Oh, he can shred—boy, can he shred. But this L.A.-by-way-of-Hungary drummer with rock and fusion greats like Tony MacAlpine and Al Di Meola has visions well beyond technique for its own sake—his ultimate goal is to analyze, understand, and apply.
It’s not every day that we hear about killer fusion drumming coming out of Hungary, but Gergo Borlai is doing his best to change that. The internet has made the world a smaller place, and Borlai ate up all the jazz and rock he could as a youngster, getting knocked out by Harvey Mason and Joe Morello, just as kids in the States have for so many years. What emerged was a player of exceptional power and technical facility.
And Borlai has no shame about playing a style that still gets a bad rap. “Fusion is the perfect music to play,” he says. “It is many music styles that centralize into one style. Isn’t that great? It’s just unfortunate that people have less interest in this type of music—in seeing improvisations, long solos, spontaneity, and a deep presence on stage without ‘acting.’ I don’t think it will change soon.”
Maybe fusion won’t be dominating tomorrow’s radio, but it’s still being made at a high level by the genre’s leading lights. Borlai has worked with artists like Al Di Meola and Hiram Bullock, and is a member of the new group ARC Trio, featuring bassist Jimmy Haslip and keyboardist Scott Kinsey. Their new, self-titled album is a brilliant showcase for Borlai’s musicality and powerhouse fusion drumming skills, and it’s a testament to his abilities that he sounds just fine alongside the big-time guests on a few of the tracks, who are none other than Vinnie Colaiuta and Gary Novak.
Those two legends also helped inspire Borlai’s upcoming solo album project, The Missing Song, where the drummer pays tribute to some of his major influences by playing in their styles. And now, after moving to Los Angeles, he’s as busy as ever. Along with his online course, Practice with Me, and a stacked studio and touring schedule, Borlai is establishing himself as a clinician to catch. One look at his YouTube presence on drum festivals and master classes will send you to the practice room for self-reflection, and have you questioning what’s in the water in Hungary.
MD: Talk about growing up in Hungary. Did the internet break down the walls and give you access to all the great music out there, or was it still a case of things not getting to certain parts of Eastern Europe?
Gergo: Many years before the internet, in Hungary, the only chance to listen to good music was from Western cultures. Either [be] part of a tight clique who smuggled LPs, or [wait] for the weekly jazz radio broadcast [so we could] record what they played onto tapes. I was lucky because my parents were working at the Hungarian National Radio station, both as sound engineers, so they had opportunities to bring things home.
I learned to use my ears very early. And I got a special visual imagination about the musicians, their equipment, and of course the music. When I started to play drums, I was three years old. When I first used the internet, I was twenty years old. So there were seventeen years in between, when I had used my ears and practiced by imagination. Can you imagine when I saw Vinnie [Colaiuta] for the first time in a video? I was fifteen, and it was incredible! My second drum teacher had a huge VHS collection, and he was the only person at that time who had drum videos. We’re talking about the early to mid 1990s.
MD: Who were the drummers that inspired you then, and what records meant the most in your formative years?
Gergo: When I was three, my father played me Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five” with the great Joe Morello. Dad had a hobby band, so they had a very poor drumset. I sat down and I started to play the legendary 5/4 groove instantly. Of course, without ghost notes, fills, etc., but I played it. And during the next couple of weeks I practiced that groove every day, all day, to find the solution to how I could improvise on it.
Later my dad showed me the song “Chameleon” by Herbie Hancock, with Harvey Mason. That one also shocked me, so I did the same. When I got my computer with internet, the first thing I learned was how to search for drummers and their videos or live records. And the first was Vinnie.
I remember when I found Steve Holmes’ HouseOfDrumming.com. This guy made a website specialized for Vinnie. I’ll never forget when I downloaded a two-minute-long video for two days to see Vinnie and how he played. It was phenomenal!
Looking back, when I was younger I didn’t really listen to Hungarian music. It was mostly American jazz, fusion, and rock. Miles, Herbie, Coltrane, Stanley Clarke, Weather Report, Mahavishnu, Zappa, Hendrix, etc. Those pioneers were my real music teachers.
MD: What did you do early on to develop your technique? You certainly have excellent facility with your hands and feet.
Gergo: First of all, we had neighbors who hated drums. So I practiced a lot on pillows with no rebound, and that’s what gave me fast singles and muscles quite early. Second, my dear mom gave me total freedom to do what I wanted, so I practiced as long as I needed. When I got my first practice pad kit, I set it up super uncomfortably to get more power, forcing myself to be more precise between the pads. I would play continuously without any pause for hours.
