Korn’s Ray Luzier
Photos by Alex Solca
To observe the Luzier magic as closely as possible for this exclusive feature story—his first MD cover—we meet with Ray backstage prior to Korn’s set at the Rock on the Range festival in Columbus, Ohio. Two decades after the release of its self-titled debut album, Korn is as visually gripping and musically imposing as ever, and can still command a headlining spot at a huge weekend-long music fest. Crew Stadium is filled to capacity, with twenty thousand ravenous fans anxiously awaiting the arrival of the boys from Bakersfield, California. Part of the hysteria is no doubt due to the return of Head after an eight-year hiatus (Rock on the Range represents only his second appearance since reuniting with the band), but the reality is that Korn fans have always been among the most loyal in rock. It says much about Luzier’s abilities that the drummer has been warmly welcomed into the fold by fans and also treated like an equal by his bandmates.
As Korn prepares to take the stage, Luzier jogs in circles behind the drum riser, ramping up for the gig like an athlete preparing for competition. When we mention how awesome his massive drumkit looks, like a proud father he smiles and enthusiastically replies, “Yeah, those are my babies.” Despite some unexpected land mines, including the lack of guitar in his monitors for the first four songs and a cracked crash cymbal midway through the set, Ray gives an absolutely commanding performance. His magnetic focus and professionalism completely overshadow the chaos, and his musical drama, precise stick tricks, and big rig draw the legions in to his percussive barrage, which is by now an integral part of Korn’s appeal. The band’s Rock on the Range performance is positively spellbinding, a powerful force that happens only when passion meets purpose. Ray Luzier knows his role within this unique equation, and he plays it to perfection.
MD: When did drumming become your passion?
Ray: I was self-taught and played along to records until high school. I grew up on a 118-acre farm near Pittsburgh. We didn’t have much money, and nobody in my family was really into music. But when I was in high school, my uncle started giving me records by Kiss, AC/DC, Ted Nugent, Ozzy Osbourne…. I was learning to play by ear, but I couldn’t figure out why AC/DC was so much easier to play along to than Rush.
Then my high school band director got me into playing rudiments and learning basic reading skills, and I joined jazz band and concert band and really started getting into marching band. The director was straight out of the military and pushed the drummers hard. He told us that we would be at practice an hour before the rest of the band arrived and would stay an hour after they left. All the drummers hated him, but I was totally into it.
I basically lived in the band room during my senior year of high school. We used those giant DC10 Louisville Slugger sticks and learned to play flam taps and Swiss Army triplets at alarming rates. Up to that point, I paid no attention to playing in time or playing grooves and clean, precise fills. I was just a kid playing to records. He really helped get my chops together, taught me discipline, and expanded my overall musical skills, which have stuck with me all these years. And most of my visual antics, like flipping my sticks, stem from my high school marching band days. It also taught me all of the rudiments that I use today.
So then I met a guitar player in jazz band who was into more progressive music like Yes, Rush, and Deep Purple. We put a band together and played our first gig with another guitarist—and no bass player. We did club gigs, and my dad would have to come with us and stand at the door because we were only fifteen or sixteen years old. I knew at that point that I wanted to play music for the rest of my life.
MD: How did you end up in L.A.?
Ray: A lot of great musicians from Pittsburgh were going to L.A. at the time, and my guitar player thought that going to Musicians Institute in Hollywood would be a great way to meet other musicians and make connections in the industry. I didn’t care about connections. I thought we were good enough that we could just go out there and somebody would discover us. That’s how naïve I was about the business. So we both passed the audition to attend MI, and two months after we graduated from high school we packed up the bus and set sail across the States.
MD: What happened when you arrived at MI?
Ray: I got my butt kicked. I thought I was hot stuff coming off the farm, playing all this prog stuff. What I learned immediately was that my time was awful and I had a lot to learn about drumming. I didn’t know much about jazz, Latin, or world music, and my reading chops were weak.
There were a lot of inspiring players in my class, though, a lot of heavy cats, like Chad Smith and basically the entire Alanis Morissette band. My teachers, especially Ralph Humphrey, Joe Porcaro, Steve Houghton, Richie Garcia, and Efrain Toro, taught me a lot. They’re all world-class players. Joe Porcaro was most helpful in making me realize I was gripping my sticks way too tight. He got me to relax and helped me learn the Moeller technique. I’ll always be grateful to him for that. I’m forty-three and I’ve never had any hand problems, thanks to Joe’s guidance.
