You can see it in his face: Rod Morgenstein loves what he does for a living. Get him talking about drums, about The Steve Morse Band, or about clinics and teaching, and you’ll see those eyes start to crinkle as a warm, sincere smile spreads over his face. Get him behind a set of drums, and the same enthusiasm is evident in the way that he tears into the kit as though he’s been waiting for weeks to get at it. That’s not to imply that his playing is uncontrolled, because he is definitely in charge of everything that is happening on the drumset. It’s just to say that you never get the sense that Morgenstein has lost any of the initial excitement about the drums that makes people become drummers to begin with.
His attitude is particularly refreshing when one considers that Rod has been doing this for over two-thirds of his 32 years. He joined The Dixie Dregs while the members were all in college, and remained that group’s drummer throughout their eight-year existence. He then went with Dregs’ guitarist/composer Steve Morse when Morse started his own group. After all of his years in the business, it wouldn’t be surprising if music had settled into mere routine for Rod. But it hasn’t, and part of the reason might lie in the fact that, over the last couple of years, Rod has been forced to completely re-evaluate his life.
It all started when the Dregs broke up. “Having a band like that was like a commitment for life—or so it seemed,” Rod explains. “It hadn’t been a quest for the individual; it was a ‘one for all and all for one’ type of thing. We were a team, and it was like we had this quest to bring instrumental music to the forefront. We’d had our share of problems, of course, like ‘What do you mean the manager stole all the money? Can’t we get it back? What do you mean the accountants made a $50,000 mistake, and now we owe taxes on that money? What do you mean the equipment was stolen?’ Everything that could happen happened, but we got through all of that stuff, and everything seemed to be going fine.
“Then there was all of this turmoil, and the band broke up. It was unbelievable, because no one had ever thought about it. No one ever covered himself for the day that would happen. To backtrack a little, when you start out, maybe you only make $25 a week, so you live on $25 a week. Then, when you get to where you’re making $50 a week, you get used to living on $50. What happened with the Dregs was, in the last couple of years, we had gotten to a pretty comfortable level, so everybody was living pretty comfortably. We weren’t really thinking about security; I guess people of our age don’t really think about that. Then the band broke up, and all of a sudden, all of us who were living a nice life had nothing to support us. I suddenly had to think about what I was going to do for the rest of my life.”
A short tour with Paul Barrere helped fill the void, and Rod also knew that Steve Morse was planning on having his own band. “I had a great friendship with Steve, and we had a good working relationship. I kind of worked things out with him and got involved with his project. So it wasn’t like the whole bottom dropped out.”
Maybe not, but Morgenstein had realized that he couldn’t spend the rest of his life depending on someone else—be it a single person or a whole band. “It makes you realize that nothing lasts forever. You can wake up tomorrow and, suddenly, have a whole new set of circumstances to deal with. When you’ve dedicated yourself to a band, to the point where ‘The band is my life,’ you don’t think in terms of making contacts that can help you in times of need. Somehow, you have the idea that the band is going to be there forever. It can be tragic when you find out differently.”
Rod’s first order of business was to help get the Steve Morse Band going. One might think that, because of the success of The Dregs and the fact that Morse wrote most of that group’s music, it would be easy for this new band to simply pick up where The Dregs left off. But that’s not how it works. “First of all,” Rod explains, “you can’t expect that all of the people who were Dregs fans will know that The Steve Morse Band is an outgrowth of that. And second, a lot of people feel hurt and betrayed when you break up a band that they like in order to go solo. So when we started out, the quality of gigs dropped some. We still got an enthusiastic response from whoever was there, but we definitely had to take two steps back and start the building process all over again. We didn’t have as widespread an audience as The Dregs had, and so we couldn’t work as much.”
Rod found himself with a lot of time off in ’83 because the band didn’t have a record deal yet, so there were few chances to play gigs. He needed to fill the interim period while the band was searching for a record deal, but he was faced with a dilemma: “I was committed to Steve’s band, so I couldn’t really look for work with other bands. I could pursue studio work, but everything I had heard about studios was that you have to be available, and the minute you’re not, they get somebody else. So why should I attempt to break into the studios, when I knew that in a couple of months I would be leaving to record an album with The Steve Morse Band, then go on tour, and not be available? That’s why I didn’t pursue studio work at that particular time.”
