In the mid-’70s, a relatively unknown drummer named Ron Spagnardi had a big idea: to create the first independent magazine for and about drummers. He had no funds to speak of, and even less experience in publishing. He did, however, have the will. Now he just had to find the way.

By Rick Mattingly

“We need to put out a magazine that, as drummers, we would want to read ourselves.” —Ron Spagnardi
“We need to put out a magazine that, as drummers, we would want to read ourselves.”
—Ron Spagnardi

The late-1976 ad in the musicians-union newspaper announcing the debut of a new magazine called Modern Drummer was small, but it jumped out at those of us who had dreamed of having our own publication. Guitarists and keyboard players had magazines, but there hadn’t been much for drummers over the years. At one time, the Ludwig company published The Ludwig Drummer on a fairly regular basis, but by 1976 it was turning up only once every couple of years. Back when DownBeat was published every two weeks, an annual issue was devoted to drummers, but after the magazine went monthly, that was no longer the case. The Percussive Arts Society published Percussive Notes, but it covered the entire spectrum of percussion, so there wasn’t much room for drumset.

Modern Drummer looked promising. Granted, it was going to be published just four times a year, but that was a lot more than had been available to drummers until then, and a one-year subscription was only four dollars, so it wasn’t a very big gamble.

The first issue arrived in January of 1977. You’re not supposed to judge a book by its cover, but, wow—they landed Buddy Rich for the first issue!

The people putting out this magazine obviously knew what they were doing. And the cover story wasn’t the only impressive feature; Louie Bellson wrote an article on big band playing, Carmine Appice contributed a piece on rock, and marching expert Duane Thamm authored a column on rudimental drumming. There was a close-up on Billy Cobham’s setup, a transcription of a Roy Haynes solo, a guide to disco drumming (about which any drummer who wanted to work in the ’70s had to be knowledgeable), a page of warm-ups, reviews of new literature, product announcements, a question-and-answer column, and more.

A note from the editor, Ron Spagnardi, detailed the goals of this new magazine. “Drummers have long needed a voice in the form of an intelligent publication encompassing all phases of the art, and we hope to establish ourselves in this and future issues as a significant force in the field of drum education and as a platform for the exchange of ideas,” Ron wrote. “We’re basically for the drummer who’s interested in growing as a musician and in search of a source from which he might draw some intelligent conclusions. We hope to be that source by staying abreast of the latest in styles, artists, and equipment; by keeping the pages of Modern Drummer as relevant to the needs of today’s drummer as possible; and by keeping our fingers firmly placed on the pulse of our fast growing, ever changing industry.”

That's what you call "opening with a bang." Buddy Rich, the world's greatest drummer, appeared on the cover of MD's debut issue.
That’s what you call “opening with a bang.” Buddy Rich, the world’s greatest drummer, appeared on the cover of MD‘s debut issue.

By today’s standards, that first issue was sparse: It was all of twenty-eight pages long, the photos were black-and-white, and the articles weren’t very long. But what was there was solid, and looking back now, even though the magazine has evolved greatly, it’s remarkable how many of the original column titles (e.g., Rock Perspectives, Jazz Drummer’s Workshop, Strictly Technique, It’s Questionable) are still in use, while others simply expanded. (Printed Page, for instance, became Critique as MD began reviewing recordings, videos, and other media.) Spagnardi’s original blueprint for Modern Drummer continues to serve as a viable framework as the magazine begins its fortieth year of publication.

The first page of the first issue also included a list of the magazine’s staff. It turned out that except for Spagnardi, the names were all made up. Modern Drummer was, in reality, a one-man operation.

Spagnardi was a drummer who had attended the Berklee College of Music in Boston. After returning to his home in New Jersey, he played gigs and ran a music store in Bloomfield called the Music Scene. Like a lot of his colleagues, he wished that drummers had their own magazine, a lack that he was particularly aware of because he sold such titles as Guitar Player in his store. Finally, in 1974, he told his wife, Isabel, that he wanted to publish a drum magazine.

Ron had a lot to learn. He spent nearly three years studying other magazines, especially ones dealing with music, to see how they were constructed. He subscribed to a magazine geared toward publishers and editors. He got advice on everything from layouts to postal regulations. Modern Drummer’s address was listed as Nutley, New Jersey, which is where Ron lived. His basement became the MD office, and he laid out the first few issues himself on his Ping-Pong table.

But MD didn’t remain a one-man operation for long. After the first issue appeared, Spagnardi received letters from a number of writers and professional drummers who wanted to contribute.

And in the third issue, he ran a notice, “Correspondents Wanted,” inviting drummer-writers to apply for freelance reporting assignments. Over the next few issues, the bylines of several writers who would contribute a lot during MD’s early years (some of whom still write for the magazine) began to appear. Many of the columns were being written by prominent drummers and educators, including David Garibaldi, Mel Lewis, Charley Perry, and Roy Burns.

The magazine grew quickly, in terms of both subscribers and advertising. After the third issue came out, Spagnardi put his music store up for sale so he could devote all of his time to Modern Drummer, which was also growing in size. The fifth issue jumped to thirty-six pages, the next issue was forty-four, and the one after that was fifty-two. But the extra pages were not just filled with ads; the articles were longer, and there were more of them.

Karen Larcombe was added to the staff as features editor starting with the seventh issue (July 1978), which also included the first MD article by this writer. That issue featured the magazine’s first color cover photo, of Ed Shaughnessy. A couple of weeks after it came out, Buddy Rich appeared on The Tonight Show, and right before he did a duet with Shaughnessy, who was the house drummer on the show, Johnny Carson held up a copy of MD with Ed’s cover story.

