Billy Cobham

Anyone who frequents the pages of Modern Drummer is certainly aware of his name. Pick out any issue of MD and read the feature interviews; there’s bound to be at least one artist in any given issue who names him as a major influence. He has created new approaches and techniques for the instrument, and altered the level of drumming in many ways. He is a drummer’s drummer—a musician’s musician. He is Billy Cobham.

Cobham’s life has been a musical one since the start. Billy is originally from Panama. The members of his family made their livings by constructing drums and timbales, and some of Billy’s earliest memories are of himself playing timbales. His father played piano, his mother sang, and his brother played trumpet. His family moved to New York when Billy was three, and by the time he was eight, he was already on stage performing with his father. From that point, Cobham’s commitment to, and love for, drums became total.

Cobham became seriously involved in drum corps in his youth, and through this situation, he became aware of the rudimental approach to drumming—an approach he later mastered and expanded on. In 1959, he was accepted at Manhattan’s High School Of Music And Art. After high school, Cobham joined the army. During this period, he developed his approach to the instrument, practicing long and hard. Also while in the army and stationed in Brooklyn, Billy performed all over the New York metropolitan area. This was his developmental period.

Once out of the army, Cobham began his performing career in earnest. He started getting calls from some of the biggest names in jazz, recording and/or performing with Horace Silver, George Benson, Ron Carter, Thad Jones, Curtis Fuller, Stanley Turrentine, Kenny Burrell, and a host of others. Later, Cobham formed Dreams, a jazz-rock group that performed music along the same lines as Blood, Sweat, & Tears and Chicago. The band members included the Brecker Brothers. Dreams recorded two albums for Columbia. As if all of this wasn’t enough, Cobham also began recording with Miles Davis in sessions that eventually appeared on such classic albums as Jack Johnson, Live-Evil, Get Up With It, Big Fun, and Circle In The Round.

In the spring of 1971, Cobham was asked to join the Mahavishnu Orchestra, with guitarist John McLaughlin, bassist Rick Laird, keyboardist Jan Hammer, and violinist Jerry Goodman. This ensemble was at the fore front of fusion music, and its combination of classical virtuosity, jazz spontaneity, and sheer-rock power shook the music world. Mahavishnu’s music consisted of immensely complex jazz-rock pieces, involving elements drawn from Indian and European classical music. Cobham approached this new music with devastating technique and keen wit. His drumming brought him worldwide attention and placed him on the top of all of the major readers’ and critics’ polls. The Mahavishnu Orchestra recorded three landmark albums: The Inner Mounting Flame, Birds Of Fire, and Between Nothingness And Eternity.

Before the original Mahavishnu Orchestra disbanded, Cobham recorded his first solo album, entitled Spectrum, which became an international hit and thrust him into the spotlight as a fine composer, as well as a drummer. Since that time, Billy has recorded many albums as both a leader and a sideman. His career has taken him all over the world, performing at concerts, clinics, and seminars. He is always coming up with new ideas and concepts for drumming, and his long list of accomplishments as a musician and entrepreneur is fantastic.

Billy has been making his home in Switzerland for the past six years, and he divides his time between there and his base of operations in New York. Billy is now concentrating his efforts on his band, recording and touring almost constantly. The following interview was conducted during a break in the mixing of his new album, Power Play (on GRP Records). The tracks he played for me that day contained some of that exciting, confident drumming that only Billy Cobham can dish out.

WFM: You composed all of the tunes on the new album. What inspires your writing?

BC: The inspiration comes from the experiences that one has in life, every day, on stage and off. I’ve been dabbling with a lot of techniques in the electronics area with drum machines and triggering devices to use on my drums. With these electronics, I’ve been able to organize rhythms and pieces that have a Caribbean flavor to them—pieces that represent me and my heritage, and how I really hear music. I love the flavor of Latin percussion, so it’s in my music. With the electronics, I can set things up rhythmically and be more precise in my arranging.

I like to write music that is group oriented. My music tends to go in the direction of a full-group effort, where all the musicians are playing parts that are designed specifically for certain areas in which they play. There are solos, but they are set up for X amount of bars. The solos are more like transitional sections that allow the whole band to move together as a group.

WFM: So from a writing standpoint, that’s a lot more taxing on you.

BC: Yeah. The challenge is there. It’s much more fun for me than just to have the head played, play a solo, maybe go to the bridge, and if you’re inventive, maybe take it out.

I think that playing an involved arrangement is more exciting than just accompanying a soloist. I like doing both, but there is a challenge in performing a tight arrangement accurately. When you take a com- position and perform it on the road a hundred times, you’re going to get pretty tired of it, unless there’s a certain amount of concentration needed to really pull it off.

WFM: How long did it take you to write all of the material for this album?