I was listening to music all the time, but I never transcribed any solos. Of course I played licks, but I never wanted to use full phrases. My goal was to create my own. As for my foot technique, when my mother finally bought me my first serious drumkit, it had a single pedal [set at a] maximum spring tension. I had no idea how to change the tension, and I thought that was normal. So I started to play with that pedal, and I tried to imitate a double pedal as much as I could. I practiced lots of 16th and triplet notes, and my feet became strong. To this day, I set all my pedals to maximum tension.
MD: How do you approach the higher-profile gigs like Tony MacAlpine or playing Zappa’s music, when so many great drummers have preceded you?
Gergo: My dream was to play with the people I was listening to when I was young. Since leaving Hungary and moving to Los Angeles, I have played with many of them. It wasn’t my goal to copy the drummers before me. My focus is the music and to be musical.
The main reason to listen to my heroes was the reactions inside their bands. And I wanted to learn as much as I could, in case I got the chance to play with them. I listened and analyzed a lot, so I could figure out what kind of playing they liked. I’m talking mostly about jazz and fusion music. Tony MacAlpine is a different subject. His music is quite fixed and orchestrated, but he gives me total freedom. Of course, I’m playing those famous drum fills that the songs need, and what people like in his hits, but besides that, I’m doing what I’m doing. I’m trying not to stray from his style. It’s all about taste, I think.
MD: What’s your philosophy on practice?
Gergo: The most important thing, in my opinion, is patience. It’s even more important than to practice technical skills. The other thing is to actually really practice in the practice time. Don’t play—practice. It’s all about filtering the mistakes and creating new ideas by accident or conceptually, or transforming others’ ideas.
When I teach in drum camps, my main lesson is to teach the participants how they can practice, and lots of young people have no idea about that. Some of them are waiting for a miracle or a word that will change their life. There’s no secret. And also, everything is on YouTube. Everybody can instantly find what they’re looking for. The only thing they can’t find is the time to practice. That’s why I made my online course, Practice with Me, which is about building your practice technically and physically. The lessons are around twenty minutes each, because no one has the patience to watch something five to eight hours long.
When I’m in my studio, I pretty much do the same thing. I’m playing easy things without any thinking, just to warm up. And then I start trying to play things I haven’t played before, risking everything. That’s what practice means to me.
MD: How do you feel about clinics in 2018? Are people receptive?
Gergo: Good question. For many years, people were receptive. These days, I’m not really sure. It depends on the country. I’ve done clinics in some countries where it was a new thing, and I was one of the first to do clinics there. It was such an honor. But honestly, for me these days it’s more about the performing again. Of course there are some clinicians who are more educators, which is good, but for a drummer like myself, it’s more about the performance.
It also depends on the audiences. Once I did a clinic for around fifty students in a music school, and there were only two drummers. So I didn’t talk about quintuplets or polyrhythm. But I could talk about how to develop a good rhythm section, or the communication between the soloists and the drummer, or about the humility of playing behind a singer. Of course, people love to see chops. If they call someone who has chops, they want to see it closely.
MD: What do you see as clinic trends for the future?
Gergo: What the focus of drum clinics in the future will be, I can’t say. The world is so fast these days; every day a new amazing kid drummer comes along, and they get an endorsement instantly. I was thirty when I got my first endorsement contract. But musicality has faded into the background. I miss the spontaneity, the humility of music. But the world is different, so I have to accept that. I like the drum camps, though. I like to work with people and build something note by note for hours and see them sweat.
MD: For your upcoming solo album, The Missing Song, what inspired you to play in the style of your heroes?
Gergo: My main idea was to make a tribute album about nine living American drummers who inspired me. I always wanted to make an album where I’m playing in my heroes’ style. Why not? It’s not difficult to figure out who they are: Billy Cobham, Terry Bozzio, Kirk Covington, Dennis Chambers, Vinnie Colaiuta, Steve Gadd, Peter Erskine, Keith Carlock, and Gary Novak.
I set up my drums very similarly to what they used on my favorite album of theirs. I tuned them as they did. I played as close as possible to how they played. The “missing song” means it’s the missing song that I imagined they would play. For example, there’s Zappa’s Joe’s Garage. I wish he had more songs on that album. So I wrote one. Of course, my touch is different. And why would I use a lot of 32nd notes with double pedal in the Keith Carlock song if he never did? Why would I use two Chinas in the Vinnie song if he didn’t on Joe’s Garage?
