With spiky hair, lasers, and guitars that go to 11, Rascal Flatts isn’t your daddy’s country band, and Jim Riley sure isn’t your middle-of-the-road sideman of yesteryear.
Jim Riley is not your typical country drummer. Like the wildly popular Nashville-based group Rascal Flatts, which has been his musical home base for fourteen years, Riley is a little bit more. More volume, more chops, more rock.
“The role of the country drummer has changed,” Riley says. “As country has evolved, it’s become the arena rock of our generation. Rascal Flatts, Taylor Swift, Jason Aldean, Eric Church—the bands are heavy, the music is loud, and it doesn’t remind people of the country music that once was.” Sure, Riley will lay down the most authentic train beat (see Drum Country, page 66), but he’s also asked to program loops and sing background vocals with Rascal Flatts, which is fronted by Gary LeVox, Jay DeMarcus, and Joe Don Rooney. He’s even involved, in his role as musical director, with writing the band’s in-concert intro music.
YouTube Riley and you’ll get a taste of what makes him so different, and so effective. Clinics where he’s throwing down wicked double bass? Check. Seventies style drum solos in the middle of the Flatts show? Check. A double-bill Crossroads TV performance with Journey where Riley shares simultaneous drum duties with Deen Castronovo on Journey classics and Rascal Flatts numbers? Double check.
Riley epitomizes a new type of drummer who rocks arenas at night and teaches students of all ages by day. Jim’s instructional methods are similarly new-school; his Nashville-based multi-kit home teaching space, Drum Dojo, features the full integration of modern online technology.
Still, this Modern Drummer Festival alum and multiple Readers Poll winner (and contributing writer) knows it always comes back to basics, regardless of a student’s skill level. “Drum students want to learn the most complicated things,” Riley, a University of North Texas grad, says. “But the simple stuff is sometimes the most important.” Riley’s efforts to address drummers’ core needs include the book Song Charting Made Easy: A Play-Along Guide to the Nashville Number System and its upcoming follow-up, Survival Guide for the Modern Drummer. MD caught up with Riley during some rare downtime in his busy schedule.
MD: Rascal Flatts paved the way for “new country,” which today is as much about rock beats and leather as it is about fiddles and pedal steel guitar. What are your thoughts on the monster you’ve created?
Jim: There was a critic who described Rascal Flatts as sounding “not like country, but like Night Ranger with a fiddle.” He meant it negatively, but we all thought it was awesome and funny.
MD: You’ve been with the group for fourteen years now. Did you imagine when you started that you’d have such a great gig for so long?
Jim: You know, I really did. When the guys hired me, they told me that they wanted me to be their drummer for their whole career. That was an exciting prospect. I believed in their talents and the direction of the band. I always envisioned us doing this for a long time.
Even though the guys’ first singles were very successful, live we had humble beginnings. During our first year on the road, we weren’t on a big tour; we were playing clubs, early slots on festivals, county fairs. We only had one hit song, so we played some really fun covers and opened up some of the album songs with extended fusion jams. We were really raw, but we had amazing energy, and we were out to show the world what we were all about.
“Jim has been the backbone of our rhythm section from day one. His level of intensity and passion each night is unequaled. It is such a wonderful feeling as an artist to know that someone is behind you, anchoring every musical aspect of the show. As a bass player, I never have a doubt where the pocket is. And I can always rely on Jim to be there for every move we make. Whether sticking to the strict regimen of our show or sitting in at a local club somewhere, Jim is truly one of the very best at his craft.”
—Jay DeMarcus of Rascal Flatts
MD: The live show became increasingly sophisticated.
Jim: When the third single came out with a prominent loop, they asked if I could run that loop live, which at the time was on an ADAT machine. As the band continued to gain in popularity, the sophistication of the live show continued to progress as well. Soon we were syncing the live performance with video elements, as well as the lights and lasers and pyro. This all became a dance between seventy touring personnel, and it had to be programmed down to the millisecond. We’d gone from clubs to selling out Madison Square Garden and the Staples Center, but it was a six-year growth curve that I was grateful to have.
