The Latin-rock music of Santana has enthralled audiences for years. One of Santana’s pulse makers, drummer Graham Lear, hails from Canada. Although he had never played Latin-flavored music before, Lear’s talent and skill impressed Carlos Santana so much that the band leader invited Lear to join the band.
Santana packs quite a percussive punch with Lear on drums, Raul Rekow on congas, Orestes Vilato on timbales and Armando Peraza on percussion. Lear has now been with the band for five years. Before that, he spent four years playing with Gino Vannelli and making some very successful records with that artist.
Graham Lear has a friendly, smiling personality. He and his wife now live in the San Fernando Valley, a section of Los Angeles highly populated with musicians, but still retaining a flavor of the farming community that prospered here not all that long ago.
Lear’s musical background is highly diversified even though, for a long time, Canadian artists and musicians were overlooked. That situation is changing now and Lear couldn’t be happier. But, let’s start at the beginning.
GL: I started when I was nine years old and I took a preliminary examination for a local concert band organization in London, Ontario, where I grew up. It was called the London Police Force Band. It was for all the school kids. They had about a thirty-piece concert band and brought kids up through the ranks that way and taught them how to read. They said, “You seem to have an aptitude for rhythm,” and gave me a copy of Buddy Rich’s snare drum rudiments, edited by Henry Adler.
I ended up taking private lessons every week for a half hour from a teacher named Donald Johnson who’s now the drummer with the Canadian Armed Forces Band. I’m left handed, but he started me playing drums right handed because he was a right handed player and it was easier to teach me. I write left handed, but do all sports and my drums right handed. I took lessons and started playing in local bands and ended up working in symphonies and big bands and the whole local scene.
I played my first actual rock and roll gig with a band when I was about fourteen; doing Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis songs. Once I got that bug in me, I really went gung ho for it. Later in my teens, I worked out of the Toronto area because there was a more happening music scene. From that, I ended up playing all across Canada, but mainly in Montreal and Toronto with groups in clubs. At that point, I’d done maybe two or three albums with Canadian groups.
I was about twenty-three and working with a club band in Toronto. We were playing in Montreal and Gino Vannelli came down to see me play. He liked it and said, “Come and hear my record,” which was Crazy Life on A & M.
I knew he had a record deal. Some other musicians told me that he had some nice material and was putting a band together. I went and heard it. He said, “Don’t you want to join the band?” I knew the album had so much potential and he told me about the things that he wanted to do, so I said, “Sure. Great.”
That was a break because that was the first real major American release that I played on. That was Powerful People in 1974. People got him kind of established and I ended up doing two more records after that.
Carlos Santana had heard me playing on Gino’s Storm At Sunup album and really liked my playing. When they were looking for a drummer, Carlos remembered me. It took him forever to get hold of me because I had moved back to Toronto from Los Angeles in ’76. I was asked to do an album with a Canadian guitarist named Domenic Troiano.
I had this space when I was down here at that time after Gino Vannelli. So, I was back there rehearsing to do this record and I got a call for an audition with Santana. I ended up flying to San Francisco and doing the audition and getting the gig. I had to phone Donnie up and say, “Well, maybe next time.” He’s a great person to work with. One of these days, I’d like to do something with him and actually get it completed. It’s kind of a strange thing; I’ve been in two bands for almost ten years. I’ve only worked with two very good groups and it’s been fantastic for my career.
SA: That’s nice. You don’t get a lot of stability in this business.
GL: Exactly, and it’s kind of unusual.
SA: Who would you say your influences were over the years?
GL: When I started, I listened to Buddy Rich and Gene Krupa. I liked the drummers in the early days of rock. I didn’t always know who they were, but they were on records with Elvis and stuff like that. I liked those different kinds of feels. But, Buddy Rich was the first drummer I really ever looked up to. I tried to pattern soloing after him.
Then later, I liked Tony Williams a lot. When I got to be around nineteen or twenty, I listened to him a lot, and Roy Haynes when I got more heavily into jazz, and Bobby Colomby. As music started to change over the years and get progressive in terms of rock and r&b and funk, I’d have to say John Bonham was one of my favorite rock players, rest his soul.