It was a great journey during the recording. I couldn’t imagine that I would write a tune where I only used a crash, a ride, and a hi-hat.
MD: Did you learn something from the process?
Gergo: I was thinking a lot about what this album could mean for a new generation. Well, it’s partly music history. Tons of young people have no idea where certain styles of playing come from. First of all, they don’t care. It’s okay—they want to do what they want to do; they want to go further. But I don’t think it’s a good idea to associate a style to a drummer who’s only a third-generation copy of the original.
MD: How do you prepare for studio work? Are early takes the best?
Gergo: I grew up as a first-take guy. I’ve been working in studios since age twelve. I’ve recorded more than five hundred albums as a drummer, producer, orchestrator, sound designer, music director. I’m pretty well versed with every aspect of studio work. It depends on my role at the time. There are many situations when the first take is important, but of course, often, repeated takes have their benefits. I always want to be mindful and tasteful. If it’s needed, I’m able to help create grooves, fix structures, or improvise. I came from jazz. My first six years of studio work was with analog tape. So there were many situations where I had to be quick and play my best to be able to use the first take. I also learned to read music quite late.
MD: Do you chart everything?
Gergo: I love to communicate with the musicians, and I pretty much learn the material with my ears. Fortunately I have perfect pitch, and this capability gives me good memory. But sometimes I have situations where it would be impossible to play without charts.
MD: How do you deal with different live rooms and changing monitors and backlines?
Gergo: Well, I grew up in Hungary, where I played thousands of concerts with the worst wedges and backline kits, or just simply without any monitor system. Since I play mostly in good technical conditions these days and use ear monitors, these problems don’t really exist anymore. But no matter what disastrous technical problems I’m facing, I don’t panic.
MD: What’s in your future?
Gergo: First of all, I want to practice more than ever, just to better myself. I also want to direct my focus more on the actual music, and I want to create something new. I want to discover how I can instantly play what is in my head. I love writing songs, designing sounds.
I also want to be a better sound engineer. The Missing Song is the first album I mixed by myself. In the future I want to be braver and more experimental with my music and with the mixing. But besides that, I’m still a dreamer. I still want to play with Sting, Jeff Beck, McLaughlin, Herbie. Also, it would be great to play in a band like Foo Fighters or Nine Inch Nails or Filter.
MD: And where does drumming go from here? Do we return to organic sounds? Or are dance music and hip-hop here to dominate for a while?
Gergo: Very good question. Organic sounds will always exist. Electronic or dance music is still the future, but at the same time, the updated retro also works well. Just like what happened with drums—everybody used the traditional sizes for forty years, and then the long toms and kick drums came out. In the 2000s, long bass drums, super short toms. Now companies are selling the traditional sizes again. A similar thing can happen with the music. People who are born with natural talent for their instrument will have to use it. And I hope the time will come soon when the audience will appreciate genuine, organic music again. It’s worth it.
Drums: Gretsch USA Custom
• 6.5×14 wood snare, Dunnett Gergo Borlai signature model
• 8×12 tom
• 9×13 tom
• 14×14 floor tom
• 16×16 floor tom
• 18×18 floor tom
• 18×22 bass drum
• 14″ Formula 602 Classic Sound Edge hi-hats
• 20″ Formula 602 Classic Thin crash
• 18″ Formula 602 Classic Paperthin crash
• 22″ Formula 602 Classic Thin crash
• 18″ PST X Swiss Medium crash/18″ Signature Thin China (stack)
• 24″ Formula 602 Classic Medium ride
• 22″ Formula 602 Modern Essentials China
• 4.5″, 5.5″, 6″, 6.5″ 2002 Cup Chimes
Heads: Remo, including a Controlled Sound Coated snare batter; Ambassador X Coated tom batters (studio) or Emperor Vintage Clears (live); Powerstroke P3 Coated bass drum batter
Sticks: Vic Firth American Classic 5A and 55A
Hardware: DW 9000 Series boom stands, additional cymbal holders, throne, snare stand, 2-leg hi-hat stand, and double bass drum pedal
Accessories: SlapKlatz drum damper gels, Drum Wallet snare dampener (studio), JH Audio in-ear monitors, QSC TouchMix-30 32-input digital mixer with Logic (“to record myself in my studio”), GEWA SPS drum cases