MD: What happened with your guitar player and making connections in the business?
Ray: I graduated from MI with average scores. My main goal became trying to fine-tune my skills so I could go out and meet players and get into a band. Also, most of my favorite players, like Steve Smith, Scott Travis, Deen Castronovo, and Atma Anur, were on these Shrapnel recordings with shredder guitar players, and I wanted to be a part of that scene. It just so happened that one of the guitar instructors at MI, Craig Small, was getting ready to sign with Shrapnel, and he asked me to play on his record. The project was called 9.0 and the album was titled Too Far Gone. I was nineteen when that came out, and it was my first professional recording. I ended up doing several more recordings for Shrapnel. At that point, my guitar player friend from Pennsylvania was getting bummed because our band wasn’t doing anything, and he moved back home.
MD: How did you end up teaching at MI?
Ray: After graduation I was doing small recording projects, advertising for lessons, and doing everything I could to survive in L.A. I was really struggling for a couple of years. Then Ralph Humphrey called and asked if I’d like to write a hard-rock curriculum for MI and teach a few hours a week. So we put together the Heavy Metal Live Playing Workshop and I started teaching four hours a week. Eventually the four hours a week turned into thirty-three, and I started teaching other classes, like Rhythm Section Workshop. I was still doing sessions and auditioning for lots of bands. I thought that if I practiced six to eight hours a day, I would get so good that everyone would want to hire me. That was definitely not the case.
MD: What did you learn from that experience?
Ray: One of my drummer friends at MI would always be in the practice room next to me, playing basic 4/4 grooves to a click track. He ended up getting the Joan Jett gig. That opened my eyes to the fact that I was going about the business all wrong. While I was practicing to build crazy chops, he was out networking and handing out business cards, sitting in at clubs, and meeting players. He taught me that doing the business of music was just as important as learning to play.
MD: When did your big break happen?
Ray: When I was twenty-one I auditioned and got the gig with Infectious Grooves. It was a full-fledged cattle call of about seventy-five drummers. I was thinking this was going to be my big break. After two weeks I was out of the band. I just wasn’t the right guy, and it humbled me quickly.
Fitting in with the other band members is such a big part of getting a gig. Sometimes if you don’t share the same hobbies or passions that the other members do, it can cost you the gig. I’m proud to say that I’ve never done drugs in my entire life. Red wine is my drug of choice! But I’ve seen so many bands, careers, and marriages ruined by drugs. Many bands today consist of recovering addicts. So out of respect for them I won’t even have a glass of wine around them. I’ve always been the designated driver. [laughs]
Anyway, after the Infectious Grooves gig fell through, I heard that Badlands/Ozzy Osbourne guitarist Jake E. Lee was auditioning players for his band. I’m a huge Ozzy fan and love Jake E.’s playing. I found out about the audition from a guy at the studio. So I went home and learned every song off both Badlands records and all the Ozzy stuff that Jake E. played on, just in case he wanted to play any of that. I practiced those songs for a solid week. So when I got to the studio, I hung out by the door until the bass player came out, and I asked him about auditioning. He said to hang out and he would see what he could do. So I sat there all day and listened to every type of drummer play the same three songs.
Finally, I got to go in. I was the last guy of the day, and they were so tired that they literally had their heads in their hands—you could tell that they just wanted to get it over with. I talked them into playing one of my favorite Badlands songs, which was a refreshing break for them. Then I went into another of my favorite Badlands tunes and we jammed on that. Then they asked what I was doing the next day. I spent over four years touring in the band, until the label dropped them. But it was my first big break.
MD: What happened next?
Ray: I went back to doing a lot of sessions, thinking maybe that was going to be my niche. During that time, I did a session at guitarist Steve Vai’s house for a twenty-one-year-old guitarist named Mike Hartman. Shortly afterwards, Hartman hooked up with David Lee Roth to write and record some songs, because he was going to put out a new record and tour again. So Hartman called me to come down and record with them. He said that Roth heard his tracks and liked my playing. I didn’t really believe this was going to happen, but I went anyway.
