Steve Smith's Drum Talk:
Confessions of a U.S. Ethnic Drummer (part 1)
By Bill Milkowski (Modern Drummer)

There was a defining moment at the Drummers Collective 25th Anniversary Celebration last November in New York City in which Steve Smith revealed himself to be hipper than the room. Following an awesome display of mondo-technique from a succession of heavyweight chopmeisters Kim Plainfield, Dave Weckl and Horacio "El Negro" Hernandez (all which the packed house of aspiring drummers ate up with the delight), Smith took the stage and proceeded to hold court with simply a snare and a pair of brushes. No imposing double bass drum flailing, no acrobatic fills or traversing the kit with pumped up attack, no heroic cross sticking or clave action on a wood block triggered by a foot pedal. No chops grandstanding, no flailing, no sweating. Just snare and brushes, a totally relaxed approach and a deep desire to make music. It was the perfect zen-like response to the parade of whirlwind sticking the had preceeded him; the ultimate example of "less is more."

If Smith hadn't won the crowd over by that point -- playing Ed Thigpen in the wake of Billy Cobham's thunder -- he certainly did with his next savvy maneuver. Taking his hi hat and a single stick to the front of the stage, he proceeded to wow the crowd with a demonstration of stick balancing points that was part Papa Jo Jones, part Harlem Globetrotters. By the time he had the stick balancing and rebounding in seamless sequence off his shin, his ankle, his arm, rolling it between fingers without dropping a beat, the crowd offered up ecstatic applause. It's an old school move that never fails to entertain. Papa Jo himself did it himself before an awed crowd at the 1957 Newport Jazz Festival and living legend Roy Haynes continues to do it to this day on the bandstand. But no one expected a bona fide fusionhead, Mr. Vital Information, to pull off such a slick old school trick with such smooth aplomb. Everyone in the house knew that Steve Smith was a killer drummer. But who knew he was so hip? As Roy used to say of himself, "There might be a better drummer than me, but there's no one hipper."

It might be because Smith had been spending a lot of time in the past, so to speak, that he channeled such old school shtick. Or perhaps he is precisely what drum elder and bop guru Freddie Gruber called him -- "an old soul in a young body." As the writer, narrator and demonstrator of "Drumset Technique/History of the U.S. Beat," a two-disc DVD set from Hudson Music that thoroughly examines the evolution of the drumset in U.S. music while offering examples of how the kit was used in all the major styles, Smith immersed himself in studying the origins of this uniquely American instrument, going all the way back to Africa to find clues on how the drumset came to be. Using a comprehensive and scholarly approach, he traced the evolution of the drumset from hand drums and talking drums to "patting juba" to incorporating cymbals and development of the first practical bass drum pedal. This enlightening musical travelogue progress from early New Orleans jazz at the turn of the 20th century to big band jazz in the '30s, bop in the '40s, followed by rhythm 'n blues, blues, country, gospel, rock 'n roll, funk and culminating in '70s fusion. Steve provides detailed examples along the way of how the drummers implemented the kit into the style of the times. In addition, his group, Vital Information, performs seven complete tunes that feature applications of the techniques and complex rhythms that Steve broke down in complete detail in Disc One.

A massive undertaking, this comprehensive two DVD set runs over four and a half hours, providing enlightening and entertainment along the way for drummers and non-drummers alike. We caught up to Smith on the evening just prior to his showcase appearance at the Drummers Collective 25th Anniversary Celebration.

MD: Did you consciously put yourself into a scholarly frame of mind to do this project, "Drumset Technique/History of the U.S. Beat"?

STEVE SMITH: That mindset of exploring the history of U.S. music is just something that I've been living for a long time, so I've been in that headspace for quite a few years.

MD: Then this project was merely formalizing something that you've been thinking about anyway?

