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Quarterback behind the kit
The Dave Matthews Band obviously is named after lead singer/guitarist Dave Matthews, who is the band's principal songwriter and leading creative force in the studio. But when the Dave Matthews Band steps on stage drummer Carter Beauford provides a pretty compelling argument that he becomes the band's true leader whenever they play live. "I'm like the quarterback of the squad, calling the plays," Beauford explains. "I'm calling a lot of the shots up there as far as the length of the tunes, if there's going to be a solo and the length of the solos. I have to take all of that into consideration to make the night go as smooth as possible without becoming too stagnant."
As the first musician to join forces with Matthews when the band was formed in 1991, Beauford played a pivotal role in establishing the eclectic sound of the Dave Matthews Band, which spans a wide variety of genres. While Beauford was primarily playing in jazz-fusion bands before hooking up with Matthews, he's also fluent playing a wide variety of other styles, including rock, pop, R&B and African- and Latin-inspired rhythms. Beauford's fluid, flowing grooves combined with Matthews' distinctive, percussive acoustic rhythm guitar built a solid foundation for the band's extended improvisational jams. These musical adventures helped build a massive, growing following of fans who embraced the unpredictable nature of each Dave Matthews Band show. As a result of their hard work, relentless touring and dedication to the groove, the Dave Matthews Band earned the Number One spot on Pollstar's list of the top-grossing live acts of the decade from 2000 to 2009, beating legends like the Rolling Stones, Bruce Springsteen and U2.
While many drummers are often incorrectly described merely as "timekeepers," Beauford says that his role behind the kit is more one of a communicator: "Each song is trying to deliver a certain message or trying to tell a certain story. That's the way I approach music, period. I approach it according to what the song is trying to say or what story it's trying to deliver. I want to become a character in that story to try and deliver the message. When we're on stage, I feel as though we're having a conversation, a musical conversation, and we're trying to tell a story to our audience as well as each person on stage. We're communicating and having a conversation. I feel it would be boring and a waste of time if you said the exact same thing every time you have a conversation. If I'm having a conversation with you right now and I were to say the exact same sentence over and over and over again, you would swear that I was out of my mind! So I try to communicate things in a different way each time I play."
Part of the challenge of playing in the Dave Matthews Band is the extensive repertoire the band has developed over the last 20 years. Beauford estimates that their catalog currently consists of over 200 songs. "We choose only a few of those 200 songs each time we go out on tour," Beauford explains. "But every time we play those songs, we try to play them differently because we're feeling differently. Every audience is different, so we want to try and speak directly to that audience or deliver a different message every time we play. If you play the same thing every time, the word will get out. We're not that type of band that wants to play everything exactly the way we recorded it in the studio or the way we played a song live a few years ago. And our fans don't want that either."
In addition to trying to tell a story through his drumming, Beauford says that he always focuses on making his playing swing: "It's like that Duke Ellington song—‘It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing).' You can know all the music theory in the world but if you can't make your music swing then it's worthless. When a bunch of guys get on stage to play a jazz piece, all that theory stuff that you learned in school really doesn't matter that much. It becomes more a matter of playing from the heart and playing off of what you're hearing. To do that you have to listen to everybody else. Listening is the key to playing from the heart and making the music swing."
Because Beauford often needs to switch from the tight, precise tones of a jazz drum kit to the powerful, hard-hitting sounds of a rock kit as well as employ various percussion colors to perform reggae- or Latin-inspired rhythms, his stage setup is massive, consisting of eight drums, 16 cymbals and a vast assortment of percussion pieces. He's remained a big fan of Yamaha Recording Custom drums for over 15 years now, and his current kit still includes a few Yamaha toms that he's played since the mid Nineties.
"I've played Yamaha drums since 1979," says Beauford. "I've always loved Yamaha drums, and I finally became a Yamaha endorsee in the early Nineties. Yamaha drums give me the sound I need, they're easy to tune and they stay in tune. The last thing I want to do is play a gig and have to battle with my equipment all night. That way I can't focus on what I'm up there for, which is to create and make music and make the magic happen. Yamaha drums allow me to make that magic happen with my bandmates and with the audience. That's why I've been with Yamaha for so many years and I'll continue to stay with Yamaha."
