Wednesday, February 24, 2010

On Playing Brushes Part 1: The Vocabulary

Back in the day circa 1964 when I started playing in a garage band in Bowie, Maryland and local teen clubs and parties the art of brush playing was deemed unimportant. For better or worse I muddled through the very few songs that required them, as did my peers, and even considered them to be a silly invention designed to make drummers look and sound like second class citizens on stage.

Fast forward to 2004, which is when I picked up sticks again after a 37 year hiatus (I quit playing in 1967 when I joined the navy.) During the ensuing years not only did my musical tastes change, but I was determined to master playing the songs to which I was listening. So, gone were the Ventures, Rolling Stones, Beatles and James Brown - for the most part - from my listening selections, to be replaced by [ironically] what my parents listened to when I was growing up: Benny Goodman, Louis Prima, some bebop and other jazz that characterized listening habits of the 1950s/60s among squares called depression-era parents.

Listening with a critical ear made it obvious that I needed to master brushes. After I regained my chops with sticks I tackled brush playing by getting Ed Thigpen's The Essence of Brushes (DVD), which opened a whole new world of ideas and techniques to me. To be sure, learning to play brushes takes an entirely different mindset than stick playing, and learning from Ed via the DVD takes considerable dedication and perseverance because playing brushes is not easy. In fact, no matter how good you think your chops and sense of timing are with sticks, you will be humbled when you pick up brushes and tackle gaining proficiency.

Ed Thigpen, though, is considered to be one of the all time great brush masters (for a tribute see this entry). The DVD itself contains an in-depth treatment of Ed's approach to brush playing, which is reinforced by performances that employ the techniques. His abilities as an instructor rank right up there with Tommy Igoe or Steve Smith, and his approach to brush playing is disciplined with a strong emphasis on time keeping through movements and patterns, and tasteful support of the music. If ever you wondered how he got the nickname "Mr. Taste" a few hours with this DVD will make it clear.

There is a book, also by Ed, titled The Sound of Brushes, that some will find useful. Frankly, I didn't use it much because the instructions on the DVD were clear and rendered it moot. However, there were a few occasions when I have referred to the book to clarify a particular movement.

I would sum up this particular DVD using the analogy that it is like learning to speak your native language using a fundamental and necessary vocabulary that allows you to come across as educated. Be prepared to spend many hours with this DVD (and your brushes, of course) if you are new to brush playing. In fact, even if you are proficient you will probably spend countless hours refining your technique with Mr. Thigpen as your on screen instructor.

In my next post, Part 2: Creative Writing, I will cover The Art of Playing with Brushes DVD/Play Along CD.

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