Gregg Bissonette called me from the road after the first couple of gigs he did with David Lee Roth. To say that he was excited doesn’t even come close to describing how he sounded on the telephone; deliriously happy is closer. He was choked up as he relayed that he had never played for so many people. There were people everywhere he looked, he said. And that’s everything he has spent his life working towards.
Even though Gregg came to some notoriety a few years ago working with Maynard Ferguson, it was rock ‘n’ roll that really set his heart pounding at a young age. As he recounts, “The first time I ever played in any kind of a band was with Brian Walgrave, who lived on my street. We used to get together and jam. We only knew three tunes: ‘Louie Louie’ ‘Wipeout,’ and ‘Outer Limits,’ and we used to sit there with guitar and drums. We combined our names to call ourselves the Biss-walgrave-nettes and played in the driveway with all the cars going by.”
But Gregg never allowed his love for that genre of music to limit his playing experiences, and actually, his musical open-mindedness helped Gregg get the much coveted gig with David Lee Roth. “Even though playing in a rock band was what I wanted to do all my life, I think it’s important not to count out other things that come along. Not only does it pay the rent, but it gives you an insight into other kinds of music and introduces you to other players. Every person I did something with kind of contributed to my getting this gig. Myron Grombacher turned me on to Vinnie Vincent. I played with him for a little bit, and he told Steve Vai about me. I had met Steve Smith when I was with Maynard, and he had been doing a record with Billy Sheehan. Steve mentioned me to Billy. Then I was teaching drum lessons in Granada Hills in a drum store where the manager, Jay Rubin, told Keni Richards, the drummer with Autograph, about me. Keni jogs with David every morning, and he mentioned me. So all three of the guys had heard my name from other people. If I hadn’t been playing with Maynard, I wouldn’t have met Steve Smith. If I hadn’t been teaching drum lessons, I wouldn’t have gotten that connection, and if I hadn’t been jamming with Vinnie Vincent, Vinnie wouldn’t have told Steve Vai to call me. It’s amazing how the different things you do can just come together.”
His musical capabilities and experiences are so broad that, before getting together for this interview, I asked Gregg to make me a tape of recordings he has done that he likes and is proud of. It was an interesting compilation, to say the least, headed off by selections from the most recent Roth album, Eat ‘Em And Smile, followed by the Brandon Fields Band, the Pat Kelly Band, and a Maynard Ferguson live album—rock, jazz, fusion. It conjured up all sorts of questions.
RF: I played the tape you made me for my friend the other day, and her comment was, “He’s so good at that. Why would he ever want to go into rock ‘n’ roll?”
GB: When she said “so good at that,” I guess she was talking about the fusion or the stuff with Maynard—the technical stuff. I have to think back to the whole reason why I became interested in music to begin with. I can remember hearing “Do You Wanna Know A Secret” on the radio when I was four years old and thinking, “Wow!” I was captured by the fact that all these kids were walking around with balloons that said “The Beatles” and they had just gone to the show. I was thinking, “What is this?” And then I saw The Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show. My first reaction was, “I’ve got to play guitar. John Lennon is so cool.” My dad is a drummer, so he suggested I go down to the basement and check out the drums down there. I told him that I really wanted a guitar, so he bought me one. I tried that for a while, but then I started getting into the drums.
RF: What made you get into them?
GB: The fact that my dad was a drummer, number one. My mom, Phyllis, played piano and vibes, and my dad, Bud, played drums. They met in a band they had with my Aunt Carole. It was really cool; I’d go with my dad to gigs and watch him play. Because I respected him so much, I wanted to do that, too. So back to the reason for wanting to play rock ‘n’ roll despite having played other styles: That was all I was consumed with as a kid.
RF: Was your dad a full-time professional drummer?
GB: He had another job as a salesman during the week, but on the weekends, he had his own quartet, which went out and played private parties and things like that. I can remember saying to my mom, “Can I go with Dad on his gig Friday night?” I was 12 or 13 years old. It started at 9:00 and ended at 1:00, and they gave me a little mock tuxedo. I’d polish the cymbals and tune the drums. It was great for my dad. He could drive to the gig, go in, and sit with his friends while I was setting everything up. I was the little roadie.
