Ralph LaFemina

The fact that Dr. Ralph LaFemina was never a performer in the big leagues of music, or that he’s a practicing psychologist rather than a full-time musician, does not detract from his contribution to drumming.

In all fields, a new concept is often opposed, ignored, or ridiculed if it’s revolutionary in principle, especially when pre sented by someone outside of approved circles. Drastic departures from the accepted ways of doing things almost always creates controversy and even invite heated criticism. Why? Because each of us, to some degree, has a tendency to evaluate a new idea in the light of our own experience, knowledge, preferences, and prejudices, rather than on the merits of the ideaitself. Therefore, in an effort to escape from established habits of thought that could bias one’s thinking, the reader should attempt to keep an open, receptive mind.

Ralph LaFemina’s unique concept focuses on the largely unmined melodic and harmonic resources of drums. His method makes accessible new pathways of thought concerning drumset performance. LaFemina’s approach, in fact, is radical, and in this interview, he discusses the why, where, when and how of melodic-harmonic drumming from its inception to where it stands today.


CP: Would you start out by explaining the basic idea behind the melodic and harmonic approach to the drumset?

RL: The idea behind the concept is that the drumset is a perfect instrument. Specifically, that the drumset is capable of true melodic, harmonic and rhythmic functioning. It’s based on the gradual discovery which we’ve all been making; that there is something about the instrument that hasn’t been touched. Something untapped.

The melodic and harmonic concept is the basis for a new technique in drumming, based on the idea of subordinating everything to the considerations of the music. That is, coordination, rudiments, movement around the drumset, rhythms, will all be determined by musical needs. And that means that the needs of the music will be met, not only rhythmically, but also melodically and harmonically.

For example, there may be a time when a drummer’s accompaniment pattern, instead of being the typical repeated rhythm of the ride beat, or rock 8th notes, or left hand offbeats, will be a series of pitches on multiple tom-toms. The drummer will be using the pitches available on the drumset in the same way pianists or trumpet players use the pitches available on their instruments. You see, all the instruments are the same. The drumset is really like a short piano keyboard.

The idea that drums are of indefinite pitch, or untuned, is a negative view of the instrument. Every drum has a fundamental pitch and an overtone series. Any well tuned drum will blend with any other well tuned drum and with any pitch emitted by any of the piano-based instruments.

Songs can be played on the drumset, regardless of the fact that the pitches are not the same, say, as on a piano. They don’t have to be the same. In fact, the nature of a drum sound is such that every pitch is in the overtone series. Every pitch is in there somewhere. Therefore, every pitch blends with the drum. Also, the drum tends, by sympathetic vibration, to take on the predominant pitch in the environment. So, if the orchestra is in E, the drum will start vibrating in E at its fundamental level so that the drum is automatically self-tuning.

Another important part of the whole concept is the idea of relative pitch. The music of western civilization is based on standard pitches, where there is an absolute frame of reference so that something can be called “out of pitch.” In the music I’m discussing, there is no absolute frame of reference. Everything is referred to itself. For example, a drumset is not tuned to the piano. It’s tuned to the lowest drum in the battery. So, once the lowest pitched drum, usually the bass drum, is well-tuned to itself, then the second drum would be tuned a little bit higher. All the tuning would be done by ear. There is no reference to the piano because I want to escape the limitations of the piano. I want to escape the limitations of all the instruments that are based on the very structure of the piano.

Many people don’t consider the drums a musical instrument. But, how can something be called a musical instrument if you can’t even play a simple song on it; if you can’t harmonize on it, if you can’t really do much with it but keep a beat? What kind of instrument is it that can’t play “Mary Had A Little Lamb”? It isn’t a musical instrument because you’re not playing music. At least, the way drums are being played today, you’re not really playing music. You’re getting as close as you can to it, but you’re not really playing the song.

