Bill Bruford

By Michael Shore

Bill Bruford has never attained the widespread fame of Carl Palmer or Billy Cobham. But whenever Bruford’s name is mentioned, it is almost invariably prefaced by the term “drummer extraordinaire” or “precise percussionist.” Bruford, through a not-quite-ten year career, has consistently demonstrated an ability to bring rhythmic crispness and sophistication to some of the most complex and demanding arrangements in contemporary music.Born in Kent County, in the vicinity of London, England, May 17, 1949, Bill joined Yes as a charter member in 1969 after three days with the blues group Savoy Brown. Bill stayed with Yes for four years, leaving after the “Close To The Edge” album, before Yes became a gigantic commercial property. He moved to King Crimson, where his gift for syncopation was explored to the full. When that band broke up in 1974, he shuffled around the music scene, and in the past four years has played with: Roy Harper, an English singer/songwriter; French jazz-rock hand Gong; sessions with Yes members Steve Howe and Chris Squire, as well ax American band Pavlov’s Dog; and tours with Genesis (1976) and jazz-rock band National Health (1977). This year he released a solo album, and is currently involved with the band U.K. (who toured the U.S. this summer).

MS: Why don’t we start with the drum kit you’re using now. Is it another hybrid, like the one you had on the Genesis tour?

BB: I suppose so. I have a Hayman hanging tom, two Roto Toms, and a Ludwig bass, snare, and floor tom.

MS: I remember the one you had with Genesis; two Ludwig toms with a smaller Hayman (defunct company) tom in between, so that when you rolled around the toms the sound would get higher in the middle instead of progressing downward, as usual.

BB: Yes. There is this conception that one should go into a store and get an entire kit, right? Especially in America you see that; just get a shop window kit. In Europe and England there’s a looser attitude toward the set up. One might start out with a marimba and a snare drum. It’s a much healthier attitude. I f the rest of the world is going “brrrrr-bum” on a conventional kit, you sound that much more unique.

MS: Do you still use the splash cymbal atop the crash?

BB: I still have it. A cymbal stand can hold more than one cymbal. It’s more convenient for me, the way I play.

MS: How about the percussion rack you had with Genesis? Do you still use that?

BB: Yes, I brought it along but so far, haven’t used it that much.

MS: What have you got on it?

BB: Well, let’s see … some woodblocks, three small Swiss bells, three untuned metal plates which have a sort of anvil-bell tone, two small Roto toms, a Paiste gong, some triangles and small Paiste cymbals. Just a lot of miscellaneous percussive items.

MS: On the Genesis tour you had a strange cymbal atop the rack, bent up on one side like a hat brim. It’s the one you used with King Crimson on “One More Red Nightmare” to get that very dry, china-type sound.

BB: That one broke after a while. We found it in a rehearsal room, in the dustbin. I guess the drummer in the group there before us screwed it up and threw it away. It was a cheap Zilket ride. The sound was perfect for the song we were doing then. Its sound was peaking, and then it got worse and worse. It was bent and cracked. I clamped it down pretty tight to get that dry sound, so consequently it just died after a while. It did sound great though, one better than a Chinese cymbal.

MS: Any particular reason why you use the drums you do?

BB: As far as the Ludwigs go I thought they made the best drum going. But I could never afford a whole set. I had an old Hayman kit lying around so I just mixed and matched them as the mood took me. The Roto Toms have a really great kit sound, very pure and bright. I’m using a 14″ and an 18″. Strangely enough the 14 puts out a lot more sound. I’ve got this duff head on the 18, a pinstripe head, and I can’t get any power out of it.

MS: I believe those heads were made for the heavy, session sound; they have a reinforcement around the edge to take out all the overtones.

BB: God, I hate that session sound, so flat and middle range. Ever since Ringo Starr they’ve been doing it. Rock drummers are so damned conventional it’s ridiculous.