My favorite thing to do was play with records. One of my favorites at the time was Naturally by Three Dog Night. The coolest song on that album for me was “Joy To The World” because there was this little boogaloo beat that was so much fun to play. Finally my dad said, “The guys in the band have worked out ‘Joy To The World,’ and we’re going to let you play it. There will be a drum solo in the middle, so you can just take off and play.” We were at the Elks Club in Warren, Michigan. I was up there, and it was time to play the song. This lady walked in and said, “It’s my Uncle Harry’s birthday. You’ve got to play Happy Birthday.” The sax player thought, “No problem,” so he turned around and said, “Here we go. ‘Happy Birthday’ in three.” What is three? All I knew was this boogaloo beat. I had no conception of 3/4 time, so I played a boogaloo beat over “Happy Birthday.” It was a major disaster. After that, we played “Joy To The World.”
RF: Did your folks encourage you to go into the profession, or were you encouraged to pursue music as only a hobby?
GB: My sister, Kathy, my brother, Matt, and I always had a lot of freedom in that our parents never tried to push us to do or not to do anything. They led us into different areas. I remember that, when I was 16, they said, “We know you’re in love with music, but there are different ways to make a living in music.” At the time, I thought teaching would be a way to make a living, although it wouldn’t be my dream come true. They suggested that I pick a school where I could get a degree in education, and I thought that was a good idea.
Back to the original question about the fusion/jazz stuff—through my parents loving Buddy Rich, the Dave Brubeck Quartet, Woody Herman, and Maynard, I grew up respecting and appreciating that kind of music, but my first love was always the bands like The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Cream, Aerosmith, and Chicago. I would practice to Alice Cooper records all day long. When I got into North Texas State, I was into jazz and fusion, but not as heavily as a lot of people there. To move up the ladder to the 9:00 Band and then to the 1:00 Band, you have to get into that heavily. I got into different things like Herbie Hancock, Mahavishnu, and Billy Cobham. That was when the whole fusion thing developed. But I had this desire to get back to playing in bands where the words to the songs meant something and where there was a mystique about the group.
RF: What training did you have previous to college?
GB: I can remember my mom driving me to private drum lessons. My dad never really read music, so he always said, “If you’re going to play drums, you’re going to learn to read. Not learning to read was a mistake I made.” To read is the key to unlock the door. It’s the way to gain knowledge. It’s important to be able to pick up a Modern Drummer, see a transcription, and be able to sit down and figure it out.
I got into studying privately with teachers in Detroit. I remember Bob Yarborough and Myron McDonald. Bob was more of a rudimental drum teacher, and Myron was more of an all-around, classical drumset teacher. We went through the Vic Firth snare drum books. With the rudimental teacher, I would go through and play Mitch Markovich drum solos like “Tornado.”
From the time I was 13 until I was 16, I went to this band, solo, and ensemble festival they had in Michigan. I’d take my little snare drum and play “Tornado” with all the back sticking, in front of five judges who wrote on their score sheets, “The flamacue in bar 25 could have been a little tighter, and the buzz roll could have had more crescendo in bars 28 through 30.” I’d go home and analyze all these things. It was really cool because it got me to think about dynamics and precision. They would rate us one to four. One was the greatest, and you got a blue ribbon. If you got a two, you got a red ribbon. Every year, we’d go around in our high school shirts with our ribbons.
A lot of my training was from playing in local bands I had, though. I had this band called Grand Circus Park, which was an eight-piece band. We split it up, so if we wanted to play “Rock And Roll” by Led Zeppelin, the horns would go off behind the stage, but if we wanted to play our Chicago or Blood, Sweat & Tears medley, the horns would come in. My brother, Matt, was in that band. Incidentally, Matt is the bass player I’ve played with most of my life. We grew up playing together. He’s 25, and I’m 27. I remember that, when he first got his bass, we’d play “Smoke On The Water” for hours. Most of my training came from listening to a song, analyzing how it was supposed to go, and working it out with the guitar player. Those are things you can’t really get from studying, but you get them from living the music and wanting to figure out the song.
Through high school, we’d have the band, where we’d read the Maynard, Buddy Rich, Thad Jones, Woody Herman, and Stan Kenton charts and play arrangements. I learned to do big band setups. I had a junior high director, Gerry Hasspatcher, who would say, “You’ve got this kick coming on the & of 2. What if you played a triplet fill going into it, with the first note of the triplet being a snare, the second note being your high tom, the third note being the floor tom, and the 8th note on 2 being the bass drum? The 8th note on 2 is going to set up that horn punch on the & of 2.” I asked why there had to be setups, and he explained that horn players, instead of having to think about exactly where to come in, like to hear a drum fill that will show them where to come in. The more I listened to records, the more I realized that wasn’t just in big band music but in rock ‘n’ roll, too. John Bonham played the same triplet fill going into Jimmy Page playing a guitar chord on the & of 2. That’s one of the things I started learning at a real early age: It doesn’t matter whether you’re playing in a big band, jazz group, heavy metal band, horn band, or funk R&B band. The musicality of one gig pertains to the other, and the drummer’s role is the same in terms of cuing other people in and keeping the tempo consistent. It’s all music.
