Alan Gratzer

REO Speedwagon’s Alan Gratzer

Story by Susan Alexander

Photos by John Lee

REO drummer Alan Gratzer was born in Syracuse, New York, and almost immediately displayed an interest in drums. After bugging his parents for a couple of years to get him a kit, they gave in and got him a toy set. At the age of seven, he had his first lessons. From there he progressed into rock and roll bands in high school.While at the University of Illinois in Champaign, he teamed up with keyboard player Neal Doughty and started playing gigs around school. This partnership soon became REO Speedwagon.

Twelve years and eleven albums later, REO is one of the fastest rising rock bands in the land. Their hard rocking music has won them a large audience as evidenced by their sold-out concerts and large record sales.

SA: You’ve been with the band about 12 years now. How do you keep it fresh working with the same people?

AG: I’ll tell you, it’s getting easier and easier. There was a point where we were getting bogged down with our records because we weren’t happy with our producers and stuff. Now that we’re producing ourselves, we’re totally in charge creatively.

Gary and Kevin write the songs and they’ve improved as songwriters. I’ve seen them progress over the years. I think they were both great songwriters to begin with, but they’ve progressed even more to the point where our new album, Hi Infidelity, has a 3/4 ballad on it. It has another ballad, an early sixties-feel type of old-time rock and roll song, plus it has lots of good REO-type rhythm tracks and songs.

Right now I feel more excited about the band than ever because I think that the songs on our new album are real, real strong and we’re happy with the way the production and everything is turning out. At this point, I can’t imagine being am not in REO, what other band would I want to be in?” I’ve worked too hard on this band to get as far as we have and I just want to see it do well, and keep doing well, and do better. It’s real creative to me.

SA: Speaking of producing, I’ve known producers who, after mixing a record on those big studio monitors, will take the dub down to their car and listen to it. If it sounds good there, then they know it’s going to sound good on the radio.

AG: Yeah. We mix on three different sets of speakers. In the studio, we have the regular studio monitors which are huge, and then we mix on JBL studio monitors. They’re basically a 12″ woofer and a midrange horn and a tweeter. Those studio monitors are pretty well accepted as being the state of the art—not too big and not too small. But, we also mix on Auratone speakers which are just little cubes that reproduce what you would hear in a fairly decent car or home situation. We’ll mix it on the JBL’s and then play it on the real little ones at a barely audible volume just to make sure the balance is right. You can tell balances much easier when the volume is real low. Then just for the sake of hearing how everything is blasting, you can put it through the big ones, but that’s usually just to impress somebody.

SA: How do you reconcile the fact that the record company is alway saying, “You’ve got to make hits; you’ve got to sell records; this isn’t commercial enough.” Do you run into that much?

AG: Yeah, we definitely do, but as far as being commercial, we’re probably an FM album-oriented type group. We have been over the years. The new album may prove me wrong. If we do have a hit, to me, boy that’s icing on the cake. That’s something we’ve come close to. We’ve had some top-twenty, almost top-ten singles, but it would be great to have a number one single. It would just put us over the hump.

SA: Do you enjoy producing?

Alan GratzerAG: Oh, absolutely. I love it. I haven’t thought about producing anyone else, but producing ourselves is a real treat. We went so many years having conflicts with outside producers. With Gary and Kevin, the two guitar players/singers, and our engineer, Kevin Beamish, and me producing the records, it’s rewarding and interesting and it’s fun. I really enjoy doing it.

SA: Did you find it hard getting a drum sound on record that you liked and were really happy with?

AG: That’s always a problem. I use Ludwig drums and I have almost always used Ludwig. I started out with Ludwig and I experimented and tried other ones, but I never was happy with them and I came back to Ludwig all-wood drums.

Actually on this record, we ended up using six or seven of the rhythm tracks that are first or second or third takes. They are real straight ahead with a live feeling and so we didn’t spend a lot of time on drum sounds. We spent maybe twenty minutes, a half hour at the most.

Usually, when we’re making a record, we go in and spend the first day getting the drum sounds, and it’s a long process. But I think this says something for Ludwig drums and for the natural sound that they have, because the drum sounds are real good and we didn’t do a lot to get them. I basically put them up the way I have them set for playing live, with a little muffling, but pretty much the same. I think they sound real, real good.

SA: How do you mike them? Do you do it the same way for the studio as you do for a live gig?

AG: Sometimes. Over the years I’ve gone through the myriad of miking changes. We’ve tried every kind of microphone in every kind of position. But I find that usually we end up miking the tom-toms on top. I mike the snare drum on the top and on the bottom. You get the crack of the stick plus the snares. We do that live, too. We’ve been doing that for years and years and, to me, you can’t get a real good snare sound unless it’s miked on the top and bottom.

