Watching the versatile and dynamic Glen Sobel perform with shock-rock legend Alice Cooper is like attending a clinic on how to do everything right as a great live rock drummer. The muscular Sobel’s animated motions make the groove seem larger than life. As Cooper entertains up front, Sobel balances the stage energy with rhythmic intensity and a deep understanding of song structure and dynamics, wowing musicians and laymen alike with flashy stick tricks and uppercuts to his crash cymbals. And when the bandleader unleashes the monster drummer, Sobel reaches deep into his bag of tasty, technical chops, impressing even the most discriminating listener in Alice’s house of horrors.
Sobel grew up in Los Angeles and was schooled in the way of professional music making at the famed Baked Potato club in Studio City, where he soaked up the secrets of the world’s great fusion players. At nineteen he won the national Guitar Center Drum-Off, and soon after he began a career that would find him recording with some of the heaviest guitar slingers in the business. Among the most well-rounded players on today’s rock scene, Sobel is also an accomplished teacher, and he’s quick to turn to the rock classics not only for his own inspiration but to educate others as well. We begin our conversation by exploring the roots of his craft.
MD: Who were some of your early drumming influences?
Glen: When I was in elementary school I got into Neil Peart with Rush and then John Bonham with Led Zeppelin. I was also into Ian Paice with Deep Purple and Tommy Aldridge with Pat Travers. Then, when I was in high school, I got turned on to ’70s fusion. I was totally into Return to Forever, Mahavishnu Orchestra with Billy Cobham, Weather Report. And growing up in L.A., I was into all the area fusion artists, like saxophonist Brandon Fields with drummers Gregg Bissonette and Tom Brechtlein.
Gregg’s a rock player with a hugely diverse background in jazz and Latin music—I remember an issue of Modern Drummer where there was a sound supplement and a transcription of Gregg’s solo from Brandon Fields’ track “The Brain Dance.” Gregg was actually a mentor of mine. I studied with him for almost two years, and he recommended me for my first pro gig, with Tony MacAlpine.
MD: How have these legendary players influenced your teaching approach?
Glen: When I teach and do clinics, I remind drummers that it’s not all about technique. It’s mostly about the music. If I’m teaching double-stroke technique for the bass drum, I’ll have my students check out “Walk This Way” by Aerosmith. It’s not easy to keep that double stroke consistent. And the gold standard of double-stroke bass drum technique is John Bonham on “Good Times Bad Times.” Bonham is ground zero for modern rock drumming. So my way of teaching is through classic rock songs with essential drum parts.
What’s interesting is that when some of my young students listen to Bonham, they think he sounds sloppy, because they’re so used to hearing modern music with everything fixed in the mix to be in perfect time. I try to explain to them that Bonham is what real drumming feels like. He gives the music a soul and brings it to life. Today’s recordings sound too perfect, which is not real, because life is not perfect. When you clean up every blemish, it takes away the human factor, and every drummer on every record starts sounding the same.
MD: Did you play drums in school band?
Glen: I was fortunate to be placed in middle school band class. We had to pick numbers out of a hat, because so many kids wanted to play drums. I hadn’t had any lessons at that point, and that gave me a basic education in reading drum notation. I made the snare line in ninth grade and had lots of catching up to do with the older players. That’s where I got my rudiments together. If one guy in the snare line was off with his technique, it sounded bad. So that really helped develop my ear training and my hand technique. Marching while playing is also a great form of independence. The jazz band and concert bands were great training in developing my swing time. I tried to soak it all up. It’s sad to see the public school music programs being eliminated these days. So many guys I know started playing in school band.
MD: Did you learn your cool stick tricks in marching band?
Glen: I learned a couple of the stick tricks from marching band, like the back-sticking technique. And I used to pick the drum corps guys’ brains to learn their tricks. I had a guy show me the backwards stick-flip technique, and I still use that all the time.
MD: How do you determine how much flash to put into your playing with Alice Cooper?
Glen: Playing with Alice Cooper allows me to do some nice drumistic things, but my role in the band is mainly to support. We have three guitarists on stage with lots going on, so the drums have a huge responsibility of holding it all together. I try to explain to my students that all the crazy drum solos they see on YouTube are a very small part of drumming. You have to understand how to simplify your playing and provide a supporting role in the band. You have to know what’s important to the music that you’re playing. If you’re auditioning for a pop gig and you start playing a bunch of metal and fusion licks, you’re not going to get the gig.
