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Simon Phillips

Words and pictures for better drumming.

Or eight easy steps to better drumming, thanks to clinician Simon Phillips. The Grand Basher was foolish enough to let One Two into his house armed with tape recorder, cameras and questions. So come with us now as we visit all corners of the drum kit, hit things in a few unusual ways, and end up wiser percussionists.

Can you give some advice on tuning drums?

Simon tends to start with the bass drum, skinning up the "back" head first and gradually tightening the tuners in a circle, "Some people tend to go across and back, across and back over the head, but I find it easier and more effective in a circle." Tune the head to get as low a note as possible which remains clean and pure. Then fold up a towel, lay it on the bottom of the head and gaffer it to shell and head. "Then you put the front head on, stretch it again, and tune it really low." Stretching is important, in the same way that guitar strings should be stretched before bringing the instrument into tune. These general principles apply to toms as well as bass drum.

With the snare, Simon uses a Diplomat head on the bottom and a reverse-dot CS on top. "People tend to overtighten the bottom head," he warns. Then adds a hoop about 1¾in wide cut from an old head and lays it on the top head for dampening. "Don't tape anything to the head otherwise it'll become live again."

Are there any advantages or disadvantages to matched or orthodox grips?

The guiding principle here is the size of kit you use — with a small kit it doesn't particularly matter whether you go for matched or orthodox grip, but with a large kit it's often much easier physically to get around the kit by using matched grip. "I think it's generally best to start off playing these days with the matched grip," says Simon. "It's easier — and it's also a very 'ethnic' way of playing."

Simon stresses here his interest in playing in as many different ways as possible — and this can be a valuable idea for you to bear in mind too. He says that it's a very good thing to experiment with different techniques, if only to get different muscles working. "Orthodox grip was invented for marching drums, it was the only way that you could play the things while walking along. But it does have applications in kit drumming too." So when you're setting up your kit, try angling the snare towards you a little more than usual — that will enable you to play with both matched and orthodox grips, and get those muscles working which usually lounge around in inactivity.

Will the type of stick I use make a difference to the sound I get?

Here it's not so much the size of kit you use — though this may be an incidental advantage — but more the actual style of drumming you're playing which decides for you the type and, most importantly, the bead-shape of stick you use. "If you're involved in a lot of delicate cymbal work, then a pair of sticks with 'acorn'-shaped beads will probably be best for your job," Simon says. These are a more traditional type of stick and are, generally speaking, more subtle in their effect.

If you're more drum-oriented and aren't too bothered about quality and tone of the cymbal sound, then the 'round'-shaped beads will almost certainly turn out to give you the power and volume which you require. "I usually use these round types," says Simon. "The shaft is pretty thick right up to the bead so there's less chance of breakages and the whole sound is a lot more solid."

Simon generally uses sticks made from hickory, which gives a bit more 'absorption' to the drum sound — if you fancy an even tougher, harder sound then oak sticks might be a better bet.

Will I be able to play any better if I just use my toe on the bass drum pedal?

When you start learning how to use the bass drum pedal to best effect it's probably as well to make your starting point that of keeping the heel resting on the ground, and gradually develop speed and response from there as seems appropriate. Simon points out that there's nothing to stop you playing with just the tip of your toe on the pedal, and for some things, particularly the louder bass parts, the toe has distinct advantages.

Simon reckons that when he's playing softly then it comes from the heel, and as things get louder the heel gradually comes off the ground. "I think the more intensity and volume you use, the more you'll use your toe."

Accuracy is probably equal with either method — the vital component that decides the foot position is intensity of sound required. Again Simon finds it very useful to practice going from one to the other — like exercise with the hands, this helps to build up muscles and improve attack.

How do I play a paradiddle, and what's its musical use?

Looking at the handwritten instructions from Simon in the pictures above, you'll probably have gathered that a paradiddle is a type of rhythm that involves a right, left, right, right, and left, right, left, left movement of the sticks. Easy? No? Simon gets basic: "Take the right hand, lift, strike the drum. Then take the left hand and strike the drum once. Take the right hand and strike the drum twice. Then the left hand hits the drum once, the right hand once, the left hand twice. Slowly speed that up, and you've got it."

Simon likes the ambidextrous possibilities posed by the paradiddle: it means whatever you do with your right hand, you also do with your left hand (and vice versa), strengthening the weaker hand in the process.

Musically, you probably use the paradiddle quite a lot without realising it — and the paradiddle doesn't have to be between the two hands; it can, for example, be between the hands and the feet. "One thing I like to do," says Simon, "is to play a rhythm with eighth notes on the hi-hat, and then sixteenth notes between the bass drum and your snare — left or right hand — letting the bass drum play the 'right hand' part of the paradiddle and either your left or right hand play the 'left hand' part." Put some accents in where you need them, and you've got a handy all-purpose rhythm to fall back on.

What can I do straight away to make me a better drummer?

Nothing directly to do with hitting things, suggests Simon, but to do with attitude. The secret? Try listening a bit more. "Not only will this make you a better drummer, it'll make you a better musician." In fact, what you should do is listen to the band more than you listen to what you're playing yourself. When you get to the point where you're not consciously thinking about what you're playing, you can almost listen to the band as if it were a record — except, of course, for the fact that you can change the way things go.

So should you listen to the bass player? "No," says Simon. "Listen to it all. Get a big pair of ears."

The other important thing you can start implementing now is discipline — and this is simply the discipline of knowing where and when to play things, where not to play things, and, fundamentally, what the song really needs. "And you can't really teach anyone that," unfortunately.

What's the most common question you're asked at drum clinics?

Nobody seems to be quite sure whether Simon is left or right handed, and so they often ask which it is. The answer really, is a bit of both. He certainly learnt to play right handed, but recently, over the period of about a year, he taught himself to play some things left handed as well. Is he mad? Not really. The pay-off is in being able to use the kit as a whole, without worrying about the way you should be playing things because that's the way that every other right-handed drummer plays them. Simon's mixed method is also a good way of getting around a big kit.

In the overall scheme of things, Simon admits that there's not too much advantage in ambidexterity. "It doesn't matter how you do it, as long as it sounds good." But playing around with things with your weakest hand can push you to play patterns and rhythms in ways you'd not thought of, and as the eminently sensible Simon points out, "When you're teaching yourself to play, the hardest thing is thinking of different things to do. So give yourself a test and try one of your 'usual' rhythms the other way round."

What's the most interesting question you've been asked at your drum clinics?

Drummers in America seemed very keen on knowing where Simon got his sneakers. So it was with great pleasure that he replied to the questioner that the particular pair he happened to be wearing in Texas — or somewhere like that — came from Europe. "I bought these Lotto sneakers in Vienna," he replied, full of cultural oneupmanship. The audience were suitably impressed.

When we visited Simon, however, he was wearing a pair of Nike sneakers "bought in Swiss Cottage". This might also impress Americans, but we merely groaned. So why sneakers?

"I consider drums a fairly sporty instrument," replied Simon, running on the spot. "So I think it's great attacking them in that way." Sneakers seem ideal for this, and have the advantage over slippers (some people use these, apparently) in that you don't have to cart around an extra pair with you. "You could mention that I'm looking for a Nike endorsement," laughs Simon. Certainly not.

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Status Bass

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One Two Testing - Feb 1984

Interview by Tony Bacon

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