Right now, Steve Gadd has to be my all-time favorite drummer. There’s just no getting away from it. He’s such a pervasive influence on music and drumming and so innovative. There’re so many great players, but if I have to pick one, it’s got to be Steve.
I study his rhythms a lot. I’m not saying I just copy stuff totally. You can never do that, but you have to look at something and if you’re a good reader and you can play the feel, all of a sudden, it opens you to something and it’s very good.
But, sometimes practice can be frustrating. You can hear a record and you can sit there and try and try and try. You can record it and listen to yourself and go, “Well, it doesn’t sound like what I wanted to do.” But, if something can be that precise, it can really open you up to try other things and that’s great. That’s what I feel is really important to me: learning and getting something out of practicing quickly and practically. Being able to apply it is what really gets me off. I don’t like being frustrated because there’s really not enough time. It’s such a competitive industry and so continually changing that what you have to do is stay on top of these things.
SA: It seems that you’ve gone through many different phases and played many different styles of music.
GL: Exactly. That’s what happened to me. I started liking certain styles and as I progressed musically and played with different groups and listened to different music, I started going through different players. I think it’s a natural progression and a lot of musicians develop that way. I still like Buddy Rich.
SA: What kind of music did you start out playing?
GL: When I started, I was just reading marches. I was playing classical snare drum and learning how to read. I never had a drum set for the first four years that I played. I only had a snare drum.
SA: Do you still read?
GL: Oh, yeah. Definitely. I’m very into not losing it and making sure I keep it developed. That’s one thing that I can genuinely work on, even if I’m not playing in a group which requires reading ability. I still work on it at home.
SA: Was Santana the first time you ever played Latin-flavored music?
GL: Well, Gino touched on it because he had three percussionists in his band, including me. But he used percussion in a different way. He used it in more of an artsy, recording kind of way, which is very nice, too. It was very precise and well thought out.
Santana’s always had that earthy, openness of a lot of playing. We have a lot of stretching out. I had to get used to that kind of a feel. I hadn’t really played that kind of bag; not straight-ahead Latin kind of stuff, when I joined the band. I had to do a bit of learning and a lot of woodshedding in the first year. I considered myself lucky to get the audition and get in, not having a really extensive basis to work off in the past.
Luckily, in 1976 when I joined, Chepito Areas was still in the band. He helped me a lot in the beginning. I watched what he did. I looked at his right-hand cowbell patterns and I tried to learn where the clave was being applied in certain areas, how to solo on top of feels and how to play behind what the conga player was playing. Eventually, I just developed a feel for it.
SA: Do you find more or less freedom playing with percussionists?
GL: You have to restrict your playing more. There’re times where you’re tempted after twelve or sixteen bars just to play that one-bar fill every time. But, you have to realize that maybe the timbale player is going to play it instead. So, you have to say, “Okay, I’ll let you have it.” There’s a lot more listening involved and more interplay.
But, there are times when you really get going on a groove where it’s so locked in there that you just have to really appreciate it for what it is.
There are times when I miss being the only drummer in the band because there is freedom in that. But I play like that when I’m at home. I get sessions and stuff and I get thrown into other situations where I’m back into that. I practice a lot at home by myself, too.
Also, I play a solo with the band every night. I have total freedom there for five minutes. Even though there are a lot of players in the band, there’s a lot of playing to be done. We’re lucky in that respect. I could be in any number of bands and be the only drummer and still feel caged in. I’ve been very lucky.
SA: Let’s go over the equipment you use with Santana.
GL: The equipment thing has been an endless progression for me. I started out in the beginning with a fairly small kit and always played a small kit—not a lot of tom-toms and a fairly small bass drum.
Gino got me interested in two bass drums because on the Gemini record, he wrote a whole suite that involved two bass drums. We just went and got another bass drum. We worked out the arrangement and it happened to turn out fine. A lot of drummers were playing two kicks at that time. I thought, “I’ll give it a whirl for a while and see what happens.” I enjoyed it.
