“I’ve been a Tama artist since 2002,” says Roberts, who’s back on the road with Janet Jackson after the singer took some time off to tend to personal matters. “I especially love bubinga drums because of the warm tones that they produce. My drumset is pretty consistent; I use the same gear in an arena or an open amphitheater. I always try to go for the same sound. My snare sound isn’t too high-pitched or too low. It’s right in the middle—cracking with a lot of body. That’s the Clyde Stubblefield and John “Jabo” Starks influences coming through. I like to hear bigger sounds out of the drums and cymbals. Maybe my tastes are maturing, but I’ve learned to appreciate more smoky, warm tones from my gear.”

About two years ago Roberts made a switch to Meinl to employ its extensive range of choices. “I like darker cymbals,” he says. “I played a lot of jazz in my earlier years, so I’m always attracted to dark jazz rides and dark crashes. I’m very impressed with how Meinl has grown. I went to the factory and got a chance to play a whole bunch of cymbals. I like my ride cymbals to be not too bright or too dark. I need them to cut through the music, so I also need them to have some bite.”

The electronics are a key component of Roberts’ setup with Jackson. “The electronics are the most important thing because I’m triggering all of the sounds from her albums. For example, when we play ‘Nasty’ and ‘What Have You Done for Me Lately,’ you’re hearing those big, sampled snare sounds. I’m using the Yamaha DTX-Multi 12 pad with the DTX900 module along with several triggers and some extra pads. I pull up the electronics for the next song by hitting a switch pedal that’s next to my hi-hat.”

When playing a show as demanding Jackson’s, Roberts likes to be prepared for anything. “Down next to the bass drum pedal is an electronic pedal,” he says. “That’s an emergency pedal just in case my bass drum goes berserk or if I bust a head. There’s no time to stop to fix anything; we’re moving non-stop. So if something were to happen, I have that to keep the bass drum sound going.”

Although his signature Vater “Philly Style” stick is sized like a 5A, Roberts has also been carrying a bigger stick, the 55BB. “When I was on tour with my friend Stanley Randolph, Stevie Wonder’s full-time drummer, I happened to give his sticks a try. They were like tree trunks, but Stanley said, ‘Yeah, but bigger sticks means bigger sound.’ He suggested that I move up a few sizes. I did, and I immediately noticed my drums had a much bigger sound. I probably wouldn’t be able to use them on a jazz gig, because they might be too heavy, but for my current gig, the 55BB is where I’m at.”

Drums: Tama Starclassic Bubinga in Piano Black finish
A. 5.5×14 snare (with ddrum trigger)
B. 6.5×14 maple snare (with ddrum trigger)
C. 8×10 tom
D. 9×12 tom
E. 12×14 floor tom
F. 14×16 floor tom
G. 18×22 bass drum (with ddrum trigger)

Drumheads: Remo Coated Powerstroke 77 snare batters, Clear Emperor tom batters and Ebony Ambassador resonants, and Powerstroke 3 bass drum batter

Hardware: Gibraltar custom rack, Tama Iron Cobra Lever Glide hi-hat stand, Iron Cobra Power Glide bass drum pedals, and 1st Chair Wide Rider throne with a backrest

Cymbals: Meinl
1. 15″ Byzance Vintage Pure hi-hats
2. 18″ Byzance Vintage Trash crash
3. 10″ Byzance Vintage splash over a 12″ Classics Custom Trash splash
4. 18″ Byzance Medium Thin crash
5. 10″ Byzance splash
6. 22″ Byzance Dark Raw Bell ride
7. 19″ Byzance Medium Thin crash
8. 12″ Classics Custom Trash splash over a 16″ Byzance Trash crash
9. 20″ Byzance Vintage Trash crash

Electronics: Yamaha DTX900 module and DTX-Multi 12 pad, DrumKat kick pedal, and ddrum triggers

Sticks: Vater “Lil’ John Roberts” Philly Style 5A and 55BB