Rod and his wife, Michele, had gone back to Long Island, New York, to visit their families, and while they were there, Rod found something to do that he enjoyed quite a bit. “I started teaching,” Rod smiles, “which was a new experience for me. Jerry Ricci helped me get that together through the Long Island Drum Center, and I also did some teaching at Drummers Collective. It was actually pretty neat. Suddenly, I had to figure out just what it is I do, and then find a way to relate that to other drummers. I mean, who thinks about how they play? You just do it. You listen to a song, come up with a part, and play it. That’s the approach I had, anyway. So I had to sit down and really think about all of that stuff, which was very educational for me.
“I really enjoyed meeting with all of these different drummers because, by and large, most people are great. They just want to learn what you have, so you show them and hang out. Of course, there’s always one wise guy. I remember one day I was teaching a class. There were four drummers in the class, and everyone was mellow. We were having a good time, and then BAM! The door was thrown open and in walked ‘the belligerent one,’ as he’s known in the store. I thought, ‘Oh my God, this is it! All of the night- mares I’ve had about teaching are about to come true.’ He walked in and said, ‘You don’t remember me, do you? I hung out with you backstage . . . ‘ and on and on. Then he started with, ‘What are you doing, odd time? I can do that. Oh, yeah, how dumb. I can do all of that stuff. . . .’ I thought we were really in for it because the class got disrupted. But eventually we hit it off great, because I’ve learned how to have a rapport with people. You can’t approach everyone the same way. When it came down to it, he was really a good guy, and we became friends. But it was a horror at first.
“So I got involved in the teaching thing, and that was around the time that I wrote those articles for Modern Drummer, which was another avenue. It’s like suddenly you realize, ‘Hey, there are really a lot of different avenues in music to pursue.’ Playing in a band isn’t the only thing you can do. You can teach—either independently or through a place like Drummers Collective or P.I.T.—or you can do clinics if you have the good fortune to be with a drum company that has a clinic program. You can write books and articles, or do cassettes and videos. So all of these things opened up for me during that time.”
But Rod was doing all of these things in New York. Would he have had as many options in Atlanta? “When you play in a traveling, recording band, it doesn’t matter where you live because you’re always on the road anyway,” Rod replies. “But if you are interested in doing other kinds of things when you’re not on the road, or if you’re not a traveling musician, you have to pick an area that’s going to offer you a lot of opportunities. You can probably count them on one hand: If it’s not New York, it’s L.A.; if not L.A., then Nashville. Other than those cities, I don’t know where there’s a humongous opportunity at the moment.
“I was thinking of New York because that’s where my wife and I are from, and our families are there. Also, New York is one of the strongholds of the studios, and I was still thinking about trying to get my foot in the door there. Other cities have studio work, but it’s the kind of thing where ten drummers do all of the work, and it’s a little clique. There are cliques in New York and L.A. too, but there’s so much work that you might have an easier shot. Also, the smaller cities don’t really do any big record dates. They mostly do regional jingles and local television spots.
“I’ve got some friends in Atlanta who do remarkably well, but they are real hustlers. They’ll do two or three jingles a day, then they’ll play the cocktail hour at the Hyatt or the Sheraton, and then they’ll run to a six-night-a-week jazz gig at a club. And they do this day in and day out. So it’s like workaholic-ville, but it pays off and they don’t have to be on the road. Of course, they don’t get the thrill of playing in front of big audiences or anything like that. So it depends on what you’re going for. Some of those people would love to be in a band that travels around and makes records, but they can’t leave the security they have to go out and maybe only make $200 a night for the whole band.”
While Rod was in New York, another project he had to get involved with was finding a new drum company, because the company he had previously been with—Rogers—had stopped making professional drums. As a result of the teaching he had been doing, Morgenstein decided that one of the things he would be looking for in a drum company was an active clinic program. Premier indicated that they were interested in drummers who could and would do clinics, and so Rod signed up as a Premier endorser.