BC: I’ve been working on the material for this album since the fall of ’85. Much of the material that made its way onto the new album consisted of tunes that my band had been performing live prior to recording. This gave me the chance to fine-tune the arrangements and to let the band get more comfortable with the material. I think that gives the album a very cohesive group sound, as opposed to just having sidemen come in and read down the charts.

WFM: How much freedom do you give to your band members in interpreting your music? Do they give you input?

BC: Oh sure, there is input, but what I try to do is set direction. It’s not a free-for-all where their parts are left up to them. My parts are specific. Many times, musicians only see their own parts, and not how those parts work with the rest of the arrangement. Of course, I want everybody to be comfortable, and I am open to suggestions and criticism. I’m not perfect in my writing. I make mistakes, sure—theoretical mistakes. Some things may sound good to me that they won’t hear, so I don’t want to ram something down the mouths of the people I’m working with. If it’s a question of a note or a chord here or there, that’s no problem. There’s always flexibility in that direction. When it comes to changing the whole piece or changing a major portion of my arrangement, their suggestions have to really make a lot of sense to me.

WFM: How difficult are you to work for?

BC: I don’t think I’m very difficult to work for.

WFM: There are some drummers who are pretty infamous for being tough bandleaders.

BC: I don’t think I fall into that category. First of all, I consider myself a musician, and therefore, I feel that my facilities far exceed and transcend just playing the drums. As a leader, I consider myself a composer and a musician, and I emphasize that I am very sensitive to all the other people in the band and what they do, because I know enough about their instruments to understand what they have to go through. I try to write to accommodate them, and since I’ve been a sideman on many occasions, I know where they’re coming from.

My biggest problem with people is not musical. It’s primarily trying to figure out how to get them to interpret my music the way I would like them to and how to get them to expand themselves. It’s difficult.

WFM: What are some of the problems in leading a band?

BC: People in a band have a tendency to fall into ruts. They hear things only one way. They don’t really want to change that much. The guitar player will only play guitar a certain way. It’s very hard for that person to hear what I’m hearing. On some tunes, I might be looking for someone to sound like Eric Gale, and then on another tune, to sound like Van Halen, and then on another piece, to sound like Ritenour. That’s asking a lot of one player. So I try to keep my mouth shut and take what I get from that individual. I try to see if I can’t write in such a way as to get the guitar player to think about a certain genre of music to play inside.

On the new album, a lot of guitar synthesizer is being played. Many times, the guitar doesn’t sound like a guitar. It’s like a flugelhorn or trombone or a flute or something. The whole idea is, in order to play flute lines on a guitar, you have to phrase like a flute player. It makes  me really think about my arrangement. It’s a difficult process, but it’s a learning situation. It makes everyone much more cognizant of what’s going on within the musical environment at the time, and everyone develops and expands, which I feel is necessary for all players now. I can’t just play drums anymore. I have to have a good, strong understanding of drum machines—how they work together with drums, and how I can utilize them as a tool and not be influenced by them in a negative way. It’s the same thing with the other players in my band. I try to write material that will get them to think other ways and to expand their knowledge of what’s available, so we have other directions that we can take in the future.

WFM: How do you keep yourself up on all the technology, as far as guitar synthesizers and things like that go?

BC: Through the musicians that I work with and also being fortunate enough to be tied into a company like Hoshino, a full-service company that is an electronics company, too. Hoshino has a lot of stuff that I can use.

The more I know about the Ibanez stuff, as well as the electronic drum gear, and the way I can use it to enhance what I do as a player, the better off I’ll be. I can pass that information on through the music to the other musicians.

WFM: Talking about musicians, I want to ask you about a comment you made in a recent down beat interview. You said something about there being a difference between European and American musicians. Could you elaborate on that?

BC: European musicians generally are in a position not to understand our roots, because they don’t live the music over here, which is absolutely important. They cannot play the music like musicians from the States can. It’s just not possible. This is not something that is bad; it’s just coming from a different base. Many Europeans play with a technical facility that is unparalleled, but you just have to live here in the United States to understand what this is about. When they come over here to play, they can only emulate what’s happening here. They can’t really be a part of it for sure, unless they live here. Living here, you really have to put time in, pay some dues off stage, and do it. To me, music is much more than notes; it’s the person playing the notes. You can tell a lot about a person by the way he or she plays.

WFM: When Europeans play, do you notice some kind of lack of feeling?

BC: Yes. In the way that we understand it, there is lack of feeling. The whole idea is that they’re going to put across what they believe is soulful here, and where they lose it is that, many times, the players who have the technical facility don’t put across what they are really about. The only problem I have is when they try to emulate our music. What they try to do is copy what they feel is happening here, and they fall short.

WFM: If you feel this way about European musicians, why did you move to Switzerland?

