The Drums of Triumph
By Wayne McLeod
Photos by Julie Macaluso
GM: Born and raised in Toronto, Canada.
WM: Date of birth?
GM: February 12, 1953.
WM: When and how did you first become interested in drumming?
GM: I got interested after seeing the Beatles on television, and I started playing during high school. I started on trumpet but I had braces on my teeth so after I destroyed the inside of my mouth by playing trumpet for a week, the teacher finally put me back on drums. When it came to choosing an instrument, there were 27 people in this 9th grade music class who wanted to play drums. The teacher said everybody can’t play drums. I went to him and said, “Listen, I want to play drums.” He said all drummers and guitar players are idiots. But I started playing in the ninth grade and learned how to do orchestra drumming, and then I got interested in military drumming. There were a couple of drummers in Toronto that were actually playing in rock bands that had come out of De La Salle Drum Corp., and they had really good chops because their hands were strong.
WM: Did you have any other formal instruction?
GM: Only the instruction I got in high school, and that was mainly orchestra percussion. It wasn’t playing a kit. I really worked hardest on military stuff. I worked hardest learning and practicing the 26 rudiments for the first couple of years, and then when I started playing on a full kit, I was mainly interested in blues and r&b. So I played a lot of the black Chicago blues. And I played in a lot of soul bands too.
WM: Do you remember the first kit you owned?
GM: Yes, it was a Beltone. It was a full set with a Ludwig snare drum. I had one Zildjian ride cymbal.
WM: What kind of things were you listening to when you were developing during this period?
GM: Well, once I got over my fascination with a couple of local drummers that were military whizs, I listened a lot to Al Jackson (drummer for Booker T & the MG’s) records so consistently, I couldn’t help but be affected by what he was doing. And as for most of the rock drummers, I listened to Mitch Mitchell and John Bonham. On the other hand, I always liked Buddy Rich and followed him ever since I first became interested in drumming.
WM: Who were some of the first people you played with?
GM: Just a series of local groups. The first professional group I played with was called Mondo Plus 4. That’s when I got my first set of good drums. My dad took me downtown and cosigned for me to get a set of Rogers. Again, it was a bass drum, tenor and floor tom, but I got my cymbals upgraded to Avedis Zildjian and got Rogers hardware to go with the kit. I kept the Ludwig snare drum but got a Dynasonic snare drum shortly after, which I’ve still got. All the Toronto bands I played in were basement bands that really never got a chance to play out. The first gig I ever played was at a wedding with Mondo Plus 4. Great place for a rock group!
Triumph started in 1975 and that’s really been the group for me that’s gotten off the ground. All the other groups I played in were too busy kicking people out and having guys quit to become successful.
WM: Do you still find time to practice?
GM: I don’t practice as much as I should, and probably the choosier the band is able to become about how much we work, the more I’ll be able to practice, because practice takes an awful lot of time. If you really want to practice you have to put in 45 minutes to an hour a day. A lot of top players don’t practice, they just play all the time. And if they get an idea they can’t quite master, they’ll just work on it until they can.
The only practice I get on the road is before we go on every night, I usually play on my leg for a half-hour, which is good to loosen my hands. Plus we do a sound check every day and a show, so I play drums an awful lot. But if we weren’t touring as extensively as we are now, then I would definitely have enough time to practice at home. I have an identical kit (Tama Imperial Star) at home.
WM: Do you read music?
GM: Yes, I can read percussion for orchestra.
WM: If you did have more time to practice, what would your routine consist of?
GM: The rudiments are the backbone of playing well with your hands. So I’d just drill with rudiments. As far as working on feel, which is an intangible element, I’d just kind of close my eyes and play. I like to get into different kinds of feels, which is really important. I try to pick up on feels from records that have interesting twists. As far as technically trying to expand into areas of playing where I’m not particularly good, I’d work on other styles of music. I’d be more inclined to work on some jazz playing. I think having the ability to play other styles influences your ability to play in another field. If you’re a rock drummer who can play jazz, you’ll be a better rock drummer. Drummers who get locked into one style are limiting themselves and any further potential to progress.
WM: Do you do anything specific to keep in shape?
GM: Not religiously, but I jog. If the band is completely off tour, say for two months, then jogging becomes sort of religious to me. I’ll jog every day and I’ll do a lot of calisthenics. On tour I try to do calisthenics as much as I can. When we’re not touring I play golf like a fiend. I play golf on tour to the extent of going to driving ranges.
