L.A. Studio Heavyweight
Story and photo by Robyn Flans
He never had very structured lessons, and his beginning six months of instruction simply consisted of an attempt to get an independence between his hands. His first set, however, a 24″ Gretsch, was given to him by the percussionist/teacher from whom he took lessons.
Greene was mostly interested in Jazz at the outset. He had spent a lot of time listening to Charlie Parker and Max Roach.
“My mom and dad bought me Benny Goodman’s 1938 Carnegie Hall Recital which had Krupa on it,” Greene recalls. “That was extremely motivating. From the Krupa record, I developed some technique—triplet technique with two in the right hand and one in the left hand and then with accents. That was all self-taught.”
While attending college, the Keyboard Lounge in Gardena, California, was his first professional gig.
“I remember I had to listen to ‘Satisfaction’ before I auditioned for Lenny Roberts, who was the guitar player and leader of the band. I had a good time, but my concept of playing rock and roll was not great. That became a whole summer’s work, and I made more money at that than I was to make professionally for a while,” Greene remembers.
Since Roberts was also an engineer, Greene was able to get some experience making demos with him, and then things began to snowball.
Like many players, Greene gained recognition in the industry first, among producers and the like, and for a long time, he was even thought to be black since he became consistently associated with “black sounding records.”
“We could have had a beautiful thing going,” Greene says of the Barry White gig he secured at the beginning of his career.
Things soured, however, when White continuously refused to put his player’s names on his albums.
“When I think back, as time went on with him, it just didn’t do him justice in my eyes. He came right out and said that all of us were responsible for the total entity of the Barry White sound, but he didn’t want everybody else to know what the Barry White sound was. Totally, we were his sound, yet he wouldn’t give us individual credit, which is, of course, ridiculous.”
A lot of work for Motown Records followed, and finally all the pieces began to come together. As a session player, Greene considers himself extremely fortunate.
“I’ve never really had to struggle,” Greene states. “I’ve never had to go on the road and that is struggling. I was on the road for two weeks in 1968 with the back-up group for the Beach Boys, and it seemed like four months. But I also went crazy with the drugs and everything else that went on.”
Not that session work isn’t a tremendous amount of hard work. One has to be prepared for a new situation daily, and Greene explains, “A drummer who wants to do studio work has to be prepared to play anything that’s written and try to find a balance around the set physically, where you can play most things comfortably. There’s different technical things that I can’t play that comfortably because I’ve adapted my style to my balance around the set, which is where my practice comes in a lot. Someone will write something and if it’s not something I’m used to playing, it’ll take me maybe ten or fifteen minutes to practice on the session and smooth it out. The more you do that, the less time it takes when someone comes up with something you’re not used to playing. You can smooth it out and play it and incorporate it into your feel and that’s just experience.”
Experience and experimentation are two keys in the development of Greene’s playing. Professionally, he started out with a black pearl Ludwig set with a 20″ bass drum, a 12″ tom and a 14″ floor tom, Greene says he basically concerned himself with, “Playing real good time and not too much fill. As the years progressed, I realized I needed a few more tom toms. While some guys had ten toms around their sets and in the studio, I find you just don’t get a good sound on each tom. If you have too many mikes and put one mike on each tom, you have too many mikes that pick up sound from everything else, and if you don’t use enough mikes, then you lose some of the toms and you don’t get a consistent sound between one tom and the next. When I started out, I didn’t experiment very much with my sound, but you get more experienced and you realize you have to experiment some.”
Later he added a 22″ bass drum and two more toms, a 13″ and a 16″ floor tom. A couple of years ago, he bought a new Tama set with a 24″ bass drum, which at first, he used exclusively, but now uses both.
“The Tama is a heavier drum,” Greene says. “At first, I thought I would use the Tama for pop and rock and roll and the Ludwig for rhythm and blues, and disco, but I haven’t ended up sticking to that. It’s convenient to have both now so I can leave one set behind when I have back to back sessions.”
He has six snares, four that go with the Ludwig set and two chrome snares which go with the Tama set.
“A lot of your sound has to do with your snare and your bass drum. Snare drums really take a beating and the tension of the snare heads really fluctuates from one day to the next. You have to be constantly adjusting both the bottom and top heads. I have found that the plastic heads that they’re making now are very susceptible to weather changes, so I like to keep the bottom clear, thin plastic head that vibrates with the snare on the bottom, very tight. If I don’t keep it tight, it gets a sympathetic vibration when I hit the tom tom. It’s very disconcerting when you’re trying to get a clean sound and when you tighten the snares, it kind of closes the drum and you don’t get a lasting sound—it closes the sound so you have to find an equilibrium between snare tension and the tightness of the bottom head. When you put a new head on and you tighten all the lugs evenly and you think you’ve got it. the next day it has stretched. I’ve put on new heads every day for two weeks and you really have to stay on that snare drum to keep your sound because you have the bottom head, which is stretching by itself and then the top head, which is taking a beating. You have to experiment with how much padding to put on the top head, and that takes experience. I have found that six squares of toilet paper folded over with about two or three strips of gaffers tape, gets me in the ballgame. Then it’s just a matter of a little more tape or a little less paper and the tightness and experimentation.
