Thursday, February 25, 2010

On Playing Brushes Part 2: Creative Writing

Continuing from On Playing Brushes Part 1: The Vocabulary, this post discusses The Art of Playing with Brushes DVD/Play Along CD that was presented by Steve Smith and Adam Nussbaum.

Where Ed Thigpen's The Essence of Brushes (DVD) provided the basic foundation in the form of a vocabulary, this DVD set liberates you in ways that allow you to creatively employ Mr. Thigpen's approach, and shows how you can imprint your style on music when playing brushes.

The many hours I spent with Ed's DVD gave me the confidence to play brushes in a musical setting, but I was worrying more about remaining faithful to Ed's lessons and approach than I was about letting the music move me to take chances and play more about how I felt. In many ways I was too rigid (in mindset), believing that Ed Thigpen represented the canonical. Of course, this was more a self-imposed limitation because Ed stressed finding your sound repeatedly. I didn't take that part of the lesson to heart until Misters Smith and Nussbaum pulled together some of the best living brush players and made The Art of Playing with Brushes a reality.

Here I watched some of the greats tackle the same songs is vastly different ways. It was an eye opener because none of them sounded a thing like Ed, but each of them brought the songs alive. Before I had gotten half way through the first disc I had an epiphany about what it means to put your personal touch on playing of any kind, even if it means breaking with some self-imposed set of conventions.

The artists who performed and demonstrated on this DVD are Joe Morello, Charli Persip, Eddie Locke, Billy Hart and Ben Riley. Same songs, including slow and faster tempos, and a Latin piece for each of them. Results: so totally different that I was inspired to play along to the accompanying CD before I was anywhere near through with the DVD set. It was liberating and I felt as though the vocabulary that Ed gave me was now ready to be used in other ways to creatively write (in a figurative sense, of course.) And creatively write I did. One set by Billy Hart was especially inspiring because he was actually doing quarter notes on his bass drum when conventional wisdom would have dictated otherwise. And it worked!

While two DVDs filled with demonstrations by some of the greatest drummers alive today, and a play-along CD earn this set a significant value point, the booklet that comes with it adds even more value. All too often we never take the time to read booklets that come with DVDs (unless in a fit of boredom), but the accompanying booklet is not only fascinating, but also essential reading by any drummer who wants to extend the contents of the discs and CD into deeper thinking and a deeper understanding of brush playing.

Most of the booklet was written by Mark Griffith. Aside from owning a Liberty snare drum that I wish I could afford, Mark is an extraordinary writer and historian, among other talents. Highlights of the booklet [for me] were A History of the Brushes that fills in gaps in other resources and includes some provocative material about the relationship between tap dancing and brushes, and the early brush masters. He extended the relationship discussion with a brief history of tap dancing, which spawned a fairly lengthy discussion among Mark, myself and other members on cymbalholics. Also important is Mark's brush resource guide that covers selected artists and songs to which you should pay attention.

One omission from the set is a collection of PDF files that were supposed to be on the DVD set. However, you can obtain them by going to Hudson Music's product page, which contains a link that will allow you to download the missing files.

In my final post to be titled On Playing Brushes Part 3: The Thesaurus I'll cover Clayton Cameron: Brushworks - The DVD, as well as some brush models I use.

UPDATE: Jon McCaslin has posted some video clips from the DVD in his excellent blog, Four On The Floor.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Wood Shell Game

The question of the day when making (or having made) a custom snare drum is, which shell?

Until recently my personal answer would always be Vaughncraft. I love the resonance of steambent wood, and especially love Vaughncraft's selection of woods and quality.

There are other choices however. Global Drum Company makes excellent segment shells as does Rhythm King Percussion, which along with JTP Percussion and Unix Conception, make excellent stave shells. I own or have owned drums made of shells by each of the preceding companies, and have been pleased with each of them.

That is not to say that ply shells - typically by Keller - are not worth a look. In fact, I have both individual snare drums and kits based on Keller shells and love them. That said, until recently I was more likely to go with a Vaughncraft shell or one of the aforementioned segment or stave shells for new builds. Eric Sooy of The Drum Foundry changed that, however, when he introduced product lines that are Keller shells that are shipped pre-veneered or pre-wrapped.

His pre-veneered shells are spectacular, and his prices are more than reasonable. The veneer that has me drooling is this one (click the image to enlarge it):

Wood finish not your look? Eric also offers pre-wrapped shells in most popular wraps. The bottom line is you have choices, as well as alternatives because the pre-veneered and pre-wrapped shells are available in various ply configurations.

Not listed, but favorites of mine are the Keller Vintage Mahogany and Vintage Maple shells, which are available from various dealers. The drawback to the Vintage Mahogany models is the tall reinforcement rings. Apparently the Vintage Maple shells only have 1 inch tall reinforcement rings, but the ones on the Vintage Mahogany shells are entirely (in my opinion) too tall and require some woodworking tricks that I feel are unnecessarily imposed on the builder. The following photo shows what I am talking about (note the notches that needed to be put in the rings to fit lugs):

The rings, however, do not affect the sound. The drum depicted above is one of my best sounding snare drums despite being a ply shell with those reinforcement rings.

My preferred builder, Kevin Smee of Bowie Custom Drum, will be the guy who does my next snare drum, which will be the Carpathian elm burl shell shown above. Kevin has built other snare drums for me in the past (see this post), and will continue to be my builder of choice going forward.

Another Collector Blog

I just checked out a new and growing blog, Ben's Drum Collection that, although relatively new, is turning out to be an excellent resource. Besides, who can resist a blog that has a transition badge Ludwig snare drum? I love the repair job he did on it.

While not a blog, another site I enjoy is W. Lee Vinson's page. Mr. Vinson is a percussionist for the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and his snare drum collection is simply amazing (and enviable.)

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.

Portable Practice for Hotel Rooms

In my Woodshedding post I listed a number of instructional books that I recommend. While researching a way to load up my favorite technical reference books for my day job - IT consultant - I was strongly considering Amazon's Kindle DX ebook reader. For my purposes it is the ideal solution.

On a lark I decided to see if there were any ebooks that would also support hotel drum practicing that a road warrior could use. Much to my delight there are:

Add in Rhythm Tech Lap Top Practice Snare Drum and you are set to get in a few hours of woodshedding regardless of where you happen to be.

It gets better - you can carry Guide to Vintage Drums with you to garage sales and music stores to aid in identifying bargains that show up on craigslist, or, if you want to take a break from technical research (as in my case), an ebook like The Great Jazz Drummers could be a welcome diversion.

UPDATE: You can actually have Snare Drum Addict delivered to a Kindle reader.