Gabor Dornyei

This drummer has logged quite a few air miles in his career, and each stop along the way has left a lasting impression on his music.

U.K.-based drummer Gabor Dornyei is among the busiest touring player/educators on the international scene. His highly developed technique and advanced proficiency with multi-pedal patterns allow him to explore polyrhythmic, layered ethnic concepts with authenticity and passion.

As a performer, Dornyei has gained accolades for tHUNder Duo, with world percussionist Kornel Horvath. Several years ago the pair released a self-titled DVD on which they explore a plethora of dense world rhythms within their own multicultural compositions. More recently Dornyei completed a DVD project with famed world percussionist Pete Lockett, Rhythm Frontier. And for the past three years the drummer has circled the globe with the Thriller Live tour, a Michael Jackson tribute show based in London. He was also recently featured on

Since the age of seventeen, Dornyei, who’s now in his thirties, has correspondingly maintained a busy teaching career. Currently he’s on the faculty of the Institute of Contemporary Music Performance in London, and he recently authored the drum curriculum for the Detroit Institute of Music Education’s DIME Online program.

Growing up in southern Hungary, Dornyei was raised on hard rock and metal. “Those early years had a big impact,” he says. “Later, though, I discovered fusion, Latin music, and acoustic jazz, which prompted my general approach to be a bit lighter and more musical rather than more technical or physical. As for complexities, well, all my favorite players—Billy Cobham, Trilok Gurtu, Terry Bozzio, and Vinnie Colaiuta—play in odd-time-signature settings, so I absorbed a lot from them. My first pro band, when I was seventeen, played in 7/8, 9/8, 13/8, so what others considered to be complexities became natural for me at an early age.”

Mastering odd times might have been instinctive to Dornyei; finding his own voice on the drums was a different matter. “When you’re young, you absorb what others are playing,” Gabor says. “But unfortunately many drummers [end up sounding] like a clone of their favorite players. Sounding like someone else was the last thing I wanted to do. So I searched out my own style and my own grooves, which is an ongoing part of my growing process. Ultimately my goal is that, after hearing just a couple of bars, listeners will say, ‘Ah, that’s Gabs!’”

The tHUNder Duo DVD is a particularly revealing showcase. “Kornel Horvath is an incredibly musical and creative player,” Dornyei says, “so fitting in with him was easy. In 2005 I was invited to perform at a drum festival, and that’s when I approached Kornel with the idea of the tHUNder Duo. In our music, listening to each other is just as important as the actual playing. The reaction from audiences across the U.K. and Europe—and also to our live DVD—has massively exceeded our expectations. We even had a standing ovation at our first-ever gig!”

Dornyei utilizes his advanced knowledge of world rhythms to create interesting counterpoints to Horvath’s percussion parts. “Our compositions start from an individual idea instigated by Kornel or me,” Gabor explains. “We simply show each other the core idea and let the other guy come up with his individual part, or, if we have a rough idea for each other’s parts, we just share our thoughts and explain how we imagine the entire piece.”

Dornyei attributes his quick hands and feet to many years spent practicing in a relaxed fashion. “My concept for hand and foot speed is to allow the limbs to react naturally, creating rebound and constant motion,” he explains. “I use mainly German grip, as I allow the sticks to bounce, pulling the sounds from the drums. As I increase the tempo, I switch to more of a French grip style [with the thumbs up], which allows the fingers to do most of the work. I keep my wrists loose, with very little arm motion.


“I use multiple pedals with both feet,” Dornyei continues, “so I also have to be able to move my feet quickly from side to side. By sliding and bouncing my feet, I can keep a relaxed and steady motion. The key is to never tense up, no matter what tempo you’re playing. You must start slowly and gradually increase your speed, with no tension in your muscles. Once you start to tense up—game over!”

Dornyei says that his approach on the Thriller Live tour is very different from the way he plays during his clinics or with tHUNder Duo. How does he adjust his mindset for groove-oriented music versus multilayered, multi-pedal world rhythms? “First,” Dornyei says, “one must recognize that there are differences, so those styles cannot be tackled with the same approach or applications of concepts and techniques. My responsibility with Thriller was to make the band groove hard, so that at each gig we could bring thousands of people to their feet and have them dance to the music. That meant I couldn’t disturb the flow of the tunes with fills or polyrhythms. That gig was all about locking in and being consistent.

