself. So you go, son!
If whatever you’re doing for yourself catches on, and other people appreciate it and start applying that knowledge or technique, you’re only going to grow the genre or instrument more.
Back when I was in Dark Angel, I started tinkering around with the concept of having my kick drums follow the chunky guitar riffs. If that’s what the riff is doing, have the kicks do that too. Who does that, Gene? I can’t think of anybody. Usually, guitars would be doing straight 32nd notes and the kick drums would be doing the same underneath it, but if the guitar was ever to switch to some syncopated kind of thing, I wanted to match it with my feet.
That approach became quite popular, and this was all something I figured out on my toilet in my apartment as a kid, tapping my feet on that nice wood floor in the bathroom.
If I’d listened to everybody telling me, “Nobody’s ever done that before – you can’t do that”, boy, this entire genre wouldn’t have had that sort of approach introduced to it.
Don’t listen to anybody else. Listen to yourself. You might not get it right at first but you eventually will. How many drummers have come along where no one had ever heard anybody else do something before? From John Bonham to Dave Grohl, Sean Reinert, Neil Peart, Billy Cobham, Dennis Chambers…new approaches will only help to grow the scope of the instrument we play.
Don’t listen to anybody else. Listen to yourself.
If you have an open mind and you’re willing to try some odd ideas, you might get laughed at or scoffed at. I’ve gotten all of it. But I’ve always had faith in myself that no matter if people have disdain for anything I do, I enjoy it, and that’s why I’m doing it. I’m ultimately doing this for me.
Follow your heart if it feels right to you – even if it isn’t the ‘proven-book-learning-word-paper’ way. Do whatever it takes to become ‘you’.
Don’t be afraid to think for yourself and carry on if it feels right. If you have an unorthodox approach but it works for you, I am not going to be the person to tell you, “Do not do that”.
I say try it all.
Feature Photo: Rob Van Dalen
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