WM: Do you play any other instruments?
GM: Just a few chords on guitar and piano.
WM: What kind of equipment are you using?
GM: Tama Imperial Star and the 12 + I, with all Tama hardware, and all the cymbals are Avedis Zildjian. Most of the electronics are also by Tama. They’ve got a drum synthesizer and an analog delay and multi-flanger.
WM: Can you explain your set-up?
GM: On the Imperial Star set and the 12 + 1 set there are two tom-toms, two concert toms over each bass drum, and I moved every drum left one, so the 5″ tom-tom, which is the first one, and the 7″, which is the second one, are on a concert tom stand. Then I have another concert tom stand with the 8″ drum, which actually should be on the left bass drum. Then all the toms are moved around once so I have three up front on stands and one on the left bass drum, which is a 9″ x 13″, and the right bass drum, a 10″ x 14″. Then there’s a 10″ x 15″ and 11″ x 15″, and then the last two concert toms are elevated on a stand above the two floor toms. The floor toms are 16″ x 16″ and 18″ x 18″, and I’ve got a 5 1/4″ chrome metal shell snare.
WM: What do you look for in a drum set?
GM: With the hardware I look for something solid because of the nature of playing rock music, which involves playing loud and pretty vicious at times. In a snare drum I like to hear the snares. Overall, the sound I like is a natural drum sound. I don’t like what I call the L.A. electronic drum sound, where everything is padded and dampened. I like thin heads, although on stage I have to use Remo CS batters, otherwise I’d break the heads too often. With a snare drum, I like a bright, crisp, loud sound with a heavy crack to it. I play a lot of hard rim shots with my left hand, so I like a heavy crack. It’s a deeper sound than the conventional snare drum sound. I tune the top head a little looser, opposed to orchestra percussion or what I call a conventional drum sound. On the toms, I also use the CS batters. They give you a really strong attack, because they’ve got that second piece of mylar in the center and not a lot of sustain. Because the two pieces of mylar are bonded together, they dampen each other. In the studio I use Ambassador heads, on all the drums except the bass drums, where I use Emperors. The only reason I use Emperors on the bass drums is because I get more low frequency resonance off of the thicker head, when you strike them hard. If I struck them quietly I’d use the Ambassador bass drum heads as well.
WM: Do you use the P. A. to roll on any extra tone qualities?
GM: When you play live, at least with Triumph, the sound of the drums is important to the sound of the group. There’s a lot of E.Q. (Equalizer) on the drums. If you mix the drums flat, and don’t add any E.Q. or electronic gadgetry to them, the halls are subject to being resonant at one frequency and not at another. You end up with a horrible overall sound. What you end up hearing at a concert is a really processed sound. But the guy who mixes tries to really project the sound that I want to project. He wants a really full tom-tom sound with a lot of resonance from the drums, not a dead cutoff sound. That’s why I don’t have any mufflers on my drums, no bits of jay cloth stuck on. Their sound is in no way dampened. On the bass drum he tries to get a big woof. The way I explain the sound to my sound man is to make the bass drum sound as close to a marching drum sound as possible.
Actually, I’m experimenting with some other Tama drums that I’ve got back in Canada, where I use bottom heads on all the drums. I like the bottom head sound, and on some concert toms I’d like the option of being able to use them either way, which I don’t have now. I’ll be able to screw the heads off and on, depending on the particular sound I want at the time. Plus, I invented a size that will mean thirteen tom-toms instead of twelve in the kit.
It’s hard to play a set this size. It took me awhile. When I first got them I went from having two bass drums and just two toms and a snare to getting two floor toms, which were the first extra toms I added. From there, I added two timbales and two toms over the bass drum. Then when I got these drums, which were bigger than anything I had ever played, I’d reach around and miss a lot of drums while I was doing fills. Even now I occasionally miss some when I’m not playing well. I’ll do a really fast roll, and when you’re going around that many drums it’s not easy to hit them all right in the center. I know anybody with a kit this size will agree with me. When your feet are on the bass drum pedals and your arms are cranked 90 degrees to the left or 90 degrees to the right, your playing becomes more of a test of your accuracy.
WM: How many cymbals do you use?
