Billy Cobham

Billy Cobham is one of the strongest innovative forces on the drumming scene today. Both his technique, and drum set-up are awesome.

We met at Starr Recording Studios where Billy was to record an instructional tape for the Tama Drum Company. It took the crew the entire morning to set up his mammoth array of drums. While the studio technicians expertly placed the microphones around the set Billy and I had lunch. We talked about the triple bass drum idea, which was originally Louie Bellson’s. Louie told Billy he could have it. Billy considers himself fortunate to be associated with Tama, “because not all companies are  new innovations in design.”

CI: Where are you from originally?

BC: Panama.

CI: Date of birth?

BC: May 16, 1944.

CI: What started your interest in drums?

BC: I’ve been playing since I can remember. That’s all I know. I don’t know what started it.

CI: Billy, you mentioned that members of your family played drums.

BC: Yes, they play now. They build congas and steel drums and sell them throughout the Caribbean.

CI: So your family for the most part still lives in Panama.

BC: The area I came from is called the “bush.” If I’m not mistaken, my family comes from the part of the village where almost everyone was a musician. My mom sings and my father is a pianist. My family built drums for religious purposes.

CI: Did you have any formal training on the instrument?

BC: Very little. I went to the Music and Art High School in New York City but they didn’t have a percussion instructor there. They looked down on percussionists. I studied with Morris Goldenberg, who passed on in 1966. I also studied with Warren Smith who was a student teacher in our high school while studying at the Manhattan School of Music. But no other formal training.

CI: You seem to be quite articulate when it comes to rudiments.

BC: Lots of drum and bugle corps.

CI: What about reading?

BC:I taught myself to read.

CI: Just from picking up various books?

BC: Well, actually I did have some help. While I was in high school a woman by the name of Pamela Black was a senior and studied with Saul Goodman. She became my drum instructor. She explained the logic behind the notes. I just took it from there. You’ve got to get it through your head. Once you get it together and understand what it all means, then it’s okay.

CI: What influenced your playing in your formative years?

BC: Big-bands. Lots of big-bands.

CI: Who were some of the drummers you listened to?

BC: Sonny Payne, Al Levy, Charlie Persip, Mel Lewis, all of the big band drummers.

CI: Do you recall any meaningful experience you had during the early part of your career?

BC: While making the transition from the drum and bugle corps, I had to set a schedule for myself. In high school, I decided to really study my rudiments. I was very weak there. I tried to get a foundation together. And I got all that together whereas alot of the other guys like Bobby Columby really got into playing the set. Most of the cats I heard didn’t have their chops together. They were playing, swinging, looking pretty and feeling pretty good about things. But they had no strong foundation.

I joined the drum corps because it was cheaper than taking lessons from some drummer who was going to tell me how he played. The competitive element was much more important to me then. My father and I never got along very much and I couldn’t stand being put under another whip, and have another father image. So I went on and joined the drum corps. It enlarged my viewpoint because I had a chance to compete and learn how to play with people.

CI: And play with other drummers.

BC: Yes. I can put that to work in situations now. Recently I went to Japan and played with Tony Williams at a concert. The two of us. together. Tony never worked with another drummer before. He had worked with Lenny White once, but felt very uncomfortable working with me because he didn’t know what to expect. But it worked out well. We’re going to record an album together, and do another concert. He’ll be a guest at some of my concerts and vice versa. We’ll have some things worked out that we can play together. We’ll be listening to each other, which is important. When two drummers are onstage, more often than not they try to blow each other off the stage, which is wrong. It can be musical if it’s done properly. Playing in the drum corp rounded things out for me where I saw the possibilities of working with other players. When you play in the drum corps, there can be two drummers or as many as twenty. I’ve been involved with the national champions of 1977 The Concord Blue Devils. They have 13 or 14 snare drummers and they sound like one.

Everybody plays and they each have a specific job to do. They do it together like one big trap set. With 35 percussionists playing as one, it’s not easy. It’s a real task. It means listening to everybody. It works if you are sensitive towards your fellow players.

Usually, when you run into a trap player, he’s concerned about his gig. That drummer has a problem. If you walk in the door and have any kind of reputation as a drummer, immediately it’s threatening to them. They try to put you down and make you feel small. That situation is unnecessary.

CI: Do you feel that drummers are for the most part insecure?

BC: Yes. Many times drummers have been made to feel small in comparison to the other musicians in the band. When you hear people talk about the band they speak of the band and the drummer, or the musicians and the rhythm section. The drummer is not viewed as a musician. He’s a time-keeper. If the band has a time problem, it’s the drummer’s fault.

CI: He’s in the hot seat.