BC: So that I could emulate what they’re doing there. [laughs] I needed to learn more about the European situation, so that I could actually work there more because of the difficult working situation in the United States. You can get some premium dates in the U.S., but they’re so far apart from each other that it’s very difficult to do.

WFM: How is your career in Europe now?

BC: Well, last spring we played 48 concerts in less than three months. The smallest house we played was 1,000 seats. Some places were over 5,000 seats. The European audience is into good music, whether it be pop or jazz. My career is going well over there.

WFM: Do you think that moving over there helped that?

BC: Sure, absolutely.

WFM: Did you work a lot when you were over there?

BC: Sure did. See, America is so big and unto itself that it is difficult to stay popular, especially performing my type of music. It’s very hard to tour places other than the major markets. In Europe, there are bands that do very, very well and never come here at all. They don’t have to. They make very, very good livings there, and they want to stay. They make millions there. Over here, it’s just a completely different thing.

WFM: But when you went to Switzerland, didn’t you risk the chance of losing your appeal or your popularity in the U.S.?

BC: I did and I lost it. There are a few people who know of me, but right now, I’m experiencing the reentry blues, man, trying to get back into the United States. I’m going through changes trying to get gigs in anything other than the major cities, but I feel that it’s very, very important that I do so, because those markets are very important. If I can combine the States with my European market, which is now pretty stable, I feel that I’ll be pretty happy. With the eastern sector of Europe opening up to me as well, there’s no need to do more than that. I would love to build up a following in Japan also, but it’s difficult and there are only so many hours in a day. You can only do so much. I want to be with my family, too.

WFM: Speaking about family, I know your family has a deep musical background.

BC: Well, I was lucky to be born into a family that loved music and respected musicians. I have been playing ever since I can remember.

WFM: So drumming was a natural thing for you?

BC: It was just something that happened. It was like, “Oh yeah, this is what we do in this family. Music is what we’re about.” This is what I’m doing, I guess, because it comes as a second-nature kind of thing. Since my family was so involved in music, it was a way of life for me. I think I picked up things just by being in that situation.

WFM: You’re lucky. A lot of people don’t have that kind of support. Besides the family situation, did you study with anyone?

BC: Well, I tried a little bit with Morris Goldenberg and then he died. Warren Smith was teaching at Music And Art High School, but I couldn’t afford to study all of the time. That didn’t work. I went into the United States Army after high school. I just played in drum & bugle corps and studied with people who probably wouldn’t be known outside of the drum corps world. These guys were very serious. There was a guy named Bobby Thompson, who taught drum corps like Blessed Sacrament, Syracuse Raiders, and St. Catherine’s Queensmen. He was involved a lot in drum corps and still is to this day.

Through drum & bugle corps, I used to pay my quarter or fifty cents a week, and I learned my needs primarily. I learned to play my rudiments properly with other people, and I attribute a lot of my growth to that period. The next major period, for me, was moving into the whole scene working with friends of mine at Music And Art High School—the high school for performing arts here in New York City—where I was extremely fortunate to work with the likes of George Cables, the jazz pianist. We were childhood friends. A lot of musicians went to school there at the same time that I went, like Bobby Columby. We’re all connected somehow together in different circles now. We’re peers, and we all worked against each other or off each other. We learned a lot from each other.

I learned much more from actually getting involved in musical situations than I did studying with anyone. With the drum & bugle corps, I concentrated on chops and working together with an entire section, trying to be as accurate as possible. With the different group situations at Music And Art, I learned how to listen and be musical.

WFM: When did you really start to think about getting the technical thing together?

BC: Well, the technical thing started to happen when I was in drum corps. That was my foundation. Rudiments started to happen. I feel that drummers need to know that stuff. A kid came up to me when I was in high school and said, “Do you know how to play a paradiddle?” When I first went to high school, I didn’t know how to play a paradiddle. I knew how to play it, but I didn’t know what it was called. He said, “Well, play one.” I tried, but it didn’t work. He played one, and I went home that night and worked. That little competitive thing started to happen right there. I practiced. I felt like these were things that you were supposed to know. All instruments have certain basic technical studies that have to be mastered if you are going to be a competent player. Rudiments, to me, were something that I felt were essential building blocks. I still feel that way.

After that it was, “Can you read?” In Music And Art, they couldn’t afford to have a percussion teacher. So a girl who was the chief percussionist in the senior orchestra was assigned to teach me how to read music when I was a sophomore. She taught me how to read drum music.

WFM: When did you take all this technical ability— this rudimental ability from drum corps—and apply it to the set? When did all this start to happen?

BC: Right in Music And Art.

WFM: On the set?

BC: Yeah, on the set. I was playing set before Music And Art, as a matter of fact, but not really very seriously. It was the kind of situation where my interests in drumming grew, and I was basically drawn to the set. When I was very young though, I’d play dates with my father—you know, brushes.