I used two bass drums for a while when I first joined Santana. I went through that phase where I had a lot of tom-toms and two bass drums and lately I’ve cut down. With this band, it’s important because there’s so many open mic’s with four of us playing percussion. There’s so much going on that I just had to cut down on the amount of things that were happening. I went through so many drums and so many cymbals, that I bought just about every size there was to get. I put together a set that goes with the requirements for the music.
For playing hard rock, I’ll use a 24″ bass drum with two heads on it. Maybe only one mounted tom and two floor toms—a 16″ and an 18″ for straight hard rock. It really works for that kind of a feel because it makes you play that way.
What I’ve been sticking with lately is a 24″ bass drum, 8 x 8, 8 x 10, 10 x 12 and 11 x 13 power toms, 16 x 16 and 16 x 18 floor toms. They are all Gretsch. I like having the versatility of a 24″ kick if you want a little more of a rockier sound.
In snares, I have a five-inch chrome, an 8 x 14″ wood and a Paul Jamieson five-inch snare drum. I don’t know if you’ve heard of him, but he’s making custom snare drums for a lot of drummers. He takes old Slingerland Radio King shells and puts in Gretsch and
Rogers hardware and does a real nice job on them. Soundwise, they seem to work real consistently.
I don’t have a lot of snares. I just have a couple that I stick with. I really like their sound. Snares can drive you crazy it you keep changing all the time. Once I got a couple that I liked, I just said, “Okay, that’s it. Keep these.”
SA: You only use three cymbals.
GL: You’re right; a 17″ crash on the left, a 21″ Rock ride and a 19″ medium-thin crash. All Zildjian. I’ve got 15″ New Beats and some 14″ Quick Beats that I really like and use. In the studio, I use the 14″ hi-hats, 20″ medium ride, an 18″ crash ride and a 17″ or 16″ medium ride.
SA: You mentioned soloing during the show. What do you think of while putting together a solo?
GL: Well, obviously, the music that you’re coming from right before the solo dictates the feel that you’re going to be into. But, my general approach is to not blow everything too soon. There were times when I used to do that. I used to play with a lot of chops and it’s nice to have chops and to show them off. But, if you get into it right away, you always end up with this dilemma: “Well, where am I gonna peak?” I’m not that crazy about solos where you peak and then you come down and you peak and come down. I like to start somewhere nice and tasteful in a low ebb, and really build something and then get out. Sometimes I’ll start off on cymbals, but keep time with the hi-hat and play something subtle with sparse bass drum. Then I’ll use a fuller approach and show off my chops at the very end. That seems to work fairly well for me and for most drummers, I think.
When I first joined Santana, my solo always came out of “Soul Sacrifice” which is almost a primal kind of feel in 16ths. It’s a funk kind of rock groove, so it’s like jungle-beat time. It’s good for a solo, but sometimes you can get stuck with it.
If you end up playing the same pattern on toms for the beginning of your solo, already, you’re into 16ths and you’re spinning around on the tom-toms. You think, “What can I do next?” You almost have to come to a point where you just stop, allow some space and then, build it up. That’s what I always end up doing and, luckily with Santana, I’m allowed so much freedom. If I take five minutes or eight, if it’s happening, I can just do whatever I want most of the time. I don’t plan a solo. There’s that basic framework that I always sort of go off and things that I know work.
SA: Is there much improvisation when you’re playing live?
GL: Actually, there is room for a lot of improvisation. People would tend to think not because there are so many drummers and you have to be careful at the end of those eight and twelve bar turnarounds that you don’t all go “rat-dat-da-da-dat.” Everybody has their own different view of what they’ll do for that part, but if you do it all at once, it just sounds like a mish-mash.
So, we look at each other and you can tell when somebody’s going for it and if they are, you just stay out of it. We have a trade-off thing where we let each other have turnarounds like that. There are some set things, then some places where you can just play what you want.
SA: Is there much improvisation across the board? How structured is the whole piece of music in concert situations? How do you know when something’s going to happen?