SA: How did you become interested in drums?

AG: I got my first little toy set of drums when I was about five years old. I bugged my parents for a couple of years before that. I wanted some drums and they got me one of those little toy sets of Davy Crockett drums. I broke all the heads the first day. But they looked neat under the tree while they lasted.

I continued playing and I took lessons when I was about seven or eight. I just had regular rudimental lessons. Nothing spectacular, but it carried me through, and in junior high, I was in the concert band. In high school, I didn’t join anything organized. I started rock-and-rolling when I was in high school and I was in different bands.

SA: Who did you take lessons from?

AG: No one in particular. I lived in Syracuse, New York and I don’t even remember who it was; some grade school teacher and the same in junior high. Basically, I’m self taught. I learned by going downstairs when I came home from school, turning the stereo on, putting on about four albums, and playing until it was time to eat dinner. My mother was very tolerant, so I was lucky.

I never think about the rudiments anymore. I drum more by feel; and by what I’ve learned over the years listening to other drummers, and just playing myself. From lessons I learned the importance of meter and time, and stuff like that. But when I do a roll, I don’t think that I’m doing a paradiddle or a five-count roll or anything like that. I’m more of a feel drummer.

Alan GratzerSA: Do you practice everyday?

AG: I try to play everyday just to keep loose and keep my wrists working.

SA: What kind of practice routine do you go through?

AG: Nothing in particular. I usually concentrate and make sure my left hand is still working. I broke my left wrist when I was about 12 or 13 and it’s never been quite as loose as my right one, so I just keep it moving, but nothing specific. I usually just try to play straight rolls as fast as possible—build up to that.

SA: Do you prefer practicing on a pad or would you rather play on the real thing?

AG: I would rather practice on drums, but I don’t mind practicing on a pad. It’s real easy. You can sit there and just work on your wrists and I enjoy doing that, but if I can sit down and play, that’s okay, too. If you want to practice solos and stuff like that, then that’s what you should do. I’ve been playing the drums for so long that if I took three months off and didn’t sit down, I could still go and sit down and it would feel pretty much the same. As long as I kept loose in between.

SA: We might as well run down your equipment now.

AG: Okay. I have three shell-mounted tom toms—a 10″, a 13″ and a 14″. I have an 18″ floor tom, a 24″ bass drum and I use a 6 1/2″ deep snare drum. Actually, I have five sets of drums and all of them are varied, but that’s basically the kit that I’m using now and the one that I pretty much stuck with for the last few years. I have the extra deep tom-toms and the extra deep bass drum so I get more projection live, and it makes them even bigger sounding. I like the drums to sound as big as possible and fat. Every drummer is going for fat. I want my snare drum to be fat. It’s always hard to get crack and still make it fat.

SA: I notice that you have double heads on your drums.

AG: I do on this set that I just got. When you take the bottom head off, you’re usually looking for more loudness; more projection. But these are so deep and so big and rich sounding, that I have the bottom heads on them. I think you get a better tone when you have the bottom head on. If it’s possible to keep it on, I will, but I find that a lot of times you can’t hear yourself at all, even though you’re coming through a bank of monitors.

SA: Is there a big difference between playing a gig for 20,000 people than it is for a smaller audience?

AG: No, because you look out and you can see maybe the first ten or twenty rows and other than that, you’re oblivious to the rest of the people. You know that you’re playing for all of the people and you have to sound good and you’re making sure that the PA is projecting well. We have a guy who has mixed us for a long time. We couldn’t part with him because he does such a good job.

SA: Is that true for playing outdoors as opposed to playing in a closed-in place?

AG: Yeah, outdoors different elements come into play like humidity, the weather, and stuff like that, and they usually wreak havoc with tuning of the drums and tuning of the other instruments.

SA: If you were in the market for some new drums, what would you look for?

AG: I have tried fiberglass drums and every sort of plastic-coated wood drums and I find that just plain wood is the richest, most resonant drum. Not necessarily for a snare drum, but for tomtoms and bass drum and everything like that. They have a deeper, richer, more resonant sound, and I haven’t been able to find that in anything but wood drums. I’m totally sold on wood. I just got a new set of Ludwigs with The Set-Up. It’s their new interlocking this and that. They’re real interested to see how much I like them, and I love them. They sound great and I just added another tom-tom because they sounded so good. I used to play with just two shellmounts and one on the floor, a pretty businesslike kit, but I added one more shell-mounted tom-tom.

SA: What do you think of multiple-drum setups?