I also believe that you have to like and appreciate the music that you’re auditioning for. You have to love keeping time, because as drummers that’s our main role. It takes some time for most drummers to figure this out. When you’re young, you’re into the speed and technique. I didn’t really appreciate Charlie Watts until later in my career, when I had to learn some Stones music. Now I love Charlie’s playing. He’s like Ringo in that he’s got his own unique style that’s unmistakable.
MD: What did you learn from winning the Guitar Center Drum-Off?
Glen: I had been in the Guitar Center Drum-Off the year before I won it and had gone to the finals, so I knew what the judges were looking for. You’ve got to get up and play a solo on a kit that’s not yours. And you’ve only got a few minutes to set it up. So you need to play stuff that you know you can pull off with one hundred percent certainty. You don’t have time to think, so you really need to be ready to bring your “A” game.
Also, you’ve only got four minutes, so you have to have a solid outline of what you’re going to play. There’s a big difference between a Drum-Off or clinic-type solo and a rock-show solo, but they both require an outline to work from. Transitioning smoothly from each section of your solo is very important, to relate one section to the next with continuity. And there has to be some showmanship and audience appeal.
I didn’t really expect anything great to happen with my career after winning the Drum-Off. I knew that drummers would appreciate it, but who else is there to watch Drum-Offs besides drummers? It did help lead to my endorsement with Regal Tip sticks, though, which was wonderful.
MD: Do you feel there’s too much focus on technique today?
Glen: I think some drummers get too focused on clinic-style playing and they become too good for their own good. I feel that you have to really get more into the music and learn to appreciate what makes a good drum part for the song.
When I taught at Musicians Institute, there were too many players that developed an elitist attitude. All they would talk about was how many time signatures and how many notes, and all this talk of technique. It was never about how great the song was, based on how it touched people or moved them on an emotional level. I think the emotional connection gets forgotten about too often with musicians. I grew up appreciating killer songs from all styles of music. Now it seems like most kids are forced to listen to what their friends listen to, or you’re not part of the hang. The subgenres become so small that they lose sight of the broad spectrum of music that’s out there. Eventually, the technical aspects of drumming become so important to these players that a Drum-Off becomes the end game to their focus, instead of realizing that playing music is really what it’s all about.
I try to mix things up in my drum clinics by playing along with music that I’ve recorded. I use lots of play-along tracks from different styles to show the diversity that’s required to be a working drummer. And I explain that most of the crazy stuff you hear me play in my clinic will never be played on a real gig.
MD: How did making the transition from being a first-call guitar-shred drummer to playing with the rap-rock group SX-10 affect your playing style?
Glen: I did a lot of guitar-shredder gigs in the ’90s. It seems that when you do a gig in one genre it leads to more gigs in the same genre. So my Tony MacAlpine gig led to gigs with Chris Impellitteri, Gary Hoey, Jennifer Batten, Paul Gilbert, and so on. I enjoyed all those gigs, but I didn’t want to get typecast into being a shred drummer. So I was glad to get the gig with SX-10. It was music that combined the heavy riffs of metal with a funk groove. I was very into James Brown, Tower of Power, and Earth, Wind & Fire, so it was a cool metal-meets-funk vibe for me to be involved with. It was a short-lived project, but I’m glad I had that experience. It really helped me to learn to play heavy yet relaxed and laid-back. It helped me create a relaxed intensity.
MD: Do you feel that learning different styles of music makes you a better player?
Glen: Every live gig, recording, and audition has helped make me a more versatile player. I feel there’s a time to be a chameleon and a time to be a stylist. Too many drummers want to be a stylist all the time and force their style into a song instead of playing what’s required. On my first recording session with Alice Cooper, I had to play several of the early hits note for note. I had to really study the drumming style of [longtime Cooper drummer] Neal Smith. When you learn a song, you need to learn the parts and understand why the drummers played what they played, and what their original feel was for that song. It’s not as easy as you might think. Learning to become a musical chameleon is an art.
MD: Let’s talk about your first recording session with guitar great Tony MacAlpine, for 1993’s Madness.
Glen: It was a trial-by-fire situation, because we only had two or three nights of rehearsals before we recorded. It’s still one of my favorite recordings. And one of the tracks featured Branford Marsalis as a special guest. There were a lot of fusion metal tracks, but the tune with Branford was almost a big band track. It was a really cool first session for me. In the ’90s, shred had kind of died off in the States, but these were the first gigs that allowed me to grow as a player, and they eventually led to other high-profile gigs.
