Rodney Howard

Rodney Howard

On Tour & On Stage Making It Work On The Road


The live arena is where drummers sink or swim. There’s no “fixing it in the mix” if you flub a fill, no second take if you stray too far off the click, no starting over if you can’t hear the vocals in your monitors. And as anyone who’s done time on a tour bus knows, day-to-day pressures of touring, like living with strangers in close quarters and fighting off boredom and loneliness far from home, can be as tough as the demands of the show itself.But touring and playing live also provide some of the most magical moments of a player’s career. The camaraderie of sharing an adventure with good friends, the transcendent moments when you and your bandmates are so on that you can practically feel the stage levitate…

This month we ask seven road dogs about the ups and downs of life on tour, and for useful tips on everything from dealing with odd personalities on the bus to working with a click track live to choosing the right gear for the long haul. Listen up—it’s the kind of stuff that can help make your next gig or tour a dream rather than a nightmare.

Rodney Howard

story by Mike Haid
photos by Sayre Berman

Nail the gig, and you might just end up on the album. That’s how it happened for Avril Lavigne and Gavin Degraw’s main man.

Modern Drummer readers recently spoke loud and clear about their love for New York–based drum sensation Rodney Howard by voting him runner-up in the Pop category of the 2009 MD Readers Poll. Howard’s fashionable flair and passionate playing style have powered the machine behind several of today’s biggest stars, including Avril Lavigne, Gavin DeGraw, and Regina Spektor.

Howard’s diversity and depth keep him bouncing from stage to studio. Perpetually busy on the road, within the NYC studio scene, and on the Broadway circuit, Rodney has played heavyweight shows like The Lion King, Hairspray, Mamma Mia!, Little Shop Of Horrors, Saturday Night Fever, and The Rocky Horror Show, and he’s got the tips and tales to prove it.

MD: In terms of gear, what do you prepare before a tour?

Rodney: Make sure you have all of the gear that you’re going to need or may need for the tour. Have a spare of everything, ready to go, on stage— especially sticks, bass drum pedal, snare drum, snare stand, and heads.

Use a portable table to keep your percussion close at hand. Don’t keep percussion on the floor, where you have to go searching for it in the dark. And I always have a fan. Even if it’s freezing outside, it can be 90° in the venue. I don’t want to miss a cue from the singer because I’ve got sweat in my eyes. In-ear monitors are also becoming the standard for live playing. I suggest purchasing a good-quality in-ear system and getting acclimated to it as soon as possible.

And don’t try out new gear on tour. Stick with your standard gear so there are no surprises. For my electronics, I keep backup batteries, a backup click track, and such. Be prepared for using unfamiliar backline gear, and don’t necessarily expect the exact backline gear that’s in your rider. I always bring my own bass drum pedals, cymbals, side snare, and shakers, plus all my specialty gear that I know will probably not be supplied by a typical backline company.

My stick bag always contains mallets, wire brushes, wooden rods, a shaker or two, and a Sabian Chopper or something from Factory Metal Percussion that’s similar to a tambourine. Think of it as going hiking in a survival situation. Try to fit everything you can into that stick bag.

I’ve had a drum tech for every major tour I’ve done. But I’ve also toured where I was my own drum tech. In either case, you have to be aware at all times of what you may need, like the type of cases you may or may not need. Always consider the amount of room available in the trailer, bus, or semi-truck. If you’re doing major tours, you need to invest in large road cases where the entire kit fits in one case and hardware and cymbals fit in another. When you’re starting out and playing local gigs, invest in the best cases that your budget will allow, and always be aware of space limitations in your vehicle and in venues.

MD: What about in terms of the music?

Rodney: You need to know your drum parts inside and out before the tour starts. You also need to have your chops ready. Typically there is no time to practice on tour. Do all of your shedding now, before you enter the touring arena. You also have to be able to assimilate and execute any changes in the music at any given moment. Be ready for anything!

If you’re in a live situation where the song list changes every night, discuss these changes hours before the gig, not minutes before. Gavin DeGraw’s set list changes every night. So I need at least an hour to set up all the tempo changes and specialty gear used on each song. Then run the show in your head to doublecheck for any surprises.

MD: Do you have a pre-show ritual?

Rodney: Warming up is very important to me, especially when there’s more finesse playing involved in the gig. You can’t hide behind aggression, so I want to make sure I’m feeling loose and comfortable. Stretching is very important too, especially for my legs since I started using a double pedal. I also sing, so I do vocal warm-ups as well. Drink loads of water to stay hydrated. For the high-energy gigs, I do enjoy a coffee or Red Bull before the show.

MD: What about the social aspects of touring?

Rodney: Getting along with the band and road crew is essential. The band bus carries a village of people that you’ll be living with day in and day out. There are a lot of great musicians that really aren’t built for touring. You have to be willing to embrace everyone’s eccentricities and idiosyncrasies. You really have to make an effort to reach out and be a good neighbor and a member of the village.

Also, make friends with the monitor engineer and the front-of-house engineer, quickly! These people can make your job really easy or really difficult. In fact, make friends and keep a positive attitude with everyone you meet. In this business, it always comes around. You never know when you’ll make an ally who will stay with you for your entire career—or may just own your sonic destiny for one night. It always makes sense to make friends as quickly as possible on the road.

MD: Is there a difference between a great studio drummer and a great road drummer?

Rodney: There can be an assumption in the industry that there is a difference. My philosophy is that you should be a great musician, period. Playing with musicality and excitement applies to studio and live performances. The only difference in the two scenarios is that in a live performance, you’re putting on a show. A live performance is a celebration of the music, and you should dress, play, and act accordingly. People are paying good money to see a show, and we should do our best to give them a unique experience.

If you want to get into touring and live performance, know that it’s all about the show. People want to be entertained. In the pop realm, think of your favorite studio drummers, and then look at the tours they’ve done. Vinnie Colaiuta, Abe Laboriel Jr., Josh Freese, Steve Gadd, Keith Carlock, Kenny Aronoff—it’s all about the music. There are tools that you develop for the studio, and it takes a maturity to know that you’re not in the studio and that there are different priorities on a live gig. It’s about being a complete musician and knowing which tools to bring to the gig.

I recently recorded the new Avril Lavigne record and the new Gavin DeGraw record. What I’d brought to these artists live led to my being on their records. When playing live, don’t be just a dull reproduction of the recording. I think the drummer has more power than anyone else on stage to either electrify a show or kill it. The key to being a successful touring drummer is to be in the moment and bring it, every night, with all your heart and soul. The guys who light me up when I see them live are the guys who do exactly that.

Howard plays a Pearl Masterworks kit (maple, birch, and mahogany hybrid) in “white glass flake,” including an 18×24 bass drum, 8×12 and 8×13 toms, a 14×16 floor tom, a 61/2×14 Reference series snare, and a 7×12 Soprano snare; Sabian cymbals, including a 12″ Chopper (on 12″ snare, when used), 16″ Artisan hi-hats, an 18″ Saturation crash, a 22″ HHX Legacy heavy ride, a 20″ O-Zone ride, and a 22″ AA China; Vic Firth 5B wood-tip sticks, Steve Gadd model brushes, Rute 202s, and SD12 swizzle; percussion including a Pearl Hex Ganza, a 6″ Factory Metal Hi-Hat Jingler, and an 8″ Factory Metal Celtic Bell; hardware including Pearl 2000 series stands and Demon Drive double pedals; a Sensaphonics 3D in-ear system; and a Clark Synthesis Tactile Transducer.