SS: Yeah, exactly. I guess the place to start is the Vital Information album "Where We Come From." Before we did that album back in 1997 I had spent some time investigating Afro-Cuban music. I realized I could learn the patterns of that style of drumming and I could play it to a degree but I didn't really play it well, in my opinion, because I didn't grow up in the culture. I realized that the best musicians of the genre are literally all from Cuba or Puerto Rico or somewhere in the Caribbean and most of them know the history of their music and culture. This inspired me to focus on the music of my own culture and use that same approach. I had to admit that as a U.S. drummer I didn't know a lot about the origins of my own music. I knew some jazz history and I had lived through '60s rock and the fusion era but I didn't know a lot about early jazz or the early rhythm and blues, blues, country and gospel and all that. And at a point I really started seeing myself as part of a lineage, a U.S. ethnic drummer playing the percussion instrument of the United States -- the drum set.

MD: And that triggered your whole investigation of the past?

SS: Definitely. I wanted to be informed about my own past and what I was connected to. I became very engrossed in learning about the whole U.S. music scene in general and the development of the drum set in particular. So now I really do see myself as a U.S. ethnic drummer that plays all the different styles of U.S. music, not that I'm a unique person doing it because I think there's a lot of guys doing it but they may not have identified themselves as that. It's been helpful for me to think of myself as a U.S. ethnic drummer. It's a bigger perspective than "a jazz drummer" or "studio drummer" or "fusion drummer."

MD: How did this project come to fruition? How did you research it and what areas in particular did you have to study that you weren't well acquainted with?

SS: I started from the perspective of a jazz drummer because that's essentially how I first learned to play the drums. As a kid I took lessons from a teacher named Billy Flanagan who lived in Brockton, Massachusetts. In the 1960s he was already in his 60s so he had played in the '30s and the '40s. He was a swing drummer like a Louis Bellson or a Buddy Rich and that's the concept that I learned from him. So through Billy my earliest background was in big band swing music but growing up in the '60s I just sort of intuited rock 'n roll because it was in the culture. I find that you don't so much have to study the music that is of the culture that you're growing up in, you just seem to get it. I just got Led Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix so I didn't have to really study that music, just like a kid today wouldn't have to study Blink 182, Tool or whatever bands they're listening to. And with fusion, I saw it all happen first generation because when I got out of high school in '72 and went to Berklee, I got to see Return To Forever, Billy Cobham's band, Tony Williams Lifetime, the Headhunters and all of that. That music, because it was in the air, was part of the culture of my time.

MD: So what styles did you have to study in order to prepare for this DVD project?

SS: Well, initially I had done research on older styles without ever thinking about doing a DVD. It was just something I was doing, following my own interests because I was curious and wanted to expand my knowledge and playing ability. But in preparing the DVD, I had to go back and study those styles that didn't come naturally to me. For example, I had to study the early New Orleans drumming. Obviously, I didn't grow up in New Orleans and I didn't grow up in the '20s or the '30s so that was definitely something I had to investigate. So I studied the early New Orleans thing and just followed it sequentially through the swing bands and bebop and rhythm and blues and all of that. And then I eventually branched out and started to learn more about all the different styles of U.S. music that at first didn't have drums but were still a big part of the culture. I looked for the earliest blues, gospel and country recordings that I could find. So it started with the jazz drumming and then I followed it back as far as I could go through recordings, writings, listening and talking to people and just everything I could do to get educated.

MD: I understand that you're currently involved in another musicological undertaking?

SS: Yes, another project we're doing with Hudson Music is a history of rock 'n roll drumming. And through that I've gotten to meet some of the early rock 'n roll drummers, like Buddy Harman, who was probably the first Nashville country drummer, and D.J. Fontana, who toured and recorded with Elvis Presley. Also Jerry Allison from Buddy Holly's band The Crickets and J.M. Van Eaton who was the house drummer at Sun Records. So I've gotten a chance to talk to and interview these guys -- Earl Palmer, Hal Blaine, Sandy Nelson. I'm getting a lot of input for this next project and learning about these other styles of music.

MD: Any revelations from that project?