RF: Why did you pick North Texas State?
GB: I think it was because my parents and my high school band director, Bill Baker, said I should try that school. I went through the four-year program and got a Bachelor of Music Education degree. I felt that, if I ever wanted to teach, I’d have that. I’m glad things worked out the way they have, though. It’s been a great education. Just taking a class in tuning a violin or minoring in keyboards really helps song writing. I learned so many things that wouldn’t seem like they mattered when you were playing with David Lee Roth or Maynard Ferguson. But they really do.
Also, one of the big reasons I chose North Texas was because I had a couple of albums that my high school band director gave me of the 1:00 Band and the Lab 75 album with Lyle Mays playing piano and Steve Houghton playing drums. I ended up taking lessons from Steve. He was a real great conceptual teacher. He could say, “Your ride cymbal should feel more like Elvin, where the accent should flow more on the & of 2.” He had a lot of the Steve Gadd things down, too. Anyway, I listened to this album of the 1:00 Band, and I figured North Texas was a school where I could play and meet all these different players. There were these practice quads where you could peek in the window and see some drummer who sounded like Terry Bozzio, or go in the next room and see someone who sounded like Vinnie Colaiuta. You could derive all these different things from everybody. That was the greatest thing about that school. Not only were the teachers and the bands fantastic, but there were so many great drummers. At the time, we were 18 and 19, and we were just figuring out what these different drummers did and how to do it. One drummer would have Ginger Baker down, another would have Tommy Aldridge down, and everybody would figure everybody else out. There was a Steve Gadd clone and a Buddy Rich clone. You could get all these things from everybody else.
RF: When do you learn to stop being a clone and have your own style?
GB: A lot of people say, “I don’t want to figure out other drummers’ styles exactly because it will make me sound exactly like them, and I’ll never sound like myself.” It’s easy to be a clone of a bunch of different drummers, but it’s another thing to take 50 drummers you respect, take a little from each one of them, and then apply it in a situation that works for you. It’s in the application that you really get your own style.
RF: Do you feel that your experience at school was essential for your growth, or could you have gone out and gotten a gig with a band straightaway?
GB: I don’t think it was absolutely essential. It was just the way I decided to go about it. The way I chose seemed to be a good one for me because I was thrown into an environment with people from all over the world. I think it could have happened other ways, though. I know a lot of drummers who have never studied, but who have listened and played in bar bands all their lives, and they’re great drummers. They’re setting the world on fire. But this way worked for me.
RF: What happened when you left school?
GB: I moved out here to L.A., because I knew all these bands I really enjoyed listening to were coming out of here. I had read articles in which people said, “I was playing in L.A., and I went to an audition at S.I.R.” What was this rehearsal studio people were going to and auditioning for these great bands? It was the golden place.
I have to admit that, when I first got here, there were many weeks of not knowing anyone. I had lists of names from friends of mine who said, “Hey, when you get to L.A., you have to call so-and-so,” and a lot of them were very helpful. They had done the same thing themselves, so they could appreciate where I was at. I woke up several mornings with the worst stomachache from nerves. Here I had moved to L.A. on my own with everything I had in this car, fresh out of college, and I was going to start my life. And there were just so many people. I never knew anyone in my life with my last name. I looked in the L.A. Musician’s Union book, and there were four Bissonettes. I called people to try to find out about gigs.
RF: Who were you calling?
GB: I had lists of names of people I had seen on albums. I knew there were people I wanted to get in touch with. I can remember calling Dave Garibaldi when I first got here. Some students I had in Dallas had brought some of the albums I had done over to him, so he said, “Yeah, come on over to the house, and we’ll play.” I went over there, and he told me that Merv Griffin’s show was looking for a new drummer. What a guy! He was nice enough to say I should try out when he was trying out. I called the bandleader and said, “I understand you are looking for a drummer,” and he said, “I think we already have it nailed down. Thanks for calling.” I thought that these guys were still auditioning and I couldn’t understand why I couldn’t, so I called him again and he had the same response. But I was real persistent, and I finally went down to the show. After the band rehearsed, I gave the leader a tape. It wasn’t that my dream in life was to play for the Merv Griffin Band, but it seemed that it would be a good gig to have for a while. He said, “You sure are persistent, so I’ll listen to the tape. I can’t guarantee anything because we have some guys in mind.” The next day at 9:00 in the morning, he called to say that he had listened to the tape and thought it was good. He asked me to come in and play two shows the next day. They were paid shows. It was sight reading on this TV show with the band, and then some acts like Mary Wells were coming in also. It was great! That was my first big gig on national TV.
