Over the years, drumming has developed into a fine art. Technique, style and attitude vary from drummer to drummer, but problems with kits and spares form a common bond between them. The problems are manifold and success depends a lot on liaison between the drummers themselves and the various drum manufacturers. To this end International Musician arranged a discussion between Buffin (of Mott), Dave Mattacks (ex-Fairport Convention, now working freelance) Shadows drummer Brian Bennett and, representing the manufacturers, Rex Webb and Eddie Haynes from the Premier drum company. I.M.'s Eamonn Percival chaired the discussion.
IM. Brian, as a drummer who's been well-respected for years, you must have come up against a few problems. What do you find particularly troublesome?
BB. Well, I'll throw a problem at you to start with and that is from a session point of view. When you're in a studio and someone wants to make a record with a good feel to it and you've only got a certain amount of time, they just throw a pair of cans on you; You say to the engineer that you want a good balance and they tell you to hang on while they sort the notes out. So you sit there for half an hour, then they're ready for a take. Nobody realises that a drummer has to have a nice balance in the cans in order to do a take. There seems to be a lack of understanding that you've got to hear everything perfectly. That applies to stage work as well.
DM. I've often come across the same problem. Half the time, it comes to a take and they haven't given you a drum sound. Sometimes all you'd get would be the lead vocal and they think that's all you need. I think a lot of that is down to the engineers. There's a lot of good engineers but there's also a lot of tea-boys who have been promoted.
BB. I think that's the reason for a lot of people saying 'We don't want him. He's a session breadhead. He can't play funky,' and all that nonsense. It's not that, it's just that lots of session men have gone in over the years and wanted to do something and they've come up against this. In the end, they get battered down to the point where they just say 'You write it down and I'll play it.' That attitude comes out of that situation, because most musicians started out because they wanted to play music. You go into a session and you want to give everything - all the sounds and knowledge that you've got - but you come up against this and eventually end up being one of these guys.
IM. Apart from problems in the studio, which are probably mainly due to lack of liaison with engineers or producers, how about kits in general? ^
DM. The quality of drums is going down. I think, generally, fittings and stands are improving but the actual drums themselves and the wood is going down in quality. As far as stands and fittings go, I think they've improved a hell of a lot over the years. Manufacturers have realised people are using bigger kits and heavier cymbals and a quarter of an inch rod stuck up through a bass drum isn't going to hold a twenty inch cymbal, but shells and some of the metals they are using now are not as good as they were years ago. Probably to make a drum in 1975 as they were made fifteen years ago would cost a fortune, so I know it's a big problem as far as manufacturers are concerned.
IM. Rex, as a manufacturer, how do you feel about that?
RW. Well, Dave's right in what he says about cost. If we were to produce a snare drum like they were years ago, instead of it costing about £75 it would cost more like £200, and who's going to pay prices like that? They used to make them out of brass and brass will always give you a very bright, toppy sort of sound. Consequently where do we, as a manufacturer, find a happy medium? We now basically look for an aluminium-based snare drum shell, rather than having a top, bright, brassy sort of sound. Some drummers will tension their drums very slack, whereas others will go the other way, so it's very difficult to please everybody. While we're trying to give you what you want, we're also trying to give thousands of other people what they want.
B. I think not only is the manufacturing of drums very important, but also the after sales service. That's the trouble with a lot of American kits. If you want to replace something, it can be very difficult. The ideal thing is to be on the road and to know you can get any spare part within 24 hours.
DM. Coupled with that, I think drummers should also take an interest in their kits. I don't mean polishing them all the time, but I mean, say, once every six months take them to bits and clean them and generally give them a good going over.
IM. Are there any other particular grievances?
DM. I wish somebody would bring out a hi-hat pedal that had a strong adjustable spring that didn't break and also that didn't creep.
EH. Having said that, I'll go along with it all the way. I think it's something that ought to be incorporated. As regards the life of the spring though, the problem is that it's a moveable part and, like all movable parts, is prone to wear and tear. As a drummer myself, I would love to see a lot of things happen to our company and other companies as well. A situation where you could say, 'Right. I want this, this and this.' But we know, in practice, this hardly ever happens.
IM. Is this because drum companies are over-cautious?
EH. Not really, there's more to it than that. One drummer might like his tom-toms a couple of inches higher than someone else. One drummer might like his bass drum pedal angled a couple of degrees more to the left than someone else, and these are personal things. Consequently, to do this on a commercial basis can be very difficult. You have to cater for the majority rather than the minority.