BC: Always. Therefore he’s insecure about his position. That’s why drummers have difficulty trying to run their own bands. I’m almost sure that my record sales would have been tripled had I been a guitar player. The question has always been asked of me, ‘How do you run a band behind a drum set?’ All I can say is watch.

CI: Do you find it difficult to establish a rapport with the audience behind a wall of drums?

BC: Not at all. I don’t play behind my set all the time. There’s always a way. Playing behind a set is one way of conveying messages. I play with some strong musicians. Sometimes I’ll have one of the other cats play drums. I’ll get up, play some percussion instruments and sing. I’m into a show as opposed to a recital.

CI: Do you still practice?

BC: Sure. Whenever I get the chance, which is not often.

CI: If you had the time what would your practice routine consist of?

BC: Going through certain basic rudiments to build my foundation. Going back to basics. I make sure that is cool before starting on anything else.

CI: Do you advocate practicing on pillows, pads, or the drum set?

BC: If you’re in a position to practice on a drum set, you should. Everyone isn’t that fortunate. You have people to deal with and many times they say, ‘Hey shut up already!’

CI: How did you develop your lefthanded playing style? Did that come naturally to you?

BC: Yes, primarily because I always led, even though I lead with my right, going left to right. I always thought it was a bit easier to play your ride cymbal and your hi-hat in the same general area. Therefore, it made me use my left hand a lot more than I would have if I had my ride cymbal over towards my right.

CI: Are you left handed?

BC: No.

CI: You appear ambidextrous behind the drumset.

BC: I have dexterity and stamina primarily because I use the left hand to play ride rhythms.

CI: Did you develop this approach through one of your teachers?

BC: No, it was based on a philosophy that I developed.

CI: Were there any exercises you used to develop that particular style of playing?

BC: There were no real exercises outside of the finger control thing. I just played in a lot of high speed situations where I had to play alot of notes per bar with my left hand. Because of that, the muscles in my hand naturally developed.

CI: You sometimes keep time with the left foot and use the right for accents.

BC: The left foot will keep time on four. I use the hi-hat there or I might turn around and use it to play accentuated rhythms on the bass drum and if I’m using the hi-hat on the right hand side, I keep the right foot on 2 and 4.

CI: Sometimes I watch you play the ride rhythm with your left hand, do a fill and wind up playing the rhythm after the fill with your right hand.

BC: Well, I’m leading with the right so everything else is normal except that the left hand is playing the ride rhythm. All the fills will lead with the left and end with the right. If I really want to do something more effective by ending on the left hand, I’ll train myself to do it.

CI: Do you have any suggestions for drummers who would like to strengthen their left handed ride rhythms?

BC: Yes, put the ride cymbal on the left next to the hi-hat and try to play some things. Use your imagination. Try 3 against 2, simple basic things which you would normally do with the right side. Even before you get to the drum set, I would suggest trying to lead. Start all your rudiments with your left hand. Practice with your left hand only. Start your rolls with the left hand and get used to affecting things from the left side, along with playing the set, which is most important. As you get used to it, you find things start falling into place more.

CI: Do you remember your first drumset?

BC: The first professional set was a Ludwig, a 1957 silver sparkle. I still have those drums.

CI: What drum heads do you use?

BC: Remo Diplomats and Ambassadors.

CI: Do you have any tuning tips you’d like to discuss?

BC: No. Different situations require different things. I’m constantly tuning the drums. It’s never consistent.

CI: In your style of playing it’s crucial to have your instrument set up precisely. When you go on tour and play various concerts what type of road crew do you use?

BC: My roadie Graham handles the drum set. He’s very meticulous about the way things are set up. I never expect him to have it set up perfectly, because each hall is different. The stage might be slanted or too small. We may not be able to use the risers or the stage lacks depth so we can’t push it back. My seat has to be modified for the type of stage we’re working with. If it’s slanted we’ve got to change the base of it. The angles have to be a certain way. Everything has to be worked out properly. Then I can come in and make the fine adjustments.

CI: When you select your cymbals what do you look and listen for?

BC: When I go up to see Lennie DiMuzio, (of the Zildjian Cymbal Company) normally I’m looking for a total, overall tone row. Each cymbal starting from a low cymbal to the smallest one has to have a certain feel and sound. I only have one cymbal that’s really funky, and that’s an old swish that Gene Krupa used to own. Frank Ippolito sold it to me.

CI: What’s your opinion of playing on dirty, worn out drumheads?

BC: I change them immediately. My heads will change, especially if I’m playing hard. I’ll change my heads once or twice a week.

CI: What do they loose? Is it their tone or resiliency?

BC: Yes. They get bubbly and dirty. The overtone gets cut out.