SS: I found it somewhat of a revelation that there was no such thing as country drummers, blues drummers, gospel drummers or rock drummers in the very first generation of adding drums to those styles of music. It turns out that most of the guys who played on the early country, blues, gospel and early rock 'n roll sessions considered themselves jazz drummers. For example, in 1935 when Bob Wills wanted to add a drummer to his Western Swing group the Texas Playboys he got Smokey Dakus, who was a jazz drummer, because there was no such thing as a country drummer at the time. Drums weren't added to Nashville country music until the '50s. And the guy who did most of those early country sessions, Buddy Harman, was a jazz drummer as well. There were no real country drummers at that time. If a country musician wanted a drummer on his record at that time, he hired a jazz drummer. So the real revelation is that for about the first 50 years of U.S. music history the only kind of drumming going on was jazz drumming, whether it was New Orleans style, swing style, bebop or early rhythm and blues drumming, which is really more of a big band concept applied to a small group with a singer or sax player out front.

MD: And even into the '60s with Motown...those session guys were all working jazz musicians before Motown hired them as the house band.

SS: Exactly. And the same with the blues guys. When Chess Records added drums to Muddy Waters and other blues players recordings in the early 50s...there were no blues drummers yet so they added jazz drummers like Fred Below. Same with gospel recordings. They'd have Panama Francis play or some other New York or Memphis drummer who had a jazz background. It was real interesting for me to see that the jazz drummers were really the original drummers in every genre in American music.

MD: That's the common ground that makes it such quintessentially American music.

SS: Yeah! And it was even the same thing with early rock 'n roll. Earl Palmer, who is essentially a bebop drummer from New Orleans, played on all those early Fats Domino and Little Richard sessions recorded in New Orleans during the '50s. So the very first drummers in all the genres -- guys working for a living and playing sessions -- were jazz drummers. And then shortly thereafter you did have young drummers who began identifying themselves as drummers other than jazz drummers. When I did these interviews with the early rock drummers I asked them how they saw themselves and D.J. Fontana said he clearly saw himself as a jazz drummer. He grew up in the northern part of Louisiana listening to Gene Krupa and wanting to play jazz but ended up getting the gig with Elvis. And it was a great gig so he did it but he still saw himself as a jazz drummer. And Jerry Allison when he was a kid saw Elvis and saw D.J. playing with Elvis, but Jerry Allison was then 14 and he said, "I wanna be a rock 'n roll drummer." He grew up with and played with Buddy Holly and perceived himself as a rock drummer. But if you listen to what D.J. and Jerry play on the records, their playing is not that far apart from each other, they're both swinging and they're both playing some real nice parts. The main difference is how they perceive themselves as far as one saw himself as a jazz drummer playing rock and the other saw himself as a rock drummer. And you could extend that to today where maybe an r&b drummer is playing on the first rap record in the late 70s and he's not considering himself as a rap drummer because there was no such thing at the time. But then quickly, probably within a year or so, there would be a young drummer growing up with the attitude of "I'm a hip-hop drummer," and that's his concept. So it doesn't take long for the thing to catch on where you identify yourself as a particular kind of drummer. But personally I guess I see myself as this overall U.S. drummer.

MD: And now you're a scholar too.

SS: I guess so. But I want to address the common ground that you mentioned earlier, the rhythmic common denominator of U.S. music that connects all of these drumming styles. Just like the clave is the rhythmic common denominator of Afro-Cuban music, the swing pulse is the rhythmic common denominator of all U.S. music. And if you listen to the early recordings of jazz, rhythm and blues, country, gospel, blues or rock 'n roll, it's all swing. All of those early guys were swinging, from Louis Jordan and Cab Calloway right up to Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis. It all swung! It's a later development where things started to get a little more straight eighth note oriented, which comes out of the boogie woogie piano influence. And that's a long transition. You can hear records where Little Richard is playing more even eighth notes on piano while Earl Palmer is still playing with a shuffle swing feel underneath. But eventually the drummers started to play more and more with the piano players and then the guitar players also began to imitate the piano sound with a more straight eighth feel. Listen to Chuck Berry's "Johnny B. Goode." Fred Below is the drummer on that and he's playing swing with a backbeat against the straight eighth guitar. So the point is, if you develop a strong swing pulse in your playing it opens the door to then being able to play all the different styles because that is the rhythmic common denominator of all U.S. music. After you have a strong swing pulse then you can adapt yourself to whatever the music needs. And you figure out what the music needs by hanging with the cats, by just hanging with the guys who do it and listening.