MS: You’ve always had a very unconventional sound, very bright tom-tom, and that incredibly crisp snare sound. How do you do it?

BB: Well, I tune all my drums pretty high, sort of a jazz tuning. I like the sound of a highly tuned drum. On a slack tuned drum you lose all the finer notes. A lot has to do with production in the studio like turning up the high end on the mixing board. I get the same sort of sound live, too. It must be in the way I hit them. Possibly, when I started out with Yes, I developed a technique using streams of rim shots or something to compensate for an underamplified kit.

MS: That popping snare sound is like a rim shot too, but tighter.

BB: Yes, it is definitely a rim shot. I tune the top head high, and the snare head a little lower. I have two basic notes on the snare: the rim shot and the softer, regular snare sound. Perhaps if I were a better drummer I’d have more.

MS: How about your cymbals? You use Paiste, right?

BB: Yes. They’re a good company and really stand by their product. They have a very clean, bright sound and cut through amplification very well.

“God, I hate that session sound, so flat and middle range. Ever since Ringo Starr they’ve been doing it. Rock drummers are so damned conventional it’s ridiculous.”

MS: What sizes and types do you use?

BB: I have a whole garage full of cymbals. There are a couple of 16″ thin crashes, a 20″ medium ride with about ten rivets in it, 15″ Sound Edge hi-hats, and the 11″ splash. I’ve been using the riveted ride a lot lately. I dug it out of the garage for my solo album but I’ll probably get tired of it soon and put another one up there.

You know, I always thought a drum was just a shell with skin over it. The sound lies with the drummer, not the drum. It’s much healthier to take the European approach rather than the American, as far as setting up is concerned. People in America are very surprised when you use anything other than a traditional kit. An individualized sound has to follow naturally from using a more unique kit. With Genesis I had a triangle hanging off the ride cymbal, splash atop the crash, different tom toms, and the rack with all these odd little things on it. We don’t all have to do the same thing. Because the usual rock drummers are so conventional, the audiences expect less of them, and the whole thing gets limited. And the advent of disco and punk rock certainly hasn’t helped. All disco did was send hi-hat stock up a few hundred points.

MS: What about tuned percussion? You used a lot of it on your solo album.

BB: I’m by no means proficient on tuned percussion yet. I’m still a beginner. But it’s a great thing for a drummer to learn. I play piano as well as vibes, glockenspiel, and so on. It’s terribly important for a drummer to learn an instrument like piano. Piano is a percussive instrument. You can gain a wider perspective by learning a tuned instrument. You become aware of how other musicians think. You find that other musicians are intensely bored by what turns a drummer on. And since drums are almost invariably part of a group, it helps to appreciate other musicians.

MS: Do you approach kit drums as an instrument in a similar fashion?

BB: I try to. I don’t know how well I succeed at it. I like to take a questioning approach; how will the bass player react to these notes? If I were in his shoes, would I want the drum part played this way?

MS: You use the matched grip, right?

BB: Yes. I never could do it the other way. I couldn’t get enough power with the traditional grip. I have a very weak, technically incorrect left hand grip, which may figure into that snare drum sound. Perhaps because it’s looser it can resonate more.

MS: What sort of musical training did you have?

BB: Well, I started banging around on the drums at the age of 12 or 13. A few years later I took two hours tuition a week with Lou Pacock of the Royal Philharmonic. I also studied with John Marshall for a while. My real musical training began when I learned piano. It’s the only thing I can compose a song on. I like to think that my musical education has never stopped and never will. There’s so much to learn!

MS: Are you at all satisfied with your playing?

BB: Not really, no. I suppose I’ve gotten a bit more sure of myself, a bit more adult, but there are still so many things that I can’t do on a drum kit!

MS: You’re generally regarded as a “drummer’s drummer” type.

BB: I can’t see why. It certainly couldn’t be because of chops. I guess it’s because of the beats I use. It’s something I’ve always been attracted to. You know Aynsley Dunbar?