CI: Can you discuss your experience with electronic percussion?

BC: Not really. I have something in the works with Tama but nothing to really talk about at this point. It’s funny but I’ve gone back to the acoustical thing again. I’ve put electronics on the shelf for a moment to develop new acoustical ideas, like the addition of the third bass drum. I just got my pedals squared away and I’ll be playing three bass drums on tour. Three bass drums and three snare drums.

CI: How does your triple bass drum setup work?

BC: It works on the torque principle. It’s hooked up to five pedals and one is independent of the other four. In the middle there are two pedals without beaters that are hooked up to outside pedals on the right and left side. By way of an arm, just like a wrench rachet set, they hook together. With the pedals I can move those two outside bass drum pedals out there and keep my feet pretty close in towards the center bass drum. I can go from one pedal to the next very quickly. It works well.

CI: Are there any innovative ideas being designed for you at the present?

BC: The drums that will be coming out soon will have oversized headed toms. I designed the gong toms. It will be on the Superstar set and the Fiberstar set, which are two sets I am closely connected to right now with Tama.

CI: What are some of your thoughts on drum solos?

BC: Drum solos should have a beginning, development and an ending. If you’re playing a drum solo that is going to be connected to the middle of a piece, you have to know how to pick up from the point where the piece has stopped. From there start your drum solo properly, develop it and end it, making the transition back into the song again.

CI: How about developing it in terms of telling a story?

BC: That’s just the idea. Every story has an A B A situation where you have to go, start, go to the next section and develop it like the bridge of a song. Drum solos are the same as writing music. It’s just that you’re doing it right on the spot. And it’s an improvisational situation. So you’ve got to know how to put it together right. You must get it back to the point which you left. Move on.

CI: How did you become involved with the Mahavishnu Orchestra?

BC: I received a phone call asking me to record with them. Eventually, I was coerced into joining the band, though I really didn’t want to. I had just left Dreams. I really couldn’t resist because the band did sound very good.

CI: Why did you leave?

BC: I didn’t. The band was released. It just happened that I was aware of that at least 8 months before it happened. So, I had enough time to prepare, to do something else, rather than be out of work. I immediately went into the studio and made an album. It started doing well so I went into the studio to do another one.

CI: How did you know the group was go ing to be released?

BC: John told me. I knew that in the late winter of 1973 that the group would be disbanded. As a matter of fact, we were planning to replace certain musicians in the band. I think John wanted to replace Rick with another bass player and Jerry was going to be replaced by Ponty. John was talking to me and was really considering George Duke. But George was a little too funky for John and John’s concept just didn’t lean that way.

CI: If those moves were made, it may have proved to be an interesting mixture.

BC: George probably would have left Zappa, but I don’t think it would have worked too well. I keep thinking Stanley Clark was the guy John was thinking about or it might have been another guy from Detroit that John eventually used in the second orchestra. John ended up using Ponty and this bass player…I can’t remember his name. And it was pretty bad, the timing was bad. It was sad that we worked so hard and then turn around and have this guy disband the band and reform another band on the strength of what was. And then go out and try to make people believe that this was the Mahavishnu Orchestra. I remember it wasn’t successful and it was unfortunate. It was a bad mistake.

CI: Are there any studio tips that you could pass on to drummers breaking into that scene?

BC: My big tip to musicians who work in the studio and have to set up their kits is that you should have some idea of what your kit can do. You should know a bit about the kind of music you’re going to be playing. That way you will have an idea of the kind of sound and ideas you want to project. Also, try to work with the engineers to get the proper sound on your instrument; to get the instrument to sound the way you hear it in the studio, not the way you play it live. Studios and live performances are very different.

CI: What do you listen for in a drummer?

BC: Sensitivity towards fellow players. Also, a will to project himself. One has to have the element of security when he plays. If no place else in life, when you get on stage you’ve got to know what you’re doing.

CI: During your clinics do you cover the subjects that we have just discussed?

BC: Definitely. My clinics this year have been a question and answer situation. Next year I plan to go into a set kind of situation. There will be less questions and answers. They will cover more specific areas that I want to get into.

CI: Who are some of your favorite drummers?

BC: If you take out the Down Beat poll and read the list, that would cover everybody. Even the people I personally don’t care for. But, I look at the personality off stage as separate from the personality on stage. Most of the cats that I’ve heard have something to offer me in one way or another. I have no real super favorites. I like a lot of people. Tony Williams, Max Roach and Lenny White all have something to offer.

CI: Do you have any unfulfilled musical goals?

BC: If I do they always pop up and I say, ‘Wow, I’m glad I’m doing this!’ But I never think about it ahead of time. I just move ahead, and wherever life takes me is where I go.