Saturday, March 20, 2010

Adjusting Ludwig Supersensitive Snare Drums

The question, How do I adjust my Super Sensitive snare drum? comes up from time to time. Here is how I approach adjusting mine.

Note that I am using a pre-1969 model as an example, but the same principle applies to the 1969 and later models because, although the mechanism has changed, the basic parts are still present in an updated form. Remember, this mechanism has been used in some form since the 1920s, so it has withstood the test of time. The first mechanism was basically unchanged from 1920 until 1968 (the example I am using).

Before proceeding, and to eliminate confusion, here is what a modern (1969 and later) mechanism looks like:

The following series of photos will show the nomenclature of my 1966 Super Sensitive, and the parts of which you need to be aware to change wires and/or adjustment the snare tension for optimum performance.

Note the differences between the older models and the modern ones. The adjustment knob on the pre-1969 models are smaller and placed unobtrusively, and the snare guards are quite different. Also note that the basic adjustment and wire end plate slots are similar enough that changing wires and adjusting either model will work per my advice. Here is a photo of the butt side of the drum:

You have a clear view of the wire end plate and how it fits into the slot. The 1969-present models are similar, with the differences noted above. These two photos show how the wire end plates fit into the slots:

Changing wires is relatively simple. You back off the tension adjustment knobs equally (turn them simultaneously for best results) until there is enough slack to remove the end plates from the slots. Don't attempt to remove both end plates at the same time - remove one without stretching the wire, then the other. If you are removing the wires to change heads, mark which end plate goes into the strainer side to make sure it goes back the same way. While either way will fit, I like to be extra cautious and make sure that parts that are under tension are always reassembled exactly the way they were disassembled.

If you are replacing the wires, make sure you purchase the correct wire for the model year you own. Puresound makes wire sets for the 1920-1968 Super Sensitives, and a slightly different set for the 1969-present models. Aside from the end plate tabs that fit into the slots, there are other differences between the two models, both of which are designed for optimal performance for the Super Sensitive snare drums for which they are made: the pre-1969 wires are 15" long with 12 strands, and the 1969-present wires are 16 7/8" long with 16 strand wires.

When installing the wires, use the tension adjustment knob to make sure the inward part of the snare wire end plates are equally spaced relative to the bearing edge of the snare drum shell. This photo shows properly installed wires:

Notice that in the example above the end plates extend exactly 0.25 inches beyond the bearing edges on each end. Also note that the wire tension is only tight enough to prevent sagging (you will need to check this with the snare drum in the normal playing position on a stand.)

Tune your heads to your personal taste before fine tuning the wire tension. After you have your heads tuned, adjust the snare wire tension by turning the tension adjustment knobs simultaneously. I have found that the lightest tension - just beyond the wires sagging in the center - will provide the most sensitivity. The tighter you tension after that point, the drier the sound becomes (which may be desirable for concert and symphony work.) Do not over tension the wires! If you over tension you run the risk of stretching the wires, which will shorten their life at best, and ruin them at worst.

If you don't have a hard shell, foam lined case for your Supersensitive see Storing and protecting Supersensitive Snare Drums for a case I recommend.

If you have further questions don't hesitate to contact me.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Clayton Cameron on Tap Dancing and Brushes

In On Playing Brushes Part 3: The Thesaurus I discussed a clip on Clayton's DVD that dealt with the relationship between tap dancing and brush playing. I don't have that clip, but in this Ludwig promotional clip he reiterates much of what he discussed in the DVD (sans the duet with the tap dancer):

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

A few heads I left out and words about the best snare drum for brushes

In my haste to complete my last post I left out one head model that I use on many of my vintage snare drums: Aquarian's American Vintage series. The coating on this head is similar to the Aquarian Texture Coated drumhead that I mentioned in my last post. Unlike the Texture Coated model, the American Vintage does not have the plastic-like sound quality, although I still prefer the tried and true Remo coated Ambassador. Call me a creature of habit.

A bit more about the American Vintage - many older snare drums require this head because modern heads are designed to fit modern shells. Today's 14" diameter snare drums are actually based on a 13.85" shell, whereas many of the vintage snare drums have a 14" shell, which makes for a frustrating experience getting a modern head onto the older shell (as well as properly fitting the older hoops onto the collar of the heads, which tend to go past the collar.) Keep this in mind when purchasing vintage drums.