GM: A ride cymbal on my lower right and then I have three crash cymbals on each side. I have a tiny splash cymbal between my two bass drums. All together there are eight, plus my hi-hats. My equipment usually takes a beating on tour. For example, one night in Seattle my whole kit toppled over. As a result I’ve got a couple of rims that are bent, and that’s really a drag because you can’t tune the drums after the rims are bent. I even bend the rims on my snare drums to get the sound I want. What I would really like to do before our next tour is try to invent a system that I’ll call “rod lock,” so when you tune your drum, the rod can’t tighten or loosen unless you do something to release it. I’ve been thinking about it because for somebody who likes to tune their drums really low and wants to hit really hard, drums come out of tune a lot faster.
If you really want to keep your drums sounding the way they should, you really have to take care of them while you’re on the road touring. It’s hard because you usually don’t have enough time to do it yourself, so you have to let your drum roadie do it for you. The guy I have right now is great because he’s a drummer, but on the next tour I might have someone else who’s not. It’s tough when you’re on tour you’ll think, “I really need a new set of heads,” but you don’t really get a chance to change them as often as you should.
WM: Do you have any tuning tips?
GM: It’s definitely routine to say you should be careful to tune your drums from opposite sides, in other words, to put even tension on the head. That’s elementary, although I still see a lot of guys who don’t do that. The most important thing when you’re tuning a drum is making sure you’ve got a head, shell and rim that’s uniform. I didn’t understand why some tom-toms sounded good and others didn’t, until I realized that just because a rim looks round—doesn’t mean it is, or because a drum head is brand new, doesn’t mean it’s perfect. Even if you tune the head down by computer with a really even rim on it, it’s gonna be looser on one side. Ideally, if you’re fussy, I think it’s worth putting the extra time in to do the tuning correctly. At times, I’ve had brand new heads that I’ve put on the drum, taken them off and thrown them out.
WM: So have you gone through a lot of different heads before you decided on Remos?
GM: No, I’ve always used Remo heads, but I’ve tried every other kind of head. The worst heads I’ve ever seen are those Evans hydraulic heads. Guys come up to me and say, “I just tried Evans hydraulic heads and they sounded fantastic.” That’s true, they sound great in music stores, but that’s the only place they sound good.
WM: I’ve heard a lot of drummers say they sound good in the studios.
GM: I think they sound horrid in the studio. We went through a situation where we put a whole set of them on my kit when recording our Rock and Roll Machine album. I played for about ten minutes and then listened to the tape and ripped them all off the drums, and they’re really expensive too. It’s like a couple of pieces of mylar with oil in between them. The combination, to me, has a deadening sound. Everybody thinks you get a lower tone out of them. You don’t, you just get less highs. You think it sounds lower to the ear, but it really isn’t.
WM: What do you think of the trend towards large, multiple drum set-ups?
GM: I think that it is a good trend, and will probably continue. The more drummers get into playing more drums and percussion, the more valuable they are to music in general. And let’s face it, there are more bass players getting replaced by keyboards. Thank God there aren’t any synthesizers that can replace drums. As far as I’m concerned, the more versatile you can be as a musician, the more you can guarantee you’ll be around in ten years, and you’re not going to be extinct.
WM: Do you ever play any Brazilian or Latin percussion?
GM: I play timbales with the kit, and I’ve played a lot of percussion on records. I’ve played tympani and various Latin percussion devices from time to time. I’m really a pretty bad tambourine player. Playing tambourine is an art in itself. I also think that congas have come into their own during the last seven or eight years, and guys are starting to become recognized as great conga players. When I was in high school every guy who thought he was cool had bongos and would play them at parties. You know, beatniks always have bongos and anyone can play them.
WM: What type of sticks do you use?
GM: I use Dean Markley sticks. The Dean Markley sticks are the toughest sticks I’ve used. I went out and bashed around the recording studio with them for a couple of days and they’re brutal. For me the strength of the stick is more important than anything else. It’s even more important than consistency. I always match my pairs on my own. They usually come wrapped in bags of two. I take maybe a dozen to two dozen sticks at a time, roll them on a table and any that aren’t flat get chucked and then I sort them according to weight. I match up pairs that are perfectly balanced. The number one thing that I look for is strength because the type of band we are, if I break a stick it becomes dangerous. I had one break and cut my lip. When you’re swinging that hard and the stick breaks and comes flying off, they can really hurt you. It’s probably something that drummers in other types of music never consider. When they break a stick they’re not worried about it shooting off like a rifle shot.