Of course, if you heard someone soloing, or playing accompaniment, you might be able to tell where the cadences were, where the volume changes were. You’ll get an impression of the song. You may even get some idea where the chord changes are by the use the drummer makes of pitches or rhythms. But, you really couldn’t tell what tune was being played. I f all the other instruments stop, and the drummer continues playing and no one can tell what the song is, is the drummer still playing the song? There’s a philosophical question for you. The best players, of course, hear the song in their heads all the time. They never lose it. It’s just as real to them as if someone else were playing the song. But, nonetheless, the drummer plays as though the song weren’t there.

I believe drummers should be able to play the song from the most simple and concrete, like a beginning piano student, all the way up to the most advanced abstract interpretations of the experimental jazz school. There’s a whole dimension of abstractness there. If a performer can play abstractly, but you ask him to play “Mary Had A Little Lamb” on his drumset and he can’t hit the right pitch sequences, then he’s not playing a musical instrument. Anyone can get abstract, and take sounds and impressions and sort of be one with the instrument. But to play songs is a whole different bag of tricks. This is a big challenge for everybody, because once it’s accepted, once it becomes standard, the old kind of drumming is going to become antiquated.

CP: Do you view this as an entirely new method which could take the place of standard drumming?

RL: No, I don’t oppose standard drumming and I don’t see this replacing what’s being done in music. I see this as opening up a whole new world for all drummers. All the things that everyone is working on, and that have become important, should continue to be important—but here’s a whole new dimension.

I’m not suggesting that what’s happening in drumming today is bad. I think it’s wonderful. There are things happening today in rhythmic coordination that astound me. There’s been a real revolution, but the problem is, what to do with all those tom-toms? Well, the thing to do is to play songs on them, or chord progressions, or both. Or, play bass lines, or a solo that’s not the usual drum solo, but instead, is a musical instrument solo. The drumset is a musical instrument and it should be used that way.

CP: How would someone interested in the principles of melodic-harmonic drumming actually go about putting it to use?

RL: To transcribe a tune, you have to go through several processes which are described in my book. You need to know how many pitches, and which pitches, are used in the tune. Even though there are 88 keys on the piano, most melodies never use more than 15 or so. Classical music, jazz, and so forth, use the full ranges of the instruments, and even stretch the ranges of each instrument, so that you’re really dealing pretty close to the full piano range. But such music is a different case. For any bop head, rock tune, or Latin piece, 20 pitches is a lot. What you have to do is conceive of the drumset as a keyboard with a series of pitches going from the lowest, to the highest. For example, the bass drum would be pitch number one, the largest floor tom would be two, the smaller floor tom would be three, and on up to the mounted toms, counting up as the pitch goes higher so that the higher the number, the higher the pitch. Then we go to the cymbals. If the snare drum is the highest pitched drum and it’s number nine, then number ten is the lowest pitched cymbal, and moving right up the cymbals.

After you have your drum pitches organized, and you have the pitches organized for the tune, you then assign drums to the pitches. The lowest pitch is played on the lowest drum. You might have to play the two lowest pitches on the lowest drum, or even the three lowest pitches. But basically, you follow the rule of the higher the pitch of the melody, the higher the pitch of the drum used.

Cymbals can also be placed in order of pitch so the highest pitched cymbals are to the left, and the lowest pitched cymbals to the right, gradually down the scale.

The first thing a new drummer would learn would be a simple tune like “Mary Had A Little Lamb.” He’d first learn to tap the rhythm of the song alone with either hand, alternate strokes, or both hands together. After he’s able to do that, I’d show him a rendition of the song using two, three and finally four pitches, which is all the tune contains. He could then move on to a five-pitch tune. Each time, the drummer would learn songs by going from the rhythm, gradually closer to the full  melody and rhythm. After the song has been learned melodically, the harmonic aspect can be brought in using similar procedures. When you play the arrangement, especially after you’re able to play it with feeling, the song comes alive. You start to sing it. Eventually, a drummer would know the repertoire of American music in the only way that really counts for a musician: rhythmically, melodically and harmonically.

