Up & Coming

Anika Nilles

While some endlessly bemoan “YouTube drum culture,” players like this German upstart pay no mind. They’re just too busy, making the most of the medium and empowering the masses with fresh ideas.

Anika Nilles’s adventurous, hook-filled instrumental compositions provide a perfect platform for her drumming, which is defined by deadly accurate chops, deep grooves, a natural feel for every genre she explores, and a playful approach to rhythmic illusion. It’s easy to see why this German musician has quickly become an international drumming celebrity: The copious twists in her music grab our attention—and hold it for the long haul.

Nilles cites the late, great Toto drummer Jeff Porcaro among her main influences. “In my teens I listened to a lot of Toto and tried to figure out what Jeff was doing,” she says. “I’m a big fan of his feel, time, and musical sense.

“My teachers influenced me a lot as well,” adds the drummer, who developed her skills at the Popakademie in Mannheim, Germany. Nilles is quick to acknowledge the instructors who profoundly affected her playing, including Udo Dahmen, Jost Nickel, and especially Claus Hessler, an expert in the Moeller technique and the author of the well-received tutorials Open Handed Playing, Vol. 1 and 2, and Daily Drumset Workout. “Most of my education comes from studying privately with Claus,” Anika says. “His technique is flawless. I’ve learned a lot from him.”

Nilles actually learned a bit about the drums before she ever set foot in a music school. “My father taught me the first grooves I ever played,” she recalls. “I remember when I asked him about the groove for Michael Jackson’s ‘Man in the Mirror.’ He showed me the basic pattern, and it made my day.”

One of the most noticeable and impressive attributes of Nilles’s drumming is a fluid, relaxed technique. The consummate student credits several instructionals for helping to shape her knowledge and skills. “There are some books I’ve worked with, including Syncopation by Ted Reed, The New Breed by Gary Chester, and some of the Gary Chaffee stuff,” she says, “and I’ve watched lots of DVDs and all the YouTube stuff out there, though there are some DVDs that particularly influenced me. I’ve watched Jojo Mayer’s Secret Weapons for the Modern Drummer many, many times, for instance. Also, Aaron Spears’ Beyond the Chops and Stanton Moore’s Groove Alchemy are great.”

Another standout characteristic of Nilles’s playing is a creative approach to incorporating quintuplets, sextuplets, and various combinations of other odd groupings over straight 4/4 time. Like Porcupine Tree/King Crimson drummer Gavin Harrison, Nilles creates rhythmic illusions that provide a unique twist to the music. Take the song “Alter Ego.” Nilles explains her part beginning at the 1:45 mark: “This pattern is a combination of groups of five, seven, and three with dynamics and kicks included. I’ve practiced a lot of this stuff. That’s the way musical playing works for me. But, most importantly, I’m not into playing ‘licks.’ Mainly I choose the fill-ins intuitively from the [perspective] of what fits a certain part of the song the best.”

Another revealing example of Nilles’s adventurous process is found in her video “Queenz.” “This song is different,” Anika explains. “Everything is played in quintuplets in common time. I’m a big fan of common time. All the other instruments are playing straight quintuplets. The verse is played as a linear groove pattern. The chorus is a bit strange to listen to, because on the ride cymbal I’m playing a pattern of four over quintuplets, which may be a little confusing for the listener. While playing, I feel and listen to the backbeat on the snare and kick. This song was written after I figured out what I could do with quintuplets on the practice pad, and then I applied it to the drumkit. Also, there’s a part in the beginning in which I play an illusion of a shuffle groove. It’s a groove built on a group of three over quintuplets.”

Nilles’s well-produced videos capture the nuances of her advanced technique—as well as her youthful fashion flair, creating mass appeal with a likable persona within the instrumental realm. But it’s her feel that drives it home. And who are her favorite groove players? “For me, there is Stanton Moore, Adam Deitch, Steve Jordan, Benny Greb, and Questlove,” Anika says. “All of them give me energy and new ideas for my own performances.”

Tools Of The Trade

Nilles plays a Mapex Black Panther Black Widow drumkit composed of a 5×14 snare, 7×10 and 8×12 toms, a 12×14 floor tom, and an 18×20 bass drum. Her Meinl cymbals include 14 Byzance Vintage Pure hi-hats, a 20 Byzance Jazz Extra Thin ride (used as a crash), a 6 Byzance splash on top of a 14 Generation X Filter China, a 12 Byzance splash above a 22 Byzance Vintage Pure ride, an 18 Byzance Pure crash, and an 18 Byzance Vintage Trash crash above an 18 Byzance Jazz Extra Thin crash. She uses Aquarian Response 2 Clear drumheads, Vic Firth 55A sticks, Ahead cases, SlapKlatz damper gel, Tuner Fish lug locks, and a Meinl Russ Miller Artist series cowbell.

Story by Mike Haid

Photo by Norbert Saemann