That helped my stomachache a little bit, but now what? I paid the rent for that month, but what next? I started playing everything I could possibly get my hands on, which I think was a really good thing to do. Someone would call and say, “I have this little demo recording session of some tunes I wrote. If I sell the tune, we can pay you. Otherwise we can’t.” It was a chance to meet people and play. I went to a lot of jam nights at various clubs.
RF: How did you pay your rent while you were meeting people?
GB: A lot of people said, “You’ve got to forget about playing and take a normal job during the day. Then try to pursue your music. Playing Top 40 won’t be the answer.” I don’t agree. I would much rather be playing in a bar six nights a week. At least I’m playing my drums, playing songs, singing, and working on it. Even though it’s not exactly the band I want to be in and I’m not doing original tunes, at least I’m playing. And if I have the chance to do an audition or I get called to be in a band, at least I’ve been playing for the last six months, and I’ve been working on my time, my groove, and my chops. I went ahead and played in bars for months on end, and during the day, I would play with people and do jam sessions— any type of music you can imagine.
Then I got the gig with Maynard. When my brother and I were going to college together, Maynard came to town. I had sent dozens and dozens of tapes to the management saying, “I’m a drummer, and I would love to play with Maynard’s band. Please listen to my tape.” I knew the tapes were never really getting through, and there were always people getting on the band through recommendations. If someone can say, “Hey, check out this player,” they’re going to check the person out. If the person can play, cool. If not, then it’s a different story.
Finally Maynard’s band was playing in Denton, Texas, so I called up this hotel where I knew they were staying and asked for Maynard. Stan Mark, his lead trumpet player, picked up the phone, and he asked if he could help me. I said, “My name is Gregg Bissonette, and I play in the 1:00 Band at North Texas. I’ve always loved Maynard’s band, and I’d love to get on the band someday. I know you have a drummer now, but is there any chance that you guys can come out to this bar I’m playing at and hear me play?” I was playing in a band called the Buster Brown Band at a bar called Popsicle Toes. He said, “Well, it’s a long way—about an hour’s drive.” And I said, “That’s no problem. I’ve got four friends with four station wagons who will bring your whole band down to Dallas. You can sit in, and the drinks are on us.” He said, “You’re really serious about this. We’ll be there.” That night, the whole band came in, and they sat in. They said they had a great drummer, Dave Mancini, but when he decided to leave, I had the gig.
RF: Why were you pursuing that gig in particular?
GB: Just because, when I was a kid, my parents would always take me to hear his band, and he was the first rock big band. All the other big bands played swing and bebop, which was cool, but Maynard would play Janis Joplin’s “MoveOver” or Jethro Tull’s “Living In The Past.” I thought that was so cool. He could also play swing, Latin, and everything else. I also played trumpet when I was a kid, so he was also a trumpet hero of mine.
Then the band called me up and asked if I knew of any hot bass players. I suggested my brother, and he got the gig. Once he was on the band, he kept plugging my name. After about four months, I got the call to go out on the road. I had only lived in L.A. for four months in ’81 when I got the call to go, and I went with Maynard for about a year.
RF: What was the Ferguson gig like?
GB: One of the cool things about Maynard is that he did play a lot of different kinds of music within his big band. It was a big band, and I had to be concerned with setting up the big band and all that. One of the tunes we played was a Latin Songo. We played a bebop medley, which would go through Charlie Parker tunes and Dizzy Gillespie tunes. Then we played our favorite rock songs, which we’d arrange for big band.
RF: Listening to the tape you made for me was interesting, because while everyone says your history is so different from what you’re doing now, it was obvious that David Lee Roth’s “Shyboy” wasn’t so vastly different from your past in a lot of ways.