GL: We have a lot of set cues, mostly eye cues with Carlos, that come in and out of certain sections. For instance, we have a song called “Transcedence” on the Moonflower album which gets into a doubletime jamming thing towards the end. But, lately, we’ve been turning it into a straight-ahead bebop/swing thing in doubletime; get out of that and get into a Latin groove on the cowbell; get out of that and take it back into halftime and play a little bit of funk. Each time, we just have eye contact with Carlos ’cause most of that time the guitar is soloing.
Really, the band doesn’t work off a lot of bar structures. As soon as we get to the twelfth bar, there’s going to be this riff and we’ll get into the next section. That doesn’t always happen, but the band started out and continues to be a jamming band in that respect. You have to really be on the ball. You can be sitting there playing and you might really get into a groove, but you can’t really close your eyes and know that a riff is coming and that it’ll always be there because it could change.
It gets kind of crazy, I’ll admit. It’s really not as rigidly structured as a lot of music is these days. Sometimes that’s nice.
I’m only describing our long jamming tunes. There are tunes where we just do three or four minutes and it’s a set arrangement and that’s it. But, we have sort of the best of two worlds, I think, between the arranged tunes and these other opportunities to stretch out, and that’s where people come up and jam with us.
SA: That creates some variety.
GL: Oh, for sure. Some new energy, too.
SA: You’re in a situation where you’re on the road for three weeks and then you get some time off.
GL: Yeah. We usually keep it at about three weeks or three and a half weeks maximum and then ten days to two weeks off. It works fairly well because when we get out there for about seven or nine weeks, everybody starts to get a little haywire and misses their families and whatnot.
SA: Do those long stretches of touring affect your playing?
GL: Well, maybe just a little towards the very end; maybe those last two weeks. You’re not necessarily more tired or anything; it’s just maybe you come on with a little bit different attitude which may be a bad thing. I mean, I love playing. Every time I get up there, I try and do my best, which is pretty easy with this band. But there really are times when you come into that tin-can sounding hall for the soundcheck and it’s like the eighth week and maybe the thirty-ninth or fortieth show and you’re getting frustrated by your monitors. You go, “aaahhh…can’t wait until I get home.” That really does happen. You have to grin and bear it. That’s why we ended up taking those little breaks, because it helped us a lot. It really does. We’ve been touring heavily this year, but we haven’t noticed it as much.
SA: Gino used percussion differently than Santana does. What would you say are the differences, and how it affected you as a drummer?
GL: With Gino, we always cut our basic track in the studio with drums, Fender Rhodes and synthesizer/bass player. Everything was direct and the drums were the only thing live in the studio. The congas and the percussion were only put on as an addition later. That lent a different feel.
With Santana, we’ll cut a lot of tracks live with me and the three other percussionists. There’s a lot going on there and a lot of open mic’s. A lot of decisions have to be made beforehand. It’s a completely different feeling.
Gino was more of a strict studio thing, whereas with Santana, I guess you could pretty much put it down to live. We have cut tracks with Santana in the studio with just drums and overdubbed later. But, that happens rarely.
SA: With Gino, did you know what percussion he wanted to add later on?
GL: Yeah, because we would rehearse with a percussionist. So, I might play a verse a certain way knowing the congas were going to be there. We practiced quite extensively live with the rhythm section for each album that we did with him. It worked well for us because the drums were the only thing live in the studio at the time. You had such a fantastic clean sound and a chance to work with the drum sound from the beginning. Then he would isolate the congas and isolate percussion and put it on later. It would be so layered and so clean, which is the studio concept. It really works for him. Gino was real organized with his basic tracks. Once the basic tracks were done, he would do a lot of experimenting right there in the studio with overdubbing. Even with the percussion later, he might change his mind about something and say, “Let’s try this.” Then he would have the option of doing it or not because it wouldn’t be there, yet.
SA: Does Carlos have the drum and percussion parts planned out when you go to record?
GL: Well, it varies with him. He might come in with some idea that he’s worked out. He has a set at home and he plays a little bit himself. So, he might come in with something to try to work off it. Now, Gino was a little more precise because he was a trained drummer from the beginning. Gino usually had a set thing, especially with the bass drum. It was very important where it falls with the bass.