Although Rod enjoys doing clinics, there is one aspect that he isn’t exactly crazy about. “The thing I hate about clinics has to do with something I hate about myself,” Rod laughs, “and that’s how nit-picky I am about a drumset. Whenever I get a new set, I spend days fine tuning everything to a billionth of an inch, so that every drum and every cymbal is in exactly the perfect place to fit my body. Well, I get to a clinic and I’m not playing on my own drums, so I have to start over. And then sometimes, the drums aren’t even the same sizes. I’m used to having my tom-toms mounted on 22″ bass drums, but one day I showed up and they only had 24″ bass drums, so instead of dealing within a billionth of an inch, suddenly my tom-toms were two inches higher, and it was like being in a whole other world. That’s the part about clinics that I don’t really like. Of course, it’s a great challenge to see if you can sound good on an unfamiliar drumset. It’s just unfortunate that you have to find that out in front of a whole group of people who are hoping to see you play really well.
“Everything else about clinics is great. It’s fun to have drummers come to sit and talk with you, and watch you play. I find it a very positive atmosphere. People just want to meet you, find out how you think, find out how you do particular things, and have a good time. You get a cross section of people. Some of them want to know technical things about the way you play, and others want to know more personal things, like what it’s like to play on records and travel around. I’ve heard clinicians start out by saying, ‘I don’t want to hear any stupid questions,” but to me, there are no stupid questions. People are just curious about things. So I don’t mind the more personal questions, as long as they’re balanced with the technical stuff.
“I used to think that the clinician was the one who is on the spot, but then someone said something interesting to me. He said, ‘You think that you’re nervous up there, because you have to perform for us, but it’s frightening for me to ask you a question, because you might ask me to come up on stage and demonstrate what I’m asking about.’ I thought that was funny. I had never thought about it that way before.”
We all know about those clinics where a drummer starts off by playing a 20-minute solo, then answers questions for about 20 minutes, then plays another 20-minute solo, and that’s the clinic. Rod does his share of playing, and he takes time to answer questions, but he also does some actual teaching, and he hands out written material. “They don’t have to commit everything to memory,” Rod explains. “I give them a piece of paper that has things I talked about written out on it, so that they can go home and work on it, and maybe use it. I think there’s a point at which you can play too much. The majority of people who come to your clinic already know how you play, so you shouldn’t make it like a solo concert. The purpose of a clinic is to get to know the artist on a more personal level, because you won’t get that from a concert or a record.”
Some of the questions that invariably come up at clinics have to do with equipment. “People always ask about tuning, drum sizes, sticks, heads, and all of that,” Rod says. “And one question that is asked a lot is, ‘Why do you use pedals that are not made by the company whose drums you play?’ My answer to that question is that I don’t think there’s one anything that can provide everything. Look at guitar players. Just because someone plays a Fender guitar, that doesn’t mean that the person uses Fender strings, a Fender amp, a Fender strap, a Fender case, and a Fender pick. Everyone has a personal preference for accessories. So I use Tama Flexi-Flyer pedals, and the rest of the set is Premier. I have the Resonator shells in pretty standard sizes. The bass drums are 16 x 22, the toms are 10×10, 12×10, and 13×10, and I have two floor toms: 16×16 and 18×16. I’m also using the 2009 snare drum, which has some pretty unique features. It’s a similar construction to the Resonator drums, in that it has an inner wall. There’s also a hole in the side for miking purposes. It has a really good sound.”
Morgenstein has been especially happy with the attitude of the people at Premier. “The whole product line has changed, and the thinking has changed. They’re great people. They want to know how to improve their stuff, and they’re asking to hear from the drummers who are using their drums.”
As for cymbals, Rod’s setup changed recently as a result of a trip to the Paiste factory in Switzerland.” I did a side-by-side comparison,” Rod explains, “and I decided that the ones with the best sound for what I do are the Rudes. I’m now using Rudes almost exclusively—ride, crashes, hi-hats—and a red Colorsound crash. One tends to think that those are just a gimmick, and the sound will be sacrificed. But they sound good.” When Rod records, he makes a slight change in his cymbals. “I always end up using one or two flat rides on records,” he reveals. “Whenever there’s an ethereal, esoteric, spaced out section I think, ‘Ah, Gottlieb,’ and I grab a flat ride. That’s one of the most beautiful cymbal sounds there are.”
