Roy Burns was a fixture in the worlds of jazz and percussion. From the driving and sophisticated drumming he provided on countless recordings to the characteristic jokes he shared at the Aquarian booth during industry gatherings like PASIC and NAMM, he put his unique stamp on our musical community.
Whether it was his idea for a revolutionary cymbal spring, the design of a new type of drumhead, or any number of other manufacturing ideas, Roy worked closely with Ron Marquez, president and cofounder of Aquarian Drumheads. “Roy was the best and most trusted friend that one could ever wish for,” Marquez tells MD. “From the first hello, there was a connection that we both experienced. That connection turned into a thirty-eight-year partnership that was envied by all our peers.
“One of Roy’s many great contributions to the drumming community was his limitless knowledge of drumming,” Marquez adds, “which he was so respectfully eager to share in his books and clinics. His passing has left an infinite void in the hearts of the Aquarian family. Roy can never be replaced and will always have a prominent place in our memories.”
Another member of the Aquarian family is Chris Brady, director of artist relations and marketing for the company. “Roy was our teacher, our mentor, our advocate, and our helper. He was truly the drummer’s champion!
“One of my fondest memories of Roy,” Brady continues, “was traveling to Germany and hanging out with him at the hotel, just watching drum videos and MADtv clips on YouTube!”
“When I was about eighteen years old,” recalls jazz drumming legend Joe Porcaro, “I went to the Nola rehearsal studio in New York City to audition for a band. As I was looking for the audition room, I heard this incredible drumming coming from one of the other studios. I asked the janitor who the drummer was and he said, ‘Some young kid from Kansas City. He’s driving us crazy!’” Forty years later, Burns invited Porcaro to endorse his new line of Aquarian drumheads. “Roy was a class act as well as a great role model for drummers,” says Joe. “Besides having great technique, he had great time and a great concept for big band drumming. I just wish I could remember more of his jokes!”
Lauren Vogel Weiss, who grew up in the drum business as the daughter of Lone Star Percussion founder Harvey Vogel, and who gathered together the quotes here, remembers Roy fondly. “It was an honor for me to interview Roy for the Modern Drummer sister publication Drum Business several years ago,” she says. “And it was even more of an honor that the article was used on the Modern Drummer website when he passed. Rest in peace, Roy.”
“Roy was my favorite and probably most beneficial teacher that I had the good fortune of studying with. He was a true gentleman and treated everyone with kindness and respect. In return that’s exactly what you’d want to give back to him—always. He made you want to be good and to do good.
“Roy’s wisdom and knowledge went far beyond just sitting behind the drums. Knowing him, talking with him, listening to him…he taught me about following through, being patient, and instead of getting frustrated with something, just taking a minute and looking at it from a different perspective and then giving it another go. Such a class act. He truly made me want to be a better person and will forever hold a special place in my heart.”
A Hero’s Path
by Russ Miller
In 1980, Modern Drummer asked Roy Burns to write a column for the magazine. He did, and he continued to write Concepts columns until 1992. I was asked to take it over in September of 2014. When my first stab at the column hit subscribers and newsstands, one of the first calls I received was from the Aquarian office: “Russ, Roy wants to talk to you.” I called him back and said, “Roy, it freaked me out that MD wants me to do your column.” He was delightful—as always—and said, “I couldn’t ask for a better musician to write that column.” I asked him if he had any advice, and he said, “Just tell them what it takes to do what we do, Russ. They’ll appreciate it, and they will all get a lot out of it. You’ve done all these things; it’s your job to give that information back.”
That was a meaningful phone call for several reasons. First off, I met Roy when I was thirteen years old. He was the artist of my first drum clinic in Canton, Ohio, in 1982. (He was a lot of drummers’ first clinic because he was the guy who invented them.) Second, I was able to become closer with Roy years later. I spoke to him a few times about the different eras of his career. Those conversations made me start to think about the fact that there are other contributions to be made to drumming beyond just playing. This is what led me to be involved in product development for the past twenty years.