MD scored a major coup with its December ’81/January ’82 cover story on Ringo Starr. The former Beatle was about to release a new album, and Musician magazine had been promised the only interview he was going to give. In the meantime, MD contributor Robyn Flans had established a connection with Starr’s good friend Jim Keltner, who was a fan of MD and encouraged Ringo to give an interview and pose for exclusive photos (all of this unknown by the publicist). Ringo’s MD cover story came out just a couple of weeks before Musician hit the stands, with a standard promo shot of the drummer on the cover. People started paying a lot more attention.

Another milestone was reached at the beginning of the third year: Modern Drummer went from quarterly to bimonthly. And two issues later, the masthead was listing a new address; MD had moved out of Spagnardi’s basement and into an office building in Clifton, New Jersey. By the end of the fourth year MD was over a hundred pages, and by 1981 nine issues were being published per year.

That fifth year of publication saw some other significant changes. Scott K. Fish was hired as managing editor late in 1980, and in April ’81 I was named features editor when Larcombe left. Ron now had an all-drummer editorial staff, and while he had created a detailed list of guidelines for the editors and writers to follow, his philosophy about what MD should be was perhaps best summed up when he told us, “We need to put out a magazine that, as drummers, we would want to read ourselves.”

This was an exciting time to work for MD. The magazine had been accepted and embraced by the drum community, and whereas in the early days writers had to explain to drummers what the publication was in order to be granted interviews, by 1981 publicists and record companies were calling MD to request stories about their artists. And while drummers had always experienced a certain brotherhood that didn’t always exist in other instrumental groups, Modern Drummer fostered even more of a family feeling.

Spagnardi insisted that MD maintain a good balance of drummers from every genre, and he especially wanted us to cover the legendary jazz players, many of whom were still working. The early ’80s saw cover stories on (among others) Buddy Rich, Louie Bellson, Elvin Jones, Max Roach, Tony Williams, Philly Joe Jones, Shelly Manne, and Joe Morello, along with Steve Gadd, Phil Collins, Charlie Watts, Max Weinberg, Hal Blaine, and such up-and-coming drummers as Simon Phillips, Terry Bozzio, Kenny Aronoff, Stewart Copeland, Dave Weckl, and Vinnie Colaiuta.

MD went monthly in 1983, which also saw the launch of the Modern Drummer book division. As part of his emphasis on education, Ron wanted to publish method books, and we got off to a great start with Joe Morello’s Master Studies, which was a result of the “family” that MD was creating. Danny Gottlieb, who was then with the Pat Metheny Group, had become a good friend of the magazine, and when we told him we were interested in publishing some educational material, he told us that his teacher, Morello, had a whole briefcase filled with exercises he had created. Gottlieb connected us with Morello, and Master Studies was the result. That book was soon followed by releases from Bob Moses, Gary Chester, Carl Palmer, and Bill Bruford. MD also published a book by Spagnardi, The Great Jazz Drummers, which provided short profiles of sixty-two influential players.

Scott Fish left MD in the summer of 1983, to be replaced by Rick Van Horn, who had been contributing a column on club drumming. Shortly after, the editorial staff expanded again with the hiring of William F. Miller as an associate editor. The magazine was continuing to grow, and in the fall of 1984 Modern Drummer moved into its own building in Cedar Grove, New Jersey. Another major event that year was the launch of Modern Percussionist, a quarterly magazine that covered such topics as mallet-keyboard percussion, symphonic percussion, drum corps and marching percussion, and world percussion. Twelve issues were published over three years, and they have become highly sought-after collectors’ items.

Besides being on the cutting edge of the drumming community, Modern Drummer was also at the forefront of the publishing industry. Art director Dave Creamer became very interested in the new technology of desktop publishing. He produced the last two issues of Modern Percussionist in-house on a Macintosh computer, and then began producing Modern Drummer the same way, making it one of the first national magazines to be desktop published. (Creamer was written up in Folio magazine, which is aimed at editors and publishers, for his pioneering efforts.)

MD celebrated its tenth year of publication with a special issue featuring interviews with four MD Hall of Fame drummers (Buddy Rich, Neil Peart, Steve Gadd, and Louie Bellson) and six recent Readers Poll winners. It was the last major published interview with Rich, who died just over a year later. That issue also contained Modern Drummer’s first “Sound Supplement”—a flexible record attached to the magazine’s binding. It featured drummer Andy Newmark and studio expert Jimmy Bralower demonstrating how various drum sounds were achieved in the studio.

Roy Burns, who was on the cover of MD’s second issue and went on to write a popular column for the magazine called Concepts, recalls the impact MD had on the drumming community. “For the first time, there was a magazine devoted just to drummers,” Burns says. “For years we had put up with drummer jokes and put-downs, as though we weren’t real musicians. So Modern Drummer made us feel legitimate and released us from that feeling of frustration. The psychological impact on drummers of having our own magazine was very great, especially during the first ten years. It gave us something to be proud of. Also, it wasn’t just a place to show off drummers; it was a place where drummers could learn, get inspiration and ideas, and read the ideas of famous drummers who were interviewed. Modern Drummer gave an insight into the professional end of the business that had never existed before. Other magazines have copied the format, but nothing had the impact of those first issues of Modern Drummer, which made drummers proud of being drummers.”

Rick Mattingly served as features editor of Modern Drummer from 1981 to 1985, senior editor from 1985 to 1989, and editor of Modern Percussionist.