One head I didn't cover is the Evans J1 Etched model. The reason I overlooked it is because I have no direct experience with it, but a fellow forum member on DFO uses them and offered to give his opinion and experiences. His name is Chris Worrick (cworrick on DFO) and here is what he had to say about the Evans J1:

As for the J1 - I think it was someone on the forum that turned me on to this head, but I don't remember who. I don't know the exact specs, but it feels and responds more like a Remo Ambassador to me rather than the usual Evans heads but without the Remo break in period. It is just a touch more lively which is great for the brushes. I don't know how they are doing it, but the etching surface on the head seems to be in the plastic rather than a coating on the head so it doesn't wear near as quick (I usually only have to change once a year after the tone has been wore out).

Con - the surface may be a little smoother than a coated head so there is not as much bite, but it last longer with it's surface than a coated head.

I've played Remo coated ambassadors and Evans coated G1s and I like the durability and sound I get with the J1. I have not had the chance to try the Aquarian head you mentioned in your article (I have also heard some other drummers mention it as well).

A big thanks to Chris for taking the time to add his experience and thoughts!

The big questions is which snare drum works best with brushes? The answer is any snare drum that has appropriate heads and is properly tuned will work well. Either of my two favorite snare drums will work well; however, if you are seeking a specific snare drum for brushwork I recommend 6-lug models, preferably an old Ludwig or WFL Pioneer, Leedy or Slingerland student model. Why six lugs? To my ear they are open sounding, which supports brush playing, and these old snare drums work well with sticks. When possible I acquire the old 3-ply, mahogany models, ideally with single flanged hoops.

Here are a few examples of snare drums I use frequently for brushwork (and shuffles when playing with sticks):

The above transition badge Ludwig Pioneer at 5x14 inches is near perfect for brush and stuck playing and I find myself reaching for it often. If you are interested in how I restored her, see this post.

This 6.5x14 inch Ludwig Pioneer, concert model, is another of my favorite snare drums for brush playing.

In fact, many of the vintage student model snare drums, including some 8-lug models, work exceptionally well with brushes. One great thing about the 6-lug and other student models is that they are going for bargain prices on eBay and other outlets.

As you have probably noticed from the examples I gave, I use snare drums of different depths. There is no perfect depth for snare drums used in brush playing, although many drummers prefer deeper ones, while others swear by the versatile 5x14 or 5.5x14 size. Even 4x14 works well, and especially so if you are playing Latin-style music because the shallow snare drums have a nice timbale sound when the snare are dropped, which greatly complements that music style. Moreover, a 4x14 snare drum tends to be crisper for certain music, such as bebop. The bottom line, though, is any snare drum (properly tuned with appropriate heads) will work with brushes in any music style.

If you have any questions or think you have spotted that perfect snare drum on eBay or craigslist and want advice don't hesitate to contact me.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Selecting Heads and Brushes for Brush Playing

After wrapping up my three part series on brush DVDs in my last post I will take care of dangling wires in this one by discussing the heads and brush models that I prefer.

The best head I have ever used for brush playing is the Aquarian Texture Coated drumhead. The trademarked Satin Finish on this head makes it a joy to use with brushes; however, when playing this head with sticks it has a plastic sound to my ears. So, while I would use it on a brush-only gig, I have yet to have such a playing opportunity. One advantage to the Aquarian Texture Coated head is the fact that it needs very little break-in time when you mount a new head.

My go to head is the Remo coated Ambassador. I have used this head for as long as I can remember, and it sounds just fine to my ears for both brush and stick playing. However, unlike the Aquarian Texture Coated head, the coated Ambassador needs some break-in time after you mount a new one. I usually spend about an hour with a new head to break it in before using it in a live playing situation. Some drummers will lightly sand a new Ambassador to hasten the break-in period, but I prefer to not go that route because it shortens the life of the head. Moreover, I have gotten Ambassadors that lose the coating prematurely (apparently from a batch that slipped by their quality assurance department), making the sanding technique iffy.

Other heads that I like with brushes are calf skin (see my post titled, More on Calfskin Heads), Remo's Fiberskyn Diplomat, Skyntone, and Renaissance heads in both Diplomat and Ambassador weights.

Among the choices cited above, the Skyntone head has sufficient texture to use with most brushes, while the other choices have less texture with which to produce the soup stirring, legato sweeps we commonly associate with ballads. Personally, I manage to get the sound I want from any of them, but if you want a bit more projection there are two brush models that will allow you to attain it with some of the smoother heads: the Vic Firth Steve Gadd Wire Brush and the Zildjian SDWB3 Bent Bristle Brushes. I personally dislike the feel of either brush - they are too thick for my tastes, and I am not overly fond of the balance. However, we are all different, so give them a try if you want to play brushes on a few of the heads I mentioned, but hesitate because you prefer more coating.