I’m mourning Roy’s passing but am also humbled to have known this man, who did so much for drumming, the industry, and music. I learned a crucial truth from Roy: everybody has a different business plan. Your drumming hero’s path is not necessarily the same as yours. Roy carved new paths in the drumming world and had three successful careers in this business, first as a very successful player, then as a drumming artist and clinician, and finally as a manufacturer. Any one of those would be enough to be honored, but the fact that he did all three is simply amazing. And they stemmed out of Roy doing what he loved to do. Funny how that works, right? The things we love most are often the things we do the best, so we don’t hesitate to pour ourselves into them. Success usually follows excellence.
The generation of the greats that started this industry is leaving us. That saddens me, but I feel empowered by it at the same time. I want to carry on that level of excellence, diligence, and love for the drums that Roy and those before us had.
I was on a flight with big band legend Louie Bellson years ago. We spoke about many things. Louie was a gem, and he said to me that day, “Russ, we’re all going to be gone soon, and it’s up to you guys to carry on what we started. You have experiences that only a few get, so you owe it to everybody younger than you.” It was almost the same thing Roy told me years later. Roy, Remo Belli, Vic Firth, Armand Zildjian, Louie, Elvin Jones, and so many others have left us. But they created a legacy for all of us to carry on. I’m so proud of the fact that I grew up learning from these great gentlemen.
Thanks to Roy for his inspiration, dedication, and vision—as well as for the wicked hi-hat solo he played back in 1982 in Canton, Ohio. I never forgot it, and the history of drumming will never forget him.
Professional player and former Roy Burns student Evan Stone paints an intimate portrait of his mentor.
Roy Burns was more than a great drummer; he was a great man. I don’t think I was ever around Roy when he didn’t have a smile on his face or wasn’t cracking a joke to get you to laugh. That was his character. And he was a real character, no doubt.
I met Roy when I was fifteen years old. At the time I was taking drum lessons with Glen Young, who thought it’d be best if I started to study with the then-legendary Burns. I was a clueless teenage schlub who had no idea about jazz music or the legends that Roy had performed with throughout his career. But Glen talked him up pretty good, which piqued my interest.
I called the number Glen gave me. Roy answered the phone, and I told him that I wanted to study with him. He said, “Alright, meet me in the parking lot at Mission Viejo High School on Saturday at 12:00 p.m. sharp.” I agreed, he said goodbye, and we hung up.
I guess I assumed we’d be starting lessons on that Saturday, so I came prepared. I showed up to the parking lot at noon as discussed and looked around but didn’t see anyone. I heard a drumline playing in the distance and started to walk over to the sounds. As I approached I saw this man walking toward me. He greeted me and said, “Hi, Evan, I’m Roy Burns. I teach lessons out of Fullerton at a music store called This Is Music—can you make it next Saturday?” to which I agreed. We shook hands and he walked off, probably to go eat lunch, as it was 12:00 p.m., and if you knew Roy, you knew that that’s when he took his lunch…like clockwork.
A little puzzled, I walked back to my car and drove home. I suppose he could have just told me that on the phone, I thought. But I guess that was my first real audition, and apparently I passed. Perhaps he just wanted to see if I was going to actually show up or just be another flakey student. I never did ask him about that.
Every Saturday for about five years I drove to that little music store in Fullerton to take lessons with Roy. I looked forward to my weekly lesson, as Roy was very different from the other teachers I’d previously had. He wasn’t only a great teacher who taught about the traditional aspects of drumming; he was more like a life coach and a philosopher. He had so many great stories—about his experiences playing with Benny Goodman and Woody Herman, about his time at NBC playing on The Merv Griffin Show, about Buddy Rich—and so many nuggets of pure wisdom that I always loved hearing about. And of course, there were his jokes. My favorite was about the drummer who always dragged, and as a result was so depressed that he wanted to end his life—so he jumped behind the train! Of course I’m paraphrasing; it’s much more R-rated a joke than that…Roy liked the R-rated jokes.
During one of the first lessons we had, Roy told me to go buy a book to read called The Inner Game of Tennis. I thought this was a strange requirement for a drum lesson, but I didn’t question it and read the book as instructed. I remember reading about the chapter on visualization and how tennis players score more points if they envision the ball staying within the court’s lines versus hoping that it wouldn’t go outside of them. He was teaching me about the power of positive thinking.