MD: All this synchronization means you have to play to a click all night. How do you feel about that?
Jim: I love it. It takes away all of the “This song felt fast” and “That song was dragging” talk that can happen on a gig with no click.
MD: Some drummers talk about playing behind the click for the verse and ahead of it for the chorus. What are your thoughts on that?
Jim: I never believed in that idea. To me, you’re either playing with the click or you’re not. If you’re playing behind the click, you’re still playing at the same tempo—it’s just happening a few milliseconds later. Sure, you gain a momentary bit of momentum going from the verse to the chorus, but then you have to put the brakes on to maintain your original tempo.
In the professional world that I came up in, I’ve regularly had to play with quantized loops and percussion that are snapped to the grid, so it’s my job to make the time feel great in the center of the beat. And that can be a challenge.
MD: What’s your approach to keeping the songs fresh?
Jim: Well, we can’t really change what our hit songs are, but I can slightly change the way I approach them. I’ve been fortunate to work with bosses that realize the music will get stale if it stands still, so I’ve always had free rein to play the songs the way I feel them. If they hear something they don’t like, they’ll reel me in, but I’ve never been asked to reproduce exactly what’s on the record. Instead we try to take the signature licks and preserve them while letting the songs continue to breathe and find new life with our audience. It’s allowed us to reinvent some old songs and come up with arrangements that in certain cases have worked even better than the original. A great song is very flexible and can be shaped in a number of ways—if you’re willing to take some chances.
MD: What does your role as musical director entail?
Jim: Rascal Flatts is in charge of their musical vision. I’m the person in charge of making that vision a reality. Over the years, under their direction, I’ve hired all the sidemen in the band, and I make sure we’ve got all the parts covered and that the band is prepared and rehearsed. For the last three tours I’ve written some sort of musical introduction for the show. I’ve helped come up with some different arrangements for songs and created intros and endings to songs that are different from the record.
For our 2011 tour I wrote a tribal drum feature for the three guys and me as the intro to the show. They had a blast playing drums and did a great job. To this day I could walk up to them and count it off, and they’d remember every note. Over the years the MD position has expanded for me to include being a mix consultant for a variety of live things, like the Journey Crossroads show we did last year, which was a blast. Double drumming with Deen Castronovo on all those classic Journey songs was really fun.
MD: Your drumset has evolved over the years.
Jim: When I started with Rascal Flatts in 2000 I made a conscious decision to make my setup as ergonomically suitable as possible. So here’s what I did. I put a throne on an empty drum rug and adjusted it to a height where I just felt comfortable sitting. Then I added the snare drum and put it at a height and angle that gave me full access to the drum and allowed me to comfortably play rimshots. Next came the bass drum. Now, as I sat there I noticed that my feet in their natural resting position don’t point straight forward—they angle out like a V from my body. So the first curveball on my kit was that the bass drum was not straight on, but was angled out and away from the snare. So I did the same thing when I positioned the hi-hat.
I chose a four-piece setup because I wanted to have really good access to the ride, and I felt it was the smallest setup where I didn’t feel like I was sacrificing anything as far as voicings around the kit. Besides, that first year we kept all the gear in the belly of the bus, and I had to set up my own gear. So I wasn’t about to set up a giant kit and break it down by myself.
MD: So when did you make the transition to a bigger setup?
Jim: At some point when we were playing bigger shows the guys said, “Why don’t you bring out a bigger kit?” So I did, but every setup I used, no matter how big, had at its center all of the principles of a four-piece kit.
MD: Speaking about setting up drums, tell us about your relationship with your drum tech, Craig Krolicki.
Jim: Craig started with us in 2006, but I’ve known him since we both moved to town in 1997. Craig had some success as a player early on, but as the business changed he saw some of the gigs he was doing drying up, and not a lot of work was coming up in its place. When he came out with us, he’d never teched before, but to his credit he worked really hard to learn the craft. My kit changes yearly, and he has to memorize each one and execute its setup with precision every night. We don’t do soundchecks, so I rely on Craig to have the drums set up, tuned, and soundchecked so that when I walk up on stage everything is good to go.