Beauford says that his drum tech, Henry Luniewski, constantly makes subtle changes to his kit to keep him from becoming bored and to remain constantly inspired. "Henry keeps me on my toes," says Beauford. "He actually knows what is in my kit better than I do, and he's always changing things from gig to gig to keep it exciting for me on stage."
The heart of Beauford's kit is a 20x18" Yamaha Recording Custom kick drum. "I've had that kick drum for years and years and years," he says. "It gives me exactly what I need—the right amount of pop, slap and low end. It's really easy to tune and easy to play. I've played a lot of different kick drums that make it difficult to get the sound projection that I'm looking for—I had to do too much to make the sound happen—but this kick drum does exactly what I want. I consider the kick drum the core of my drum kit, and if that does not sound or feel right, then everything else is off kilter."
Beauford's kit also features six Recording Custom toms—8x8, 10x9, 12x10, 13x9, 14x12 and 16x16"—a 6.5x14" Ludwig LB417T Black Beauty snare, 13" Zildjian A New Beat hi-hats, and a wide variety of Zildjian K and A cymbals. Percussion instruments include a 13x7" timbale and various items made by Latin Percussion, including a low-pitch Jam Block, Rock Classic Ridge Rider cowbell, Granite Blocks and whole-tone bar chimes.
One of the benefits Beauford appreciates the most about his Yamaha drums is how he doesn't have to pound the drums heavily to get the sound that he wants out of them. Thanks to the marathon length of a typical Dave Matthews Band show, Beauford often needs to maintain his stamina and energy three hours or longer. Carter says that his loose, relaxed playing style combined with his ambidextrous skills helps him play with a consistent feel and level of intensity throughout the entire set.
While Beauford can play equally well on the right or left, he prefers to play the hi-hat and ride cymbal with his left hand using a non-traditional, open-handed stance. Carter developed this unorthodox approach early as a child when he tried to duplicate Buddy Rich's stage setup. "I was three years old when I got my own drum set," he recalls. "I tried to set everything up as I saw it on stage and mirror exactly the way Buddy had his drums set up, so I set my snare drum and hi-hat on my right side. Eventually I sat on other people's kits and realized that I had my stuff set up the opposite way. That affected my playing in a big way. I noticed that every time I opened up my grip and my stance I would play completely differently. You think differently when you use different limbs to strike certain drums. Even though I eventually learned to play with a traditional grip, that opened up a whole new creative world for me."
One of Beauford's most creative approaches—and the one that still confuses drummers to this day—can be heard on "Two Step" where he uses two snare drums to give added depth and personality to his driving shuffle pattern. "I really enjoyed how those two snares sounded together," he explains. "I wanted to use just one snare but I liked them both so I decided to use one stick per snare. It was impossible to get the sound I was looking for with just one snare so I just had to use both of them. It worked out great because a lot of other ideas came from using that approach. Sometimes the greatest ideas happen from mistakes or experiments that aren't premeditated at all. It's basically just luck."
With its relentless touring schedule, the Dave Matthews Band has remained Beauford's primary focus for the last two decades. Although the last Dave Matthews Band studio effort, Big Whiskey & the GrooGrux King, came out in the summer of 2009, the band has not announced any plans to record their next studio album yet. After wrapping up their current tour, which will be visiting South America this fall, the band plans to take a long break for most of 2011.
Carter hasn't made any specific plans for his time off, although he'll probably devote some time to the Music Resource Center (musicresourcecenter.org) located in Charlottesville, Virginia, near his home base. "It's a place where kids and young adults can go to work on their craft and keep out of trouble," he says. "These are some of the most creative kids I've seen in my life. I just want to focus on it and make sure it stays around. It's great to influence a positive change in their lives."
Even though the band's future remains unwritten at this point, Beauford says there's no place he'd rather be: "I'm absolutely doing what I've always wanted to do. Even if the time should come when I have to bow out from playing drums with any band, I'll still remain involved with the music industry. I have a very strong love for music and playing drums, or any instrument for that matter. But for me, playing drums will always be my number one love."