Sure enough, when I got there, I was standing face to face with Diamond Dave. During the session he kept asking me a lot of questions about my playing, which I thought was kind of strange for a session. What I didn’t realize is that he was actually auditioning me for his band. His manager called me the next day and said I passed the audition. I was freaked out because I love Van Halen, and playing with Dave was on my bucket list. I spent the next eight years touring and recording with him. It was a childhood dream come true.
MD: What was it like working with him?
Ray: I loved touring the world with David. He taught me a lot about the music business, and he taught me to be an entertainer, not just a drummer. He would tell me to think about what someone in the audience would think of me when they were watching me play. Would I look boring to them, or would I be entertaining? That was a huge lesson for me. I learned to be more aggressive and display my emotion in a more visual way. But I got tired of playing the same songs for eight years, and I found that I wasn’t growing as a musician. So I started looking for other opportunities.
MD: What did you discover?
Ray: I was doing a NAMM Show gig in 2006 with bassist Billy Sheehan and David Lee Roth guitarist Toshi Hiketa. The DeLeo brothers from Stone Temple Pilots were also on the bill, playing with drummer Steve Ferrone. They were checking us out at soundcheck, and afterwards they asked me what I was doing, because they were putting a new band together with Filter frontman Richard Patrick called Army of Anyone. I told them I was a huge fan of STP and Filter and that I’d love to audition. I got a six-song demo from management and was ready for the audition.
But before we even played a note of their music I knew that they were all big Led Zeppelin fans, so we started the audition by playing the entire first two sides of Physical Graffiti. After we started into the first demo song, we took a quick break. When I came back into the room, they all had grins on their faces and welcomed me into the band, without even really playing any of their own music. It also meant a lot to them that I was from the East Coast, because they are all East Coast guys. There’s just a certain vibe that connects people from there.
MD: What did Army of Anyone give you that you were looking for musically at the time?
Ray: We all started writing the music together, and they taught me how to simplify my playing and to create hooks with my grooves. They got me thinking more about creating drum patterns that would become integral parts of the song. Unfortunately the band was short-lived. After we did the record, we toured for about four months, and then everybody ended up going back to their previous bands. I joined Korn within the same month.
MD: What was your connection to get the gig with Korn?
Ray: The guys in Korn aren’t really schooled players. The beautiful thing about that is they create their own style based on heart, soul, and emotion. So the fact that Terry Bozzio and Brooks Wackerman played on Untitled [the first studio album without founding drummer David Silveria] was pretty bizarre. For whatever reason, it didn’t end up working out with Terry, so Joey Jordison from Slipknot did some of that tour until he had to get back to recording with Slipknot. My manager told me they were looking for somebody and that they really liked the Army of Anyone recording that I played on. So he was able to set up the audition. I owned four Korn records, so I started listening to them and visualizing myself in the drum chair.
Then I bought Untitled, started practicing to it, and found myself really getting into it. So I called my manager a week later and told him that I wanted to audition for the band. He suggested that I go to Seattle and audition before their last show of the tour. He said he’d rent a kit and set up the audition at soundcheck. I was doing a clinic tour for Sabian at the time, and we rerouted the tour into Seattle so I could audition.
MD: What was the audition like?
Ray: It was bizarre. I showed up to an empty arena, walked on stage, and sat down behind a really bad-sounding rental kit that was impossible to tune. They’d asked me to learn five tunes, but I learned thirty so I could be ready for whatever they threw at me. My best advice for any musician is to be overly prepared when you audition. Think about what you can do that will separate you from the other hundred guys that will be auditioning.
At first Munky [guitarist James Shaffer] and I started playing some tunes, and then after about three songs, the bassist, Fieldy, showed up and we jammed on three more. Then they said they would talk things over and let me know. Usually when that happens it means you don’t have the gig. So I figured I just didn’t have the look they wanted and started taking my cymbals down. But before I knew it, there were video cameras in my face and they walked up and said, “Congratulations, you got the gig. Welcome to Korn. We’ll see you in Dublin.” I was totally stunned. The only thing Fieldy said was, “Hey man, start letting your hair grow!”
MD: What do you feel you bring to Korn from a drumming perspective?
Ray: When I joined Korn, they said, “We hired you because we love your playing and your personality. We want you to bring your thing to this band.” When we first hit the road in 2008, I was a hired gun, and I was completely fine with that. I was really into re-creating the tracks with respect to the original parts, but adding my personality, groove, and feel.
