by Susan Alexander
Guerin is one of the busiest session musicians in Los Angeles, playing record, television and movie recording dates. As the former drummer with the LA Express (a musical cooperative comprised of LA session players) Guerin became recognized among a wider listening audience.The LA Express gained prominence working with Joni Mitchell on her Court and Spark album. The group toured and recorded extensively before disbanding late last year.
“I’m forming a new co-op band that may be called the LA Express or it may have a different name. We are regrouping and hope to have a record out this summer. Victor Feldman and Peter Mauner will be a part of it. I may replace the tenor sax as a lead instrument with a synthesizer player.”
Guerin’s basic drum training began “when I was five or six. I started playing on magazines. My uncle played drums. He was an amateur who played with records. I’m self taught. I learned to play with Count Basie records. My experience when learning to play was so diversified, I got a chance to play in big bands, small groups and for dances when I was growing up.”
I asked Guerin about his favorite musicians. “I just remember two or three that stick in my mind. I realized the first time I heard Charlie Parker, that was the kind of music I would like to play. Then Thelonius Monk was my favorite and so on. The feeling that those two people gave me . . . ”
Guerin states that among drummers, “I have a lot of favorites, and one influence that really emotionally hit me has been Buddy Rich, even though I don’t play like him, I like Philly Jo, and Art Blakey, and I really like Tony Williams. There hasn’t been anyone like him since. As far as innovators, it’s Buddy and Tony.”
Every drummer has a different routine for practicing. According to Guerin, “I haven’t practiced in ten or fifteen years. I’m just about to start again. When I was 19, I practiced six hours a day for about three months. I feel a need to do three months of practice; the next three months it does me good. With the LA Express or with the new band I’m forming, one week is enough, and if there’s some technical thing I’m trying to get, I just go to the hotel room and work it out.”
“I FIND THAT IN CERTAIN KINDS OF
MUSIC, YOU’RE LOCKED INTO PLAYING
IT A CERTAIN WAY. I GET VERY BORED
WITH THE PREDICTABILITY OF MUSIC
AT TIMES. AS LONG AS IT’S MY BAND I’M
PUTTING MY TALENT ON THE LINE
WITH, I DON’T WANT TO BE
Many people feel a drummer loses the mental edge quicker than the physical edge during layoffs. Guerin agrees, “I’m convinced that your mental edge is most important. When you get a group and get a magic about a groove, it happens when you are not concentrating on counting. It’s better to relax and let it happen. I’ve gotten much better consistency just by breathing properly.”
How essential is reading music? “I have to read music. I couldn’t work in studios if I didn’t read. It’s really the easiest part of playing. When I joined the George Shearing group with Joe Pass, I wasn’t a disciplined reader. The discipline in that band made both Joe and I good readers. The constant studio work keeps my chops up. When figures come up, you recognize the patterns.
“A lot of people don’t write technically for drums because they don’t know how, so they call on someone to make it happen. I did a whole ballet with Claus Ogerman called Gate of Dreams, and there was his book; there was nothing there except flashes —just stops and starts. You’ve got to be ready for anything in the studio. The music is always written out on TV and movie tracks.”
The set up Guerin prefers for his drums is a “22” bass drum with the front head off, and four tom toms mounted on the bass drum. Two 10″ drums, an 8 X 12, and 9 X 13. The two toms on the floor are 15″ and 16″. I use three cymbals — one ride and two crash, and hi-hats.”
What quality does John look for in a cymbal? “Take a 20″ ride, I like it to have definition with a lot of edge, but at the same time have a darkness to the overall sound. The main thing is that I can dig into the cymbal without having it spread too much.”
Guerin has also been working with Pollard Industries and is very enthusiastic about the new synthesizer drums. “I think they’re an incredible supplement to the drum set and gives the drummer a lot more. The drums can be tuned so they can sustain a sound. You’re not just locked into hitting an acoustic drum. It’s been a big addition as far as making musical statements for me. I’ve used them in a lot of situations in the studio and with a band.
There are many new and varied materials used to make drums today. Which does Guerin prefer? “It’s funny, but there’s one thing I’ve noticed with the advent of electric, as opposed to acoustic bands; the drummer is no longer the overpowering force. Fiberglass and other hard surfaces throw the sound out and make it easier on me. I prefer fiberglass. With a be-bop kind of trip like Joe Farrell, I prefer a 20″ bass with two heads on it, everything tuned very high — and wood drums.”
“I’M CONVINCED THAT YOUR MENTAL
EDGE IS MOST IMPORTANT. WHEN YOU
GET A GROUP AND GET A MAGIC ABOUT
A GROOVE, IT HAPPENS WHEN YOU’RE
NOT CONCENTRATING ON COUNTING.
IT’S BETTER TO RELAX AND LET IT
Drummers sometimes find difficulty with sound reproduction at concerts. To combat this problem, Guerin states, “I hire a sound man that I trust. There’s no way on stage that I can tell what’s getting out to the audience. They may hear what I think is a dynamite set, but they can’t hear the same frequencies due to the different acoustics. You gotta get a sound man with great ears.”
With many studio dates keeping him active, Guerin still finds time to work on his own projects. “I’ve been writing a lot lately with Joni Mitchell, Michael Franks and O.C. Smith. I’m working on a musical with Jay Gruska, who is a very musical pianist, writer and singer. At the same time, I’m developing a band that’s going to stretch out a little more than the LA Express did — be a little more adventurous.”
Having played such a wide variety of music, has Guerin’s playing changed over the years? “It’s changed because of compositions. It’s constantly, subtly changing all the time, and it’s only due to the way music is changing. It’s changed with the advent of the marriage between rock and roll, and jazz. Rock has freed up a lot of my playing, and more and more I like interludes in given compositions to allow me to not play if I don’t feel like it. I play to create effects and moods. I find in certain kinds of music, you’re locked into playing it a certain way. I get very bored with the predictability of music at times. As long as it’s my band I’m putting my talent on the line with, I don’t want to be predictable. There’s a balance there. With instrumental music, we should create a lot of moods, create climaxes and let them down. In order to be commercial, there has to be a show that has a certain amount of calculation in programming tunes, but if you do something all the time, you get bored with it.”