15 MD Cover Artists Reveal the Big Ideas That Put Them on the Road to Success

The abundance of educational material online, as well as great teachers to mold your passion and enthusiasm into technique and musicality, are massively beneficial to those seeking proficiency on the drums. But even with an instructor as a guide, the sheer volume of available data can be somewhat daunting, making it difficult to answer the question, “What’s the best study program for me?”

While all drummers ultimately have to answer that question for themselves, perusing the Modern Drummer Archive can give you direction. After all, even the most famous drummers in the world have struggled with these very issues at some point in their development. With that in mind, here are some avenues to excellence to consider, all from drummers who’ve graced our covers throughout the years.

Follow the Paths of Heroes

My two main teachers were Alan Dawson and Keith Copeland, but I grew up with people like Jack DeJohnette, Max Roach, and Papa Jo Jones. I grew up going over to their houses and talking music, but it was never a situation where they sat down and showed me anything. We just talked about the history and things. If you know the history of something, you understand it better.

Terri Lyne Carrington, September 1989

Tony Williams

Max Roach was my biggest drum idol. I would buy every record I could find with Max on it, and then I would play exactly like him—exactly what was on the record, solos and everything. I also did that with drummers like Art Blakey, Philly Joe Jones, Jimmy Cobb, Roy Haynes, and all of the drummers I admired. I would even tune my drums just like they were on the record. You must first spend a long time doing everything that the great drummers do. Then you can understand what it means. I’ve found that not only do you learn how to play something, but you also learn why it was played. That’s the value of playing like someone. You just can’t learn a lick. You’ve got to learn where it came from, what caused the drummer to play that way, and a number of things. Drumming is like an evolutionary pattern.

Tony Williams, June 1984

I never really took drum lessons. I think 90 percent of who you are as a drummer has to do with having a gift. I never practice. All I did was watch and listen, whether it was to my dad’s band or records. I listened a lot.

Sheila E

Sheila E, June 1991

Stella Mozgawa

I think if my dad hadn’t listened to Steely Dan, and if I didn’t listen to and try to emulate the drummers in Tool or Primus when I was growing up, I wouldn’t have half the skills I have now. I didn’t have formal drum education for an extended time, so that’s kind of how I learned to play. And a lot of those guys were very impressive, athletic, and musical—the definition of what a drummer was at that point.

Stella Mozgawa, February 2017

Charlie Watts

I practiced a lot, but I never had lessons, and I hated playing to records. I taught myself by listening to other people and watching.

Charlie Watts, August/September 1982

Embrace the Tumult of Society

Cindy Blackman

There’s an urgency that drummers and musicians and people in the ’60s had, and it’s to do with what’s happening socially. In the ’60s, the times were very tumultuous. That lends itself to everyone having a certain kind of urgency when they play. The ’60s is my favorite period. The music was on edge and cutting. People knew they had to do individualized thinking and get away from the norm. And that was reflected in the music. I love that energy. I think about that a lot, and I tap into it.

Cindy Blackman Santana, June 2008

Louie Bellson

It’s up to the individual to keep up with the times. If you say to yourself that you are in the drumming field and constantly listen to records and go out and listen to players, you keep abreast [of] the times. If you want to just sit back and be lazy, then you’re copping out. If the drummers from my era are just going to play what we did years ago, that’s fine, but I think they’re closing themselves out, because some of the young kids are playing so many beautiful things, like Garibaldi, Gadd, Cobham—all these tremendous players. They’re doing things today we didn’t even dream about doing.

Louie Bellson, October/November 1980

Fight Through Challenges

Bernard Purdie

Teachers are your guides. If they can guide you in the right direction and keep you motivated, then they’re great teachers. It’s that simple. They’re not supposed to do your work or get you to mimic them. And you should give students obstacles. That’s part of the whole thing. Out of two hundred students I’ve had, every one of them had the world thrown at them the first day they came through the door. The best thing that can happen to me as a teacher is to see my students become frustrated. I love it, because that means they’ll learn. They’re going to have to force themselves to work through whatever is frustrating them. My obstacles are always musical ones. I’m not into head trips. If you’re coming to me, come prepared to work hard. Come prepared to learn discipline. Discipline is the most important thing for a musician coming up, and you can only get it from a teacher.

Bernard Purdie, November 1985

Practice Sensitivity

Billy Cobham

I joined the drum corps because it was cheaper than taking lessons from some drummer who was going to tell me how he played. It enlarged my viewpoint because I had a chance to compete and learn how to play with people. When you play in the drum corps, there can be two drummers or as many as twenty. Everybody plays and they each have a specific job to do. They do it together like one big trap set. With thirty-five percussionists playing as one, it’s not easy. It’s a real task. It means listening to everybody, and it only works if you are sensitive towards your fellow players.

Billy Cobham, September 1979

Do It All

Carl Palmer

At the age of thirteen, I was playing in an orchestra. One night, I could play the top of the pops; another night, old-time music; another night, Latin American. So I covered a lot of ground. My father, who was my inspiration to play, realized immediately that a drummer has to get lots of experience playing different types of music. And being in this orchestra allowed me to do just that. So I had a wide range of experience given to me very quickly, which enabled me to find out exactly what I wanted to do as an individual. That’s my father’s planning. He’s very organized like that.

Carl Palmer, June/July 1980

Trounce Limitations

Max Roach

A couple of weeks ago I was in Manny’s [New York City music store], and I heard all these drums going in one of the studios. I went upstairs to look, and it was that kid who won the Buddy Rich scholarship who used to play on plastic water pails and cardboard boxes. He finally got a drumset. But I used to stand in front of Macy’s at 34th St. and watch these kids play on boxes. They didn’t know who the hell I was, but I’d stand there for half an hour. Their rhythms were infectious, and they’d draw crowds of people who would give them coins. So it has a lot to do with taking the least and making the most of it.

Max Roach, August 1993

Alex Van Halen

Rock ’n’ roll is a lifestyle. It’s a thing where there are no rules. You can play what you want, you can wear what you want, and nobody tells you that you have to have one bass drum, one snare, one rack tom, and one floor tom. Even though Louie Bellson wasn’t exactly a rock ’n’ roller, he had the right attitude—you play the music, you don’t work it, and you don’t have to live by the rules.

Alex Van Halen, October 1983

Earl Palmer

In 1976, I was in Tehran with Benny Carter on a State Department tour. Some kids came up to my room, and they had drumsticks and a couple of old tattered books. They had no drums, but they were from the university there. I wanted to see how well they could play, so I had them play on a pillow. You wouldn’t believe the technique they had from constant practice with no drums.

Earl Palmer, May 1983

Celebrate Your Gifts

Roger Taylor

Drums were something I naturally felt kind of good at. I found it very easy to pick up and play things like “Wipe Out.” That was the thing to do at the time. With drums, you either have time or you don’t. If you don’t have it, there’s no chance that you’ll ever be any good, really. You can’t teach a person time.

Roger Taylor, October 1984

Love Your Job

Travis Barker

You could be a chops monster, but if you don’t have passion and a unique style, the chops don’t matter. To me, a band that has something that translates to an audience because they’re doing it out of their love of music will always outshine bands that might play “better.” I honestly believe that the people who would do it for free are the ones that go places. If love and fun are the main reasons you play, good things will come!

Travis Barker, September 2012