MD: Did you study at Musicians Institute before you began teaching there?
Glen: I never studied at MI, though many people think I did, since I taught there. And besides Gregg Bissonette, my biggest influence was [MI instructor] Chuck Silverman, who, sadly, passed away recently. [See our In Memoriam piece on Silverman on page 102 of this issue.]
MD: What did you learn from Chuck?
Glen: I started studying with Chuck after I studied with Bissonette, when I was twenty. I studied all the Latin and Afro-Cuban styles. I never played those kinds of gigs, but learning those sticking patterns and then turning them into linear patterns was extremely valuable to my playing technique. Chuck would teach me a pattern and then ask me to come back the next week with four other ideas based on that pattern. That got me in the habit of thinking and discovering new ideas. I became obsessed with new ideas. I would lose sleep over this stuff. I think drummers are a rare breed like that. We’re all about sharing ideas and trying a new way of playing something that’s never been done before.
MD: Who are some of your heavier modern drumming influences?
Glen: Scott Travis is big influence. The first time we got together, we hit the shed for about three hours. I couldn’t wait to show him what I’d learned based on his ideas from the Racer X and Judas Priest records. Scott’s a self-taught player, so his ideas are very different from those of a schooled player. His concept of the three-stroke ruff on double bass, for instance, is unique. One of the coolest parts of living in L.A. is hanging out with all these great drummers, jamming and exchanging ideas.
MD: How do you feel about self-taught versus schooled players?
Glen: I think when drummers learn [primarily] from books, they all end up with a similar vocabulary of licks. That’s why I like to turn my students on to classic recordings and have them come up with their own ideas based on what those early drummers created for the music. But there’s so much music today, and so many ways to get music instantly, that you need a filter to guide you to the music that matters to your drumming. You need a good private teacher to steer you in the right direction. Otherwise you’ll be so distracted with all the other obstacles on the Internet that you’ll never develop a real focus for what you should be learning. When I’m at Musicians Institute, I see way too many kids in the labs on Facebook instead of in the practice rooms playing their instruments.
MD: You’re a great showman. Let’s talk about the importance of showmanship in a live setting.
Glen: You don’t want to flash your showmanship on the wrong gigs, or at the wrong time—you don’t want to do it on a sensitive ballad, for sure. There’s a time and a place for it. The Alice Cooper gig is the perfect situation for a little flash. Many people hear with their eyes, and the audience will notice a drummer that can keep the groove and give them something visual to connect with. Use your showmanship tastefully, and don’t take away from the groove to twirl your sticks.
MD: Do you pace yourself and preplan your showmanship moments?
Glen: I work out my stick-twirling sections in advance so I know that I can keep a solid groove while adding some visual excitement. I’ve also gotten into doing uppercuts on the cymbals, which is striking the cymbal from the bottom up. That can be hard on my shoulders, so I have to be careful with those. I’ve also started throwing sticks in the air. But I don’t want this stuff to become my focus. Exaggerated arm motions seem to happen naturally when playing live shows.
One thing I have to be aware of is not hitting too hard. There is more adrenaline that occurs on a live gig, so I have to constantly remind myself to throttle back by about 10 percent. The Alice show is ninety-five minutes of nonstop music. He doesn’t stop and talk between songs or break character. It’s one song after another, so you have to pace yourself properly to get through the show.
MD: You’ve suffered neck and back injuries and had to take time off to recover from surgery. How do you keep in shape now with your grueling tour schedule?
Glen: I’d been having upper-back and neck problems for over ten years. I’d gotten cortisone injections a few times, but that only masks the problem and temporarily helps the inflammation. I finally had to take about five weeks off the tour and have neck surgery. It was from all my years of playing and headbanging. What we do as drummers is very athletic. I set my cymbals up high so I can do some interesting things with them, which requires good upper-arm strength. So staying in good physical shape is very important for me.
When you’re a teenager, you think you’re indestructible. And many of us have to learn the hard way. Now I do a lot of stretching before the gig. I also use a heating pad to warm up the muscles, especially if it’s during cold weather. Sometimes I’ll take some ibuprofen before the show to help bring down any inflammation. I’ll also do a muscle warm-up about an hour before the show with a large rubber band with handles—not a major workout, just to get the blood flowing so I can get loose and warmed up. I have a pad kit, and I’ll do about forty-five minutes of stretching and warming up on the pads before the show.