WFM: Your dad’s a piano player?

BC: Yeah. About me being a musician, it was like, “I know something’s missing in my playing. I don’t know what it is, but somehow I’ll get it somewhere, I guess. I hope.” I’d hear people in school play the drums, and my jaw would drop. I’d say, “Gosh, I’ve got so far to go. There’s so much I need to learn.” I’d hear guys play rolls, and the rolls would be clean as a whistle, and I’d say, “Gosh, I’ve got to figure out how to get that down.” I practiced.

WFM: You must have spent a lot of time practicing.

BC: Oh sure. I guess, in a way, I sacrificed a lot of other things to practice, but I never considered it a sacrifice. I worked seriously on technique, reading, and just grooving on the set. I wanted to develop a strong foundation.

WFM: At that point, you were playing pretty much just traditional. When did the whole left-hand ride thing come into your head?

BC: That happened actually around 1959, because it seemed to make a lot of sense to play that way.

WFM: Was that just something you decided to do—your own idea?

BC: It seemed to make a lot more sense than to have a cymbal on my right-hand side and a hi-hat on the left. I said, “I’m going to have a lot of sticking problems if I want to go to this drum over here,” because I always thought about more than one rack tom on the bass drum. I said, “Gosh, if you had different sized drums, it would make a lot more sense. It would be a lot more exciting.” With the ride and hi-hat being on the same side, it opened up my concept to add as much as I wanted to, to inspire me. I kept seeing people like Rich and Shaughnessy and all of the guys from that school. They all seemed to make the same statement in the same way, and they seemed to limit themselves to a certain approach and setup. They tended not to lend themselves to the music really, as in terms of the drumset being designed for the music. The drumset was always the same. All the dimensions were the same. They played the same patterns. They all mimicked each other a lot. The only way you could tell that one guy wasn’t Buddy Rich was if he played a figure that he couldn’t get across as well as Buddy could. There were a few exceptions. If you heard Max Roach, you knew that Max played a certain kind of way and his drums were tuned a certain way. The thing about Max that set him apart was that he tuned the drums so that you heard a high-pitched drum and a low-pitched drum, and it was with a tone, which I like. Whereas Rich had this whole thing where it was technique, technique, technique—tremendous technique—musicality from a rhythmical standpoint. Mel Lewis to me sounded like somebody who was throwing garbage cans out the window all the time, and everything was always in time. When they hit the floor, you knew that I was there someplace. You knew that was Mel. The snare drum was so loose that it tickled my funny bone, and I thought that that was musical in its own way. Then you had Art Blakey, whose grunts and groans were more musical than what he played, but it was all tied in together and it made musical sense. His shuffle was the heaviest shuffle ever. There was Papa Jo Jones, who played brushes in such a way that it was amazing. What I’m saying is, each guy, for me, took a little part of the whole and developed it. My objective was to develop the whole: be strong in brushes, strong in different styles of music, have good technique, have a good sound, a good feel, and a concept that would work in all categories. I thought that left-hand lead was a way of freeing up my playing so I could extend in anyway I wanted.

Playing melodically, as well as rhythmically, is very important to me. When I was developing, I wanted to be able to get around the set, in any direction, with ease. Left-hand ride gave me strength and independence to play patterns in any direction, so I could make a musical statement in any way. Now I like to do things where my hands move in totally opposite directions from one another. I can set up some interesting sound combinations on the drums this way.

WFM: Since you were the first to develop the left-hand ride technique, did you take a lot of heat from people when you were coming up—people who said it was wrong?

BC: Of course. I failed the test at the Manhattan School Of Music, because I played ride patterns left-handed. They said, “You’ll have to change,” and I said, “Why do I have to look a certain way to play?” I didn’t feel it was necessary, so I just didn’t do it. I was going to take the test at Berklee, and they said, “You have to change.” I knew I could make it work, and I wasn’t going to give it up just because of someone’s fear of something new. Now people realize that it works, and I think it has opened up people’s minds even more. There is so much happening. I feel that you have to keep an open mind. I feel that that helps me in my clinics. Everything is made to be designed again to suit the situation. I play a certain way now. Everybody says, “Hey man, that’s happening.” Next year, it may not be. Someone else will come along and develop an idea in a new direction, and if it works, I hope people accept it, even if it is different.

Billy Cobham

WFM: It seems that now drummers don’t have to be as creative as they were before. I mean, if you want to play a hi-hat without crossing your hands, the technology is making that possible. If you want to come up with interesting sounds, you just program them in. Technology seems to be coming up with devices that solve problems and take away a player’s creativity.

