Cliff Almond

Cliff Almond

Story by Ken Micallef
Photos by Shinnosuke ”Danny” Natsume

San Diego native Cliff Almond had special advantages as a young drummer banging his way through the business. Surrounded by a family of professional musicians, Almond learned early the value of sight-reading, good time, and showing up to the gig fully prepared. After becoming a self-described Weckl clone in his teens, Almond pursued what he calls “the unraveling,” wherein he mindfully freed himself of technical expectations and prescribed drumming rules in order to expose the singular player that resided within his unique soul and psyche. 

Years later, an extremely varied skill set and a list of recurring employers prove this approach has paid off. After playing in orchestras, pit bands, and various recording situations in California, Almond studied and taught at the Percussion Institute of Technology (PIT). He relocated to New York City in 1989, where letters to Dave Weckl resulted in his first (and ongoing) gig with pianist Michel Camilo. Almond regularly travels to Japan, where he holds down the throne with one of that country’s most popular rock bands, Quruli, as well as its hottest J-pop star, Utada Hikaru. Back stateside, Almond is one of a small group of drummers regularly called upon by guitarist Wayne Krantz to improvise beyond borders.

“Cliff Almond has been at the center of the storm in my band on and off for years,” Krantz says. “He’s an incredible drummer with great hands and an airy touch, and he can get down. He has impeccable time, and he always comes to play. Cliff has his thing, plus a truly soulful rock feel—a serious asset. He has that intangible something that lets the music move forward creatively. Cliff Almond, Zach Danziger, and Gary Novak were the three junior musketeers when I started gigging in the early ’90s. Now they’re masters, each in his own way.”

Almond offers lessons on his popular website,, where he also pens a thoughtful blog. “Many of us don’t realize that the same elements that are required for us to progress musically can be as constricting as they are beneficial,” the drummer wrote in a post titled “Fundamentalism, Musically and Otherwise.” “Many of us adhere to fundamentals that may no longer be beneficial to our growth. And we often have concepts that go unexplored because of [expectations] in how we think music should be performed.”

MD: Your approach with Michel Camilo and Wayne Krantz is very different from that of the drummers who came before you. It reminds me of Zigaboo Modeliste, if he played percussion. More air between the notes.

Cliff: I come from a family of classical musicians, and I played orchestral drums and percussion originally. I did pit work when I was young, a lot of orchestral music. My brother is concertmaster of the Milwaukee Symphony. My father is a conductor, and my mother is a piano teacher. So my approach is coming dynamically, hopefully, from a classical background. I’m not a huge fan of classical music, but my parents started me on piano and violin, and I kept going with drums. They finally gave in!

MD: How does that classical background influence the way you interpret music now?

Cliff: At first I was very rigid. I’m a type A personality—everything has to make sense. There’s no improvisation in the classical world. And I didn’t improvise until I started getting into Rush and the Beatles. Then jazz really opened that up for me. I tried to bring some of my classical sensibilities to that as well.

MD: How does your approach differ when playing rock with Quruli?

Cliff: After Rush, I got into fusion, then I cloned Vinnie and Weckl and landed Michel’s gig. But I’ve always loved 8th-note, straight-pocket music. And it wasn’t until I tried to go back to playing a pocket that I realized how hard it is to play straight time that doesn’t move, like Steve Jordan, and time that feels good and is consistent. That’s what Quruli is all about. I like to be a versatile musician, though that approach isn’t always reflected in my work with Quruli. But it does affect how I approach that music compositionally and section-wise, and how I orchestrate things.

Cliff Almond

MD: Camilo and Krantz demand a lot of improvisation. What else do those two gigs share?

Cliff: Camilo’s thing is more notated in terms of the specifics of what he wants. He will tell you specifically, and that allows you to lock into more of a formalized approach. You can assemble a group of ideas and pattern them out. Wayne’s gig is the opposite. The modulations in his music are tough, but the hardest thing is to really write a song, and his are amazing. The bass player is the star of Wayne’s gig, really. If that gig is done right, even people who don’t know anything about music will feel it, and it will make sense to them. In the end it’s about Wayne’s compositions.

MD: If the beat is pushed on Camilo’s gig, which is how it sometimes sounds, what does that force you to do?