The Steve Morse Band eventually got a record deal, went into the studio, and recorded The Introduction. The album was released last summer, but fans of The Dregs— who might be expected to buy the album—had trouble finding the Morse album. You see, when you go into a record store, you’ll find the Steve Morse album in the jazz section. But if you want to pick up an old Dregs album, you’ll have to go over to where the rock records are kept. In light of that fact, I couldn’t resist asking Rod what kind of transition he had to make to go from being a rock drummer to being a jazz drummer. “Yeah, right,” he laughed. “Labels are hysterical to me. Everybody wants a label on something so that they can decide whether or not they like it, without having to listen to it. People will ask, ‘So, what are you guys? Jazz?’ We’ll say, ‘Yeah, we’re a jazz band.’ They’ll say, ‘Oh. I hate jazz.’ Then we’ll say, ‘Well, we’re really more of a rock band.’
“That was something that plagued the Dregs since the band’s inception. We thought, ‘Let’s call the band the Dixie Dregs. Won’t that be hilarious? Everyone will get the joke when they hear the music.’ But the whole thing backfired. For one thing, we were on the Capricorn roster with groups like the Allman Brothers, Marshall Tucker Band, and Wet Willie. So people heard the name Dixie Dregs, associated us with Capricorn records, and knew that we were a bluegrass band without ever listening to us. Four albums down the line we dropped Dixie, since everyone referred to us as The Dregs anyway. We thought it might help to clear up some of the confusion, but I think it might have been too late at that point. We were already branded as a Southern boogie band.
“So that was a big problem. How do you categorize a band who has a name like Dixie Dregs, and who sounds like Jeff Beck meets Mahavishnu? We thought that not being categorized would be the greatest thing in the world. We figured that you would find our albums in all of the bins—rock, jazz, country, classical—because our music covered all of that stuff. Instead, the reverse happened. No one knew what to label us, so they didn’t think we belonged anywhere. Radio was the same problem. Rock stations said, ‘They don’t sing. How can they be rock?’ Jazz stations said, ‘They have electric guitars. That’s not jazz.’ And classical stations wouldn’t play anyone who hadn’t been dead for 200 years. So what we thought was going to be the perfect way to promote the band worked against us.
“Now we have a situation where The Steve Morse Band is signed to Elektra/Musician, which is known for its jazz. And so, even though the music is basically the same because it’s written by the same person, and even though it’s got an even heavier emphasis on rock because it’s more guitar and no violin or keyboard, where does the album end up? In the jazz bins, of course. The album actually did well on the jazz charts, whereas the Dregs never made it to the jazz charts, because they were in the rock category. And now, the record company is going to drop the Elektra/Musician label, so our next album will probably be released on the Asylum label, which is known for rock. It’s so ridiculous.”
The band ran into a similar problem when they made a video to go with one of the songs from the album. That clip was shown on MTV a few times, but certainly didn’t get the kind of exposure that a lot of videos are given. “The world is against you when you don’t sing,” Rod sighs. “Not the world, really, but if you choose to be in a band that doesn’t have vocals, you’re taking a much more difficult road towards success. It’s tough enough if you do things the normal way; it’s even harder if you try to do it in an unorthodox way. If you watch the different video shows, you’ll notice that they hardly ever show a video that doesn’t have singing. It goes back to the fact that the people who run these stations are convinced that instrumental music does not have a large market, and they don’t want to lose their advertisers by taking chances with this kind of thing.
“The fact that we even got to do a video was an amazing thing. We were playing the Bottom Line in New York City when the word came down that the record company had okayed doing a video. We were on cloud nine, because an instrumental band doesn’t get much airplay on pop radio stations, and here we were going to make a video that would get shown on MTV. We -hoped that the video would give us—an instrumental band on a jazz label—some pop exposure.
“Somehow, connections were made with a company that had never done a rock video, and the rest was history. If you see the video, you’ll see that it lacked imagination and didn’t really follow the format. We were hoping that it would be pretty spectacular looking, because the bottom line on video is the visual image. We didn’t have a singer jumping around to draw people in, and as far as the sound goes, most people are only going to be hearing it through a two-inch speaker in a television set. So the visual impact has to be extraordinary.