GB: I think that, through playing different types of music, I can relate to playing a song like “Shyboy” where it’s just a different attitude but still requires a lot of the same musicality. It’s real good to be able to draw from other experiences. With the David Lee Roth Band, we’ll play “Ladies Night In Buffalo,” and there’s a little cowbell thing that we’ll do in there. I think playing different styles of music like funk and Latin can help in getting a feel with those kinds of things. Yet, playing with my old rock ‘n’ roll and heavy metal bands back in Detroit helped with getting a feel on songs like “Elephant Gun,” “Shyboy,” “Bump And Grind,” and “Big Trouble.” I think all those experiences can add up to achieving your optimum goal with the songs you’re doing.
RF: Getting back to Maynard, I’ve heard he’s sometimes difficult to work with.
GB: That’s wild, because Maynard is not at all difficult to work with. He was one of the coolest guys and greatest friends I’ve ever had. I have so much respect for him as a person and a player. Musically, he’d never come out and say, “This tune was too fast,” or “This tune was too slow.” He would allow me to make mistakes, and if I counted off a tune too fast, he’d play the whole song too fast. That night in the bus, we’d listen to the gig tape, and I’d say, “That tune is really too fast. Tomorrow night we have to play it a little slower.” He knew the best way with me was to listen to the tape instead of saying, “This was too fast . . . .” To me, the sign of a really great leader is allowing you to make mistakes. David is the same way. He doesn’t say, “Do this. Do that.” He gives us a lot of chances to play it over and over again, and to realize ourselves what works best for that tune. One thing about Maynard was that, for a long time, he was doing records that were Maynard and the All- Stars, whereas I think he really wanted to play with his own band that he had been traveling with for a long time. The last couple of records he’s made have been his band, the way he wants to do it as opposed to having to record with the top studio musicians.
RF: You did do some recording with Maynard.
GB: We did an album in San Francisco at the Great American Music Hall. We did it live to two track, so there was no overdubbing. Jeff Weber was the producer on that, and in fact, I did a lot of other projects for him in town. One was for Grant Geissman, which was done about two years ago, and Pat Kelly did a record with Jeff that I got to play on. Vinnie Colaiuta played on a couple of the tracks, and John Robinson played on a couple of the tracks. That was a real fun project, because when I first moved to L.A., that was one of the bands I went to listen to all the time with Vinnie on drums. It was great to get to play some of the tunes Vinnie played, because he was always one of my favorite drummers.
RF: A few minutes ago, you brought this up: playing songs with words. What’s the difference between that and playing with Maynard? How does your approach alter?
GB: When I’m playing jazz, the whole thing is total interaction with other players. It can be different every night, and one of the things about total improvisation is that you’re on the spot to create at that moment. That can be good, but sometimes, if you’re not in the right attitude to go into a club and totally create every night, it might not be as good. In a way, there’s more pressure, but in another way, it’s really cool to be able to do your own thing. But the reason I started playing music was because I loved listening to the radio, and I had a real adoration for songs.
RF: Why did you leave Maynard?
GB: Because I wanted to pursue something with my brother. We wanted to start our own rock ‘n’ roll band, so we left together. We wanted to come back to L.A. and write together, because there were people we knew at different record companies who felt they could help us.
At the same time, though, we had to make a living, so we did every possible kind of playing we could do to make a living. During that time, I remember playing jingles, a Fourth Of July telethon for Muscular Dystrophy, and a TV series, The Master, with a producer named Les Hooper. Every week, we’d go down to Paramount Studios with a 50-piece orchestra. There was a big screen in the background, and we’d read different cues and play down the chase scene. It would say on the chart, “Go to Simmons drums.” I’d walk around the drum booth and play the Simmons drums for the Ninja fight scene. The next chart would say to go to acoustic drums, so I’d go back to the drums and play the car chase scene on the acoustic drums. Then there was the romantic scene where I’d play something with brushes or with a mallet. Even though I knew that wasn’t my life’s goal, it was a great way to make money so I could go in the studio to record with my brother.
Then I got to tour with Tania Maria, who plays a wide variety of music: Brazilian music, Cuban music—all with her own touch. That was a good learning experience. Then there was an audition in town, and I got the gig with Gino Vannelli, who I did some local gigs and TV shows with. I can remember Gino wanting to go in to do another record instead of another tour, but I got called to do the audition with Dave and it worked out like clockwork. I told Gino this thing had come up with Dave, and it was really what I wanted to do. He was real cool about it.
RF: What was the audition like?