“With the bass drum sound, I have found that I like to keep the drum head tight. There are all different concepts on the bass drum sound. Hal Blaine had a tremendous bass drum sound. I remember he kept his a little looser, and when you get a good attack, it wouldn’t have as much acoustical roundness. But it had fullness and a good attack, and then you could fool around with the sound on the board. He was making hit records for ten years and I was very impressed with his professionalism. Then I played a two drum date with him when disco was coming in. You hear so much about the guys who are making the hit records and you dream of being one yourself, and as it is starting to happen, I guess I took in everything I saw and heard. Hal stands out as one of the leading professional, commercial drummers of all time. I felt that with the technique that I had on the bass drum, though, I couldn’t use the bass drum that loose. I need it tighter to get more of a rebound for the 16th note work that was happening. If I was impressed with Hal Blaine as a commercial player, then with my jazz background, I was equally, or even more impressed with Elvin Jones and his technique, particularly his bass drum technique. I remember seeing John Coltrane’s quartet at Shelly’s Manhole in the late 60’s and sitting on the side of the bandstand so I could watch Elvin’s feet. There’s a lot of education there. He played off the ball of his foot, with his heel up so there is a floating action and it was as if he were tap dancing. He never put his heel down on the pedal and I don’t now, as well. It’s always up. It’s not a rocking off the heel, it’s using the toe to get a natural bounce action. There’s much more power this way. You get the use of your whole leg and you can actually jump on your bass drum pedal. You can actually feel how limited you are rocking off of your heel and there isn’t much power. Jeff Porcaro and Harvey Mason use that technique also. So I developed that technique and use it all the time now. I remember after seeing Elvin, I couldn’t touch my drums. I would circle around them asking myself what he did. I didn’t have a professional stool and used a makeshift seat, and I remember cutting off the legs, because it just wasn’t comfortable to do that with the height of my seat. When you get lower to the ground, the balance permits you to use the ball of your foot.”
Greene uses Regal tip rock and roll sticks with the plastic tips, explaining, “I never wear out the plastic tip. I wear out the middle of the stick playing on the hi-hat, which chews the stick up. They’re a little heavier than 5A’s and I always play with the fat part of the stick with my left hand. I turn the stick around so the fattest part of that stick is hitting the snare and it makes a really solid attack. I never experimented much with sticks. When I go to the drum shop to pick out my sticks, aside from feeling the weight and the balance, I put the stick down on the table and roll it. You can find out very fast which ones are warped and which ones aren’t. After I find one that’s not warped, I pick it up and shake it around to find out the weight of it. I try to find the heavier Regal Tip rock and rolls. Even if it’s straight and not warped, I’ll put it back in the pile and go on if it’s not the weight I want. The sticks are very inconsistent with the weight and let’s face it, wood is expensive and they’re just not making them like they used to. So, I end up going through maybe 50 sticks and finding maybe four or six that are suited to me.”
He uses only two cymbals along with his hi-hat cymbals, a 22″ Zildjian medium crash and an 18″ Paiste.
“I keep saying that I’m going to get myself another cymbal to put on the right side of my lowest tom tom, because sometimes when I do fills around the tom tom and have to come back to hit the crash cymbal after hitting the lowest tom, it would be more comfortable to have one right there.”
As a session player, Greene doesn’t get much opportunity to solo, which he says is just as well.
“My solos would end up being more of a rhythm solo. I don’t consider myself a flash soloist, partly because I don’t solo that much and haven’t really built up too much confidence in that area. Also, I’m not into playing too much, and a solo, to me, is playing a lot. My time right now is making commercial records for other people. There’s not too much room for extra work. You’ve just got to lay it down.