I like the Fiberskyn Diplomat very much. It is a warm sounding head for stick playing and also sounds nice with brushes. I use the thinner Diplomat weight because I can achieve a vintage calf skin-line sound and still get resonance that the heavier Fiberskyn Ambassador does not provide. Note: Avoid at all costs any Fiberskyn head that is a Powerstroke model. These heads have a plastic ring that kills resonance and does not work well with brushes.

The Skyntone works beautifully with both sticks and brushes. It is thin to the point where you need to be concerned if you play mainly with sticks and are a heavy hitter. While the tone I get from these heads is superb to my ears, it's possible that they will need frequent replacement. Thus far I have had no problems with them, but I am an extremely light hitter and I play mostly between PP and F. The texture is similar to genuine calfskin, including simulated pore holes.

The Renaissance Diplomat is another personal favorite (and, as with the Fiberskyn heads, avoid the Powerstroke version for brushwork). While the surface does not have the texture many brush players demand, I have used this model with regular brushes for everything from ballads to train beats. I particularly love the resonance I get from the Renaissance heads with both brushes and sticks. One caveat is these heads do not have the playing life that a coated Ambassador or even a Fiberskyn head will provide, especially if you play heavy with sticks.

Before discussing my favorite brush models, let me put a frequent question to rest. I am often asked, aren't rods better than brushes? referring to specialty sticks like the Pro-Mark Cool Rod. The answer is they are designed to do two different things. One of the essences of brush playing is to anchor the time with sweep patterns that have a legato sound. The Cool Rods are strictly staccato, and are not a replacement for brushes. Indeed, bear in mind that the approach to brush playing is totally different from stick playing, and using brushes just to achieve low volume playing isn't really brush playing at all. The best way to achieve low volume playing, if that is your goal, is to either develop your technique for achieving the dynamics for a given song, or use something like the Cool Rods.

Another question I'll attempt to answer is, Should you play brushes with the snares off or on? Quick answer: both ways work. A more drawn out answer is when I started playing in 1964 I was taught to always drop the snares when playing with brushes. When I began to take brush playing seriously I learned that you can do either. My preference is to drop the snares on ballads and for some Latin-style music, otherwise I generally keep the snares engaged. There is no right way in my opinion. Experiment and do what sounds best to you. And always let the music dictate what and how you play. So much for the Zen of Brush Playing according to Tarrani. On to my favorite brushes.

I love the feel of the Regal Tip Clayton Cameron model. In fact, at one time I used them exclusively. As my brush playing skills progressed I found that fixed brushes were too limiting because I wanted to reduce the fan of the wires on my right hand brush. This allowed me to do standard 8th note triplet patterns with my right hand while keeping time with sweeps handling the 1-2-3-4 with my left hand. That led me to retractable brushes, and the two models I have come to prefer are the Regal Tip Jeff Hamilton Signature Brushes and the Regal Tip Ed Thigpen Wire Brushes. Both feel good in my hands, and although the Ed Thigpen model is a bit heavier and thicker than I normally like, the balance is why I use it. I also like the Vic Firth Heritage Brush, which has a nice, vintage feel to it. I tried and don't care for the Vic Firth Jazz Brush because of weight and balance - you may have a different opinion since brushes - like sticks - are highly personal choices. One other brush model that I like for certain situations is the relatively new Regal Tip Yellow Jacket Retractable Brush. This model is About .5 inches shorter than the Vic Firth Heritage Brush and about the same weight. The feel is different due to the minor difference in length and the wires, which are a much lighter gauge. The wires definitely flex more and are similar to the feel of nylon, while still producing the distinctive sound that only a wire brush can provide. The wire is such a thin gauge that you may encounter problems with them falling out under heavy playing (I have heard a few such stories on various forums), so you may want to consider a pair for ballad playing on heads such as the Remo coated Ambassador because, unlike other brushes, these do not catch on new heads and require less break-in time. This model also comes in a shake out version. I don't care for any type of shake out or throw out style of brush because I never seem to get them fully extended for one thing, and I prefer my right brush to have less wire fan for the other. Also, as that style of brush wears, they tend to retract back into the handle while you are playing - definitely not a good thing!