AG: I don’t think a lot of them. I don’t see the point. If you’re in a three-piece band or something where the drummer is playing a couple of solos a night and getting spotlighted, then you need something, but I tend to keep it small and compact. Even though my drums are a little bit oversized, I do that for tone, not for show. I don’t play a lot of solos or anything like that. I don’t need that many tom-toms.

SA: Many drummers have expressed the idea that the fewer drums one has, the more creative one tends to be.

AG: Exactly. It’s real easy when you have a rack of tom-toms to start at the top and just do a roll all the way around. It’s a little too easy and obvious to me.

SA: What about electronic drums, have you used any?

AG: No, I haven’t really. I’ve been very close to doing it in the studio, but we’ve never been quite that electronic. Our keyboard player plays synthesizer and I think that’s about as electronic as we want to get. We try to remain as pure as possible and not get carried away.

SA: There seem to be few people who really know how to use them. Most people seem to use them just for “Star Wars” type of effects. I guess that can create a prejudice against them.

AG: Yeah. They definitely have their place. I’ve heard them used on records where they’re used tastefully and not overdone and they sound real neat. I know that on some of Linda Ronstadt’s records there’s a lot of Syndrum, and I know that the Doobies use them, but they use them so sparingly that it’s nice and tasteful. I think I can appreciate that more than somebody getting carried away.

SA: What is your concept of the drummer’s role in a band like REO, who are, for want of a better word, hard rock?

AG: It’s hard to say exactly. I think mainly keeping the rhythm happening and keeping the time consistent and adding to dynamics. I think the drums are a very integral part because you can do some sort of fill that can definitely add to how exciting a song can be. I think that in our type of music, which is very exciting live, it’s really good high-energy rock and roll and the drums are very, very important. I may be prejudiced.

SA: You sing through an overhead mike?

Alan GratzerAG: Yes. I have an overhead boom stand right above me. I don’t have it there all the time I’m playing. My drum roadie, Motor, is so efficient that it appears the split second before I have to sing. People say to me afterwards, “How does he know exactly when to do that?” He’s real good and he likes to stay on top. That makes it easier for me.

Keith Knudsen has a headset and that seems like it would be more ideal than having a boom stand right in front of your face. You just move your head, plus your arms can swing anywhere they want without worrying about hitting the stand.

SA: What kind of cymbals do you use?

AG: Right now I have a combination of Zildjian and Paiste. I have a Zildjian 20″ ride cymbal because I’ve always had Zildjian ride cymbals. I think they sound real good. I have 15″ Paiste hi-hats and my crash cymbals are Paiste. For the last year or so, I’ve used Paiste because they seem to be more consistent. You can line up about four or five Paistes in a row that are the same size and the same thickness and hit them all and there’s literally no variance. Whereas Zildjian takes pride in the fact that they’re probably a little more handmade, but they’re so inconsistent that you have to try out about 20 of them to find the perfect one. So, I like the way the Paistes sound. They have a nice crash to them. Their crash cymbals are really fast and still brilliant.

SA: I notice that you play with what looks like golf gloves.

AG: They’re tennis gloves. I’ve tried all sorts of gloves and I’ve come to use tennis gloves because they somehow repel the sweat better than golf gloves would. The golf gloves were leather and they would get wet from sweat and get hard as soon as they dried. These are doeskin and terrycloth on the back and they remain real soft. The only thing that happens to them is they wear out and get holes in the doeskin. But they work real well.

I use them because otherwise, my hands would get blisters and they’d open up and hurt. I was putting ten bandaids on them before I went on stage. That seemed to be such a waste of time that I went to gloves. They feel a little different. You can’t just immediately put gloves on and play. You don’t have the same skin to stick contact, but you get used to it and I find that it works real well for me.

SA: You use a very unusual-looking stick.

AG: I play with the butt ends of the sticks. I was having a little bit of trouble getting a tight grip on them. The sticks were flying out of my hands so I started taping them at the bottom—just one layer thick. It evolved to where I have the whole tip taped. The tip is even bigger than the butt end. It makes it a little clublike. The little node on the end feels real good. I have something that fits right and it feels natural to me.

I was trying to talk Ludwig into making one that is all wood, but that’s maybe a long time off. Motor does it for me. He does about ten of them before every show.

SA: I notice that you use a 5A. I imagine the tape changes the balance of the stick.

AG: It definitely does. It makes it feel heavier because that’s a lot of tape on the end. It’s just gaffer’s tape that’s done around. Motor has it down now so that it looks like a machine taped them. They all look exactly like this and they come out nice and clean.

SA: Of all the people you’ve met and played with, what individual would you credit with being the most influential on you?