MD: You have exceptional hand and foot technique and have learned to incorporate some serious chops into your rock drumming without going over the top. How do you decide when to reach into your bag of tricks for something like your one-handed roll?
Glen: I use certain techniques for different musical settings. I’ll usually only do the one-handed-roll technique for clinics or smaller club gigs, where you can actually hear what’s happening. I also do a little open-handed playing, though not as much as people think. I love linear drumming, and I feel more comfortable playing ghost notes with my right hand on the hi-hat.
MD: Do you feel that open-handed playing can improve your drumming?
Glen: Sometimes I feel that working on open-handed drumming is actually a waste of time. You can’t force it. It works for some people, like Lenny White, Billy Cobham, and Simon Phillips. But I don’t want to force anything into my playing that I’m not comfortable with. And I think there are lots of more important things to work on other than being ambidextrous.
Learning anything takes time, and you have to decide what’s most important to spend your time learning. I tell my students that in order to really improve your drumming, you have to practice things over and over until you’re sick of playing it. And then you need to do it some more, until it becomes second nature. You have to start at a very slow tempo and work your way up to speed. Some things will take minutes or hours to learn, while other things may take weeks or months. I may not pull something out on a gig until I’ve worked on it for a long time and I know that it feels good. It’s not so much about what you play as it is about how you play it.
MD: You have some of the best hand-foot combination technique in the business. Are there particular tuning or muffling methods that work best for you to create a balanced sound and feel between the hands and feet?
Glen: The way I approach my hand-foot combination fills depends on the gig and the kit. At the Bonzo Bash, we all played the Bonham kit with the 26″ bass drum and wide-open toms. So you have to use certain fills that are going to work well with those sizes and that tuning. My foot pedal tension is somewhere between tight and loose.
To me, the perfect combination to start with is the right-hand, left-hand, right-foot triplet that Elvin [Jones] and Bonham made popular. If you can get that to feel good with the metronome, at a variety of tempos, then you are well on your way to developing a solid balance between the top and bottom of your kit.
Most times, drummers are too bass drum heavy. I feel it’s important to be able to adapt to various pedal tensions, especially if you tour a lot and do clinics, because you don’t always get to play a pedal that you’re used to. So you have to be flexible and change your approach to whatever kit and hardware you come in contact with. On the Alice gig, I have DW pillows inside my bass drums touching the front and back heads, and I don’t tune my bass drum heads too tight.
MD: What’s it like working with Alice?
Glen: I forget sometimes that I’m working with a rock legend. He’s really one of the nicest guys in the business. He loves to tell stories about back in the day. We play a lot of charity events, including Alice’s own event in Phoenix. On these events we play with Alice, but we also become a backing band for special guests like Steven Tyler of Aerosmith, Sammy Hagar, and Rob Halford of Judas Priest. It helps to have a solid background in classic rock to back up these guys and play the music properly. Johnny Depp also plays with us a lot. He’s a real guitar player that actually came to L.A. in the ’80s with his band the Kids. We did a cool show recently with Alice, Johnny Depp, Marilyn Manson, and Steven Tyler. It was a real “pinch me” moment.
MD: Let’s talk about the new Alice Cooper recording, dedicated to the “Hollywood Vampires.”
Glen: There’s a new Alice record coming next year that is mostly cover tunes, with lots of special guests. It’s a tribute to the Hollywood Vampires, which is the drinking group that Alice hung out with back in the day. Alice got sober in the early ’80s, but most of the vampires are gone now. It was Keith Moon, Jimi Hendrix, John Lennon, Harry Nilsson, and a few others. Alice was the president of the Hollywood Vampires, and they would meet upstairs at the Rainbow Bar & Grill in Hollywood. Johnny Depp plays on the record, and Bob Ezrin is producing.
Alice is very appreciative of where he fits into rock history, and he’s enjoying it now. He’s got more energy than all of us. He plays golf every day on tour and still does all the meet-and-greets. He’s an amazing human being.
MD: What’s it like having to learn Neal Smith’s iconic drum parts from the early Alice Cooper recordings?