“Unfortunately, it didn’t turn out that way. We didn’t really have much input. You’re always treading on thin ice when you’re in a band that’s working its way up, because you want to be on everybody’s good side. It’s not that you kiss ass; it’s just that you try not to start off a relationship on the wrong foot, because the more people you influence positively, the more people will be thinking about what they can do for you. So that was our attitude. This company was picked to do the video, so we figured that they must know what they’re doing. The concept sounded right, and the budget was good, so what could go wrong? But it just didn’t happen right.
“Seeing that video was as big a disappointment as when we heard the first Dregs record back in 1977. If you play an instrument, you dream of the day that you’re going to hear yourself played on the radio, just like all of the artists you’ve idolized. So finally that happened to us, and we were so excited. But when we got the test pressing of the first album, some of us started to cry because of the sound. Things just didn’t happen the way we thought they were going to. I connect seeing this video with the first album we did. Sometimes you imagine what something is going to be like, and you think, ‘It’s going to be great. I just know it’s going to be unbelievable.’ Some people are lucky enough that it does turn out to be as great as their expectations, but for others, unfortunately, it doesn’t. When something like that happens, you’ve got to put it behind you and hope that the next time will be better.”
If anyone shed tears upon hearing The Introduction, then they were probably tears of joy. By contrast to the first Dregs album, the Steve Morse album is very sophisticated, sound-wise. It’s been a long time since bands simply went into a studio together, set up their instruments, played through a tune three or four times with the tape rolling, picked out the best take, and then went home to wait for the record to come out. Everyone knows that, these days, each instrument often is recorded separately. But if you read the notes on the back of The Introduction, you’ll notice that the drums were not even recorded at the same studio as the other instruments. Isn’t that a little extreme? “Yeah,” Rod laughs. “Originally we were going to record the entire album in one place, but after we got the drum tracks done, Steve suddenly went out on tour with John McLaughlin, Al DiMeola, and Paco De Lucia. The recording was postponed for two months, and when we were ready to resume, the original studio wasn’t available, so new arrangements had to be made.
“On every Dregs album, as well as this one, it wasn’t as though I was playing by myself. Everybody was playing with me, so it was almost like doing a concert, but then they went back and erased everything except the drums. It actually makes a lot of sense. It’s not the jazz approach, where you go for the spontaneity. On an improvisational album, it really doesn’t matter if there’s a clam here and there, because you’re going for that spur-of-the-moment, inspirational kind of thing. The rock ‘n’ roll approach is totally different. You’re thinking along the lines of making an album that you’re going to have to live with for a long time, and you want every note to be perfect. By doing each instrument separately, you can put all of your energies into getting the perfect sounds for that one instrument. If you’re putting the whole band down at the same time, you have no isolation, really. You can put baffles up, but you won’t really have control over the sound. But by doing the instruments one at a time, you can go back as many times as you like in order to fix something, and you can spend as many hours as you need getting the right sounds.
“For The Introduction, the drums were recorded in a movie theater. That’s what the Eddie Offord Studio is: It’s an old movie theater that has a stage and an orchestra pit, from the days when they had live music at theaters. So Eddie set up the recording equipment in the pit, and I was on the stage. We didn’t have the typical separation of the engineer from the musician; there was no glass in between us. Every drum was close miked, and then somewhere out in the seats there were a couple of ambient mic’s, so we always had a separate track for ambience. If you can imagine a movie theater with a really live sound, and imagine having that sound on a track so that you could bring in as much of it as you wanted at any point in the song— that’s what we had. There’s a split-second delay in the sound reaching those ambient mic’s, and by mixing that with the close mic’s, you get a pure digital-delay sound. You don’t have to use a digital-delay machine; you have it right there.”
For all of those years with the Dregs, Morgenstein’s drums were totally acoustic, as they were on The Introduction (except for “VHF,” where a Simmons snare was triggered by the acoustic snare drum). But Rod, like many, is starting to experiment more and more with electronics. “You really can’t avoid it,” Rod contends. “Drummers get called for sessions these days, and it’s like they aren’t concerned with how you play; they want to know if you have electronic drums, or if you know how to work a drum machine. You really have to know about all of that stuff or you’re going to be out of work. I think the days are gone when you can just play a nice little acoustic drumset, unless you’re only going to play bar mitzvahs and weddings. Just turn on your radio, and you’ll hear that half the songs are being programmed into machines. You can make the choice to have an ‘acoustic drums or die’ attitude, but you’re going to run into problems. It’s hard enough to find work in a business like this, without having to tell people, ‘I’ve heard of electronic drums and drum machines, but I don’t have any, and I don’t know how they work.’ You have to cover it all. It’s like years ago when musicians didn’t know anything about business, so they were always getting ripped off. Musicians had to get smart and pick up some information so that they wouldn’t get themselves in trouble. Well, it’s the same thing now with electronics. Drummers are going to have to educate themselves about the new technology.”