B. On the subject of improving drums, something always happens to me - and it's probably happened to you as well - is after you've tuned your kit and you're playing away, the tension screws start to come loose.
DM. I'll tell you how to get rid of that. Just get a serrated washer and substitute it for the ordinary round washer. The same thing used to happen to me so I eventually worked it out. It's very simple and that's all you need.
BB. I had the same problem. All you do is get a cotton reel and wrap the cotton around the thread, screw it up and it won't move at all. The only trouble is that it's then very stiff if you want to adjust it.
IM. Do you have any problems with sticks?
DM. They're not as good as they used to be. I think that must be down to the wood.
RW. Obviously, wood is the natural element and our stock is whatever is sent to us. At Premier, we import hickory which is the best wood you can possibly buy for a drumstick. We buy a year's supply at a time, so we have to accept 100% of what we're sent. As well as that, there is a world shortage of wood which we have to live with. One of the problems is that the quality of wood is not as good as it was ten years ago. It is a difficult one. We've tried making sticks out of fibre-glass and even steel, but I think drummers still prefer a wooden stick. The only other thing is some like a nylon tip.
B. The problem with fibre-glass is that one end of the stick comes down a half second after the other end.
EH. Yes, that's one of the problems. Another thing is that a pair of sticks are sold by dealers in all good faith, and if there's a fault it could come from the fact that when the stick is turned and dried, there could still be a lack of moisture in the wood.
DM. I think the semi-pro drummer feels this more because whereas we can go in and buy a dozen pairs of sticks, the young drummer can only afford one or two pairs at a time.
IM. What would you say has been the most important development in the manufacture of drums?
BB. Plastic heads must come pretty high on that list.
B. Yeah, plastic heads and fittings generally.
I.M. You mentioned plastic heads. Are you happy with the heads produced today?
B. I am. I think they're fine.
BB. My favourite heads are the old Everplay heads. It's hard to get hold of them now. I went into Footes a while back and asked if they had any old kits in stock. I found one that had a lot of really old Everplay heads on it, so I had them all off and took them away. They're much better for recording.
RW. I think what a lot of drummers don't appreciate is that heads stretch when they're new — even plastic ones. They've got a certain built-in elasticity, and one of the worst things to do is to try and tune a kit straight away after putting new heads on.
DM. Well, that's like if you get a new kit. It takes a while to wear in, which is accommodation for the shell to adjust to the tension of the head and also the head stretching as you said.
EH. The other thing is when people say plastic heads are impervious to weather. Well, that's not quite true. What they mean is that the heads don't go soggy in the rain, but they can get softer in the hot weather, just as in colder weather they go hard and brittle.
RW. Of course, the ideal head or stick for that matter is one that doesn't break, but that would put us out of business.
IM. Brian, your 'Little B' solo on the Out Of The Shadows album must have influenced a lot of today's drummers. How do you feel about that solo now?
BB. I thought it was good at the time. I'd probably do it differently now.
B. I think it's a good solo today.
IM. Would you like to get into solos in any way, Buffin?
B. Well, as far as I'm concerned, they're for people who can do them.
IM. Would you agree it's fairly easy to bluff a good solo?
B. You can, yes. One of the worst things in the world is somebody doing a drum solo that's not very good. One of the worst solos I've ever seen was Jon Hiseman's, who is a really good drummer. He sat for about twenty minutes playing a solo and you could tell by the look on his face that he was thinking 'You cunts - you don't know fuck all - I'm going to sit here for twenty minutes...' and then just before the end of the solo, he must have thought 'I'm making a cunt of myself' and he played great for the last two minutes.
DM. There's so many drummers like that. I'd much rather listen to a drummer play with a band. I personally wouldn't like to do a solo, because in the first place I don't think I could do a great one, and secondly I've always been able to say what I wanted to say on drums with the people I've been playing with.
IM. Finally, would you say there have been any great innovators over the years?
BB. I think basically it's been a natural evolution over the years.
DM. There are points in time where drumming advanced though - Elvin Jones for one.
BB. Oh yeah, there are points. Tony Williams did a lot to advance drumming in general and I must say Billy Cobham as well. I think the attitude to drummers has changed quite a bit over the years. Until Gene Krupa came along, people always used to say that a band consisted of fifteen musicians and a drummer! I think that phrase says it all about that attitude. The drummer was an evil necessity at the back.