GB: It was actually a lot of fun. I knew of Steve from his having played with Zappa, and I knew of Billy from Talas. I respected them very much as musicians. I knew it wouldn’t just be one of those auditions where you walk in and they don’t know what they’re looking for. We hit it off right off the bat. First, I got to play about a five minute drum solo, and the next step was to play with them. It was a lot of retention. They would play through the three-minute song, and then they’d say, “The verse goes like this and the chorus feel is like this, but there’s an intro that starts off with this kick. Remember this kick here, and we play this figure here, and the second time we play the verse, it’s only half as long, and we go into the chorus . . . ” just to see who could retain the information. It was really neat. From writing songs with my brother and listening to songs, I had a good idea of song structure, which really helped, so that part of it went real well.
The audition was at S.I.R., so they said, “We really like the way you play, so we want you to come to Dave’s house to meet him and play with him.” Here’s where reading music is important: I asked them for a tape because I knew they had about 15 songs already figured out, and I thought that, if I could try to learn them in a night, it would really help going in the next day. By writing out little “cheat sheets,” I was able to write out the feel of all the songs they had worked out. I went in the next day, met Dave, and we played through all that stuff. It was just like magic. We all got along really well. I remember that, the night after I had the audition with Dave, we went out to eat, and there was just a chemistry among all of us while we were sitting around. I felt so at home. Any apprehension I had about the big audition or about meeting Dave left. We were sitting at this Mexican restaurant having a great time. I never laughed so hard in my life. From that minute on, it’s been a lot of great times and a great chemistry. I can remember being up in New York recording at the Power Station. Afterwards, we’d walk back to the hotel, all of us together, and we’d start singing a song a cappella from our past, like some old R&B song from 1961. We’d all know the words. We’d all listened to the same kind of songs.
RF: There’s a whole different attitude in rock than in jazz.
GB: That’s really true. I remember so many times playing for musician and critic crowds, at so many fusion gigs, and it’s a very uptight feeling. It was like I was under a microscope. I can remember playing rock ‘n’ roll at the high school dances, and all of my peers were there to have a good time. I can remember that, in college, people would go to a concert with a pen and paper, and sit there waiting for you to make a mistake. At a rock show, people are there to be rocked and to enjoy themselves. That’s the reason I started to play drums. I didn’t start to play drums so someone could sit down with a pad and pencil and say, “That energy on the samba was really good, but when it went into the half-time section, it seemed to lag. Don’t go quite so far down in the dynamics.”
RF: Is there a difference between soloing for Maynard Ferguson and soloing for David Lee Roth?
GB: The difference comes in the fact that you have to think about the crowd you’re playing the solo for. A lot of the real intricacies of playing in a small club are going to be lost in an arena. Dynamically, there’s really no sense in playing that soft because they might have a noise gate on your snare drum, and if you hit the drum at a soft level, it’s not even going to read. It’s neat to be able to play a solo in an arena for people who want to be entertained. You don’t have to feel that they’re going to be bummed out if you don’t pull off such-and-such lick. They want to be able to see you up there having a good time, and you want to convey that you’re having a good time. Getting up and jumping around or whatever you want to do is cool because it’s you. A lot of times, that wouldn’t go over in a small club.
RF: Is there a difference conceptually?
GB: I love playing loud. That’s not to say that I don’t like playing with dynamics, but conceptually, if I played as loud as I wanted to in a small club, I’d kill everybody’s ears, whereas in an arena, it’s like letting the animal out of the cage. There are no rules.
RF: What to you is a good solo?
GB: It has a definite beginning, a definite middle, a definite climax, and a definite end. Anything you do in between has to go for what type of a crowd you’re playing for and what you want to accomplish. A good solo with a fusion band might be a lot of playing over the bar or taking it out. I really love soloing over a vamp. If there’s a choice between playing a drum solo while no one else is playing or playing a solo over a vamp, sometimes I prefer to play it over a vamp. That way, if I want to leave space, I can do that and let the solo breathe a little bit because there’s a vamp going on underneath. Also, with that vamp going, I can play in a different meter or juxtapose another time signature over it, and it will work. For a good solo that’s not over a vamp, it’s better to keep it in some kind of a framework that’s real tangible.
I think that, if you’re playing in a framework of a drum solo that’s by itself, it’s good to think of phrases. A lot of times, drummers don’t think in phrases. It’s easy to ramble. I’m not saying that the solos that are completely free are bad, but I prefer to play within a time framework and to use phrasing, because I think that helps people who don’t know anything about music to get what you’re doing. I also think a good solo has a little bit of repetition. If a lick goes by one time and nobody gets to grasp that lick and remember it, it’s okay, but I think it’s better to play a pattern again so they can remember it. They can relate to it because they’ve heard it before. Those are some characteristics to consider if you’re not just playing for musicians, so people can understand it. I think it’s important to make the drum solo something more than the time when everybody goes out and buys T-shirts or popcorn.