WM: What are your feelings towards material other than wood used today in drum construction?
GM: Well the shells I’ve got are actually a new material. It’s a man-made material that’s mostly wood, but the difference is that these shells give you more top end, more percussion and a lot more attack. That sounds contrary to what I said earlier about my taste in the sound of drums. Again, you have to bear in mind the kind of music that Triumph plays and the fact that we’re a three man group. Attack and presence is extremely important. The best way for me to explain it is that it’s like the difference between a wood shell snare drum and a metal shell snare drum. The metal shell snare drum is somewhat brighter, has somewhat more presence and somewhat more treble top end. I would say that’s equivalent, perhaps to a slightly lesser degree, to the difference of the tom toms and the bass drums. The fiberglass shells I haven’t had much experience with, and I haven’t had any significant experience with some of the other manufacturers of the Vista-lite shells or the clear shells.
WM: Are the metal sets harder to tune?
GM: I had one metal set and I liked them. That was before I started to play Tama. I had a metal set of Ludwigs and I would say they are harder to tune because, if you have a certain resonation that seems to be a little too loud, you notice it more. Because of the brightness of the drum, it sounds more obnoxious. In a slightly duller sounding drum, it doesn’t rub you the wrong way quite as much.
WM: What do you think of the electronic revolution in drumming?
GM: To me, it kind of ties into what I was saying before about being able to play more percussive instruments than just a drum kit. I think it’s definitely worth looking into. Just because it’s new doesn’t mean it’s good, and just because it’s different doesn’t mean it’s inventive. But I think it’s worth trying. That’s the way I look at it. There are ways that you can use electronics, both in making records and playing live shows, that give the drums new avenues. One thing I’ve noticed about Billy Cobham is that he’s always getting into something new. Whether it’s equipment or sounds or whatever, he’s never afraid to try something new. I think that’s very important with all instruments in all phases of music.
WM: Would you attribute some of what Billy Cobham has done to be an inspiration of your experimenting with electronic drumming?
GM: Billy Cobham didn’t really inspire me to get into electronics. He inspires me period because he’s a great player, and he inspires me creatively because he’s gotten into a lot of different drum sounds. I think he came up with the idea of the gong tom-tom or gong bass drum. He was one of the first guys who got people back into using swish cymbals.
WM: Would you like to do a piece exclusively on electronic drums?
GM: I was thinking about it. Rick (lead guitarist of Triumph) was thinking about doing a song on this album called “Guitar Wars,” which would be a takeoff on the Star Wars movie. It would be like an intergalactic battle on guitars, which would be two guitars fighting with each other through a lot of electronics. That sort of gave me the idea of having drums vs. guitar. It would sort of be the equivalent of rock and free form jazz, complete interpretation all the way through. It would be a ball to mix it after it had been done live. Maybe I’ll try and do it on my own. I always really liked the instrumental “Frankenstein” (Edgar Winter group) but I’d like to take it a few steps further.
WM: What are your feelings towards drum solos?
GM: I really like them. I always play one during our shows. A lot of people always say, “I hate drum solos, and every band always plays drum solos, but you play one like nothing I’ve ever heard.” I use a lot of electronic effects during my drum solos and one of the reasons is just to be different. So my drum solo is a bit of both me playing through the P.A. system and fooling around with electronics between the sound man and myself.
WM: Can you describe your concept of a drummer’s role in the rhythm section?
GM: I think that in music, regardless of what kind of music you’re playing, the most important thing is the feel. Drums, to a large degree, create the feel. They are the backbone of most music. That’s the ultimate measure of a good drummer, his feel, because there are a lot of guys with good chops who are terrible drummers.
WM: How does this apply to drummers in your particular area?
GM: Drummers that were weaned on something that was relatively traditional, for instance playing jazz or blues, ultimately become better players as opposed to guys who started playing rock music. They went right into playing rock music without having a kind of traditional set of roots. I think in the long run that really hurts them because they don’t latch on to the concept of feel. You can’t explain it to them. If they don’t have it they’ll never get it. It’s like the guy who doesn’t have the coordination to make a football spiral. It’s the same thing with music.