Glen: When I first got the Alice gig, my main priority was learning the original tunes with the authentic feel. When I play “Billion Dollar Babies,” I have to play that intro exactly like Neal Smith did. But when we play it’s not a nostalgia trip. We’re headlining major rock festivals, and we have to play things a little heavier for today’s rock crowd. I try to stay true to a lot of the original parts, but there are definitely places where I get to change it up a bit. Alice just wants the music to feel right, and the show has to flow because of all the props. Everything is timed out. And being the drummer, I’m in control of the pacing of the show, because I’m starting the songs.
MD: Aside from the Alice gig, you work with artists in other genres. Do you enjoy the opportunity to play a variety of styles?
Glen: I love the fact that I’ve become diverse enough to play in many different musical situations. I really enjoy doing pop gigs with Elliott Yamin of American Idol fame, because it gives me a chance to play music that I don’t get to play very often. And I feel like I came full circle with my drumming when I got the gig with Beautiful Creatures. It was an AC/DC-style heavy rock gig, like the stuff I loved in high school. After that I went through the heavy, fusiony guitar-shred gigs that called for lots of chops and technique. But the Beautiful Creatures gig reminded me that kids just want to come and have fun at the shows. I’d forgotten about that after doing all the guitar-shred gigs.
When I played Ozzfest, it was a pleasant reminder that it’s all about having a good time. It’s not about people standing there with their arms folded, trying to analyze every note you play. But I also love coming off tour and playing at the Baked Potato with Vivian Campbell’s band, which is improvisational and bluesy, and with Jeff Kollman, which allows me to be a totally different type of player.
MD: At this high point in your career, how would you describe your passion to keep growing as a player?
Glen: At the core of my playing, I try to take common fills and grooves and figure out how I can create variations of the basics and develop something totally different from what’s been done before. I’m constantly developing my own style. But it also has to be applicable within the context of a song. The groove that I play on Alice Cooper’s “Feed My Frankenstein” is totally a paradiddle-based groove. I have students ask me about that groove all the time. I simply adjust the accents to fit the groove to create something different. It’s all about getting creative and developing your own style.
Drums: Mapex Saturn IV
A. 5.5×14 Black Panther Brass Cat or Black Panther Blade snare
B. 8×10 tom
C. 9×12 tom
D. 10×13 tom
E. 16×16 floor tom
F. 16×18 floor tom
G. 18×22 bass drum
1. 18″ Paragon Crash
2. 18″ AA China
3. 15″ HHX Power Hats
4. 12″ AAX splash
5. 20″ AAX X-Plosion crash
6. 20″ AAX Stage crash
7. 22″ Legacy ride
8. 19″ Vault Holy China
9. 19″ AAX Stage crash
10. 14″ Metal-X Hats
11. 19″ AAX Metal crash
Heads: Evans, including coated ST snare batter and 300 snare-side, clear G2 tom batters and Resonant Black bottoms, and clear EQ4 bass drum batter and custom Inked by Evans front head
Sticks: Regal Tip 7B wood-tip
Hardware: DW 9000 series bass drum pedals and legless hi-hat stand, Gibraltar custom Spider Rack
Electronics: Yamaha DTX triggers
Led Zeppelin all (John Bonham) /// Van Halen 1984 (Alex Van Halen) /// Deep Purple 30: Very Best Of (Ian Paice) /// Genesis Three Sides Live (Phil Collins, Chester Thompson) /// Tower of Power Back to Oakland (David Garibaldi) /// Mahavishnu Orchestra Birds of Fire (Billy Cobham) /// Return to Forever Romantic Warrior (Lenny White) /// U.K. Night After Night (Terry Bozzio) /// Brandon Fields The Other Side of the Story (Gregg Bissonette) /// Racer X Extreme Volume Live, Getting Heavier (Scott Travis) /// Allan Holdsworth Secrets (Vinnie Colaiuta, Chad Wackerman) /// Vital Tech Tones Vital Tech Tones (Steve Smith) /// Meshuggah Chaosphere, ObZen (Tomas Haake)
Tony MacAlpine Madness /// Impellitteri Crunch, System X, Pedal to the Metal, Wicked Maiden /// Gary Hoey Hocus Pocus Live, Money /// Jennifer Batten’s Tribal Rage Momentum /// SX-10 Mad Dog American /// Beautiful Creatures Beautiful Creatures /// Jeff Scott Soto Lost in the Translation /// Paul Gilbert Get Out of My Yard instructional DVD /// Beasto Blanco Live Fast Die Loud /// Bruce Bouillet The Order of Control /// Nostalghia Chrysalis /// Alice Cooper Live at Wacken 2013 DVD