MS: I know of him.

BB: He’s with Journey now and in my opinion, not playing his best. Ten years ago in London, with his own blues groups, he was fabulous! I would drive miles to see Aynsley, not for his special technique, just the beats he used and the feel of his playing.

MS: What other drummers have you admired?

BB: I’m mainly into jazz drummers. Jack DeJohnette, Jon Christensen, Tony Williams. Almost any decent jazz drummer has to be better than any rock drummer, simply because jazz is a more challenging area of music. U.K. toured with Al DiMeola and he’s got a couple of fine young men with him. I can’t remember their names, but they’re both young. One guy on kit, another on Latin percussion. They really cook. Plus he has a keyboard player who doubles on marimba. I think in ten years time you’ll see a lot of people demanding that their percussionist be able to handle tuned percussion. To that I say, great!

MS: Could you cite any influences on your style?

BB: I’ve been influenced by everyone I’ve ever heard. I went through that thing of being amazed by Buddy Rich on snare drum chops and all that, but you have to realize there’s more to drumming than that. I guess my biggest influence and the guy who turned my head totally around,was Jamie Muir, who was with us in King Crimson for a while.

Muir’s direction was totally opposite from mine. I am a technique, precision drummer and Jamie, a free form improvising percussionist. God, did he open my eyes. Jamie saw above and beyond chops. He was into the color of the music, the tone, and being intuitive about it. He had this thing called “the industrial drum kit,” which was treated with chains and steel plates on the drums. They had such an incredible sound, we didn’t know how to record it. We used it on “Larks Tongues In Aspic (Part 1),” the really fast free-meter part in the middle. All our conceptions of a good drum sound went right out the window.

MS: How does your use of woodblocks and bells contrast with Muir’s?

BB: He has a better sense of flow. I need to be more intuitive. I need to loosen up. I’ve gone pretty far up the road with the precision thing. Like, Crimson would do an improvised thing and I’d do a “tick” on a block, and it just couldn’t come out loose or imprecise.

MS: Isn’t precision important?

BB: Yes, but doesn’t it get tiresome after awhile? With woodblocks and bells, I really like the Latin effect of multipercussion…five pairs of hands all playing basic figures, slightly out of sync. It has a liquid effect which I like. I feel I’m very solid, as opposed to liquid and flowing, so I really wouldn’t mind being more intuitive.

MS: Do you think of yourself as a conventional rock drummer?

BB: I am a rock drummer, but I don’t like most rock drummers. They tune the heads slack. They plod and are unimaginative. I love jazz. Tony Williams knocks me out. The feel is always there. I suppose my highest aim right now is to surprise Allan Holdsworth (U.K.’s guitarist, who has played with Tony Williams) as much as he was surprised by Tony Williams. My style is somewhat in the grey area between rock and jazz, which suits me for now. But there are many areas to get into. Improvising percussion interests me a lot. There’s a guy called Frank Perry in London who plays with Keith Tippet. He’s kind of like Jamie Muir was, a very spiritual player. He has this wild kit with tuned glasses and things. I just saw him in London a while back and he was very good.

MS: How do you feel about the big jazzrock drummers, like Billy Cobham, or the flashier players like Carl Palmer?

BB: Well, they’re very talented and skilled. I think Cobham’s music has gone downhill. He’s a bit self-indulgent, but God can he play! I’ve never been into doing flashy things on the drums. I don’t think of myself as a flashy player, and that suits me fine. I’d rather be economical.

I like to think I have as much technique as I need. I find the feeling that a musician is holding back attractive. The feeling that something is there and could come out in little bits at any moment is quite attractive to me.

MS: Have you always used wooden drums?

BB: Except for the chrome snare, which is usually 14 X 6 1/2 , I use wood. I like the sound, it’s as simple as that.

MS: What do you think of the electronic devices that have recently come out, like Syndrums?