I became a full member in 2009, after the tour. Now that I’ve done three Korn recordings, along with some movie soundtracks, I can totally do my own thing. When we started writing for Korn III, I knew that a big part of the band’s sound was producer Ross Robinson. Ross is very hard on drummers, so I knew he was going to ride me and that I’d have to prove myself. I still get referred to as the new guy, and I’ve been in Korn for six years now. So I understood that I had to prove myself to the fans before they would accept me into the Korn family.
MD: Watching Korn on stage and the way the audience responds, there’s a hypnotic aura that surrounds the band. Do you sense that when you’re on stage?
Ray: Absolutely. The band is so much larger than we are as individual members. No matter how tired or jet-lagged we are when we hit the stage, the music takes over and controls us for the entire show. It’s almost like an out-of-body experience. The music takes us to an amazing place that I’ve never experienced in any other band.
There’s a serious cult following with Korn. I’ve met about forty fans who have my picture tattooed on their body. That really freaks me out. But it also tells me that the fans take our music as seriously as we do. And that means a lot to us and keeps us wanting to give our best at every show. The eye makeup that I wear is just to help enhance the character that takes over on stage.
MD: Talk about the amazing-looking rack that you use with your live kit.
Ray: I’ve been a non-rack player for most of my career. A few years ago I met a guy in L.A. named Nissim Aharon, who designed racks for other musicians around L.A., including Jonathan [Davis, singer] from Korn. So I agreed to let him make a rack for me, but I needed him to make sure to place my signature China cymbal front and center and still leave a space in front of the kit. Two weeks later he had it finished, and it looked really cool, so I started using it. Now I’ve changed it a little and gone back to the straight stand in the center for my China.
MD: You play open-handed a lot. What’s the main purpose of that?
Ray: I started playing drums open-handed. I like the feel and power of it. I’m not good at ghosting open-handed, though. So when I want to play more intricate patterns with ghost notes, I’ll cross over and play traditional.
MD: Did you ever do specific exercises for improving the coordination of that?
Ray: I like to play one-handed 16th-note patterns using my left hand on the hats, to strengthen my left hand. Just be sure that your snare drum is very strong and powerful no matter what hand is hitting it. No one cares what hand you’re hitting the drums with—it’s all about how it sounds on record or in performance. The grooves do change slightly when you play open versus crossed. Sometimes I’ll open doors, eat, or brush my teeth with my left hand, just to balance out the strength. It affects your playing—try it!
MD: Can you talk about the technique and stamina involved in playing heavy music in a large arena? You play with a lot of power, but you have such relaxed control of your hands and feet.
Ray: We play two-hour shows, and I don’t get much of a break during that time. It looks like I’m playing heavier than I really am. I’m actually quite relaxed most of the time. My grip is very loose. Sometimes the butt of the stick is in the middle of my palm and I’m barely holding on.
I always pace myself. Fatigue can actually set in quicker on smaller gigs, so I try to ease into the gig a bit more when we play smaller places, where it’s hotter with less fresh air to breathe. Having proper stick technique is crucial to staying loose and relaxed.
MD: You wrote the hard rock and double bass curriculums when you taught at MI. What do you feel are the most important elements of being a good metal player?
Ray: If you’re going to play a heavier style of music, your timing has to be great, which means you have to practice to a click about 75 percent of the time. Not all the time, because you’ll start to rely on it too much. You have to be ready for any situation and not depend on the click to save you. You have to develop your internal clock. It takes time—I’m always working on my timing.
Another thing that a lot of hard-rock and metal drummers lack is dynamics. It’s very important to practice at all different volume levels. Consistency between your kick and snare is key as well. You won’t get hired if your backbeats aren’t consistent. Most important for metal drummers: Play your fills as loud as your groove! I can’t stand when I see a drummer playing this slamming groove, and then the fill comes up and the bottom falls out.
I actually don’t consider myself a metal drummer. I play many different styles, but I do specialize in heavier drumming with soul. I think a lot of today’s music is too stiff. We have to remember that we’re human, not machines. Listen to some albums made in the ’70s!
MD: Do you play both traditional and matched grip?