AG: Boy, that’s hard to say. Over the years, I’ve gotten so many influences. I don’t have time to go to many concerts. It’s basically from listening to records and the people I like on records.

I like Jeff Porcaro a lot. I think he’s probably one of the premier drummers around. I’ve never heard him do a bad track and I’ve heard a lot of his more obscure albums and he amazes me. He’s so strong and so consistent and he’s very imaginative. Technically, he’s very good. I’d like to have his chops.

Then there’s a lot of other rock drummers like Prarie Prince with the Tubes. He’s a wonderful drummer. I saw him live and I heard him do his solo and I actually thought there were two drummers out there. I couldn’t figure it out. He’s real good. When I was young I thought Buddy Rich was the greatest thing in the world and I still think he’s amazing. I had a set of drums when I was five years old and Gene Krupa was my hero.

SA: On the rare occasions when you get to see another band, what do you look for, or what will turn you on about another drummer?

AG: Just his playing. His time and his licks. I like to see if they’re doing something different than what I do. I am amazed at drummers that at the end of the set still have room to do huge, real powerful, strong rolls. Stuff like that I look for. Good timekeeping.

SA: There are some drummers, Carmine Appice comes to mind immediately, who are into being showmen in addition to playing well.

AG: Well, Carmine, I think, is a great drummer. I’ve always liked him. If he is a little bit of a showman, I think that comes naturally. He’s a showman and he can play real hard rock and roll, but he’s also a technician. He does drum clinics and can play that type of thing, too. He’s one of the Ludwig endorsers. For the last two years, they’ve taken our picture and we’ve all gone to Chicago and met. So, I got to meet a lot of people I always wanted to meet. It’s real exciting.

SA: If your children expressed a desire to get into music, would you encourage them?

AG: Oh, absolutely. I definitely would because I felt like I was encouraged by my parents when I was growing up and it’s obviously paid off. I always knew that it was my first love and it was what I was most proficient at.

SA: What kind of advice would you give them about getting into the music business?

AG: It’s hard. A lot of people have written and said, “What’ll we have to do to be as big as you guys?” There’s obviously no answer for that. The main thing, I think, is to stick to it and stay as a unit and keep yourself from going crazy. I think a lot of the reason we’ve gotten so popular is that we used to play about 200 or 250 dates a year, and people would see us and eventually more people came and saw us. By word of mouth it would work. So, I would just tell them not to get discouraged. Stay with it and eventually something will happen. If you’re into it enough and you practice enough, you can do it.

SA: What about things like the hassle of trying to find good management—someone who actually cares about you?

AG: Well, initially, we had a little trouble with that. Irving Azoff came from the same town we did. He was booking bands and managing. We were the only band that he managed and I think in Champaign at one point there were thirty bands. It was a little college town, but it had a rock and roll scene that was the biggest in the midwest. There was a big booking agency there that Irv headed and he took us under his wing. So, it was kind of easy for us even though when we got our album deal in ’71, he didn’t know anything and we ended up signing away our publishing for awhile and Irving didn’t even know that. At that point, he was as wet behind the ears as we were. So, that’s hard. You gotta find a manager that you trust and if you don’t know him, you’ve got to talk to somebody else to make sure that he is on the up and up. It helps. You’ve got to have some sort of representation to get your record deal and to talk to record companies if you’re going to get any sort of record deal happening.

SA: When you were trying to get a record deal going, how did you go about it?

AG: The band had evolved to such a point that we were playing locally in about a three or four state area, and getting so big in that area that people were getting interested. So, Irving had people come and see us play and finally one day this independent producer from the East Coast came and saw us. It was pouring rain and the gig was outside and people were still demanding an encore. Irv was looking at this producer and dollar signs were lighting up in his eyes. He took us back to his studio in Bridgeport, Connecticut and that’s where we did our first album on a little eight-track. It was very primitive by today’s standards, but it got us off the ground. He had connections with CBS and got us a record deal with Epic.

SA: How did you get involved with REO?

AG: The keyboard player, Neal, and I started the band when we were going to college. I think we started in the fall of ’68. We wanted to play music. I had played all through high school and I went to college and I said, “Mom, I’m not taking my drums. I’m going to get an education.” Of course, I immediately went to a dance and they’re announcing from stage that they’d be holding auditions for drummers. So, I went up and inquired and I called home immediately and said, “Mom, send my drums down. I can’t stand it.” So, I tried out with this band and got the job. The name of the band was the Barbarians. After about a few months of that, we started REO.

SA: Did you stay in college or did you drop out?