Even the drummers who choose to play acoustic drums are often mixing in electronics to enhance the acoustic sounds. I mention to Rod that, even if you know that a drummer used, say, a Premier snare drum on a record, the sound you hear might be a combination of all sorts of things. “Right,” Rod responds, “but the same thing holds true for other instruments. You go out and buy yourself a Fender Stratocaster guitar, and plug it into an amp. It sounds good, but why doesn’t it sound like something you heard on a record? Well, because the guitar player had a ten-foot rack of outboard gear that the guitar was being fed through. So was it really that Fender guitar? Of course, but why not go for the variety of sounds? Drummers are just now catching up to what guitar players have been doing for years.
“The problem with acoustic drums has always been the miking. There just isn’t anything as effective as feeding the signal from an electronic drum directly into the board. With miking, no matter how close you get the mic’ to the drum, it’s going to pick up other sounds that are around it. And then you have the problem of the snares hissing away through everything because of sympathetic vibration.
“I was talking to Joe Franco recently, and he was telling me some of the things that he’s been asked to do because of the bleed-through problem. It will be the type of hard rock playing that doesn’t involve anything very intricate, and yet he’ll have to do it in stages. First they might have him just play the snare drum and bass drum beat. If he has tom fills, they make him go back and do them later, so that they can turn the snares off. After that, they go back and put in any cymbal crashes. I’m sure that if any jazz purists read this, they’ll start tearing their hair out, but it’s a question of priorities. In pop music today, the focus is on getting the ultimate sound, rather than playing the most unbelievable independent coordination. There’s a time and place for that, but in pop music, it’s the sound.”
Where drums are concerned, the sound has to be especially good if the drumming tends to be complex. The music that Rod has played with The Dregs and with Steve Morse has called for such drumming, often featuring a variety of time signatures and multiple rhythms. And with the Morse band, because they are a trio, there is a lot of extra room for the drums to be active. A lot of drummers in that situation tend to milk it for all it’s worth, and their drumming becomes a tour de force of complex patterns and polyrhythms, as well as a chops display. Often, the only people who appreciate these drummers are other drummers. Rod is certainly no slouch in the chops department, but perhaps the reason he is so popular with non-drummers as well as drummers is that, although he does his share of tricky patterns, intricate double-bass figures, and interesting polyrhythms, there is usually a fat backbeat going on that holds everything together and even makes the drumming sound less complex than it really is.
Morgenstein achieves this by starting with something simple, and then looking for ways to add to it. “A lot of drummers,” Rod comments, “always seem to want to know how they can spice up their drumming—how they can add excitement to what they do. They like that busy kind of playing that grooves along and always seems to fit perfectly, a la Steve Gadd and people like that. To me, it’s a question of finding a nice, traditional, simple beat, and then filling in the spaces. Start with a beat where the hi-hat is just playing 8th notes, and play a simple pattern between the bass drum and the snare. Then, stop playing the hi-hat, and just get the bass and snare pattern in your head. That will give you some space in the bar, so put your hi-hat back just in some of those holes. That’s a very simple process, but you’d be amazed at how you will suddenly sound like some of those terrific funk drummers. From that point, you can find other steps to make it more interesting. You can substitute different drums, delete a note here or there, accent certain notes, or play certain notes softer. Another ‘filling in the holes’ technique involves playing two different dynamic levels on the snare drum. You can hit the backbeats really solid, but then fill in other notes by lightly tapping the drum. Bernard Purdie does that a lot; you’ll hear this really solid basic beat, but then you’ll also hear these little notes in the background. You can make simple beats sound unbelievable by doing that.