Ray: I can, but there’s really not much need for me to play traditional these days, since most of my gigs are with Korn and it calls for a more powerful technique. Sometimes, when I practice, I’ll mess around with some jazz and switch to traditional grip. But not very often anymore.
MD: Do you play any gigs outside of Korn?
Ray: Since 1996 I’ve been hired by a company called Perfect World Entertainment to play weddings, corporate gigs, and private parties, everything from disco to classic rock. I’ve always done these gigs in between touring and session work. It’s a humbling experience coming off a major world tour and then loading your drums up in your car and having to haul them up a flight of stairs and play disco to a click track all night. These gigs have paid my bills many times when I’ve been taken off retainer from a salary gig.
MD: What other recording projects are you currently involved with?
Ray: Outside of Korn, I’ve been recording with bass virtuoso Billy Sheehan. We just finished a bass-and-drums-only project that includes lengthy, epic conversations that explore crazy musical directions. Also, King’s X is one of my all-time favorite bands, and I’ve wanted to work with bassist/vocalist Doug Pinnick for years. I finally got my wish on the new KXM project, which also includes former Dokken and Lynch Mob guitarist George Lynch. It’s made up of spontaneous compositions that we wrote in my home studio. We recorded a song a day for twelve days. I also recorded the drum tracks for Korn vocalist Jonathan’s solo release. From an educational perspective, in 2005 I released an instructional DVD on Hal Leonard that focuses on drumset technique for double bass, hand-and-foot coordination, practice techniques, and groove and fill exercises.
MD: With all your activities, what keeps you grounded?
Ray: I have an amazing family in L.A. and a place near my folks’ house in Pennsylvania, in case I end up penniless and go insane in Los Angeles. [laughs] But life is really
good, and I’m thankful for everyone and everything in it.
MD: Where was The Paradigm Shift recorded?
Ray: We tracked the drums at NRG in North Hollywood, and all the rest of the record was done at the Buck Owens studio in Bakersfield, California, where the original members of Korn are from.
MD: Did you go into the recording with any predetermined ideas?
Ray: I listened to a lot of James Brown and Parliament records before we went into the studio this time. I love old funk music; it’s so real and not locked up to a machine, like most music these days. I encourage drummers, especially hard-rock and metal players, to listen to other styles. It really helps your playing and broadens your musical vocabulary. In the song “Never Never,” for instance, I just lay back and groove. It’s what this tune called for—a very different style of tune for Korn!
MD: What kind of input did producer Don Gilmore have on your playing on Paradigm Shift?
Ray:: Don suggested ideas for me to play based on what the other instruments were doing. There are some unique grooves on the record. Fieldy and I really play off each other—and around each other. We’re not your typical lock-in-together rhythm section. He’s a percussive bassist, so we find parts that complement each other.
MD: Did Gilmore talk to you about your fills too?
Ray: Yes, he had me approach some of them differently. They’re still “me,” but I did some different things. Fills that I might normally divide between my hands and feet, I would do a build fill on just my snare. Like when we come out of the bridge of “Mass Hysteria,” I do a very quick 32nd-note fill. In the song “Love and Meth,” I do a single-stroke roll between the snare and toms in the choruses and intro, then at the very end I do a typical “Luzier” fill between my feet and hands. There are some quick fills on that song that I like a lot.
More important to me than the fills on the new album, though, are the grooves. I don’t play typical kick/snare/hat patterns. You have to have a funky hard-rock/metal groove to play in this band. It’s not just bashing away and robotic. My favorite drum parts on this record are when the toms, hi-hats, and splash cymbals are incorporated into the verse grooves and then I straighten out in the chorus to make it more powerful. Incorporating the toms and the hi-hats into my grooves funks them up a bit and makes them not so typical.
On “What We Do,” I incorporate my transitional fills in the actual groove. Those are some of my favorite things to play, because they kind of flow into the next part of the song. The opening groove in “What We Do” involves a cymbal configuration that I made up using a 16″ Sabian Radia on top of a 15″ HHX hi-hat bottom cymbal, which I also used in the verses of “Paranoid and Aroused.” Then it goes to a more straight hi-hat
in the verse, then to the O-Zone crash in the pre-choruses, and then it opens up with a 19″ HHX-Plosion crash in the chorus. In that chorus and in intros I’m using a double pedal, which makes it sound more powerful and even.