MD: You use headphones live rather than in-ear monitors. How come?
Jim: I first started using the headphones during my clinics—I do a lot of them in the afternoons—because I’m constantly switching between playing and talking. When I would go and play the show with in-ears, I’d miss the headphones a bit. So about four years ago I decided to use the headphones on the show, and I’m still doing it.
MD: A moment ago you referred to the recent changes in the music business. What’s your take on the state of the industry in Nashville today, especially as it pertains to drummers?
Jim: When I moved to Nashville in 1997, people were saying, “Man, you missed it,” because in the early ’90s country was huge. I felt like country had picked up the listeners that were disinterested in the Seattle grunge sound that was dominating the pop airwaves. So when Garth Brooks kicked open the door for country, business in Nashville was booming. The top session guys from that era were playing sessions six days a week, sometimes at double and triple scale. Every label was opening another imprint, and there were a ton of artists coming out. More artists means more songs, which means more demos being cut and ultimately more drummers on the road. It was a player’s market.
But Napster and iTunes changed the music business radically. People were buying singles, not albums—if they were buying music at all—and that meant there was a whole lot less money going into the business. This meant fewer labels, fewer artists, and a whole lot less work for drummers in Nashville. This was the climate when I arrived in Nashville, but somehow I was able to adapt and create a niche for myself.
So today when I talk to a young drummer—and now I’m the one who’s been in town for a long time—I try to be encouraging and not tell them they missed it. They didn’t grow up in the album-driven world that I did. This is all they know, so, just like I did, they have to adapt. This has led to what I would call hybrid careers. Even some of the biggest session guys in Nashville are looking to take a road gig to supplement their successful studio career.
MD: Let’s talk about the recording of the upcoming Rascal Flatts album.
Jim: I’ve had various opportunities to record with Rascal Flatts over the years. But when the band decided to use producer Howard Benson, I really didn’t have any idea that I would get the call. Howard came out to see some shows, and he thought it would be good to try to capture in the studio what he was hearing live. I don’t think Howard knew exactly what to expect from Rascal Flatts or from me in the studio. Since he’d never worked with us, he booked two days at Sunset Sound in L.A. as a way for him and the band to get better acquainted.
Howard’s staff had hired a drum tech for the session, because he wasn’t sure what my ability to get my own sound was. So I went in the room, played a bit, and asked the engineer if he minded if I retuned the drums a bit, which was fine.
MD: Did you have a say in which drums you’d be playing on?
Jim: No. It was equipment that Howard was comfortable with and that he’d used on a lot of records he’d produced. All I brought with me was a stick bag. I tuned the drums a bit lower than they were and played for the engineer. He seemed happy, so we waited for
Howard and the Flatts to show up. Once the guys got there, they started listening to some prospective songs until one jumped out at them. Then Jay looked at me and said, “Okay, chart it.”
MD: Did you make a chart using the Nashville number system, like in your book?
Jim: I did. Then we laid it down in about two takes. I think we surprised Howard with how quick we were. By the middle of the second day, we’d recorded five songs, which is a reasonable tempo. Some songs we had in just a few takes, and on others we spent quite a bit of time experimenting with the arrangements. There was one where the guys were satisfied with the first take, but I asked if I could do another run-through by myself so they would have more choices when editing, in case the direction of the song changed slightly as the recording evolved. It’s good to have options on the Pro Tools playlist. In pop music, a lot of magic happens after the red light goes off.
Anyway, everything went great with Howard in L.A., so he called me to do an additional track when he came to record in Nashville. I brought my own drums on that one.
MD: Can you talk more about the Nashville number system?
Jim: The Nashville number system is such an important tool. As a working drummer, I was always looking for a charting system that was reliable, but everything I came across was a sort of chicken-scratch version that I couldn’t really hand to anyone else. If I was preparing a sub, I’d give them the chicken scratch and they’d say, “Thanks but no thanks,” and they’d end up writing their own charts. When I came across the Nashville number system, it looked a lot like the figured bass and Roman-numeral analysis that I’d studied in college. The biggest advantage is that I could write one chart and give it to the entire band.