WM: Is there any one individual you could credit to be the most influential force in drumming styles over the past twenty years?
GM: That’s really hard to say because most drummers don’t pattern themselves after a certain player, the way guitar players all copied Eric Clapton at one time. So, I would really be hard pressed to pick one, other than to say that Buddy Rich has been the best drummer for the last twenty years, and I think he’ll be around for the next twenty years and still be the best. He’s not a rock player but he’s so amazing as a drummer in general. I saw him four years ago in Toronto and I stood about eight feet from his kit and was totally blinded by his incredible dexterity. I just can’t compare anybody to him, and I’ve seen a lot of good players. He’s the greatest as far as I’m concerned.
WM: What other drummers do you enjoy listening to?
GM: I still really like what John Bonham did. He was vastly underrated because a lot of guys thought he was very simplistic in the essence of being creative. He had fantastic chops. I liked his ideas, like the things he left out at the right times.
WM: Like “When the Levee Breaks.”
GM: Yeah, I love “When the Levee Breaks” (Zepplin’s 4th L.P.). Bonham wasn’t someone you’d notice as being actively phenomenal, like you would notice Billy Cobham. Man, you listen to any album that Cobham’s on and the drums are all over the place. I also dig listening to lan Paice (Deep Purple). I think he’s terrific.
There was a guy playing with Frank Zappa on his last tour. I don’t remember his name, but he’s the best drummer I’ve seen that just blew me away. There’s another guy from Toronto that’s playing with Santana. His name’s Graham Lear and he’s phenomenal. There’s so many good players, it’s hard to single out who I like listening to. I just like listening to anything that’s good.
WM: What do you listen for in a drummer?
GM: The most important thing for me, is his feel within the context of what he’s doing. There are guys who play in the heart of the rhythm or the heart of the feel, and there are those who don’t. The guys who do are doing what drummers are supposed to do.
WM: If you did a clinic, do you think it would be a rudimental drum clinic?
GM: I would, but I’d really have to get back into working on my chops. I’d have to take some time off from playing with Triumph.
WM: Do you still feel you’re growing musically?
GM: If you really like what you’re doing, you discover new avenues all the time. We’re doing some tunes now that I’ve been playing for four years, and it’s easy to turn your mind off and play the tune the same way. Yet, if you really look inside the music, there’s always something new to try, and that, to me, can be a challenge unto itself. It’s just a matter of having a desire to keep growing.
WM: What direction do you think you’ll be moving in in the future?
GM: I’m going to keep experimenting with the drums and keep experimenting with the electronic gadgetry that we use live and in the studio. I definitely want to do a drum solo on one of the upcoming albums. Record companies aren’t particularly into a group putting drum solos on albums. They figure it won’t get any air play and can’t become a single. Regardless of that, we’re in a position now where we can call a lot of our own shots, and I think somewhere along the way I’d like to do that.
WM: Do you have any unfulfilled musical goals?
GM: When you play in a band like Triumph that is commercially successful, we’re never in a situation, like most bands, where we are looking for more work. For us it’s the other way around. We turned down a lot of gigs. If we had clones we could have eight bands like Triumph and fulfill our commitments 365 days a year. So what becomes unfulfilled is a lot of things you want to do musically, because your time is completely committed to the band. You run the risk of stagnating by playing with the same musicians all the time. However, the way the group is set up, everybody’s open minded musically and we’ll try anything in the studio. We’ve played a bit of jazz on albums, a bit of blues and a bit of classical. We’ve never restricted ourselves to playing a straight rock format. But I would say that not being able to do more diverse musical projects is probably what’s a little bit unfulfilling.
WM: What words of advice would you have for a young drummer just starting out with hopes of becoming a professional?
GM: There is no substitute for being good, and the grain separates itself from the chaff, and cream rises to the top. I really believe that there’s an abundance of opportunity in Canada and the United States, and if a guy doesn’t make it he doesn’t have anyone to blame but himself. It’s a land of promise, so to speak, for musicians. A lot of guys get into the business for the wrong reasons. They think it’s really glamorous and the chicks will like them, or they think musicians go around doing dope all the time. A lot of guys get into it because they’re lazy and think “Here’s an easy way out, play music.” There’s a million different reasons to do it, but the only real reason should be that you really love music and really dig playing your instrument. And if you bust your ass doing it, you’re bound to succeed.