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Drum Hum

Article from Making Music, July 1987

pete erskine

Pete Erskine performs at a recent Zildjian clinic. Geoff Nicholls puts the event into words and music.

SUNDAY MAY 24th should have seen the drum clinic everyone had been waiting for: Zildjian had finally persuaded Steve Gadd to come over from New York.

Blazers nightclub in Windsor was sold out in anticipation. But it wasn't to be: Gadd was taken ill at home, too late to inform most of the crowd. Someone of comparable talent had to be found, and with two days notice Peter Erskine — ex-Weather Report, now with Weather Update, and with a solo album "Transition" on the way — made it from the States.

Stevie White of the Style Council and Mel Gaynor of Simple Minds (also appearing at short notice) had the gut-wrenching honour of appearing in the Blazers' spotlight to warm up 1300 disappointed Gadd fans. They coped in their different ways. White first — he cleverly eased himself into the show by improvising and expanding on a tom tom riff played to a Style Council backing track. Then with bouncing good humour he coaxed along the audience and gradually broke the initial reserve. By the time he got to his final piece he was really flying and accomplished some of the best playing of the day (including a flash of Bobby Orr-inspired back sticking on his fashionable piccolo snare drum). This bloke's getting a bit clever!

The contrast with Mel Gaynor was sharp and revealing. Mel hits hard, something he learned during an early bout with HM band Samson. But he's clever too. There are echoes of Billy Cobham in some of Mel's patterns, and that can't be bad. Both Mel and Stevie are getting to be old hands at clinics and each managed a substantial spot with lots of playing, dealing with audience questions with a lot of laughs and sound advice.

Erskine appeared to a hero's welcome. He's a dead ringer for our Tony Bacon, except in his black vest Erskine's ten-hours-a-day (practice, that is) muscles put Bacon's less shoulderly frame in the shade. You're left in no doubt that this is one heavy musician and by the time he's played for five minutes, you're awestruck. I love the aura that people who are the best in their field often have: the imperturbable poise (or is it pose?) which suggests they're not going to use many words, so you'd better catch on to them. In the nicest possible way Erskine has this; he's laconic in the American manner, has a wit which improves, but is in danger of being a bit slow.

A couple of times he almost loses his audience by being too laid back (jetlag?); but then has them electrified when he picks up his sticks. What impresses me though is that Erskine delivers a lecture. He presents a topic, a point of view, gives us something to think about and to try out. This for me is what a clinic should do, but rarely does. Obviously we go to be entertained and inspired, but it's nice to learn something concrete too. The trouble with sitting entranced by the performance of a virtuoso is that it's too easy to think "I'll never be able to do that" and go home none the wiser. Erskine took one obvious but all-important subject — the playing of the ride cymbal — and showed us clearly how to work on it. He chose the jazz ride "ding ding-a-ding" figure, but the points made have relevance to any style.

He pointed out that because of the old convention of closing the hi-hat on two and four, many drummers tend to accent the ride cymbal also on two and four. This gives the whole rhythm too much of a backbeat emphasis, often at odds with the music and not what the rest of the band prefers to hear. He suggested that just as the bass player's walking bass line puts equal emphasis on all four beats of the bar, so should the drummer on the ride cymbal:

RIDE CYMBAL: ding ding-a ding ding-a...
HI-HAT: 2 4

Having established a consistent feel on the ride cymbal, accents and syncopations are traditionally played by the left hand on the snare, and right foot on the bass. This is where things start to come adrift. As attention switches to the snare and bass drum beats, concentration on the ride lapses, and the intensity of the beat is lost. Things can get very shaky and you may not be aware of it. It may be obvious to the listener, or to the other musicians, but evade the drummer entirely.

So Erskine demonstrated exactly how to confront the problem. He played the ride figure and then picked his way through familiar snare/bass drum accents in a beautifully controlled demo. Here were patterns we've played a million times, but Erskine executed the lot like several pages from an exercise book in such a dynamically and tempo-controlled manner I'd guess most people's thoughts were on the lines: "I should be able to do that, but I doubt if I can; I'll go home and try."

When he later performed some of his virtuoso stuff the lesson was implicit: to aim for this level you have to have the basics under 100 per cent control.

For those who weren't there, here are a couple of patterns of the sort Erskine played in his ride cymbal demo: a simple one and a more sophisticated one (he played these and many more in a continuous demonstration lasting several minutes):

COUNT EVENLY: 1 & a 2 & a 3 & a 4 & a...

COUNT EVENLY: 1 & a 2 & a 3 & a 4 & a...

Although this has centred on the jazz ride figure, the principle surely applies to any music: that the ride pattern, on cymbal, hi-hat, or whatever, should generally be consistent and reliable, and not deviate or drop in intensity when you add syncopations or variations in the rhythm against it. It's an aspect of co-ordination which crops up in all skills: when first learning to drive a car, it's common to steer into the middle of the road when trying to change gear. In a more subtle skill like drumming it's not quite so obvious when control has lapsed. I think Erskine would have gone on to elaborate, but as always time ran out. I hope he returns and shows us a bit more in the not too distant future.

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Publisher: Making Music - Track Record Publishing Ltd, Nexus Media Ltd.

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Making Music - Jul 1987

Feature by Geoff Nicholls

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