Within the international drumming community, the name Portnoy is synonymous with progressive metal. Through his work with Dream Theater, Liquid Tension Experiment, Flying Colors, Transatlantic, and, most recently, Sons of Apollo, Mike Portnoy has garnered every award and accolade imaginable for his advanced drumming skills and musical explorations. But perhaps his greatest achievement is creating a second-generation Portnoy who’s handily following in his footsteps.
At the age of eighteen, Max Portnoy has embraced his DNA and developed his drumming skills to a high level of proficiency reminiscent of his father, who burst on the scene in 1985—also at eighteen—as a young prog rocker fresh out of Berklee College of Music in Boston. And behind the kit Max strongly resembles his dad at that age—same physical profile, same long and curly locks, same fiery spirit.
Since 2012, Max has been honing his drumming skills with the Pennsylvania-based metal act Next to None. In 2017 the band released its second album, Phases, and toured with Mike Portnoy’s Shattered Fortress, giving the young players a chance to fine-tune their live chops in front of a serious audience of shred fans.
At the 2017 ProgPower Festival in Atlanta, both father and son performed. When Mike was asked if he and Max were going to jam together, he replied, “Nope. He does his thing and I do mine.” The junior Portnoy is certainly not hanging from his father’s coattails, and he holds his own quite well. Watching Max perform, there’s no hint of intimidation or apprehension when he takes the stage. When the soft-spoken drummer saddles up, he’s cool, calm, and collected, unleashing the complex metal angst that drives Next to None’s music.
Although Max cites his father as his biggest influence in drumming and life in general, he claims that most of his technical training has come from Todd Schied at the California Drum Shop in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. “Todd has been teaching me since I was about five years old,” Max says. “He teaches me every style of music, from jazz to prog to metal to African and Brazilian rhythms. He wants me to know every style, and he’s a great teacher. He always shows me challenging things to keep me growing. Early on he taught me the rudiments and how to read rhythms. We worked with several instructional books along the way, reading snare drum pieces and developing warm-up techniques.”
Max has also studied videos on foot and hand technique, but he says he’s reached a point where he creates his own ideas based on his studies and influences. “One of my favorite drummers is [Lamb of God’s] Chris Adler,” Max says. “He has a lot of cool double bass ideas that are inspiring. But when it comes to creating my parts for Next to None, I focus on what’s comfortable for me and what fits my playing style best. I’ll sit down with the metronome and work on ideas that feel good to me. I use my leg muscles a lot in my double bass drumming. That’s what feels natural. So trying to imitate other drummers isn’t going to help me improve my technique.”
One thing that Max says has helped him refine his footwork is paying extra attention to his pedal setup. “I use the Tama Speed Cobra pedal,” he explains, “and recently I started focusing on spring tension, which has made a big difference. I keep the tension tighter than I used to, which was pretty loose before. Since I’ve tightened the tension, it’s become much more comfortable and easier to play faster tempos. I also keep my foot placement generally in the middle of the pedal, with my heel up, and push from my thighs.”
To keep up his skills, Max rehearses with Next to None two or three times a week and practices at the kit most days that the band is off. “When I have songs to learn, I’ll spend time working on my parts at home,” he says. “But a lot of times I’ll just play for fun, jamming with songs I like and writing my own syncopated beats. I don’t usually have a practice routine. I just go with the flow of what feels right at the time.”
Of the band’s songwriting process, Max says, “Most of the time it’s the riffs that come first when we get together, and then I write my parts to those. Though on the intro to ‘Mr. Mime’ I threw a random drum part that I wrote a while ago on top of the keyboard intro. And there’s a really syncopated drum part in ‘The Wanderer,’ which is almost a twenty-minute song, that is sort of Egyptian sounding, and I brought that in. It consists of three rhythms—one on my right hand, one on my left hand, and one with my feet. So the bass follows my kick, the guitar follows my right hand, and the keyboard follows my left hand. It worked out pretty cool. Also, if I’m practicing and I come up with something I like, I’ll record it on my phone. I’ve got a bunch of random beats and fills recorded that we might try and use if it fits the music.”
Max is currently working on another project that’s straight-up metal—perhaps taking another page from his father’s multi-project playbook? “Growing up, I learned a lot from watching my dad on tour and in the studio,” Max says. “Playing drums is what I’ve wanted to do my entire life, and my dad has inspired me more than anyone to follow my dreams.”
Tools of the Trade
Portnoy plays a seven-piece Tama Starclassic birch double bass kit in indigo blue finish. His cymbals are Sabians, and he uses Tama cymbal stands and Speed Cobra bass drum and hi-hat pedals, as well as Promark 420X sticks.