This was an eye-opening concept to me at the time—and what a brilliant way to teach drumming and life lessons. Roy didn’t see them as separate things.
It was nearly impossible to feel sad around Roy, as he’d instantly pick up on it and find a way to make you laugh. He made life less scary for me and put things into their proper perspective. Incidentally, Roy was the first teacher to say the word “shit” to me, which I thought was rather amusing and quite frankly, pretty cool.
He was real.
Maybe Roy’s realness was due partly to his being from a small town in Kansas, and I could relate to that. In any event, he was a “take no shit” kind of guy, and as a kid from Long Island, New York, I liked that a lot.
Roy moved himself to New York City when he was nineteen years old, alone with a few bucks in his pocket and his drums. That takes serious balls. But Roy had the goods, and soon after moving to New York he landed the gig with the Woody Herman Big Band. He was destined for greatness.
I remember Roy telling me about the bands he played with, and when he mentioned Benny Goodman, I recalled seeing a vinyl recording that my father had of Benny at the Brussels World’s Fair. For some reason I clearly remembered that album cover, so I went through my pop’s collection and found that L.P. I turned it over and started reading the credits on the back cover, and lo and behold, the drummer on that recording was none other than my teacher, Roy Burns! (Although I think they spelled it “Burnes” on the album.) Roy’s performance on “Sing, Sing, Sing” is absolutely stellar, and his drum solo on that record catapulted him to fame and most certainly etched his musicality into the halls of greatness.
This was super exciting to me. Then I came to find out that Roy was on the cover of (the bible of drumming) Modern Drummer magazine. MD was the only real reading material for me at the time, so this was particularly exciting to me as well. And not only was he on the cover, he was on the cover of the second issue! The very first issue of MD was with Buddy Rich on the cover—and Roy followed that act!
Then I found out that Roy was writing a column for Modern Drummer called Concepts. As a youngster thumbing through the magazine, I guess I was more interested in the nice pictures than in actually reading the articles—a nasty habit I developed while reading some of my father’s personal magazine collection—but when I found this out I dug up my past issues so I could read all the articles that Roy had written, with a growing appetite for his wisdom. Every month when MD came in the mail, before doing anything else, I’d immediately go to his column to read what he had to say. He always had great advice to offer.
To be able to study with Roy was incredible, to say the least. His hands were ridiculously fast, and his technique was flawless. He played with precision, and he commanded perfection without demanding it. He sounded so good to my ears, and I loved it every time he would sit down to show me an example on the drums.
I’ll always look back at my time with Roy with extreme fondness. I enjoyed visiting with him over the years at the Aquarian factory in California, sitting in his office and listening to more of his industry stories and getting caught up on his latest jokes. But before we parted, he’d always find a way to say something to remind me about a lesson we may have already gone over but that needed to be reiterated.
Roy was the eternal teacher. He was my mentor. He was my Obi-Wan Kenobi.
And so I found it very fitting that on May 4 I’d receive the phone call from Chris Brady at Aquarian, letting me know that Roy had passed. I knew when I saw the call coming in, and I didn’t want to answer the phone. But I did at the last second, hoping I’d be wrong. I was having lunch and watching TV, which happened to be playing Star Wars all day long, as it was “May the Fourth.” I’d paused the screen on the scene of Obi-Wan getting ready to face Darth Vader.
After I hung up with Chris, I realized what was on the TV. And although I was deeply saddened by the news, I also found peace in seeing that Obi-Wan was staring at me from my TV.
Like Obi-Wan, Roy may have disappeared physically, but he will always remain with all who knew him and all who may get to know him through his music, recordings, books, and articles.
And Roy will always remain with me. His lessons are embedded in my soul. They’re part of my construct and my approach to music, and more importantly, my life. I pass his lessons on to my students, so they too will benefit from his legacy.
I’ll miss you, Roy, but I know your voice will always remain with me. Thank you for being my Obi-Wan.
Until we meet again.
Evan Stone has played with Toni Childs, Maynard Ferguson, the Greg Adams Band, and Aly & AJ, and leads his own group, the Translucent Ham Sandwich Band.