MD: How did you end up writing a book about the system?
Jim: The genesis of Song Charting Made Easy was actually Modern Drummer magazine. I wrote a two-part article on the system in 2007 and turned that piece in to my publisher at Hal Leonard. I had lofty goals writing that book. I really wanted to change the world—you know, change the way that musicians thought about music. The Nashville number system revolutionized the Nashville recording process and helped turn Nashville into the recording mecca that it is. I think it should be taught in every music program in America.
MD: How does the system affect the part you play?
Jim: With a number-system chart, you can see the entire form of the song laid out for you on one page. You see the verse, the chorus, the bridge, and the solo, so you can plan the most appropriate thing to play in each section. I’m trying to create drum grooves where if you took everything out but the drums, you’d be able to distinctly hear all the sections of the song based on my parts and the voicings in my right hand.
You start to think about how each part of a song functions. What is a verse? A verse is a part of a song where the singer is telling a story. The best thing to do is stay out of their way and let them. So I’ll play a closed hi-hat and fewer fills. When you get to the chorus, that’s the refrain—that’s the repeat, the part of the song that they’re going to hear again. I have to elevate the energy there. So I may open up the hi-hat and play more fills to move the song along.
I may see a bridge and a solo coming up, so if I move to the ride cymbal on the bridge, where am I going to go on the solo? If the bridge is a real elevation from the chorus, I might play a crash cymbal, or if it’s a real departure for the rest of the song and the energy has changed, then I may choose to play floor tom on the bridge and ride cymbal on the solo. It’s not so much that the music dictates what you should play, because sometimes there’s more than one right answer. The important thing is that you ask the right question, which is: What does the music require from me? The answer to that is what makes us all the unique players that we are.
MD: What do you feel are the qualities that make a player most desirable to a prospective employer?
Jim: A great attitude toward the music and the other musicians is a great start. It’s very annoying to play music with people who feel like a genre is beneath them. If you dig into any style of music, you can find redeeming qualities.
When you make the choice to become a professional musician, you have to turn in your “I’m only into making artful music” card. You must be willing and prepared to play all styles. That’s what I’m addressing with my new book, Survival Guide for the Modern Drummer. I’m trying to help players be ready for virtually any style of music that they may encounter in the real world.
Another concept that I preach throughout my teaching is quality of sound, whether it’s how to strike a timpani or how not to play on the nodes of the accidental bars of the marimba. When it comes to pop drumming, I’m a big proponent of playing rimshots on the snare drum. It creates a distinctive sound and leaves enough room underneath to play ghost notes that can contribute to the groove. Something else I often tell players is to play their toms louder during fills. In most cases fills are supposed to elevate the energy level, and it’s important to keep that energy up all the way through the fill.
MD: Do you bury the bass drum beater in the head or let it bounce off?
Jim: For pop music I bury the beater. The biggest reason I do that is for consistency. Some players who don’t bury the beater tend to inadvertently play extra notes in between the notes they’re trying to play. I was one of those players, and for me burying the beater has given me a much more consistent sound.
MD: You play with such conviction. Can you talk about that?
Jim: I feel like I’m the luckiest guy on earth to be able to do what I do for a living, because I love what I do. The people that have hired me to play with them are letting me into their musical world, and they do this because they understand that I really care about the music. It’s one thing to be a great player but another thing to be really passionate about the music you’re playing.
And it doesn’t just apply at the highest levels on the biggest gigs. I try to play every gig I ever play with that same passion and conviction. The people that hire me deserve that. When I would be playing in an empty club with two people sitting at the bar, I would always think, What if one of those guys is the person who offers me that gig of a lifetime? Think about it that way, and you’ll realize that you should play every gig like it’s the most important one you’ll ever play.
MD: Teaching seems to be a big part of your life.
Jim: It’s something I’ve always done and always loved. The process of constantly breaking down for my students what’s most important actually makes me a better player. I’m grateful for the gifts that I have and all I’ve been able to accomplish with music so far, and I really enjoy helping other musicians get to that level as well.
MD: Tell us a little about your Drum Dojo lessons.