Cliff: It depends on who’s playing bass. That music has an edge sometimes; that’s just where Michel feels it. I tend to play on top too, so it’s about finding a balance. Often I will tape the gig and make sure it’s not pushing too much. The Latin thing swings best when it’s relaxed, but with an edge. Most of Michel’s tempos, especially for drum solos, are very bright. Very fast tempos. The key is to have a groove in there so it doesn’t sound frantic. My favorite traditional Latin drummers, like El Negro [Horacio Hernandez], they’ve got the swing, the facility, plus they’re relaxed and loose at the same time. It can be hard to mix that in when the music is really syncopated, like Michel’s. I try to broaden it up and stay back. Sometimes it’s a matter of pushing and pulling.

MD: Your approach with Camilo is more like original Brazilian guys such as Milton Banana and João Palma. It’s lighter and more percussive.

Cliff: It’s also a lot of trial and error. I trade off the gig with Dafnis Prieto and Mark Walker. I’ve taped a lot of the gigs to figure everything out, which I do on every gig. I try to find the sweet spot.

MD: Krantz’s gig is more open-ended. What’s your process there?

Cliff: Wayne’s thing is the most unique gig on the planet. It takes guts to say, “We’re going to play in D minor,” and just play. Wayne has cues, from “up” and “way up” to “down” and “way down,” and a “shhhh” cue. And “cut,” which is on the last 8th note, a stop. But his is an incredibly loose framework. Wayne just picks a tempo and we go. If it’s done right, it turns into a color that everyone—the band and the audience—can feel. It’s like a wave. I’ve seen Tim Lefebvre and Keith Carlock and Zach Danziger do it with Wayne. It’s deep. It’s incredible.

MD: Wayne is a great musician.

Cliff: Totally. Even in what he wants to hear. He’s told me, for instance, “If it feels like you should go to funk or samba there, do the opposite.” He’s always searching.

MD: You have an interesting rim language with both of those artists, similar to Antonio Sanchez, but in a different context.

Cliff: It’s just an attempt to find different sounds to play. I’ve consciously tried to get away from the technical side of things. When I play now, I think of the sound palette. When everything works, ideas come out of that. I’ve been doing things with my fingers on the snare drum head. It’s like playing a tabla: triplet ideas, little accents and variations in between the notes.

When I find something I like, I work it out later and stuff starts to happen. That’s another thing Krantz has taught me: Just go with it. I’m generally very methodical. So I’m consciously trying to get away from that. And I sound better for it. I was too clean. I had basically cloned Dave Weckl through his Contemporary Drummer + One/Dave Weckl All Star Band Music [Alfred] package. Then I got one of Weckl’s gigs through Weckl. I met him at one of his gigs and he asked me to play his set. God bless him, he recommended me for Michel’s gig.

MD: How did you break out of the clone stigma?

Cliff: I began listening to Antonio Sanchez, Bill Stewart, and other guys. I was stuck in that linear, “everything must be clean” approach. I didn’t want to stay there. So I moved from San Diego to New York to get my ass kicked. I threw myself back into the fire and tried to absorb things, and slowly it came together. I still sound like a bad version of Dave Weckl. [laughs] But if you can develop that clean thing, you can un-develop it. You’ve got the ears to do it.

MD: Regarding the rim language, you heard something you liked and worked on it?

Cliff: Right. I heard Brian Blade do it on a Wolfgang Muthspiel duo record, Friendly Travelers. That’s breathtaking. His touch is so great, with all this finger action. Brian is really great on slow tempos. I also watched Shawn Pelton and tried to absorb his movement on the drums.

MD: Your arms move like whips. Sometimes you move your forearm sideways, which looks like bad technique.

Cliff: It probably is. I used to have all these perfect technical practices, but I didn’t like the way I sounded. I had to dump all that stuff. When I hear something, I figure out how to do it, and I don’t care if my arm sticks out weirdly or not. I don’t care. If that’s what it takes to get what I’m hearing…that’s the bottom line. Antonio Sanchez and I have talked about consciously unlearning things to get to our own sound. It’s really hard. All that [perfect technique] can lock you in; I didn’t want to be locked in.

MD: You wrote in one of your blog posts, “Being an individual in music requires tremendous amounts of self-examination. You must trust that you have a valid set of ideas even if the world doesn’t acknowledge them.” That’s scary.

Cliff: It is scary. Keith Carlock, for instance, puts his drums at such odd angles: flat toms, his floor tom is at an off angle, his snare drum angle is unusual. We shared a practice space for years. I would often play on the kit after he did. I thought, What are you doing? He was trying to play things differently.

MD: Given these radical ideas, how do you instruct students?