MD: Will your investigation of U.S. drumming eventually lead you to more current styles like hip-hop or drum 'n bass?

SS: I am going to do a book that will accompany this DVD and go a little further with it in terms of 60s jazz drumming and present-day styles. But as far as doing several volumes of DVDs, I don't really see the point of it because, to me, all the essential ingredients to playing just about any kind of music that you're presented with today was developed by sometime in the 1970s.

MD: No major innovations on the drums after that?

SS: After the '70s, drumming-wise, the next most influential thing that came on the scene was the drum machine. So things really changed in the '80s with that drum machine influence. Throughout time there were key players who had innovated playing concepts on the drums. On the DVD I talk about how the hi hat comes into play on the kit...that's like Papa Jo playing with Count Basie; the floor toms is Gene Krupa with Benny Goodman, the bebop style is Kenny Clarke and the rhythm and blues style...that's really no one particular drummer but rather a lot of guys who played with, say, people like Louis Jordan or Louis Prima. And then with the fusion stuff, of course, there's Billy Cobham and Lenny White and Mike Clark. And then the next drummer who really turned everyone's head around with a new concept was Steve Gadd, who brought a real studio consciousness to his playing. Steve was probably the first drum star that embodied a heavy studio consciousness. All the other drum stars before that from Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich to Tony Williams to Billy Cobham were guys who played live. They recorded but you wouldn't think of them as studio drummers, per se and the studio players weren't stars. With Gadd, things really started to shift. You got the studio sound and deep feel and the very, very accurate time. And then after him, the next major innovation in drumming was really the drum machine itself. The Linn drum machine became hugely influential. It was used on so many of the pop tunes of the '80s that it triggered a concept change where drummers had to play like that in order to be a pop drummer. It's like you had to play like a machine in order to get work.

MD: It's like the machine was emulating Gadd, and then the next generation emulated the machine.

SS: Yeah, it's a real twist and a real shift. And so, to me, there's not a lot of new drum vocabulary since the '70s, the emphasis became execution -- perfection. Different music's have developed since then but a whole lot of new vocabulary isn't necessary to play it. You can pretty much recycle everything that developed up until the '70s to play the music. For example, drum 'n bass is basically funk drumming speeded up and hip-hop is funk slowed down. And both come directly from James Brown, it's still essentially the same rhythms and beats that the James Brown bands developed in the '60s and '70s. So even though some things have evolved and changed, it remains the same. Hopefully some new things will evolve but for the most part the lion's share of the vocabulary is already there for drummers.

MD: What were some of the surprises that you had in researching the early years...even the African connection. Were there any revelations about how this music developed as you found out about it in your research?

SS: I think what was significant to me is that in the United States there's no hand drum tradition, which in fact led to the drum set becoming the rhythmic voice of the African American community. Whereas, if history had played itself out differently and let's say we had a hand drum tradition in the United States, the drumset may have never been a necessary invention because we would've had a whole percussive orchestra just with hand drumming. But because of the no-drumming laws that were enforced during the time of slavery, the hand drum tradition that develops directly out of African drumming was squelched in this country. It is true that slaves in New Orleans were allowed to play hand drums once a week at Congo Square. But when you look at that in the scope of how long slavery existed in the United States, which is from the 1500s until the mid 1800s, Congo Square only represents about 40 years in the scheme of things. It began in 1817 and lasted until the mid 1850s. I think in some ways the significance of Congo Square has been a bit overemphasized. Congo Square had the drumming legally but there were other places in Louisiana and all over the South that had the African polyrhythmic percussive concepts still being practiced illegally or underground for the entire history of slavery in the U.S. There's a great book by Dena Epstein called "Sinful Tunes and Spirituals," which is a documentation of everything she could find on the African polyrhythmic concept surviving in the United States throughout the years of slavery. She found that people kept the African pulse alive in many ways such as playing washboards, jawbones, beating sticks on the floor, or stomping their feet on the floor. Even some African hand drums or African styled drums that were made in secret here in the U.S. have been found.

