A Lucky Roll

Playing good rolls is part natural talent and part practice. I am quite lucky in that I found from an early age, my brain just seemed to “get” how to do a roll.

Some tips that help me include staying calm, staying loose, using plenty of pressure between thumb and pointer finger (where I am grasping the stick), and I also use fairly high tension on my drum heads. In fact sometimes the heads are so tight that are like playing on concrete! I picked that up from the marching band days back in high school when we had the drum heads tuned extremely tight.

Peeing Blood


It should be pretty obvious that peeing blood isn’t right. We are not supposed to pee blood. However that is one of the many health consequences of playing drums in marching band – at least it was for me. Here’s the scoop.

During my freshman and sophomore years of high school I played the tenor drums in the marching band. Our school had ‘trios’; basically three toms hung on a harness. The drums were made by Ludwig and apparently from the Heavy Lumber line. These ancient relics were ridiculously heavy. Basically picture carrying around three tree stumps and you get the idea of what these drums were to carry and march with. The shells were probably on the order of 30-ply and the hardware seemed to be cast from lead. Absolutely ridiculous. The brunt of the weight was carried by the lower back and shoulders but a lot of weight was resting against the abdomen area as well.

Marching band is the butt of many (often well-deserved) jokes but in truth it is lot of hard work. We would practice before school, during school, after school and of course on weekends! Dedicating your prime years of life to hustling around on a field or marching down a street in a band takes a good deal of dedication (or parental threatening (how can you get into Harvard without marching band on your resume?!?!?!)).

So there we were, out in the sun, rain, sun, more sun and blazing heat practicing music and motion. At any opportunity I took the drums off and set them (or dropped) on the ground. My back was always hurting during this time and I am sure that to this day I suffer unduly from being in band.

During one late afternoon or weekend rehearsal (I forget which it was), we took a break from practice on the field to hit the head, get some water, stretch – whatever. I went to the boys bathroom to take a piss and lo and behold I am peeing blood. Well, that isn’t right is it? I was otherwaise healthy so I assumed that this could only be caused serious, traumatic, internal injuries caused by carrying the Ludwig tree stumps around.

I chugged a bunch of water and reported the findings to the director and drumline folks and kept practicing however without the drums on. I just marched around and played ‘air drums’. I am sure I would have preferred to go to the doctor or at least go home but marching band is a bit like football in that you need to be tough and macho; so I endured.

Luckily this was an isolated case and an eye opener. I modified some things to be a bit more comfortable (add padding to harness; change height of drums) and was more conscientious about the drums and how they related to my health taking them off at EVERY single opportunity or relieving some of the weight whenever possible by placing them on a trash can, bench, flute player’s head or whatever was significantly solid and convenient.

If I had to do it all again I happily would with the following changes: I would take the drums apart and use any tool available, be it band saw, router, jig-saw, planer, sander, circular saw, drill – whatever, to remove some material from the drums. The drums were so damn thick for no reason at all. Removing wood from the drums would lighten the load tremendously. I would also replace all the steel bolts and hardware with aluminum or titanium. Every little ounce adds up. I know at one point I weighed those drums and I do not remember the figure but it was astronomical.

As a funny side note, a couple of times I somehow managed to ride my bike to and from school with those drums; I have no idea how the hell I managed that. Must have been the same adrenaline and “youth-stupidity” that had me back on the field  after peeing blood.

Being the glutton for punishment that I am, I went back after graduating and helped out for  the next two years as a percussion instructor:

Thoughts in the studio


When you get into the studio you should have a good idea of what you are going to play and the sound that you want for yourself and for your band. That is, after all, why you have been practicing both at home and with the band for months right? You may not have every fill sorted out (I certainly don’t!) but you should have the grooves down pat and the form of the tune should be ingrained in your noggin. In the studio, time is money and unless you are independently wealthy or using a friend’s studio who is recording you for free, time (money) goes out the window pretty quickly.

Some tips to save time and sanity in the studio:

  • Change drumheads and guitar strings the night before going into the studio. Any time you have fresh expendables such as heads, sticks, strings, picks, etc your instrument will sound and play better and your performance will improve
  • Eat a good breakfast. Just as when you were a kid, breakfast is the most important meal and if you have a healthy breakfast in you your energy and mood will be elevated and you will be ready to focus on the task at hand; if your tummy is growling your mind is elsewhere and your investment in studio time will not be spent wisely.
  • Soundcheck intelligently: If the engineer asks for bass drum, give him the bass drum. That’s it. Pick a medium-slow tempo and play nothing but consistent quarter notes till the engineer cues you to stop and move on. For guitar/bass players, play one of your band’s songs the way you will be playing it for the recording. Soundcheck is not the time to show off or try out new sounds; the engineer needs to hear the sound and style you will be playing ON THE SONG so that levels and such can be caught correctly and the best possible sound can be put down onto tape. Do you get bored during soundcheck? Tough shit. It is necessary and the better you do at staying on task the sooner it will be over.
  • Plan the order of songs to be recorded. We started out with a moderate tempo rocker that we open our live set with. This song is NOT technically, mentally or physically taxing. We are extremely comfy playing it and one take later we were moving on to the second song…
  • Was that take good enough? Can you do better? These are judgement calls based on your gut and from feedback from your bandmates, the engineer and the producer. Sour notes, wavy time, out of tune instruments and many other things can ruin a take. But if the time is right and everything is in tune, does it need to be done again? For me the answer is no. I always think I can do better but the first take is usually the best I will do. After multiple takes, my mind wanders off in two directions: I get lost in the song because I have played it too many times or I start to second-guess my abilities as a musician and get scared that I will make a mistake – which I then proceed to do.
  • Focus. Remember why you are in the studio! You are there to get your music down on tape so that you can share your songs with the world! You are not there to make phone calls, check Facebook or talk at length with the studio engineer about gear. Do all that stuff on your time; your time in the studio isn’t “your” time – it is the band’s time, the producer’s time, the music’s time. Be present.
  • Be open to feedback. Whether it is your tone, the part or your attitude, be open to feedback and constructive criticism. If someone says something listen; avoid arguments. If you have a difference of opinion talk it out and see the other person’s point of view. In the case of tones, what you might do live might not translate in the studio very well and some tweaking is necessary. It has been my experience that most talented engineers really do have your best interests in mind; give ‘em a listen see if their suggestions will work… you might be surprised.
  • Give feedback! If you hear something great, let your bandmates know! It is easy to build on success when people know what works or what sounds good. If something doesn’t sound right, give suggestions for improvement. Feel free to be specific. “I think you need to boost the lows in your tone” is far more useful than “It sounds like shit”.
  • Limit your libations. Get loose but don’t get sloppy.
  • Leave your friends at home. You don’t need distractions.
  • Help your bandmates move their gear. Did the bass player just finish recording 11 tracks and looks exhausted? Offer to help move his gear out of the studio for him or her. Drummers, especially, can use a hand moving gear in/out of the studio.