RF: Coming from Maynard Ferguson, is it difficult to get into the vibe of David Lee Roth?
GB: Not at all, because Maynard is a great showman, and unlike a lot of other jazz artists, he’s very concerned about how to come across to an audience. I can think of a lot of jazz gigs I could have done where, if I twirled my sticks, it would have been looked down upon. When I decided to twirl my sticks with Maynard, he loved it. I can remember one time in Indiana when I was in a magic shop and I saw some flash paper that would catch on fire for a second. I took it to the gig one night and taped a little bit on each stick. In the middle of my drum solo, I clicked the sticks together, and for a second, there was a flash of fire. Maynard was completely into it. And now, particularly, there are no rules. I play the first half of my solo from behind the drums, but for the second half, I climb on top of the bass drums and straddle the toms. Then I jump over the toms and play the rest of the solo while standing on the bass drums. Dave calls it an “exterior drum solo.”
RF: Was it your idea to suspend the cymbal on stage?
GB: That was Bill Sheehan’s idea. So we asked one of the lighting guys to hang it up there, and it’s great.
RF: Speaking of Bill Sheehan, you grew up with a bass player, so you must have a very definite idea of what you like in a bass player.
GB: It was great the first minute I played with Bill because we have a lot of the same tastes. We can sing Three Dog Night songs forever, and we both know all the words. It’s really neat. I felt an immediate sync-up between the two of us. We don’t really have to talk about things to work them out. It’s an unspoken connection.
What I like in a bass player is, number one, good time and good feel. Bill has both of those. It’s very comfortable to play with him because his meter is very steady. If I want to go out on a limb and do some thing, I want to make sure I don’t throw someone off. Bill has a great conception of drum fills, so I don’t ever feel I’ll throw him off. A lot of times, if it’s time for a drum fill—say it’s a fill between the toms, the bass, and the snare—all of a sudden we’ll look at each other, and we’ll both play the same fill. He’s got the technical ability to be able to play 16th-note triplets at 140 beats per minute. So if I want to play 16th-note triplets around the drums at 140, he’ll be right there playing it with me. It’s a great feeling to know the sky’s the limit.
Steve is the same way. A lot of times, we’ll orchestrate things around all three instruments. We’ll say, “In the guitar solo in ‘Big Trouble,’ why don’t you play the 32nd-note run with me on the toms?” To have that freedom is really great. There are no limitations technically, and at the same time, we all have enough taste so that we won’t overplay.
RF: You mentioned freedom. Everything about David Lee Roth is big. He fills a room. Watching you guys work, I noticed that you all seemed to take charge of your own space. But do you ever feel that big person is intimidating? Is there room for more than David Lee Roth up on that stage?
GB: Definitely. Beyond a shadow of a doubt, there is. And he wants it to be that way. He enjoys working off other players, and it’s a real band effort. He doesn’t want to be backed by three nameless guys in tuxedos. He wants to interact with players who came up with parts when we were writing songs together and interacting performance-wise. He’s always been in a band, so this is normal for him. I never feel like I’m going to overstep my bounds. Whatever you want to do is what you do in this band, even in the recording situation.
I had heard so much about Ted Templeman, but I had never worked with him. I started thinking, “Gee, I’m recording the David Lee Roth album. How am I going to approach this? Am I going to walk in there, and Ted’s going to tell me how it is going to be?” It wasn’t like that at all. I went in and said, “How would you like to cut this tune? Shall we play with a click, or do you want a drum machine shaker underneath?” And he said, “No, I don’t record that way. I record totally human. We’re not going to use a click track. We’re not going to sync up with any other kind of a track. You’re not going to trigger any electronics on this album. You’re going to play real drums with your real feel. If you speed up or slow down, I’ll tell you, and we’ll do another take. I like the way you play, and it’s going to be great. We’re just going to capture the moment.” I think that’s what rock ‘n’ roll is about. The rhythm tracks were cut live and Dave sang with us. Sometimes he even kept the vocals that were cut, and it was a very creative live environment. We’d rehearse the song, so by the time we went to record, we knew what we wanted the song to sound like, and Ted was really great at capturing that. He is a drummer, and once in a while he’d throw out a suggestion, but all his suggestions were really open, creative, and spacious. I had a lot of freedom to come up with my own part. We all work together, and there are no ego trips. It’s just a real fun thing.
RF: Tell me about your equipment.
