The 2016 Guitar Center Drum-Off Grand Finals

Story by John Martinez
Photos by Alex Solca

This past January 14, Guitar Center held its twenty- eighth-annual Drum-Off Grand Finals, at the Novo club in downtown Los Angeles. Over the course of the competition’s numerous preliminary rounds, which took place in more than 250 Guitar Center locations nationwide, five finalists were chosen from among a pool of around 4,500 drummers to compete at the event.

Those finalists were Kwesi Robinson, Anthony Burns, Fred Boswell Jr., Mark Pacpaco, and Hilario Bell, and each played a five-minute solo on a standard five-piece drumset. As a welcome twist to past competitions’ drum setups, this year’s kit didn’t incorporate any electronic sampling pads. Finalists were judged on technique, groove, originality, stage presence, and overall performance.

Pacpaco, an engineering student from West Covina, California, who started playing when he was three years old, took home this year’s crown. He dropped to his knees when he heard the results. “It’s all hard work and persistence,” he said after the finals. “I really sacrificed a lot for what I had to do for this competition.” Pacpaco grew up watching drummers play in church and was also a quarterfinalist in last year’s competition, and he says he saw the Drum-Off as an opportunity to get constructive criticism from other players in order to strengthen his drumming vocabulary.

Pacpaco’s prizes included $25,000 in cash, a VIP experience at the Winter NAMM 2017 trade show, a featured Drum Channel performance, a Roland TD-50KV electronic drumset and SPD-SX sampling pad, and a choice of a complete custom drum setup from the event’s sponsors. Past Drum-Off winners have gone on to perform with artists such as Prince, Beyoncé, Jay Z, and Alice Cooper, among others.

Among this year’s judges were Steve Ferrone (Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers), Gil Sharone (Marilyn Manson), Tony Royster Jr. (Jay Z), Rich Redmond (Jason Aldean), Thomas Lang (Paul Gilbert, educator), Cora Coleman-Dunham (Dave Chappelle), Dave Elitch (Antemasque), Gerald Heyward (Chris Brown), Eric Leiderman (Late Night With Seth Meyers), Venzella Joy Williams (Beyoncé), Aaron Spears (Usher), and Hannah Welton (Prince). When asked what she was looking for in the finalists’ performances, Welton said, “Versatility, presence, and performance. I wanted to see guys up there have fun and show that they’re passionate about what they do. And I was blown away tonight.” Gregg Bissonette (Ringo Starr and His All-Starr Band) returned to host the event.

The duo of Larnell Lewis (Snarky Puppy) and Rashid Williams (John Legend) opened the guest-artist performances by playing original compositions while also taking individual solos. “It’s not often that you get a chance to have a conversation like that with a drummer, especially when you’ve only met each other a few times and have never played together before,” Lewis said. “[It was] completely in the moment, and we fed off of each other rhythmically and harmonically.” Williams explained that the two wanted to create a massive, tribal, heavy piece that would emotionally sway the audience: “That was our only recipe. I’ll start something, and we’ll work our way into building this picture. Hopefully everyone was able to see that, because there’s musicality and points of melodic structure that we can create as drummers.”

Larnell & Rashid Song 1

Larnell Solo

Larnell & Rashid Song 2

Rashid Solo

Larnell & Rashid Song 3

Next Bissonette honored two recently deceased drum-industry vets: Boston Symphony percussionist and drumstick manufacturer Vic Firth and Richie Ring developer Richie Pidanick. “Pidanick was generous, supportive, and one heck of a drummer,” Bissonette said. The event was dedicated to Pidanick, who was also a longtime Guitar Center executive.

After the contestants’ sets, Snarky Puppy’s Robert “Sput” Searight introduced Guitar Center’s RockWalk inductees for the event, the legendary James Brown alumni John “Jabo” Starks and Clyde Stubblefield. (To the great sadness of the entire drum world, Stubblefield passed away a few weeks after the Drum-Off.) “I’ve had the opportunity to hear these guys my entire life, because my family listened to all of their records,” Searight said. “In our day and age, we don’t get to pay real tribute to legends that we’ve heard on records from the ’60s and the ’70s. Tonight we get to honor these two people.”

Afterward Stubblefield and Starks took to the stage to place their hands in the cement that would later be part of Guitar Center’s RockWalk outside the retailer’s Hollywood location. “This is such an honor,” Starks said. “Who would’ve thought that ol’ C and I would’ve been here doing this? We thank you. We’re glad to have done something that other drummers would appreciate. It’s an honor.”

Sheila E. (Prince) closed out the night’s performances alongside her father, percussionist Pete Escovedo, with duets and full-band tunes, and at one point Bissonette joined them on stage.

Representing the feelings of everyone in attendance at the Drum-Off, Venzella Joy Williams said, “It was incredible from start to finish. There was no better way to open than with Larnell Lewis and Rashid Williams, who are two of the most musical drummers in the industry. Then honoring the legends who played for James Brown, and then hearing the finalists—those guys were incredible. And ending it with Sheila E., who to me is the quintessential female drummer…. She paved the way, playing drums when it wasn’t common for females to do that. When she came on the scene, she had so much grace and femininity, and she incorporates that into her playing. I think the Drum-Off hit on so many levels—whatever type of drummer you are, something appealed to you.”

Event sponsors included DW, Drum Channel, Evans, GoPro, Gretsch, LP, Meinl, Pearl, Promark, Remo, Roland, Sabian, Tama, Vic Firth, Yamaha, Zildjian, and Modern Drummer.