“Victimized” is another one of my favorite tracks from the album. In the opening groove and the verses I used a 10″ side snare with my left hand and played the hi-hats and snare with my right hand, creating a kind of loop feel. In the chorus of this tune, I’m using the double pedals again.
MD: How much digital enhancement was done to your drum tracks?
Ray: There are two songs where I play along to drum loops that our vocalist, Jonathan, created. He’s actually a really good drummer. There’s a song called “Spike in My Veins” that he cowrote with a DJ. The drum loop he created is so cool that no matter what I did to try to reproduce it, it didn’t enhance the groove. So I laid out until the chorus, and the drums only play on the chorus and outro.
MD: Did you play to a click?
Ray: I played to a click on everything. And we pushed and pulled certain sections to create a vibe. We tried doing it without a click, but with so many electronics going on, it just made life easier to do it all with it.
MD: Once your tracks are finished, do you keep tabs on what’s being done to them during mixing?
Ray: Yes, and Don actually invited me to his house to go over all the drum tracks to make sure I was cool with everything that he was doing before we started mixing. There were times when he would slice measures in half and cut fills off in ways that didn’t sound natural to me. So we both compromised on what made sense for the song, and it all worked out really well in the end. There were a few minor things that I had to move, but I still wanted it to breathe and feel real without too much editing. Korn III was done totally without a click, and the time moved all over the map, on purpose. Then on the next album, The Path of Totality, everything was completely locked on the grid. On this new record it’s a bit of both worlds.
Korn III: Remember Who You Are, The Path of Totality, Live at the Hollywood Palladium (DVD and CD), Paradigm Shift /// Army of Anyone Army of Anyone /// David Lee Roth DLR Band, Diamond Dave /// Billy Sheehan Cosmic Troubadour, Holy Cow /// The Hideous Sun Demons The Hideous Sun Demons
RAY’S KORN TOUR SETUP
1. 19″ Holy China (or Manta Ray)
2. 18″ AAX X-Plosion crash
3. 10″ AA splash
4. 19″ AAX X-Plosion crash
5. 14″ AA Rock Hats
6. 10″ Glennie’s Garbage
7. 21″ AA Rock ride
8. 20″ HHX X-Plosion crash
9. 18″ AAX O-Zone crash
10. 8″ Ice Bell
11. 18″ APX O-Zone crash
12. 16″ Radia with 15″ HH
bottom hi-hat underneath
13. 15″ Radia China with 14″ HH
bottom hi-hat underneath
14. 9″ LP Ice Bell
15. 18″ Holy China (or AAX China)
Not shown: 21″ Holy China and two
prototype “spiral” cymbals
“I have a lot of cymbals, but I use them all for specific sounds in each song,” Luzier says. “On my right I have several stacks for really tight sounds. My crash cymbals are pretty loose, but my stacks are very tight, and I’ll break a few cymbals along the way. I especially love the Sabian 18″ O-Zone crash. I used it quite a bit on this record. In ‘Prey for Me’ and ‘Mass Hysteria,’ it’s in the opening riffs, and I used it in the pre-chorus of ‘Love and Meth.’ It’s great for quick attacks; it dies out quickly. I go back and forth between the ride and O-Zone a lot.”
Electronics: Yamaha DTX-MULTI 12, ddrum triggers, Hart pads, Aviom A-16II mixer
“My two electronic pads are used to trigger 808 sounds and different electronic snare sounds, and to activate loops. One thing David Lee Roth said to me was, ‘Always have a backup for the backup—don’t make excuses.’ So one is my main pad and the other is an active backup if the main one fails. I have triggers on some of the drums, but they’re only activated when we play the dubstep songs. For 90 percent of the show they’re off.”
Hardware: DW, including 9000 series double pedal
Heads: Remo, including Ambassador X snare batters, Clear Emperor tom batters, and Powerstroke 3s on the bass drums
Sticks: Pro-Mark Ray Luzier 757
Accessories: Porter & Davies BC2 throne
Tech: Toi Russel
“Toi is my awesome drum tech. He worked with Snoop Dogg for six or seven years, as well as many other artists. He’s great with Pro Tools and can fix anything quickly. So I have no worries when things go wrong, like they did in Columbus!”