SA: What advice would you have regarding things one should look for or be aware of when playing in a situation with a lot of percussion?
GL: If you haven’t had that much experience with Latin music; playing with congas and timbales especially, you have to sit down and study it for a while. Listen to some records. It’s the only way. You have to go back to maybe Charlie or Eddie Palmieri records. Listen to some of those feels that they’re playing, or maybe Tito Puente or some Afro-Cuban music. If you can get hold of those records, just listen to what’s going on.
SA: Do you have any advice for young drummers coming up?
GL: I have to tell students to lighten up on their cymbals, especially their ride and their hi-hat. One of the dangers of playing is smashing that hi-hat too loud to the point where the highs, which penetrate more through a microphone, tend to distort quicker. The engineers have to put their levels lower for the leakage which can cloud over and ruin the snare sound. Your tom-toms are close miked. Then, when you go to that ride cymbal, lighten up on it; especially if it’s the bell. Play it a little lighter and hit the kick and the snare a little harder so it really projects.
In other words, your ears are right there. Imagine that your ears are the condenser microphone that you just put right over the head. Try and mix for that microphone in your mind right then and there. Be conscious of it and say, “Is my hi-hat soft or is it trashy or is my snare being projected enough?” and chances are it’ll make it easier for you and easier for the engineer and for everybody. There are all these elements that come into play and I think it really helps to be your own engineer right over top of your drumset.
SA: What do you find is the problem most students have when they come for lessons?
GL: Well, it depends on their background and how old they are. Obviously, a number of players may be more energetic. They may be totally chop oriented and haven’t learned what to leave out yet. The famous old phrase.
SA: Do you find that you have to work a lot with their hands and stick control?
GL: Yeah, a lot of times I have to work a lot with that and independence. I put them through the first couple of pages of the first two George Lawrence Stone books, which I think are real beneficial to any student. There is one chop-oriented book that I can see as the Bible, which just about every drummer says. That’s Stick Control, but more so, the second book after that: Accents and Rebounds.
I listen to all the funk-oriented and Latin-oriented rhythms that Gadd is playing; combinations of tom-toms with cowbell patterns. Just about every one of the patterns he plays is the first four pages of each of those books, but not exactly. The way you can combine those patterns and full accents can really help you for that kind of thing. I’m glad that I had that background in the beginning.
There are those two books and maybe a few independent exercises. The first Jim Chapin book, Advanced Techniques for the Modern Drummer, is a book that I went through. I have them read stage band drum charts or something just to break down the independence. Then their limbs are so independent that they can play figures and keep their ride going and their hi-hat in the right place and be able to kick those figures. But now, music has changed so much in the last ten years with funk, rhythm and blues and rock and roll, that those old exercise books really don’t apply anymore.
SA: Do you encourage your students to get into a variety of music?
GL: Oh, for sure. I try to get them to cover all the styles and try to write their own patterns. I try to get them to come up with their own things which is something that Ralph Humphrey encouraged me to do. I took lessons from him for a while. I was taking exercises in odd meters and he would start me off with an embryo of an idea and show me one of the things that he had written. Then he’d expect me to come back with twenty exercises in independence based on that, which I would do. That gets your creativity rolling and gets you so that eventually, you’ll come up with your own patterns. I get them to write even if it’s only transcribing, just for the sake of getting the writing down and the note values and being able to write those patterns properly. That stuff can be important.
SA: What would you say to a student who said, “I really like music, but is it really worthwhile? Look at the competition.”
GL: That’s an easy thing to say these days. I’ve asked myself that question, also. It’s a really hard one to answer. Music is so vast these days and you have to cover so many areas and be good in all of them. But, number one, you should have a lot of key albums that have come out over the years and you should know a lot of things about them. Things such as why they were made, why they were popular, why the drummers are popular, what made them that way, and maybe the feels that made them that way. You should have a couple of good cassette decks and a stereo system and headphones.