“As much as I like doing that, I really enjoy solo shows and master classes, as well as playing with Kornel in tHUNder Duo, because it allows me to completely express myself without limitation. But to know when and where to do any of this, one must know the big picture of the music being played, which means understanding what makes that music happen, as well as what is the most suitable approach to it. I’ve been fortunate to play professionally most of my musical life, and I learned early on when and when not to play, as well as how much to put in and what to leave out. That’s from experience in both playing and listening. In other words, do the homework and pay attention.”

Dornyei puts great emphasis on versatility. “To be a pro drummer,” he says, “it’s good to know all the relevant styles, have good technique and time, but also master the dynamics in each. I like the idea of being a musical chameleon, because it means I can take any type of gig.”

With so many opportunities awaiting this on-the-rise player, what does Dornyei see as his next professional challenge? “Oh, nothing too ambitious,” he says with a laugh, “just to have the ambidexterity of Billy Cobham with the brain of Vinnie Colaiuta and the freedom of Jack DeJohnette, spiced up with the swing of Peter Erskine and the technique of Jojo Mayer, all summed up in the groove of John Bonham and the creativity of Terry Bozzio, while having the independence of Horacio Hernandez and the coolness of Steve Gadd! But seriously, I’d love to get out to more major institutions and drum festivals in America and worldwide, to perform for new audiences and show them what this ‘Gabs Gabor kind of drumming’ is all about.”

Thunderous Notes

Gabor Dornyei details the multicultural roots of the compositions on tHUNder Duo’s DVD.

“Hang Samba”

Kornel starts on a melodic metal drum-like instrument from Switzerland called the hang, while I quietly back him with a samba rhythm on brushes before changing to sticks.

“Step One”

After a double-pedal hi-hat solo, I introduce 5/16 over a 4/4 polyrhythmic rock-type groove, and Kornel solos over it on congas and shekere.

“Cuba Libre”

Stylistically, this is probably our “cleanest” Latin composition. It features me soloing over a 3-2 rumba clave with constant changes in the 6/8 triplet feel, plus a multi-drumkit solo with percussion add-ons, before Kornel makes a switch during his solo on the headed tambourine and takes us on a musical journey to Turkey and Arabia.


This is a personal favorite of mine. It starts with a catchy Bulgarian dance rhythm unison beat before evolving into a 5/4 groove on the bongos, while I’m on the kit with my Vic Firth Rutes. Then there’s a middle section where we’re playing a 6/8 polyrhythm together over the 5/4 groove with some added Indian-style, Konnakol-type vocals.

Tools of the Trade

Dornyei plays a Sonor SQ2 kit with vintage maple shells in walnut roots finish, including a 7×14 main snare; a 5×12 side snare; 8×10, 9×12, and 10×13 toms; 14×14 and 16×16 floor toms; and an 18×22 bass drum. His Zildjian cymbals include 13″ K/Z hi-hats, a 21″ K Custom Dark Complex ride, a 21″ K Custom Special Dry ride, a 19″ A Thin crash, a 16″ K Custom Dark crash, a 14″ A Custom Fast crash, 13″ A Mastersound hi-hats, a 20″ Oriental Trash China, a 14″ K China, a 10″ A Armand splash, a 9″ Oriental Trash splash, and an 8″ K splash.

Gabor uses Vic Firth Jack DeJohnette signature sticks, Jazz Rakes, timpani mallets, and Rutes, and his Remo heads include Coated Ambassador snare batters, Clear Ambassador tom batters and bottoms, and a Powerstroke 3 bass drum batter. He plays Roland V-Drums, and his percussion instruments include aTycoon Black Pearl mambo bell, 5.5″ Hand Hammered pedal-operated cowbell, Hi and Low Jam Blocks, 6″ and 8″ mini timbales, and a mountable tambourine with brass jingles. He uses Sonor Giant Step pedals and 600 series hardware, a KickPort on his bass drum resonant head, and Hardcase drum cases.

Story by Mike Haid

Photos by Marco Van De Meulenhof