BB: I’ve been so busy that I haven’t heard them too much. They’re about fourth or fifth on my list of things to do, actually. First I have to learn to play kit drums better, then there’s piano, tuned percussion, composing, and then electronics.

MS: Have you ever used double bass drums?

BB: No, I never liked that idea. I think it clutters up the bottom too much. Drumming, like music, is about spaces. Besides, I think I can do what I have to with one bass drum.

MS: Are you into drum solos at all?

BB: No, not really. There’s only so much you can do. They can be a real pain. It’s like practicing before an audience. You just go “bimp,” “bom,” “bop,” around and around, faster and slower, vary the tempo, do some crossovers, some alternate-hand sticking. It’s just a show of technique. If the music specifically calls for some sort of percussion solo spot it’s appropriate. Massed percussion sections can be nice. Twenty-five Ghanan drummers can be pretty fierce. Or a tuned percussion section.

MS: Then you see the drums as basically an accompanying instrument?

BB: In most cases I suppose so. But tuned percussion can be blended into ensembles for the rhythmic-melodic thing.

MS: There’s a lot of that on Thirty Years. Not tuned percussion, but rhythmmelodies, as you call it.

BB: Everybody says that right off. It’s a deceptively simple process, the way we did that. It just sounds complex and impossible. We started off with a beat and meter. Then we added a melody that fit with it; the synthesizer line goes between the beats in there. We took out the original drum line and worked in a new one based on the third line. I forgot to mention the guitarbass riff; we get a drum part, the bass and the melody. The drum part emerges from what’s come before. Actually it’s two or three steps removed from where it started.

MS: You play drums the same way. There’s definitely some sort of sense about your playing; a style that seems effortless and simple, but reveals complexities upon closer inspection.

BB: That’s my way of reflecting myself through the drums. I don’t like to be imprecise, although I’d like to be less conscious and crafty — more instinctive. That’s the thing with playing the drums, or any instrument. The instrument is this inanimate thing, with no questions, no answers, no excuses, it’s just there. And you sit down and play it and a part of you is reflected. And people stop and say, “Is that what Bill Bruford’s like?” Your personality shows through, you know? I don’t like beating around the bush, or having excess; I like things spare and tight. I like spaces in music, not too much clutter.

MS: You always seem to play meters accurately. Like Thirty Years or Mental Medication, or the woodblock part in Lament by King Crimson.

BB: It all goes back to what I was saying before about economy and spaces in the music. When there are beats hit precisely, and finely, when they’re very clear and sharp, the spaces are felt more firmly between them. You automatically set up the possibility of placing counter-beats between them. There’s much more tension when the spaces are there.

MS: I hadn’t thought of tension, but there is an alertness to your playing.

BB: There’s plenty of times I’ve looked back and realized I wasn’t as alert as I might have been . . . rushed beats and so on. You have to be alert in many ways. Tensed up isn’t the right word, but prepared, you know? Physically, you have to have coordination and timing. Psychologically you must be prepared to deal with the process of making music, and inject personality into it. All the time you have to remain totally committed to the music. It’s difficult. I don’t know if people realize that. Being able to accept your own faults is a big part of it. So I can look back at something I did that felt tight or I didn’t particularly like, and by acceptance, change it, my music and myself in the process.

MS: How long will U.K. last?

BB: As far as I can see, it’ll last forever. But I can’t see too much beyond tomorrow. That’s my trouble.

MS: Any words of advice to drummers out there?

BB: Get serious. Find out how committed you are to learning all about the instrument. Find out if you can even think of it that way. You might be an incredible genius, like Tony Williams, and find out that you don’t have to sweat blood doing rudiments and all that. But you probably wouldn’t find that out for a couple of years. Basically, work is its own reward. If you are into it, the work justifies itself. Your work and your playing will show you something about yourself. Work and learn. That’s what I’ve been doing, and what I’ll continue to do.