BC: But you know, a lot of these types of things have been around. I mean, just because technology comes up with something new doesn’t mean that everyone is going to use it, or that everyone won’t be creative with it. The tunable floor tom has been around for years and years. Back in the ’40s, Papa Jo had one. Chick Webb had one. The chain pedals were made back in the ’30s and ’40s. They went out of style. The remote hi-hat stand was made in the ’30s and ’40s. All this stuff was around. Some of the guys who could tell you about stuff like that are Bob Yeager at the Professional Drum Shop in L.A., and Al Duffy who’s now with Pearl. Al made all my drums back in the ’70s before I went with Tama. He’s a wealth of information.

He built that chain pedal and started that stuff. Al built a lot of my custom drums, but that stuff was happening, again, back in the’40s. You just said, “Hey, let’s make a gong drum, and let’s just do that again—put a timpani head on a 22″ shell or put a 26″ head on a 24″ shell and tighten it down.” Put some timpani lugs on it and “boooing.” All that stuff just comes about, and nothing’s new. We just use it in a different way. Players are going to take these supposedly new things coming out and be creative with them.

WFM: When you were coming up, it must have been really tough to persevere at something that so many people were telling you couldn’t work.

BC: Yeah. I think the second you tell yourself you can’t do something, you’re not going to be able to. I’m not that way. I’ll try something. I might fall flat, but if I don’t try, it won’t ever work. For instance, I’ll try any grip on the drums, not just matched or traditional. If I experiment, I can come up with things that inspire me.

When I do clinics, I run into people who will only play a certain way. I remember one time, specifically, in Germany. I was sitting in front of about 1,500 students, and a guy said, “My instructor has said that the pattern you played on this record such-and-such is improper and cannot be played that way. Is this true?” I said, “I’ll show you how I did it.” I played it right-handed. Then I played it left-handed. The instructor was sitting there and I had just proven him wrong.

One of the big bummers about a situation like that is that you know you’re losing an account, because, in such situations, the instructors are the people who got you there. They have an obligation to the rest of the kids. They’ve told everybody that something I’ve done is not possible, and they run the place. I sit down and say, “Well, I can only show you what I did.” Then, I go ahead and disprove their theories in front of them, while they have to sit there smugly, not saying anything.

WFM: It puts you in a bad light.

BC: Yeah. There’s not a lot one can do about that. I haven’t been asked back to that place since. Those things happen. If people close their minds off to new or different things, there’s not much you can do. I see a lot of drummers ignoring and closing their minds to drum machines. I talk about programming drum machines a lot and have written about it in Keyboard magazine, trying to show keyboard players that, if they’re going to do this, they should think like drummers. Drummers are afraid of the machine, but they don’t realize that they can hear drum rhythms better than keyboard players. If you’re going to play the drums, play this, too. If you don’t want to lose your gig, learn how to work with the machines, so that you can do it and be the drummer on the session, and also develop material. My whole concept is to keep your mind open to everything, and then to tie it into your overall concept. Therefore, you still have control over it all, because it’s there for you to use now as a tool. Try to interface that with your drumset, so you can trigger that sound. It sets you in a light where you are still the individual. I think it’s all possible. With technology the way it is today, anything is possible.

WFM: You talked before about the different ways you grip the sticks. You use some techniques that are highly refined, like a French-style timpani grip. How did you develop that, since you haven’t studied with anyone?

BC: Through people like Vic Firth. I used to watch Vic a lot, unbeknownst to him, and he’s always used that technique. I’ve always used that for certain things, and it’s perfect for playing drumset. The thumbs-up finger-control grip remains consistent around the drums. What you want to do is actually use your fingers to manipulate the stick.

There’s a pattern that I play on my new album on a piece called “Summit Afrique” where there’s a drum solo for a minute and fifty-nine seconds, and there’s a section in that solo where I used the French grip to play on two high-pitched drums. This is where the French grip comes in handy a lot, because the tighter the skin, the easier it is to manipulate the stick. All you want to do is keep the stick going. I’m able to play on two drums—play a roll on one drum and hit the other drum, maintaining the roll. I can play very clean singles all day with that grip. In the solo I mentioned, it almost sounds like I over-dubbed the other drum. You can only do that with your fingers, because you don’t have the tension you would normally have if you played the German, palm-down method. If you want to be able to sustain and prolong a certain kind of pattern, it’s easier to do it the French way.

WFM: What about playing something like doubles?

BC: Doubles are a bit easier with the German or traditional grips. Since I position myself higher, above the kit rather than behind, the French grip gets me around the drums more efficiently.

WFM: You do sit very high when you play. How does that affect your overall balance when you’re playing double bass?