“When Steve comes in with a song, I know right off that ‘This is a country type of song,’ or ‘This is a Stray Cats feel,’ or ‘This calls for an esoteric, Danny Gottlieb type of cymbal thing,’ or ‘This is a shuffle,’ or whatever. You start from the general and go to the specific. It’s a question of seeing if you can develop a signature drum part. There are really not too many of them, but once in a while you come up with one, and it’s really a proud feeling.
“A lot of times, when we’re first learning something, I’ll play it real simple, and then Steve or Jerry [Peek] will say, ‘No, make it weird.’ That’s the word we use: ‘Make it weirder.’ It helps when you have a very strong bass player who can feel the time wherever you go. Also, the bass player can help you build your beats. If Jerry is doing a particular thing, then I know that my bass drum is going to be kicking along with it, so that will lead me into what my other limbs are going to do.”
One of the songs on The Introduction went through an interesting transition. “We had this tune that The Dregs were going to record if we had done another record,” Rod recalls. “At that point, it was typical jazz/rock drumming. But when The Steve Morse Band decided to do the tune, I suggested doing it as an MTV/ new wave type thing. Instead of playing the hi-hat my normal way, where the second note is often softer than the first, I kept the hi-hat closed and played every note the same. I didn’t crash any cymbals. I used Simmons to double the snare. I actually pushed for a drum part that would have absolutely no personality and be totally unmemorable, but which would fit the song perfectly. Hence, the song was named ‘Vertical Hair Factor,’ which was precious.” Is there a secret meaning behind that title? “Yeah. If you have the vertical hair factor and speak with an English accent, you’ve got a good shot,” Rod laughs.
After The Introduction was released, the band toured for a while, first in the U.S., and then in Germany. But afterwards, Rod found himself with time on his hands again. At that point, he decided that he wanted something of his own. “One of the problems with being a musician,” Rod explains, “is that you can become dependent on outside sources. ‘When is the band going to record? When is the band going to tour? When am I going to get called for a jingle? When is the drum company going to set up some clinics?’ This led me to thinking about ways that I could take control of my own destiny and not have everything dependent on waiting for a phone call from someone else. So my wife, Michele, and I decided to form our own company, which will only be dependent on our input and time. Whatever we put into it will be, hopefully, what we get out of it.”
And what will be the basis of this company? “We are going to make cassette tapes for drummers to study from,” Rod answers. “Studying with a well-known drummer through a cassette is basically the next best thing to taking a private lesson. It seems like a really nice thing that, for some reason, is not available for drummers. This type of thing has seen success with guitarists and bass players. Month after month I look through Modern Drummer expecting to see the same thing for drummers, but I never do. Sometimes I see something in the classified ads for a cassette course, but it’s usually by someone I’ve never heard of. But I’ll be using people who are out there playing, and who you have heard of.
“The thing about cassettes is that they’re much more accessible than video tapes in terms of the cost—both the tapes themselves and the equipment. Usually, when you see a cassette, it’s part of a book, and it’s always secondary to the book. With our tapes, the thrust will be the cassette, and you will be able to hear drummers you respect demonstrating and talking about things that they feel are important—ideas they have and techniques that they use.”
Rod feels that another benefit of a cassette course is that it addresses the problem of musicians who learn with their eyes instead of through their ears. “A big problem with drummers is their ears,” Rod says. “I mean, how many times are you playing a song, and you’re really just into yourself, rather than listening to what else is going on. It sort of reminds me of when I was in high school. I’d be daydreaming about some fantasy in my head, and I’d suddenly hear the teacher say, ‘Rod, what did I just say?’ [laughs] Of course, I didn’t know because I hadn’t been listening. I think the same thing can happen when you’re playing drums with a group of people. You always have to be conscious of what is happening around you.
“When I’m talking about the ear, I’m also talking about being able to hear something and play it back. One example is being able to listen to a record and pick up the drum part. Another thing is being able to listen to a song and figure out the form. That’s something that drummers don’t always do, even though all of the other instrumentalists do it. I guess that’s because drums are not melodic or harmonic; they’re only rhythmic. Because of that, there’s a tendency to forget the total scheme of things, but there’s a lot more going on than just the rhythm, and you need to be aware of these other components. The way you do that is by concentration and by opening up your ears.”