Cliff: I try not to teach from muscle memory. I was taught that you learn everything, assemble the information, and that’s your skill set. When playing, I would connect licks, and if I didn’t connect them in the right order, I couldn’t get them out. My vocabulary was locked in. Playing should be like speaking. You’re not thinking about what you’re going to say—you’re thinking about the topic. That was part of the unraveling for me. I didn’t want to play from licks anymore.

I’ll ask students to assemble a song and solo over it, like on the Max Roach album Drums Unlimited, where he composes a song on two toms and then solos over it. Casey Scheuerell pointed out that approach to me when I studied at PIT in 1987. After PIT I went back to San Diego and practiced eight hours a day for a solid year. Then I wrote letters and sent tapes to Dave Weckl, and when he came to town he invited me to play his drums. Dave is a very generous cat.

MD: You also tune your drums differently. It’s a very open and resonant sound.

Cliff: I tune the 12″ tom like a straight-ahead tom, a lot of overtones, almost like a timbale. I tune the floor tom really deep. I use a deep snare with an open ring and no padding. My small cymbal stack is the opposite of the deep snare sound. The kick is a standard 20″.

MD: What are the other concepts you stress in your online teaching practice?

Cliff: I developed my approach after seeing endless gospel-chops videos from guys who don’t have gigs but who are teaching. I wanted to have a teaching option for drummers who actually want to work and not necessarily cram in every last note on every tune. My concept is to help a drummer develop his or her own voice, how to not get locked in, and how to trust yourself.

There’s only one you, and if you figure out what that is and start molding it, then you can offer something nobody else can. Today there are so many guys with unbelievable facility. The only thing that will make you unique is your voice. And it’s not about chops.

MD: What do you practice now if you have a day?

Cliff: I usually just play along with Elvin Jones records or with something that gives me difficulty. Or I might use Peter Erskine’s Afro-Cuban Essentials app. I’ll work on my hands, sometimes grouping paradiddles in groups of fours, fives, sixes, sevens, and eights. I play paradiddles with those groupings over a steady pulse [“The Paradiddle Grid”]. It’s tough. That separates my hands from my mind. And I play free over a click.

MD: Long-term goals?

Cliff: I want to do my own record where I play all the instruments. I can’t sing, so I’ll hire singers. I admire Nate Wood, who also plays everything. He’s a possessed player. And he plays entirely in the moment. That’s something to really aim for every time you play. If you can let go of control and play in the moment, after you’ve done all your homework, that’s when the best things happen.

Various Abstract Logix New Music Festival 2010 /// Quruli Antenna, Nikki /// Michel Camilo One More Once, Thru My Eyes /// Wayne Krantz Your Basic Live 2006 /// Utada Hikaru In Budokan 2004 /// John Tropea Gotcha Rhythm Right Here /// Akiko Yano Reverb /// Michel Camilo Big Band Caribe: Live at Altos de Chavón

Rush Hemispheres, Moving Pictures, All the World’s a Stage, A Farewell to Kings (Neil Peart) /// The Beatles Live at the Hollywood Bowl, Revolver (Ringo Starr) /// Al Di Meola Elegant Gypsy (Steve Gadd, Lenny White), Casino (Steve Gadd), Land of the Midnight Sun (Steve Gadd, Lenny White, Alphonse Mouzon) /// Wynton Marsalis Black Codes (From the Underground) (Jeff “Tain” Watts) /// Branford Marsalis Trio Jeepy (Jeff “Tain” Watts) /// John Scofield Meant to Be (Bill Stewart) /// Nik Kershaw The Works (Vinnie Colaiuta, Jeff Porcaro) /// Chick Corea Elektric Band (Dave Weckl) /// John Coltrane Impressions (Elvin Jones, Roy Haynes)

Almond’s Setup

Cliff Almond kit

Drums: Yamaha Club Custom series
A. 6.5×14 Yamaha Vintage snare
B. 6.5×14 Yamaha Absolute Hybrid Maple
C. 7×12 tom
D. 13×14 floor tom
E. 14×16 floor tom
F. 18×22 bass drum

Heads: Evans G2 or G Plus Coated snare batters and 300 series snare-sides, G1 Coated tom batters and resonants, EQ2 bass drum batter and EQ3 Reso

Cymbals: Zildjian
1. two 14″ A Custom EFX stacked in a hi-hat configuration
2. 15″ New Beat hi-hats
3. 18″ Constantinople crash with rivets
4. 17″ A Medium Thin crash
5. 22″ Kerope ride
6. 18″ A Medium crash
7. 20″ Kerope ride with an 18″ A Custom EFX cymbal stacked on top

Hardware: Yamaha

Sticks: Vic Firth SD4 Combo, 5A, and 5B