BC: When I’m sitting high and playing double bass, I’m actually sitting as erectly as I can in my upper body and I’m projecting, again, from my key in the center of my body. I like to be able to see over the set. I like to have everything flat and facing me, except for the toms, which are angled towards me, but not severely. I can touch things, and what I want to do will determine how long my stick will be. So in my stick bag, I may have three different size sticks, depending on what kind of music is being played and what drums I want to address. I’ll change right in the middle of a song if necessary. You know, the music comes first. I’ll use a 767as opposed to an 808, depending on a certain area of the piece. I may change to a 707 if I need to, because I’m dealing with beads and attack on the cymbal, attack on drums, and getting thinner sounds where I need it. It doesn’t really matter that much. What matters depends on the kind of effect I want.

WFM: We were talking about your posture before. Whenever I have seen you perform, you look like a member of royalty reigning over your drums.

BC: Oh, yeah? Well, the whole idea is to be able to play and enjoy it. You have the best seat in the house. Drummers don’t think carefully about how they sit at the drums. They’re more interested in how the drums look than they are in how they position themselves on the drums.

The whole idea is to be able to project. That comes from the knowledge of how to set the drums up so that you can project through the drumset, which is very, very important. You can’t do it by yourself; your drums have to help you, not hold you back. If you play the drums and the heads are loose, you’re only going to get low tones, and you’re going to be playing much harder because the drums are not reacting. If you play and tune them properly and tune the bass drums to get good pounds- per-square-inch sound movement inside the bass drum, you’re going to get a lot more projection. You’re going to play a lot easier. Depending on what kind of shoes you wear, how high you sit off the drum- set, and the length of sticks you use, you get a lot of different things happening.

WFM: How do you tension your pedals?

BC: Very loose. With chain pedals with springs, I like to get a lot of reaction right off. I don’t want to work very hard with my feet, because they tire easily.

WFM: How did you develop your double-bass playing?

BC: It actually happened during the Mahavishnu Orchestra right in 1972.

WFM: What prompted it? You went from a single bass and a couple of rack toms to a double bass and a lot of toms.

BC: John McLaughlin did, quite honestly. He said, “Would you play two bass drums in the band?” I didn’t feel that I had learned enough about one bass drum, but I thought I would try. At first, I started practicing in a room. I opted for a real cop-out way. I said, “I’ll bring another bass drum, and I’ll practice it in a room. When I get it together, I’ll bring it on stage.” Then, I found that I was copping out. I felt like, if you really want to do this, you’ll just put it on stage and play. So I did. I said, “I’ll learn as I go. Either I’m going to make some musical statement or I’m going to make an idiot of myself.” It was a challenge that way. I decided I’d do it. The first things I did were just to maintain some kind of sustained pattern, playing even 16th notes. After a while, I started to think about paradiddles and other patterns that I could use as variations on time feels. From that point, I developed my feet to play fills, just as my hands would. In a way, I took the same basic approach to developing the coordination of my feet that I used on my hands.

WFM: Did your concept have to change in going from the small kit to the big kit, or did it just adapt?

BC: I had to adapt. I had to make adjustments.

WFM: What kinds of things do you practice now to keep your skills up, or do you get to practice at all?

BC: Normally, I carry a pad with me. I practice a lot of finger-control patterns, just bouncing the stick while all the time keeping my fingers nimble. With the bass drums, whenever I have the chance, I play rudimental patterns, and it’s not just movement of feet. It’s sitting properly. It’s a lot of posture—being cognizant of my posture all the time, sitting so that I can project. That’s primarily what I do. I really think a lot about how I address the drumset, which I feel is the key to playing. If you sit down at a drumset and you don’t know what you’re going to do with it, you’ve lost before you’ve even started.

WFM: You go from one interesting concept to the next. You had the mounted bass drums, you had the triple bass drums, the triple snare drums, the Octobans, the gong drums, etc. Do you have anything happening now?

BC: Yeah, sure. Let’s try the toms being changed around. This idea has come out of clinics—questions like, “Billy, I play a club date, and I have a small multi-tom set. My band plays the same music over and over. What can I do to prevent boredom?” I’ll say, “Well, why don’t you take your 12″ tom that’s over here on your left and your 15″ tom that’s over here on your right, and put the 15 where your 12 is, and put your 12 where your 15 is?” You’ll never be bored, because you’ll be playing something that you expect to produce a certain sound and it won’t produce that sound. All of a sudden, your eyes will stay open and your awareness will increase because you’ll be thinking, “I’m playing my patterns, but my 12″ tom is very deep sounding all of a sudden.” What that did for me was make me realize that we all take for granted the sounds of our drumsets. We get used to those sounds and that sound perspective. So, the first thing I did was change all the drums around. Now I have to play again. I have to open my eyes, and that’s really important. If you’re in control of the drumset, you should keep your eyes open, and you should be able to play the drums that you want to play when you want to play them.

WFM: I was looking at some recent photos of you and thinking, “Man, something looks a little funny here.” What’s going on? [laughs]

BC: That’s right. It does look different.

WFM: Could we talk a little bit about equipment?

