“If you want to learn technical stuff ,” says this month’s cover artist, P!nk drummer Mark Schulman, “he’s the guy.” Jacob Slichter—a fellow student and respected pro drummer in his own right— takes us inside the career and concepts of one of the great drum educators.
In February of 2018, I began studying with Bruce Becker, an L.A.-based drummer and teacher regarded as a guru, perhaps the guru, of the mechanics of drumming. His colleagues refer to him as “Yoda,” “the Master,” “the Technique Guy.” His roster of students includes genre-defining artists, Grammy winners, members of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, drummers on hit songs, session and touring pros, teachers and authors of drum-method books, and lesser-known but equally dedicated players who want the best possible instruction. They’re scattered across North and South America, Europe, and Asia. (Most of Bruce’s lessons are conducted via Skype.) Some have come to Bruce to address physical difficulties—hand pain or recovery from an injury—while others, like me, want to expand the range and musicality of their playing. Over the past month, I spoke with Bruce and several of his students and colleagues about the strange magic of his method and how, as one of them put it, “He makes the seemingly impossible, effortless.”
The key to Bruce’s approach lies in his extraordinary attention to detail and his ability to cultivate this awareness in his students. “I want to empower people with a different perspective of how things can work,” he says. He does this through an ingenious series of exercises with names such as “Drop and Turn,” “Pivot Catch Up,” and “Kick Up to Fold,” in which various drumming motions are stripped down, thereby enabling players to notice small but vital points of execution. In the first such exercise he gave me, you simply let the stick drop to the pad and bounce to a stop. Simple as it sounds, it requires attention to no fewer than ten elements—the relationships of the bones and joints, the balance of the stick at each point of the stroke, the particular bend of the fingers and their pressure points, the exact placement of the thumb, and so forth. As I practiced at his prescribed tempo of five strokes per minute, my mind raced.
Bruce’s method builds on the work of his former teacher, the legendary Freddie Gruber. From the 1960s until his death in 2011, Gruber accumulated a star-studded roster of students that included, at various points, Vinnie Colaiuta, Steve Smith, Dave Weckl, and Neil Peart. As a number of Gruber’s former students have told me, however, studying with him meant enduring a fair amount of chaos. “Freddie didn’t abide by time.”
As Bruce describes it, you could arrive on time for your lesson, and “there’d be a guy on the throne, and another guy waiting on the couch. If you didn’t know what you were doing, he’d send you down to CVS for a pack of Marlboros.” So, as he sat through Gruber’s instruction of other students, Bruce sat on the floor and watched. “I wasn’t the most gifted, but I had a recording mechanism in my head.”
Between his own lessons and his observations of Gruber’s instruction of others, Bruce gained a unique grasp of the teachings. “Bruce was his shining star,” one of Gruber’s students recalled. He studied with Gruber on and off from 1977 into the early 1990s. Meanwhile, as the drummer for the David Becker Tribune, a jazz group he still co-leads with his brother, Grammy- and Emmy-nominated guitarist David Becker, his career as a recording artist and touring musician picked up. When he relocated to Antwerp and Vienna in the mid 1990s, Bruce helped host Gruber’s European drum clinics, often called to the drumset by Gruber to illustrate various points. His playing had now come to embody Gruber’s precepts so perfectly that when Bruce returned to L.A., Gruber would ask him to drive over and play for other students to showcase what lessons with Gruber might do for them.
Tris Imboden recalled such an occasion. In 1994, when his career as the drummer for Chicago as well as a recording and touring drummer for such artists as Kenny Loggins and Richard Marx was well underway, Imboden had his first lesson with Gruber. “Rather than play himself, he brought Bruce over to demonstrate what technique would do. Perfect hands.”
Becker, however, did more than master Gruber’s drum technique. According to a number of Gruber’s former students, Bruce teaches it far better than Gruber ever did. According to Mark Schulman, who previously studied with Gruber, “Bruce has taken over the crown and then some. He’s actually expanded upon what Freddie has done.”
Steve Smith, who does not study with Bruce but has endorsed his DVD, Concepts and Philosophies, echoes those thoughts. “Studying with Freddie required patience and the ability to interpret the meaning of what he was saying or demonstrating,” he says. “It was not a straightforward approach. Bruce has distilled a lot of Fred’s concepts and is able to teach and demonstrate them in a straightforward manner.”
Imboden, who now studies with Becker, agrees. “Man, I’m telling you, to my mind, there is nobody better at being able to break down and verbalize and demystify the undefinable things that go into perfect hand technique.”
“Bruce is like some kind of Yoda dude,” says Tower of Power’s David Garibaldi, whose first lessons with Bruce were in 2012. “A hand whisperer…he has an incredible level of knowledge. So much detail.”