GB: I’m using Zildjian cymbals. I always have. My dad always played Zildjian, and it was all I ever considered. I’m using some of the Z series and some of the Platinums. I have a 22″ Z ride cymbal. I’m using 18″, 19″, and 20″ crashes, which I vary every night. Sometimes I use the Z’s, or sometimes I use the Platinums. Sometimes I even use the regular A Zildjian crashes. I carry about six sets of cymbals with me on the road, so if one night I’m not hearing enough overheads, I can ask my drum tech to put on the Z’s so we get more of a cutting sound. I have two 20″ China Boys, and I also had Zildjian make up some little band cymbals that I think are cut from marching band cymbals. They’re any where from little 6″ band cymbals to 14’s. I can just use them for bell sounds. I use the 14″ Z series hi-hats, and once in a while, I’ll put on the 15″ Platinums.
I’m using Yamaha drums—the Recording Series. The finish was done by Pat Foley, who is just fantastic with that kind of stuff. We got together and discussed the concept, and everyone in the band got in on it. We decided that we wanted to do a trashed-out look finish, like they were Armageddon drums. Pat is the guy who can make something like that happen, and he got them to look just the way we wanted them to. As for sizes, I’m using 8″, 10″, 12″, 13″, 14″, 15″, and 16″ rack toms, and two 18″ floor toms. I have two 24 x 32 bass drums that are extra long on the floor, and then I have two regular 16 x 22 bass drums suspended up above. I call them gong toms, and they can be played from in back. I put mirrored heads on them. I’m also using EP-1 trigger pedals, which are made by Drum Workshop. They enable me to trigger any kind of a sampled sound, any digital Simmons sounds, or whatever I’ve been fooling around with, such as the Emulator drum machine or the SP-12, and just sample different sounds. I do, at times, trigger different electronic samples. A lot of the sound just calls for real acoustic drums, though.
RF: During your solo, you use electronics.
GB: I play the acoustic drums for a while, and then I stand up on the drums and have my drum tech push a button, so the drum machine starts. That’s the SP-12 drum machine or the Yamaha RX-11 drum machine playing a double bass drum beat. That’s just when I’m walking on the drums, just to give it an interesting effect. I thought it added some excitement, and it’s the only time in the show we use a drum machine.
RF: Let’s talk about playing double bass.
GB: The first time I played double bass was when I was 13. I started off playing that Zalmer Twin double bass drum pedal on a single bass drum. From there, I liked the feel of two bass drums, so at 15, I got two bass drums and began to work on playing a double-bass kit. Certain times when I couldn’t carry two bass drums, I would use the DW-5002 double pedal, like when I was with Maynard. That was real good, but I do enjoy playing double bass and fooling around with different concepts. When I first started playing double bass, I used the concept that my hi-hat is usually playing on downbeats or 8th notes when I’m playing most beats, so why not just lead with the left and let my right foot follow? So I’d be leading with the left and playing 16th-note patterns. But in the last five or six years, I’ve been working on trying to break it up, and lead with the right foot and with the left foot, do hand-to-hand combinations, and play right-left on top and left-right on bottom.
RF: How can you learn to play double bass, and I do mean play it, as opposed to having it for show or power?
GB: I think one way is to realize that anything you can do with your hands you can break up and do with your feet. A lot of times, you tend to play doubles—like right-right—with your feet. In an arena rock situation, it’ll come off more powerful if you play right-left between two bass drums, so why not try four up on top and four on the bottom, like le&a on the snare and 2e&a on the bass? Break up patterns, and instead of doing a whole measure of 16ths between the toms, do the first set of 16ths on one tom and play the second set of 16ths with the feet, and then two up, two down, two up, and two down. Divide it any way you want to divide it. Start thinking up and down instead of all horizontal.
If I named all the double bass drum players who have influenced me, it would be a very long list, but for the last year, I’ve been living in a house with Mark Craney, who is one of my favorite double bass drum players. We sit in the garage and just play. I’ve learned a lot just playing duets with him. We have guys come over to the house, and we call it the Woodland Hills Drum Club. There are three kits always set up in the garage. I think drummers are more apt to do that than any other type of musician. They really love to get together, exchange ideas, and play duets. There really seems to be a camradery with drummers.
RF: Is this the epitome? What do you see for the future?
GB: This is my dream come true: being in a popular band and having creativity. A year ago, I said to myself, “I’d love to be on MTV!” Now I can turn on MTV and see us six times a day! It’s everything I’ve been saying prayers for since I was a kid.