BC: Right now, I’m using the power tom stuff, and it’s still Tama Superstars, because I believe in the Superstar shells more than I do the Artstar. I personally don’t like the sound of thin shells that much. I have a set of Artstars that I think leaves a little bit to be desired for me for the way I play. Most people are really into the Artstars, but I’m used to the Superstar thickness and sound.

As for cymbals, Zildjians are it. I use mostly A’s, but occasionally, I’ll pull out a K also. I’ve also got some cymbals with those Z’s on them. It’s still a cymbal somehow. The sizes change depending on what I’m doing. I did use a 13″ set of hi-hats on the new album, and they sounded great. For Power Play, I used a whole set of Platinums and they worked out nicely. We had a ball, but we worked in a studio that was really lively at Atlantic—the old Atlantic main studio, which gets a monster drum sound. If they could just get the cue system together for headphones, it would be alright.

WFM: Is it a big room?

BC: Relatively. It’s just a hard room. It’s got a cement floor, wooden walls, and stuff like that. So a wooden snare drum sounds like a cannon in there.

Speaking of snare drums, I’ve also been using a Chip Graphite snare drum. It’s a prototype from Tama. I’ve also been working with the Bird’s Eye Maple snare drum that I love very much.

WFM: What does this Chip Graphite give you?

BC: It’s a metallic sound—a very loud sound that’s still not controllable. It’s really like going back, for me, to the days of my old Hinger 37-pound snare drum with the Allan-wrench lugs. Why you do something like that is way beyond understanding, [laughs]

WFM: You said something before about the cymbals you were using: Platinums and the Z Series. What do you think about the drum industry’s craze over the cosmetic thing?

BC: They don’t have any other place to go. It’s all been done. It’s either cosmetics or you come up with a little company, like Noble & Cooley, that comes up with a drumset that’s logical. It just costs a lot of money. I think it’s a fantastic-sounding drumset.

WFM: I haven’t heard the drumset, but the snare drum sounds great.

BC: Oh man, the whole drumset is a monster, but we’re talking about getting Rolls-Royce to build you a special car. [laughs] The assembly line version of Noble & Cooley would probably be Sonor, with Tama right there.

WFM: What are you doing for muffling on your equipment.

BC: Muff’lsdo you know Muff’ls?

WFM: The Remo product?

BC: Yeah. My bass drums—I swear by them. I use them on both heads. I may use one Muff’l on my snare drum on the top—just a little bit of it, because I still want the projection. That’s it. The toms are wide open.

WFM: What about electronic drums? You stayed away from them for a while.

BC: Now I’m heavily into them, because I found a way to make it work in collaboration with what I do live with my acoustic set. My set triggers the electronics.

WFM: You’re not going to be up on stage with Simmons pads?

BC: Oh no. There may be a Simmons head—an interface that I’ll stick all the microphones through, come through the board, go stereo into that, and boom—get some kind of sound out front that will be on top of what I do, for an effect. That’s it.

WFM: You keep yourself pretty fit, and it’s obvious that you lift weights. I’ve read stories about you doing 400 sit-ups a day. Does that sort of thing help your drumming?

BC: Oh sure. It helps me from a health standpoint. To play with the intensity I want to night after night on a long tour, I have to keep fit. Also, those long flights to Europe and Japan can really take it out of you if you’re not together.

WFM: Do you ever feel the need to play outside the jazz/funk thing you’re known for? Does it ever get to the point where you want to get back to your roots and play straight ahead? Do you ever get the chance to do that?

BC: Rarely do I ever get the chance to play straight ahead, and I don’t feel the need to. I feel that art form is apart of me and it always will be. But the problem with playing straight ahead is that you can’t earn a living doing it. There is very little calling right now on a large-scale basis for playing straight ahead. That whole genre will always be with me even when I’m playing something, let’s say, more rock oriented. I might still phrase something or play a lick that comes from that whole style. The knowledge and experience I’ve had with that genre adds more depth to my playing in any style.

WFM: Could you talk about the recent thing with Mahavishnu? Why did the reunion fall short?

BC: The Mahavishnu reunion didn’t work out, because the idea was to get everybody together from the old band. I was misled quite frankly, but not without it being partially my fault. I really wanted it to happen so badly that I was willing to really push and shove to make it happen, because I felt that the time was better than right for it all logo.

WFM: Did McLaughlin just want to rope you in?

BC: I don’t know if he wanted to rope me in or not, but I felt that he needed to use my services, and the capacity that he wanted me to work in was as a sideman to support his material. Even though he put his best foot forward, which may not have been a very big one, to allow me to write a piece of music for the project, I didn’t get the feeling that my material or my thoughts on that particular level were needed. I learned my lesson, and I know that I’ll never do that again. That’s something that I would have loved to have done, and I paid a major price for it by finding out that sometimes you just can’t make things happen the way you want them to. If people don’t want to do things with you, you’re going to get the short end of the stick. That’s all there is to it.