“Simplicity is the name of the game. I’m not saying that simplicity makes playing the drums easy. It doesn’t. To play with a bunch of guys and not rush, to take your time playing on the bottom of the beat, and not drag, is not easy. I would rather play on the bottom of the beat than on the top of the beat. The top of the beat, for certain music, is exciting, and you’re pushing the band along and you can build the excitement. Even the best drummers have the tendency to make the time go up and rush, though. You want to continue this excitement and once you reach a certain level, to get to the next level, you have to. I tend to rush. It takes tremendous concentration and experience of playing on the bottom of the beat and not experimenting in the studio. The time to do that is while you’re warming up and practicing. While you’re running the tune down is not the time to experiment. I like to try to get my part as soon as possible and lock in so I can concentrate on other things. Maybe I can be helpful to the engineer in trying to get the sound, or I’ll concentrate on the chart and the communication with the arranger. If he has been explicit, then some of your work has been taken care of. The structure of the tune has been laid out before you and there’s been some thought before going into the studio, with the artist and the producer and the arranger about the tune. The arranger might put things in its place and then say to disregard everything he’s written. That happens all the time. I don’t quite understand why a guy would spend several hours the night before and the next day to disregard what’s written and say play what you feel. Sometimes that can be very confusing. I like to play what somebody writes and then go from there. Some guys want to hear what they’ve written and I want to play what they’ve written to the tee.
“There are a lot of variables involved in a session. The guys you’re playing with, the band, what you bring to the session emotionally. There are some guys who are fun to be with, which has nothing to do with their playing, and some guys who have an attitude. But, a lot of the attitudes fall by the wayside and you start grooving. Musicians, the arranger and the producers combine to present a lot of different variables. Many times you may even think the vibes are weird, but the music is coming out great. It’s hard to pin down. The ideal recording session would be to have a nice tune that everybody is familiar with and which has been communicated. The arranger has communicated exactly what he wants, the artist is there, knows the tune, and the artist is singing with you and you can hear the tune. That doesn’t happen too often. In my days with Motown, I never saw the artists. I never saw Dianna Ross on “Touch Me In The Morning,” and a lot of people. Sometimes you hear a tune as a complete entity and other times you’re just there doing what someone is telling you and taking for granted that they know what will be needed for the completed tune later on. In today’s disco music, you can build tracks with just click tracks, never hearing one melody. When I did ‘Last Dance,’ Donna Summer wasn’t there and I never even heard the tune. I didn’t hear 3/4 of the music that went on the record until I heard it on the radio. Originally, the bass drum thump began at the very beginning of the record and they took that out and brought it in later after the end of her a cappella part. Most of the records I play on, the artist is not there. Ideally, however, I like to have the artist there, singing, and I like to have some direction from the arranger or the producer. Some producers are good at putting guys together and they come to the session with just demos and almost a blank sheet of music. Everybody gets in on the arranging of the tune and that can be fun. It can also be a lot of hard work. Somebody might want to say more than somebody else and there’s a lot of compromising and give and take involved. Some guys like to go over and over and over a tune. Most recording musicians don’t like to. Then there are the people who will start talking about the different sections before you even start playing it, and when you’re basing things on feel, there’s no amount of words that can tell you. Sometimes, when you start playing, some of those things make sense and maybe some don’t make sense.”
Greene, himself, also writes and has been doing so for the past ten years, composing on the piano.
“I was my own worst enemy in that sense,” he admits. “For a long time, I sheltered the material I was working on, and while there were some people who were genuinely interested in some of them, I thought I wanted to save them for myself.”
Recently, Greene began Eddie Greene Recording with his own initial $18,000.00 investment toward his first project, an album called “Drums for Songwriters.” Greene says he learned a tremendous amount from having manufactured the entire product himself.
Explaining that “Drums for Songwriters” is different from “Drum Drops” (a backup rhythm track for non-drummers) in many ways, he says, “This first volume is disco, the next will be rock and roll, then pop and then funk and country. My format is that each piece is five minutes long, and while ‘Drum Drops’ has a fill every eight bars, mine has no fills because somebody may not want a fill every eight bars. I also don’t have fades, so when you put it on your tape recorder, you can make your own mix.”
When he had completed the album, the local musician’s union, concerned that a record company could perhaps actually make master recordings with his album, called Greene in, to which he responded, “I wouldn’t make masters with this, because even though the drum sound is great, there are surface noises on it. I suppose you could make hit records with it, but there aren’t any fills.”
On the back of the album jacket, Greene not only explains how to use his album, technically, but speaks from his heart in directing those starting out to make their dreams become realities.
“I’m a very lucky person to be playing music and enjoying it and being able to be on all these recordings of top-notch stuff. There are a lot of things I want to do in the future and I have no doubt that I will do them. I don’t want to make myself look like an egomaniac, but I feel very confident and lucky. It is true that this business is much bigger than any one person and there’s always someone there waiting to fill the void, and no matter how good you are. you’re not going to last forever, but it was a dream come true and I honestly feel as though I’ve been living a dream,” Greene concluded