A few tips on maintaining and using brushes: First, use the plastic tube that they came in to store them. While this is especially important for fixed brushes to extend the life of the wires and maintain them in their original shape, it applies to retractable brushes as well. I have bent more than one handle on retractable brushes because of careless storage. Second, mark your brushes so you always use the same one for your right hand, and the other for your left. This also maintains the shape of the wire fan, and extends the life because they will wear in properly. Taking this a bit further, I always make sure that I play them with the labels facing up for the same reason.

A few parting notes. First, if you travel and tend to bring a practice pad to keep your chops up, you know that brushes and standard practice pads don't work well together. Consider the Rhythm Tech Lap Top Practice Snare Drum, which is a mere 13"x1". As an alternative, you may want to consider the Sabian Quiet Tone Snare Drum Practice Pad, although it is a bit larger and heavier than the Rhythm Tech pad. Finally, since I have discussed the relationship between brush playing and tap dancing in a number of previous posts, you may find Tap with Ginger Series to be a way to tap into [pun intended] your creative side by playing along to some of the lessons. Of better, adding tap dancing to your skill set. It worked for drummers from Papa Jo Jones to Steve Gadd! Seriously, this video is an interesting play along with brushes, and since it covers beginners to expert, you can start slow and try different brush patterns against the same lessons as you work through the DVD.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

On Playing Brushes Part 3: The Thesaurus

In my preceding two posts about brushes I covered the vocabulary in Part I, based on Ed Thigpen's The Essence of Brushes, and creative writing in Part 2, based on The Art of Playing with Brushes presented by Steve Smith and Adam Nussbaum.

This post will focus on Claytom Cameron's Brushworks - the DVD.

Like Ed Thigpen's DVD, this one is instructional. Steve Smith's and Adam Nussbaum's DVD is more of an example by performance with many examples of how to play the same music in different ways, but no specific "how to's". Like Ed Thigpen, Clayton steps you through the basics, starting with various grips and when they are appropriate. Here he covers German, French, cradle, eastern and matched, mixing and matching them in the left and right hands. Then he goes into lessons on sweeps, taps, and other parts of the brush vocabulary to show how to achieve the best sound for the music you support. What I liked is how, after each lesson, he demonstrated it with just a bass player, then with a band. The bass only demonstrations reinforce just how important the bassist and drummer are to each other, and you will get some solid ideas about how to lock in.

You need to be aware that Clayton's teaching style is different from Ed Thigpen's style. Where Ed patiently demonstrates a technique and reinforces it with additional instruction, Clayton goes through each technique, using the performances as a reinforcement tool. You'll find yourself frequently stopping the DVD in order to fully grasp what Clayton is teaching.

One aspect of Clayton's approach that I like is the way he varies his accents in each lesson (and then reinforcing the lesson with the mini performances). This approach draws much from George Lawrence Stone's seminal Stick Control, and is an approach that I have not come across anywhere else. This is where the thesaurus analogy comes in. You not only receive a solid vocabulary, but you learn the synonyms that allow you to create with brushes what authors do with words - nuance, communication, pace. In fact, when I was going through the lessons I kept remembering Mel Lewis' approach to using up beats to propel music (when appropriate, of course), and Johnny Vidacovich's long discussion of the same thing in New Orleans Drumming. However, Clayton goes beyond just demonstrating up- and downbeat accents, by varying them to show the effect on the music of where the accent is placed.

Another aspect of this DVD is the brush-specific rudiments that Clayton has developed. While others have also created rudiments for brushes, Clayton's make the most sense to me. Here are a few examples:

In addition to the lessons, on DVD #1 there are three performance related clips that are must watch. The first is how Clayton was inspired by tap dancers. This is a recurring theme in any serious discussion about brushplaying - Papa Jo Jones talks at length about tap dancing in The Drums and in his oral biography, and in the booklet that comes with The Art of Playing with Brushes Mark Griffith wrote an excellent piece on the same topic. However, Clayton, teamed with the renowned tap dancer Chester Williams, does a duet of sorts with Williams, with Williams doing the hoofing, while Clayton plays the same rhythms, showing how tap dancing can inspire brush playing. The second performance is a jaw-dropping clip with Clayton's brush solo on a wood djembe. The final performance on DVD #1 is a snare drum solo, in which he does amazing brushwork using three snare drums. DVD #2 in the set is a set of full performances with a band to further demonstrate and reinforce the lessons.

I'll end with a video clip of Clayton performing at NAMM 2009, which showcases his amazing skill with brushes.