WFM: So now you lead.

BC: I have my band to write for. When the original Mahavishnu Orchestra was together, I would have loved to have said, “Well, I’d like to contribute as a writer.” One of the reasons why that band was disbanded was primarily because everybody, including myself, felt slighted. I felt like we were doing so well that it would have been great for all the minds to come together and develop stuff together, because I not only had respect for the music that John McLaughlin wrote, but I had respect for the material that Jan, Jerry, and Rick wrote. It made me rebel and write the album that became Spectrum. I really wanted to write for the original orchestra. I tried to do that again with the new orchestra, but nothing had changed. I know that one of the things that turned the other guys off to doing it was the fact that they couldn’t come in with material. They couldn’t contribute.

WFM: They would have been just sidemen.

BC: Yeah, and that was unfair. They didn’t want to be people who supported John McLaughlin’s musical situation. They wanted to be looked upon as his equals, and I think that was only fair. He didn’t want to do it, so that was only fair.

WFM: As for your own career, you have put out an album a year since the original Mahavishnu Orchestra broke up, and when you didn’t, you’ve been involved in a major project. How do you account for such longevity? Some people just go away after a couple of albums. You’re consistent year after year.

BC: Well, I like to try to contribute to the music scene. This is my life, and I want to be involved. I like to work with people, too. I like to be a supporter, as I’ve been mostly throughout my career, but I like to have one situation where I can say, “This is mine. This is something that I do. This is how I feel. This is stuff that I write for myself. This is my recording deal. These are people that I employ to project my ideas.” So I do.



by William F. Miller

Without a doubt, Billy Cobham is one of the most influential drummers in the history of the instrument. His technical ability on the drums is unparalleled. His drumming combines this blazing technique with a thoughtful and innovative approach to the instrument.

The following examples demonstrate some of Billy’s mastery of odd-time signatures, double bass drum technique, and heavy groove playing. The transcriptions shown are the basic beats that Billy embellishes on. If you are not familiar with these tunes, be sure to check them out. They represent an important part of drum history.

1. “Vital Transformation”—The Mahavishnu Orchestra; The Inner Mounting Flame, Columbia PC 31607, recorded 1972. This is one of the more famous fusion compositions, from the Mahavishnu Orchestra’s debut album. What appears below is the basic pattern in 9/8, the rhythm of the basic riff written above that pattern, and one of the many embellished patterns written below.

The Inner Mounting Flame

2. “Birds Of Fire”—The Mahavishnu Orchestra; Birds Of Fire, Columbia 31996, recorded 1973. The title cut of the Mahavishnu Orchestra’s second album features Billy playing a driving double-bass pattern in 9/8.

Birds Of Fire

3. “Quadrant 4″—Billy Cobham; Spectrum, Atlantic SD 7268, recorded 1973. On this cut from his first solo album, Billy plays the double-bass shuffle, years before people like Rod Morgenstein, Simon Phillips, and Alex Van Halen became known for it.

Quandrant 4

4. “Spectrum”—Billy Cobham; Spectrum (same as above). On the title track from this album, Billy plays a heavy groove in 7/8.


5. “Spanish Moss”—Billy Cobham; Crosswinds, Atlantic SD 7300, recorded 1974. This is the basic pattern in 17/16, which Billy stretches out on. He makes the odd meter flow.

Spanish Moss

6. “Lunarputions”—Billy Cobham; Total Eclipse, Atlantic 18121, recorded 1974. Here is an interesting little funk groove.


7. “Juicy”—Billy Cobham & George Duke Band; Live On Tour In Europe, Atlantic SD 18194, recorded 1976. Billy’s drumming on this live album is very exciting, and on this cut, he demonstrates his double bass drum coordination.


8. “Anteres The Star”—Billy Cobham; Magic, Columbia JC 34939, recorded 1977. This funk pattern complements the tune perfectly.

Anteres The Star

9. “Indigo”—Billy Cobham; Simplicity Of Thought, Depth Of Expression, Columbia JC 35457, recorded 1978. This cut reveals Billy’s tasteful side, with his flowing approach to this reggae feel.


10. “Observations & Reflections”—Billy Cobham; Observations &, Elektra Musician El-60123, recorded 1982. Here, Billy plays a shuffle in three, written in 9/8.

Observations & Reflections

11. “Radio-Activity”—Mahavishnu; Mahavishnu, Warner Bros. 25190-1, recorded 1984. Check out this double-bass pattern with Billy playing a snare drum ride pattern on top.


12. “Come Join Me”—Billy Cobham; Warning, GRP-A-1020, recorded 1985. This example is from the 11/16 bridge section of the tune.

Come Join Me