MD: And you make an interesting point in the DVD about the polyrhythmic style of "patting juba" leading to the development of the drumset.

SS: That's another percussion instrument, so to speak, that was developed in the U.S., where the person is playing with feet and hands, incorporating all the limbs just like the drumset. It's an African polyrhythmic concept and it was eventually applied to the drumset, which is the only percussion instrument in the world that uses all four limbs. So in effect, the slaves being deprived of hand drums set the stage for the African American community to embrace the drumset. Without hand drums they were forced to adapt to the European percussion instruments that were available in the1800s, the snare drum and the bass drum, so they were comfortable with the individual instruments that would make up the drumset. I find it real interesting that basically the invention of the drum set is the invention of the bass drum pedal. After that happened in the late 1800s, basically the drum set wasn't used for any other purpose than playing jazz, which was a creation of the African American community. So when people first played the drumset they wanted to play with that concept -- one person playing a snare drum and a bass drum with that African American swing rhythmic concept. The drumset could've just as easily been used in a symphony orchestra but it wasn't. It had some applications in, say, vaudeville and maybe a few situations here and there other than jazz but they never took off as playing concepts. The playing concept that we now take for granted is essentially an African American concept of how to use the instrument. This concept has been so thoroughly assimilated into the culture that most people don't even think about it or question how it came to be. Today the drumset is an instrument that's been accepted all over the world but it is quintessentially a U.S. instrument that developed from our unique history and culture.

MD: Has the drumset continued to develop as a vital expression in recent years?

SS: Yes, there are some drummers who are developing new ideas and abilities on the instrument and there are some players that are simply great musicians playing great music on the drumset. But in general, during the last decade or so, it's being used in such a limited and basic way, especially in pop music, that I find it uninspiring. For example they hit the snare drum and get one sound, hit the bass drum and get one sound and play at one dynamic level rather than really getting into the nuance of everything you can do on the drumset as an instrument. There's so many sounds in just the snare drum alone, from a soft press roll to a rimshot...a stick in the middle of the head to the edge where you get a higher pitch and more ring.

MD: And why is that being phased out?

SS: Well, since the music industry is so driven by fashion and pop culture, there's really not much music left in what passes for music these days.

MD: It's so homogenized to the point that the tones themselves are homogenized?

SS: Yeah, in pop music. Machines are playing most everything so people sample a sound and you get one sort of sound or noise and that suffices as a backbeat. And that's what's used rather than getting into the nuance of actually playing the instrument. Meanwhile, I'm getting more and more into the instrument myself. Just the art of playing the snare drum itself...there's so much to it as far as getting a nice sound out of it and exploring all the tones that are available just on the one instrument, or getting into the nuances of playing a ride cymbal. There's so much there.

MD: Well, there's still room for that in jazz.

SS: There is. And thats encouraging.

Continue to Part 2...

Join Steve on Facebook
Join Steve Smith on Twitter
Join Steve Smith on MySpace
Open the Steve Smith YouTube Channel
Join Steve Smith on ReverbNation

Click the links, below, to read "Drum Talk" articles written by Steve Smith:

Drummer Magazine, 2007 (PDF)
Modern Drummer (three parts)
Choosing the Right Equipment
The Art of Practice (an excerpt)
Interview with Rhythm Magazine
Drums du jour: Dealing with Rental Drums
Vital Reading: My Favorite Music Books
Learning from Mentors
My Setup and Equipment: The Early Years
My Setup and Equipment: My Setup Today