AG: I was forced to drop out after two and a half years because it got to the point where the band was actually playing seven nights a week. I would come home at one or two in the morning and try to figure out how I was going to study. You can do weird things to stay up, but it doesn’t work. So, I flunked out. Obviously, it doesn’t matter now.

SA: Isn’t it hard going out on the road so often?

AG: Yeah, it’s not easy. We don’t travel now as much as we used to. So, it’s not as bad as it used to be, but still, when I leave for a month or more, I’m leaving my family behind, and I miss them and they miss me. It’s more of a strain than if I was a bachelor. But still, there’s a certain point when you’re on the road that whether or not you have anything at home waiting for you, you want to go home. It does get boring being in city after city and all you see is airports and hotel rooms and coliseums. Other than that, it can get pretty straight-laced. But, I say the same thing when I’m home for too long. I think, “I want to go out. I want to play in front of thousands of people. I want to get that adrenalin flowing.” There’s that charge, too. I feel real fortunate because I have a balance of both.

SA: How do you keep from going crazy on the road? I know it must get very boring.

AG: It does get boring, but we do crazy things. You know, weird little pranks, anything just to keep yourself from getting in a rut. You try to keep yourself entertained. When we come back to the hotel afterward, if there’s a band playing, we usually end up forcing them to let us go on stage and we take over their equipment for awhile and that’s always fun. Usually when we go on stage, nobody gets drunk or anything, but you can go back to the hotel and have a few drinks and go up on stage there and relax.

I also play basketball. I’ve got a basketball court here at home and I try to play at least every other day. In fact, our band has played some basketball games. We did a tour in early spring of ’80 and we played three or four charity basketball games against local radio stations. That was fun. I’ve got most of the band pretty much into basketball right now. We’re probably going to do the same thing again this winter when we tour. It breaks up the rigors of the road. Makes it not quite so boring.

SA: It’s a better way to exercise, too, rather than doing something like calisthenics or running.

AG: Yeah, or just laying in your hotel room on your bed watching TV, which is inevitably what happens.

SA: When you travel, do you get to see much of the town you’re in?

AG: It depends on how much you want to get out. If I feel good and want to get out of my room, I’ll just take off walking or take a rent-a-car and drive. On the road is usually the best time for me to play golf, because I don’t have to worry about my family complaining about where I am for six hours.

SA: You’ve been to Europe and other countries on tour. How do you like it?

AG: It’s wonderful. Culturally, it’s great because you get to see all these places that you always wanted to see. But it’s also a little different because we’re not as well known over there as we are here. So you almost have to start over again. But it’s fun. I would like to go to Japan. We haven’t gone to Japan yet for some reason, but I think we’ll be doing that sometime soon.

SA: How did you come up with the title, “You Can Tune A Piano, But You Can’t Tuna Fish?”

AG: It’s a real old W. C. Fields line, but we didn’t know that. Someone told us that after we came out with the album. We heard it in Tucson at some party. Some guy just blurted it out and we all went, “My God, that’s a great album title,” and we used it. We had another one like that, “I’d rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy.” That’s kind of nice, but I think it might be a little too long.

SA: Of your past musical experiences, what do you feel you’ve learned the most from?

AG: Probably being in REO because I’ve been in this band for 12 years and we started out just playing fraternities and playing little bars in the Midwest, in Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin. Just being in this band, I’ve learned a lot. I’ve progressed a lot as a drummer and I’ve learned a lot musically. Obviously, we’ve had a lot of experiences, so it’s paid off I think.

SA: In what direction do you think you’ll

AG: Up. Straight up! No. I don’t know, it’s hard to say. We’re not as basic a rock and roll band as we used to be. I think, live, our shows will be pretty much straight ahead—playing loud and fast and playing exciting type of music. But in the studio, you’ll hear more variation on our new record. It’s not so blasted. The songs are more important. The lyrics are more important. Giving ourselves a little more credibility lyrically and songwise, I think, is what we’re trying to do. We’re not really going at it that consciously, but it’s coming out that way just because we’re growing up and we’ve been doing this a long time. We’re maturing and we’re just better at it I think.

SA: Do you have any unfulfilled musical goals?

AG: Boy, that’s hard to say. Personally, I always think that I could be a better drummer. I see other drummers and say, “I can’t do that!” I think, “Wow, he’s amazing.” But, I know that there are some people that probably look at a couple of things that I do and maybe say the same thing.

I’m happy as long as the band is doing well and we’re happy with what we’re doing. If we did a record that stiffed, but we knew in our hearts was good and we felt proud of what we played, that would
still make me happy, too. But, it would be nice to have a success at both ends and the record do well.