Always be recording and listening to yourself for feel. Have a metronome. Lay down feels that you like with the metronome. Record them. Make sure you know you’re not rushing or slowing down on your fills and if it feels good. Those are the main things. If you can cover all styles like that and you’re reading it, then you probably have a really good chance of doing well in the business.
SA: Do you run into a lot of students who don’t have good time?
GL: I don’t really run into it that much anymore because anybody who gets to the point where they can even play in a band consistently, especially here in L.A., the chances are they’re pretty good. I’ve heard some really good bar bands here on Ventura Boulevard. Sometimes they’re really shocking. Musicians have come out of there right into the studios and been absolute monsters. The standard is very high here. Drummers come from another city with expectations of really knocking people on their butt, and when they get here, even though they’re fairly good, they really get their eyes opened fast.
SA: How easy was it for you to adjust when you had all those Hollywood types telling you how great you were?
GL: Well, most of that happened for us when I was with Gino and we came down and made the Powerful People album. We were totally obscure musicians up until that point, except for the Canadian scene. Our first national U.S. exposure was that album.
All of a sudden, everything was happening at once. We played the Whiskey and got a lot of exposure. The album came out and we did most of the major TV shows. The album was doing fairly well; it wasn’t screaming up the charts, but it was getting a lot of recognition, especially with people within the industry. Of course, they were giving us a lot of compliments and we were really proud to have been part of a good thing and having all this happen. When it came down so fast, it was incredible. All of a sudden, BANG!
It definitely was like night and day. We had to make a bit of an adjustment to deal with it. I’m not going to brag or anything and say it didn’t affect some of us. It was real nice. It was what we wanted to have happen for everybody’s career. That’s what we were going for. But, to a certain extent, we had to go back to our hotel every night and say, “It’s real nice that it’s happening and everything, but it could be all over.” You always have to take that attitude. It could be all over in two years, or one year, because it’s happened to people.
It’s that Hollywood syndrome where you come down here and you get a lot of accolades or a lot of success and you can be out of a job next year. You have to take the attitude that there’s always somebody younger and better coming up that wants to do exactly what you’re doing. If you don’t watch out for them and constantly be on top of the music scene and try and improve and never let yourself slack off; you’re going to get walked over.
SA: That’s good in the context of keeping your chops up.
GL: Yeah, exactly. Hollywood, in a way, can be devastating. It can keep you real humble, too. Everytime you go to that club and you see that new kid who’s just dynamite, or that old pro who’s just dynamite, it makes you want to go home and practice.
SA: Or cry.
GL: (laughing) Yeah! You got it!
SA: What are things that you would like to do in the future?
GL: Some time in the future I want to do a lot of studio work and some TV work. The road is great, but I’ve been around the world three times. There’s not that many places that I haven’t seen. It’s been fantastic, but there’s a point where maybe I’m going to have a family and I’ll just want to come home at night instead of coming home to that hotel room.
But, mainly, as far as music goes, I just want to do some TV work and maybe some film work and get into other aspects of things that I haven’t really touched on. Things that involve a lot of reading.
SA: People don’t realize how demanding TV and movie work is.
GL: It’s very, very demanding work. There are so many good players who do just that. There are a lot of drummers who work here steadily every day in that bag that a lot of people in the commercial marketplace have never heard about.
SA: You had mentioned earlier the drummers on those Fifties records who inspired you, even though you didn’t know who they were.
GL: Right. I think that’s what almost every drummer heard and tried to copy in the very beginning; the tom-tom beat from “Telstar” or the tom-tom beat from a Gene Krupa solo.
SA: We all learned “Wipe Out.”
GL: Right. Exactly. Those were the good-old-days, but times definitely changed and you never play like that anymore. Nobody will ever ask you to play that. I think those were good days; the beginning of The Beatles and The Stones and just the end of Chuck Berry and all those heavy r&b influences. They were great for musicians coming up then and I’m glad I had a chance to grow up with that music.
Although there are a lot of great new things happening now, I wonder what it would be like if I was fourteen years old now and had to decide on what to listen to. There’s a lot of great influences and a lot of great music out there, but it’s not the same.