Jim: I have a great schedule with Rascal Flatts, where we basically play weekends. That leaves the early part of my week free to teach. I’ve created an environment where instead of teaching half hour lessons, which is the norm for middle school– and high school–age kids, I teach one-hour group lessons. With an hour I can teach snare drum, keyboard, and drumset all in the same lesson and keep my rate affordable for kids. It’s a very rewarding program, and all of the students so far that have stuck with me through their senior year have gone on to study music in college.
MD: Has technology changed the way you teach?
Jim: My iPod is the nerve center of my teaching. I have a cue system where everyone is wearing headphones and can hear my instruction over the microphone. I use the iPod to play classic recordings as well as music-minus-one-style tracks. Even my metronome is on the iPod. I also encourage the kids to bring their iPhone with them so they can record a one- or two-minute micro-lesson on what we’ve covered, as well as on what they should be practicing. I have them text-message me videos of them working on things, and I’ll give them feedback.
MD: You taught a drum line this year.
Jim: I did. It was intimidating at first, because I hadn’t written drum-line parts for twenty years. But as I got into it, it all came back to me.
MD: Did you march?
Jim: I marched with the Velvet Knights in 1989, and I did five years in the North Texas drum line. It was a great experience because it takes your hands to a level that you may not have known even existed. It also helped me with listening, which is a huge part of a successful drum line.
MD: Tell us about your clinic program.
Jim: I’m not a superhuman-type drummer; the concepts I work with are very simple. The clinics are interactive, and I’ll bring people up on stage. That doesn’t always go as planned, and you have to think on your feet. But as the attendees watch the player that has gone up on stage, they see themselves up there and they tend to pay attention. The main thing is for me to make sure a person is leaving with something that improves them as a player that day. Sometimes young players are looking for complicated things, but I’ll say, “Hey, young fella, if you play this simple fill, people will look at you like you really get the music.” It’s put upon me to combine my ability to play and teach, and help other people try to attain the same type of happiness in their career as I’ve had in mine.
MD: When you were younger, did you envision yourself even playing country music?
Jim: When I was a kid I would go to concerts like David Lee Roth, AC/DC, or even Stevie Wonder and say, “I wanna do that.” But the musical landscape changes and the gigs you aspire to aren’t there or are already taken. As I was looking for a career in music, I saw Nashville as an extremely livable city with amazing musicians, and I thought that those were the kind of people I wanted to be around. My dream was always to make great music with great musicians, and that’s what I’ve found in Nashville.
Drums: Ludwig Classic Maple in mint green glass glitter finish
A. 6.5×14 Black Beauty snare
B. 11×14 floor tom
C. 6×12 snare
D. 8×10 tom
E. 9×12 tom
F. 16×16 floor tom
G. 16×18 floor tom
H. 18×24 bass drum
1. 15″ Artisan hi-hats
2. 20″ Paragon China
3. 19″ AAX X-Plosion crash
4. 18″ AAX X-Plosion crash
5. 22″ Medium Heavy Artisan ride
6. 20″ AAX X-Plosion crash
7. 7″ Radia cup chime
8. 21″ Holy China<
9. 18″ O-Zone
Hardware: Gibraltar Road series “spider” rack, Ludwig Atlas double bass drum pedal
Sticks: Vater 5B wood-tip sticks, Splashsticks, retractable wire brushes, and Monster brushes
Heads: Remo Coated CS X snare batters and Ambassador bottoms, Clear Emperor tom batters and Clear Ambassador bottoms, and Clear Powerstroke 3 bass drum batter and Ambassador front head with custom graphics by Remo
Percussion: LP Ridge Rider cowbell
Electronics: Roland Octapad, MacBook Pro laptop running Abelton Live, Akai MPD18 pad/controller, Digidesign digi003R digital interface, two Clark Synthesis Tactile sound units
Mics: Shure SM7B on top of snare and SM57 on bottom, Beta 98s on toms, Beta 91s inside bass drums and Beta 52s outside, KSM137 overheads, and SM58s for vocals and talkback
Accessories: QwikStix stick holder and beverage holder, PureSound snare wires