During the time off after the tour, Rod and his wife returned to New York for another extended visit, and this time, Rod got involved in the New York jingle scene. Some people have the idea that, if you have had experience in the recording studio, you won’t have any problems with studio work. Morgenstein certainly had his share of recording with The Dregs and with Steve Morse. But when he finally got involved with studio work in New York, he found that it was a very different situation. “It was unbelievable,” Rod says. “Everything I did involved reading music. Some of the things were relatively simple to play from beginning to end, but there were also those pages that looked like the black plague.
“A typical jingle session went like this: The composer would come into the studio and play the jingle on piano for representatives of the advertising agency. The ad reps would listen and, whether they knew any- thing about music or not, would make suggestions, like ‘Can you do this here? Can you pick it up there?’ Part of the jingle is getting written right there in the studio while you’re sitting there waiting to play. So rather than getting a page of music that’s neatly printed, like what you see in Modern Drummer, you are handed a piece of music paper that looks like scribbled gibberish. Then they say, ‘Take a look at that. Are you ready to record?’ You’re sit- ting there trying to make heads or tails out of the fact that it starts in 4/4, but then there’s a 3/4 measure, and then it goes into 2/4, back to 4/4 for a measure, and then it says ‘just play the snare drum on 4 for eight bars.’ Maybe you get to run it down a couple of times, and then the composer decides to make some changes. ‘Play a cymbal crash where the 3/4 starts, and do a fill into the section after that.’ So you have a pencil handy and you furiously write all of this down. Now keep in mind that the average commercial is only 30 seconds or 60 seconds long, so you are dealing with this thing on a bar-by-bar basis. So you have to be very alert, and you have to be able to read music very well—changing time signatures and all that, plus the fact that it’s all been scribbled.
“The reason for all of the changing time signatures is that, in commercials, the composer is given cues that tie in with the visual image. They’ll say, ‘At three seconds, the scene will change to the ocean, but at six seconds, it will change to the city, so have something different there.’ A lot of times, these changes do not fit into 4/4 time. The people who put visuals together really have no concern with time signatures; they probably don’t even know what they are. They just know that there has to be a musical change at a certain point.
“It’s really been a nice challenge for me. For the most part, I haven’t had to read music since I got out of school, and that’s been ten years now. The Dregs and Steve Morse have always worked from memory. We take a song section by section, and if it has to be four bars at a time, then we do four bars at a time. In Atlanta, we can rehearse four bars for a while, and then go out to get something to eat. We can spend three days learning the song, and then play it over and over to really get it down and commit it to memory. In New York, on Madison Avenue, the clock is ticking and the dollars are running. You’re given the music, you run it down, and ten minutes later it’s been recorded and you’ve gone on to the next thing. And you never know in advance if it’s going to be a simple thing in 4/4 or one of those crazy ones.”
So now that Rod has a foot in the door of the New York jingle scene, how is he going to deal with leaving town to go on the road? “That is something that I still don’t know how to come to terms with,” he replies. “As much as I enjoy being at home and recording, I’m itching to go on the road with Steve. So that’s the dilemma. No one is indispensable, but if you’re the kind of person who plays well, gets along well with others, and you just do what you’re asked to do, then I don’t think that people will completely forget about you, and you should be able to pick up some work whenever you’re going to be in town for a while. At the moment, I’m just trying to keep all of my options open and take whatever becomes available. I’m not going to worry about the dilemma. I’ll just deal with it when it happens and be glad that I’ve got a choice of things that I can do.”
Drum Beats by Rod Morgenstein
This is the main beat from “Divided We Stand” from the Dregs album Unsung Heroes. It’s played with a march feel, and makes use of a ghost stroke and a double-ghost stroke.
This song was named “Assembly Line” because it sounds like a machine that won’t quit. The beat consists of single and double strokes (inverted paradiddles). It’s from the Dregs album Industry Standard.
This is the beat from “Chips Ahoy,” which is also from Industry Standard. It is characterized by offbeat 16ths in the hi-hat.
This is a double bass drum shuffle from “Cruise Missile” on The Steve Morse Band album The Introduction. Play the traditional swing beat with two bass drums and ghost strokes at 100 miles/hour, and you will have one exhilarating beat!
This is a sneak preview of “Distant Star” from the new Steve Morse Band album. This lick is played in a total of six measures of the song to add a dash of color to the verses.