So You Say
Mr A. Reader probes the percussionist.
This Month drummer Pick Withers, who left Dire Straits last year and is currently working on a new musical project, answers questions sent in by One Two reader P Saggu of Hounslow East.
Which drum kit do you use, and what sizes and heads do you prefer?
"I normally use a Yamaha kit: 10x8, 12x8, 14x14 and 16x16 toms and a 22 bass drum. The snare drums vary, I use quite a few — I've got an Eddie Ryan, a Ludwig Black Beauty, a Drum Workshop one, and they're all quite big ones, 7½ or 6½ inches. I also use a small Yamaha snare drum, you could write reams on my snare drums. I've had the Yamaha set-up for about two years now, but I've got an old Gretsch kit that I use sometimes. The heads I use are clear Remo Ambassadors."
Which make, size and type of cymbals do you use?
"They're Paiste. Usually I use a 22in Dark Ride, a 20in China type, 18in heavy Formula 602, an 18in and a 16in Ride (but I use them as crashes, too, for live work), two Regular 18in and 16in Crashes, and 14in hi-hats. I find Paiste more accessible as a company — it's six of one and half-a-dozen of the other between Paiste and Zildjian. I do use a pair of 15in Zildjian hi-hats, the flat bottom ones, four holes and no bell. They have a rather softer sound than the brittleness of the Paistes."
What are your thoughts on electronic drums?
"I don't have any electronic drum kits, and I certainly don't like using them myself. I don't like the feel of them, they really jar your hands. I do like the idea of having a couple of pads strung up with the regular kit — that way, in a very small physical space you've got access to a lot of different sounds. But I wouldn't use a whole electronic drum kit — I've tried the Simmons and I don't like the feel of them. It's very hard to get any dynamic range out of them. I'm just old-fashioned, I like the look of an old kit. Far more headaches trying to get a drum sound, but I'm locked into that way of working."
Which kit did you begin drumming on and how old were you when you started out?
"I was 15, and it was an old Ajax fablon-covered kit. It was great, just one hanging tom. I just wish I'd still got it, for purely nostalgic reasons. It cost 12 quid, but it only lasted about three months, my parents bought it for me for a Christmas present. It was hard work getting it off them. The main reason I did get it was because I was in the Boys Brigade and I'd managed to get a single drum to play in the band — the next step was to get a drum kit. In a way I introduced them to the idea, but they certainly didn't like it at all. Eventually I traded it in and bought an Olympic kit which I had to pay for myself — the Ajax kit was like the deposit. After that I went all the way through to Premier, then to Rogers, then I got a Ludwig kit, sort of progressing up through the range."
Did you take lessons or are you self-taught?
"The only lessons I really had were the rudimentary lessons, paradiddles and things, which I got from the bandmaster in the Boys Brigade. After that I taught myself, I learnt to read drum music, and I bought a lot of books. In particular I really liked the book by Ed Thigpen, called "Talking Drums", and for a while I used a Joe Morello book which had a load of exercises in 3/4 and 5/4. I used that for a while. So basically I guess I'm self-taught. It's useful to know how to read because you've then got access to some good teachers via the books. In England, when you're stuck out in the provinces growing up, people aren't very accessible. I remember I started off with an Eric Little book, a Premier book, he was a Big Band bloke, and it was awful. 'There is only one way to hold the sticks,' he'd say, 'everything else is wrong!' That kind of teaching is dangerous."
If you weren't a drummer, which instrument would you play?
"Piano, which I'm learning at the moment. I just want to expand a bit — I'm learning to play vibes, too. The piano is very closely related to drums, I've found. I think a lot of drummers might find that once they've learned where to poke their fingers in which slots, the actual coordination comes quite naturally. Vibes are great, great for playing at night time — even without committing yourself to playing them publicly, therapeutically they're really good. They're a very underrated instrument, and again it's related to the percussion — even just messing around on it helps you to understand where the other musicians are coming from. It's awful if you can't relate to chord changes, specially if you want to contribute towards arrangements. It's difficult relying on oral communication all the time; if you can quote certain chords and things you get a lot more respect, and then they actually want to try to play your ideas."