Lasting Lessons From Ed Shaughnessy

Ed Shaughnessy
Photo by Rick Malkin

I grew up watching Ed Shaughnessy drive Doc Severinsen’s Tonight Show Band. For twenty-nine years, Shaughnessy held the throne of one of the most visible and respected groups in television history, and for many of us this was our first exposure to hearing great big band music. Thankfully, I got to know Ed years later, through our work for Ludwig and the Percussive Arts Society. As an educator, he was always very enthusiastic to share his experience, whether it was through private teaching, instructional articles, method books, or clinics. In addition to being a member of the MD Advisory Board, Ed was featured on the cover of this magazine three times (July ’78, April ’86, and September ’92). Throughout the ’80s and into the ’90s, he expressed his views on different drumming topics in his Driver’s Seat columns. Select quotes and highlights from his columns and interviews are at the heart of this article. I hope you enjoy it.


The first offering comes from the February 1994 issue of MD, where Shaughnessy described his approach to, as he put it, “a fascinating and historic drum stroke—the whipped cream roll.” Ed said, “I first heard the beautiful, seamless snare drum roll of Buddy Rich back in my early days of drumming. I finally got to ask him some ten years later about the flowing oval motion he made with his hands while rolling. His reply was: ‘Oh, that’s the whipped cream roll. I got it from the New Orleans cats.’”

To achieve this roll, each oval motion is made using a combination of wrist and finger action, from the outside of the drum (which creates a more legato sound) moving toward the center of the head. The right hand travels clockwise as the left moves counterclockwise. As you experiment with this, notice that the stick tips travel over and under each other. To achieve a smooth and connected buzz sound, Shaughnessy recommended practicing with each hand separately before combining them: “I have them come in at a shallow (approximately 30 degree) angle, to simulate what we’ll be doing with the oval motions later. Then we put both hands to work in the two oval motions, and voilà…[we] get a fine, seamless roll.”


In the March 1988 issue, Shaughnessy offered tips for reading big band charts. This piece was inspired by conversations he had with drummers in high school and college big bands while traveling and doing workshops and clinics. When I first read this, I was a college percussion major with very little big band chart-reading experience. It was the first time anyone, in person or in print, explained and presented this fundamental material in such a clear and practical way.

We’ll begin with Ed’s comments on listening. “As usual, your ear can help you a lot. One thing to listen for is the bass. Many times the bass player will be playing rhythm with you and resting at the same time as you. If there are inconsistencies between your parts, check with the bass player.”

Here’s what Ed had to say about faulty drum notation. “[A] problem that can happen with a poorly written part is that there won’t be enough information on it. Sparsely written parts that don’t have the strong brass figures written out are trouble (and usually the result of a hastily copied arrangement). It pays to look at a lead trumpet part and copy the important figures above the staff, over the rhythm bars involved.”



Shaughnessy offered the following wisdom in his final cover appearance, with Johnny Carson, in September 1992. We’ll begin with a simple but effective woodshed tip.

“I practice things I can’t do too well, and I practice the same things I teach people,” Ed said. “I do three-to-one exercises all the time, so that the weaker hand has to do more than the stronger hand. If you keep practicing two hands all the time, you’ll get better, but the weaker hand will always be weaker.”

An effective bandleader in his own right, Shaughnessy had much to say about that topic: “I think it would be the best experience in the world for every sideman to be a leader once in a while, because you get to see it from the other guy’s viewpoint. As a leader, it is so much more problematic and convoluted than just playing the role of ‘Mr. Drummer’ in the band.”

To conclude, here are some parting words from Ed on how to handle suggestions. “I think you cooperate up to a certain point, where people don’t really intrude on your dignity or your professional standing. You’re supposed to know a lot about what you do. I don’t mind if a person knows what they like to hear; I’ll do my best to give it to them. When I’m giving it to them and they don’t like it, there’s not much more that I can do. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred it was someone who didn’t know what they wanted.”

Steve Fidyk has performed with Terell Stafford, Tim Warfield, Dick Oatts, Doc Severinsen, Wayne Bergeron, Phil Wilson, and Maureen McGovern, and he’s a member of the jazz studies faculty at Temple University in Philadelphia. For more info, including how to sign up for lessons via Skype, visit