“He’s really eloquent,” Drumeo founder Jared Falk says. Falk produced a twenty-six-week video class led by Bruce, Drum Technique Made Easy. “Bruce is known as ‘the Technique Guy’ because technique is really hard to communicate. He does it in a concise way that really simplifies it. Students have these lightbulb moments.”
One of Bruce’s distinguishing attributes as a teacher is his willingness to keep students working on the same exercise for weeks, perhaps months, until they get it right. Grammy winner Jiro Yamaguchi of Ozomatli jokes, “Sometimes I think, It must be so boring for him. He’d break it down into something basic, and we’d do it for six months. [But] he gets fulfillment over time seeing his students’ progress, even minuscule progress.”
Gabe Ford, who has drummed with Little Feat since 2009, has had similar experiences with Becker. “There’s been a time when I’m like, I can’t wait to show him, and then I’m practicing it for the next couple of weeks. But I trust him. That’s why I work with him.” Indeed, for the past two months, Bruce has been tweaking my turns and drops in German grip. Or, as I’ve come to realize, he’s been building my attention to little things— the slight but crucial shift of the fingers and thumb between the drop and the turn, the angle of the wrist, the extraneous motions I sometimes make with my elbows. Such fine points, I am discovering, make all the difference.
Much of what one learns from Bruce comes simply by seeing him play. Between lessons, I consult some of the seventy-plus teaching videos he’s made for me. As I listen and watch, I connect the clarity of his narration to the ease, fluidity, and yogic balance he projects from the drums. And the depth of his musicality! I find it refreshing that this master of technique has no interest in “drumming for sport.” For Bruce, technique is a means of listening. “The more flexible you become in your technical approach, the more it starts to serve your ear,” he says. “You hear more subtle nuance.”
Multi-genre drummer Paul Davis, a student of Becker who performed on the original cast recording of Newsies and tours with major national shows, says it well. “I’m interested in technique, but to help me be creative and help me flow more.”
I used to imagine a finish line, a point at which my drumming would be ready for some final unveiling, but working with Bruce and talking with his students has reframed my thinking. “I don’t care what you think you know—you don’t know all of it,” Ralph Johnson of Earth, Wind & Fire reflects. “The study of a musical instrument is a lifetime study.” To hear this from a creator of such iconic music humbled me, as did the knowledge that we share the same teacher. “He finds a way to break it through to you so you can get it. I’m working on my hands. I see him every two weeks.”
Likewise, it was instructive to hear Garibaldi, a widely recognized funk master, say of his work with Bruce, “I’m learning how to relax from the waist down as I play, and it’s really changed everything.”
“We’re all in our formative years,” Imboden, a multiplatinum artist, observes.
Which is why, as I practice for my next lesson, I hold on to Bruce’s mantra: “Everything’s a work in progress.”
Bruce Becker’s 16th-Note-Triplet Flow
A Concise Exercise to Develop Motion and Technique
The following routine combines several exercises that are first taught by Bruce Becker separately. Though it looks like a sticking exercise, it’s better understood as a study that’s designed to develop a player’s ability to shift freely between varied modes of motion—wrist bounces, Moeller motions, taps, singles, doubles, and so forth. Learning to flow through such shifts helps one express musical impulses with greater freedom and sensitivity. The routine can be played with German or French grips, and eventually, both.
Measure A is played with “fulcrum wrist bounces,” which are even, open strokes that use only the wrists, with no motion in the forearms.
Measure B introduces Moeller arm motion on the accents and taps on the unaccented notes.
Measure C combines Measures B and A—Moeller accents in the lead hand and fulcrum wrist bounces in the other. The wrist of the lead hand rises gradually between accents to prepare for the next downstroke.
Measure D has no accents, but the two hands alternate while incorporating a Moeller motion.
Measure E utilizes Moeller motion in the lead hand and taps in the other. To prepare for the next downstroke, the wrist of the lead hand rises while playing the consecutive partial upstrokes.
In Measures F and G, the accents are now drawn into the hand instead of bouncing freely.
Measure F uses Moeller motion, with low-profile taps in between each downstroke and upstroke.
Measure G employs Moeller motion with both hands. The sticking of the final sextuplet on beat 4 allows the player to begin the entire routine with the sticking reversed.
Practice each of the following measures, and eventually the entire routine, at tempos between 47 and 50 bpm. This will help you perfect your motions and eliminate tension, thereby building a sense of flow.
In the following notation, Moeller downstrokes are represented by thick down arrows, and Moeller upstrokes are represented by thick up arrows. Thin up arrows represent partial upstrokes that should be played as wrist lifts.
This is merely an overview. For a more precise breakdown, be sure to check out Bruce’s video demonstration “16th Triple Flow,” which is found on his YouTube channel and at moderndrummer.com.