CP: How did you come up with the idea for this approach to the drumset?

RL: It seems to have always been there ever since I could conceive of sound. There was always the pitch difference of things; the highs and lows of sound, the sharpness and dullness of it. Apparently my ear is very attuned to that. I think all drummers play melodically in their own way, to some de gree. Some have become recognized artists for utilizing the melodic aspect of things— people like Joe Morello, Shelly Manne and Louie Bellson, among others.

I seem to recall, many years ago, seeing Louie Bellson experimenting with a greatly expanded drumset consisting of two or three bass drums, a series of snare drums, and tom-toms of various sizes. I’m certain he was really utilizing the instrument like a keyboard.

One of the biggest influences of my making the transition from drumming in the typical way, to this new way, was the study of piano and organ which started about six years ago for me. The whole concept of a “musical instrument” really became clear to me in many respects.

Since I’ve been studying piano and theory, I’ve been doing a lot of composing. I have plans for a whole series of books that are offshoots of the melodic and harmonic concept. Since I wrote my book, all the things I’ve been writing over the years don’t seem so important anymore. All the coordination and rhythmic things I’d been working on for 20 years suddenly seemed like the wrong approach. Not so much wrong, but inadequate. Now, with the melodic and harmonic concept, I’m doing every kind of coordination you could imagine, and yet, every sound has a musical reason.

Some of the energy behind my book was born of anger from years of having listened to insults aimed at drummers. Drummers have always been treated as second- class citizens. The kind of image people conjure up when they think of drummers is really horrible. When I talk to people about the book, especially the theoretical aspects, they say, “No, all we want are funk beats,” or, “All we want you to do is sound like Steve Gadd.” I think every drummer has had his share of awful experiences at the hands of pianists and lead guitar players. But the limitations that are imposed on the drumset are just that—they’re imposed. The instrument is perfect and complete, and fully capable of playing a song, any song. I can sit at my drums and play any song I hear in my head. And I can play it accurately enough so that a third party would be able to identify it, nine times out of ten.

CP: How do you envision the future for Dr. Ralph LaFemina and his melodic harmonic approach?

RL: One of my goals is to make the vast literature of the piano-based instruments applicable to the drumset. Imagine that the whole world of music is there for you, and you can play the songs. You can actually sing with other instruments.

I see multiple drumsets being used routinely: soprano, baritone, alto and tenor drumsets, just as you have in the horn family. I envision the drummer being a complete and fully respected member of the orchestra. I hope someday to see multiple drumsets in every orchestra—three in a big band, two in a medium to smaller group—because now drummers have available not only rhythm, but timbre, texture, melody and harmony, as well.

I also see drumsets with at least two keyboards—the drum keyboard and the cymbal keyboard. And I see parallel keyboards of cowbells, woodblocks, triangles, and so forth. The drummer would be like a multi keyboardist. I envision a drummer being able to play as a pianist would, providing his own harmonic accompaniment while playing the melody. At this point, I’m able to do this to some degree. Someday, I’d like to play a wedding with a drumset trio or quartet.

When I’m playing with another musician, I find myself constantly playing a counter melody or harmony with what’s going on in the band. I’m moving all around the set. I’m not on the snare drum any more than I’m on the floor tom, or any less than I’m on the small toms. I’m having to really learn true ambidexterity so I can switch the ride to either side of the set. My coordination is so much improved that it’s hard to describe. The coordination of hands and feet is also very different, because my two bass drums are my two lowest pitches. So, when I write the music, my bass drums are sounded rhythmically and tonally, rather than in stereotyped pat terns. There are too many stereotyped patterns. They’re like little index cards that players pull out of their pocket when they run out of ideas, or when they don’t have any ideas to begin with.

I’m aware that the idea of melodic and harmonic drumming is not new. Every drummer plays melodically in his own way. It’s not something that I have invented. However, what I have done, is to take the concept as far as it will go. And in performance, I’ve taken the concept about a quarter of the way into this largely unexplored territory.